The most popular cuisine in the US (and possibly the world) is Italian food. And though you probably know that many of your Italian-American favorites aren’t actually served in Italy – some of their origins may surprise you!
A Little History
Italian food first came to the US in the late nineteenth century as Italian immigrants began to make their homes in America. From 1880 to 1920, an estimated 4 million Italian immigrants arrived in the United States, the majority from 1900 to 1914
Many Italians coming from Naples and Sicily moved to large American cities, such as New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco creating “Little Italy” neighborhoods. They also brought their food traditions with them including authentic Locatelli Pecorino Romano which has been being imported to the US since the 1920’s.
It wasn’t until soldiers returning from Italy after World War II clamored for the foods they’d had in Italy that Italian food became popular stateside. Enterprising immigrants opened restaurants with Americanized versions of the flavors they had grown to love and classics like spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parm, sausage and peppers, ravioli, lasagna, baked ziti, and of course pizza became mainstays in the US.
But the Italian immigrant influence on many of your regional and classic food favorites may surprise you!
Originally considered hand-held peasant food, pizza was one of the first Italian dishes to be popularized in the US with city-specific versions like large slice & foldable New York style, Chicago deep dish, New Haven’s white clam pizza, and square, sauce-on-top Detroit style who’s closest cousin is the Sicilian sfincione, a spongy focaccia baked in a rectangular pan with toppings pressed directly into the dough and topped with tomato sauce.
In Italy, there’s no equivalent to large American meatballs although Italians do make a small version called polpette with veal, or a combination of veal, pork, and beef. When Italian-Americans introduced meatballs to the States, they started using what was available to them here, mostly easy to find beef and lots of Pecorino-Romano cheese. In 1955, the spaghetti kiss of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp showed how popular the dish had become.
Believe it or not your childhood lunch meat has deep Italian roots – it’s actually an Americanized version of mortadella from Bologna, Italy.
In Italy day-old bread was sliced and grilled to make bruschetta. But when Italian American immigrants arrived, there was no rustic bread, no fresh oregano, and no fresh basil, so they’d take a soft roll and slather it with butter and garlic. (PS: garlic was initially considered disgusting by Americans who were accustomed to bland cooking)
In Italy there’s a classic dish called “mozzarella in carrozza”, or “fried mozzarella” using soft, wet fresh mozzarella. In the US, the mozzarella was dry, so it was battered, fried and turned into dip-able finger food since that’s what Americans liked.
In Italy, small rounds of beef pepperoni as we know it doesn’t exist. (Pepperoni actually means red bell pepper!) Italians use salami picante or soppressata from Calabria, but those are all pork. The all-beef pepperoni we see know and love actually has it’s heritage in Eastern European sausage making.
In Italy you’ll only find eggplant parm; never veal or chicken. When Italians came to America, they had to use local ingredients available to them. Meat was much less expensive in America so they created large portions of chicken parm to celebrate how well they were eating in their new homes.
One of the earliest dishes attributed to an Italian, and still popular today; Chicken Tetrazzini was created in the early 1900s in honor of Luisa Tetrazzini, the opera singer known as “The Florentine Nightingale”.
The famous muffuletta sandwich of New Orleans was created in 1906 for Sicilian workers – it’s named after the muffuliette rolls baked in Sicily.
The dish may have originated in Sicily, where fried ravioli containing a sweet filling is a traditional Christmas treat, commonly referred to as “meat pillows”. However, most accounts of the first toasted ravioli in the US can be traced to the Little Italy of St. Louis, known as “The Hill”.
In the 1930’s Philadelphian Italians Pat and Harry Olivieri are often credited with inventing the classic sandwich by serving chopped steak on an Italian roll with the provolone from their home country.
The specialty fish stew of San Francisco, cioppino, originated from the Italian fish stew ciuppin, made by the Genoese fishermen who settled there.
Italian immigrants to Chicago had a major impact on the city’s food scene during the late 19th and early 20th centuries including the still-ubiquitous giardiniera to top hot dogs and sandwiches. This mix of pickled peppers and other vegetables is named for the Italian way of preserving vegetables for the winter.