Culinary fusion is the art of blending the culture and flavors of different regional cuisines to create new dishes with a familiar…yet entirely new taste experience.
Italian food is a perennial favorite around the world and has inspired a multitude of spin-off fusion dishes. Here are some fun examples from Japan, in Tex-Mex cooking, plus iconic dishes in the US with an interesting backstory!
Japanese and Italian cuisine share lots of common elements such as noodles, seasonality, simplicity, and seafood. Italian food made its way onto Japanese menus post World War II when American GIs in Japan brought the dishes of Italian-American food, as well as through the Italian restaurants established by former Italian prisoners of war in Japan.
It even inspired its own name “itameshi” which means “Italian food” in Japanese. And while many of the ingredients seem familiar –al dente noodles, chunky meat sauces, stuffed ravioli vs dumplings— the dishes are undeniably Japanese, adding in seaweed, soy sauce, mushroom, and all manner of fish to lend an unmistakable Japanese umami.
A perfect example? Fish carpaccio and Japanese sashimi share enough similarities that the dish has fit seamlessly into Japanese cuisine. There’s even an entire genre or pasta called “wafu” that takes the Japanese-Italian fusion further by adding seafood or regional specific touches like dashi broth to classic Italian pasta dishes.
A love of sauces, seafood, and cheese – these two family friendly cuisines were made to be melded! While a taco pizza may come to mind when you think about Italian Tex-Mex fusion there are plenty of other instances too. Pizza and quesadillas make a fun love-child in the form of a pizzadilla; while a marriage of Italian American casseroles like ziti, lasagna, and stuffed shells are often transformed into taco bakes, chili stuffed lasagnas, or Italian riffs on Mexican enchiladas.
In the US
You probably know that many iconic Italian dishes that are popular in the US aren’t actually served in Italy but were interpretations created by Italian-Americans. Here are some fun stories you may not have heard!
Wish Bone Salad Dressing
U.S. soldier Phillip Sollomi returned from World War II with dreams of opening a restaurant. At his restaurant “Wish-Bone” in Kansas City, he served a mix of dishes including a tossed salad inspired by a family recipe from Sicily featuring a spicy blend of seasonings mixed with oil and vinegar. This was very different from traditional Italian-style dressings, typically only a drizzle of olive oil and red wine vinegar. At the time American restaurants primarily served French style dressings – but Sollomi’s soon-to-be Wish-Bone brand became the 1st iconic “Italian Dressing” sold in U.S. supermarkets.
Italian for “Springtime Pasta” – this dish doesn’t exist at all in Italy. Although Italian cuisine celebrates spring produce such as peas, asparagus, squash blossoms, leeks and zucchini – they’re rarely served together in one dish and instead are served as sides. Pasta Primavera first hit the scene in NYC in the 1970’s at the famous restaurant Le Cirque where the chef created a fusion of newly emerging, veggie-forward California Cuisine and Italian food.
How the popular Italian spaghetti noodle got mixed up with a dish like Cincinnati chili is a fun American tale of immigration and fusion. Two brothers from Macedonia, Tom and John Kiradjieff arrived in Cincinnati by way of New York, home of the popular Coney Island chili dog, which was a likely influence. In 1922 at their Cincinnati diner, Empress Chili, they served up their own brand of spicy meat sauce over hot dogs as well as spaghetti—a mash-up the duo originally referred to as “chili macaroni” At the time, spaghetti was one of the few pasta shapes readily available in Middle America and the brothers leveraged it to create the unique fusion dish.
In its earliest form pizza was considered peasant food from Italy. After World War II the returning soldiers helped popularize pizza by the slice in the U.S. Today pizza in Italy and pizza in America look very different. Pizza in Italy is less cheesy and has fewer ingredients—often only one or two just for flavor. Common ingredients on pizza in Italy include anchovies, sausage, corn, prosciutto, olives etc. Meanwhile, the most popular pizza ordered in the US doesn’t exist in Italy! Pepperoni pizza as we know it is purely American. In Italy the word “peperoni” with one ‘p’, actually refers to peppers. So while you can get some kind of cured meat on your pizza in Italy, you won’t see the classic small bright red pepperoni circles so popular here.