Italian Americans in America

7 March 2012
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee


I was invited to a wonderful discussion led by Lidia Bastianich about the evolution of Italian food in America while I was in New York City last week. She spoke about her journey throughout the United States while doing research for her seventh book, Lidia’s Italy in America. Lidia Bastianich is a well-loved author, television celebrity and successful restaurateur with twenty-two Italian restaurants in the United States. She has written many cookbooks but her latest book is a chronicle of the Italian immigrants experience in America as seen through the food they eat.


I love the approach of looking at food through the wider sociological lens and understanding how each dish was created than merely having a list of recipes. The book highlights the beginning of the largest influx of Italians into America in the late 1800s, resulting in Italians becoming the fifth largest ethnic group, just after the Germans, Irish, English and African-Americans. One of the most important areas of impact that Italians had on America is in the food and wine culture. Pizza has become so American that we have regional reference points such as Chicago’s deep-dish pizza or New York’s thin cheesy style. One of the most popular and successful takeout food businesses are the numerous pizza chains like Dominos spread across the country.


Lidia Bastianich who is from the northeastern part of Italy in Friuli, arrived in the United States in the late 1950s and found that Italian food in America had nothing to do with Italian food in Italy. At lease the Italy she knew and loved. The explanation is that the first generation of Italian immigrants were from southern Italy, mostly from Sicily, Campania or Calabria and the Italian food that Americans embraced were inspired from these regions rather than from the north.


Lidia describes how the basic ingredients found in America were very different from Italy and recipes were adapted accordingly. For example, tomatoes in America were larger and there was more juice as well as pips. The tomatoes were less sweet than their Italian counterparts and the larger pip content meant the flavours were more bitter, so sugar was often added in American sauces to counter the bitterness and lack of natural sweetness. Also, since there was more juice, the cooking time was lengthened to allow the sauce to evaporate the water content. The abundant availability of meat in the US meant more meat was added to recipes than would be found in Italy. Peppers, which originate from South America are found in abundance in the US, so that was slowly incorporated into Italian American cooking.


What evolved as Italian food is more distinctly Italian American, argues Lidia. You won’t find the counterparts of Americans’ favourite Italian dishes in Italy such as spaghetti and meatballs, baked cannelloni and veal parmigiano. These dishes are not Italian but American and take inspiration from Italy. The Italians in America made a huge impact on the food culture but equally, their influence in America’s wine industry is formidable.


Consider what the American wine industry would be like without the Gallos, Mondavis, Sebastianis and Coppolas. It was the Gallos that brought the country affordable everyday drinking wines so that wine could be enjoyed as an every day part of a meal. The wine empire built by brothers Ernst and Julio Gallo is the world’s largest family-owned wine company selling 80 million cases of wine around the world, 75 million of it in the United States. Gallo is also the largest exporter of Californian wine.


On the more premium side of the business was Robert Mondavi who passed away in 2008. After breaking away from his family’s Charles Krug winery in 1966, Mondavi established his eponymous winery with the goal of creating top wines that rivaled the best from Europe. To this end, Mondavi succeeded and captured the palates of many American who appreciated the riper and more approachable versions of their favourite European wines. He was a pioneer in varietal labeling, bringing into the wine drinking fold a large number of new consumers who didn’t feel intimidated by long European wine names. He even created new styles and labels like Fume Blanc, which was a fuller-bodied often oaked version of the crisp Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley. 


These Italian American wine pioneers did what Lidia Bastianich describes in her book about adapting to the local environment. They brought the Italian mindset that wine and food are essential components of good living and worked with what they found in America. Using their Italian sensibilities and understanding American palates, just as spaghetti suddenly had the addition of three-inch meatballs, Sauvignon Blanc was made rounder and less sharp tasting by aging it in barrels.


It is hard to imagine America’s food and wine scene without the influence of these incredible Italian Americans. No other ethnic group has made such an impact over the past century. Of course this is evolving and the influence of neighbouring Mexico and Latin American cultures are being felt as well as many Asian cultures, but their long-term impact will likely be limited to food. These countries do not have Italy’s rich wine heritage.


As China’s wine culture and production grows at a rapid pace, the Italians should make more effort towards imparting their influence not just on selling their wines in this market but also on influencing wine making styles and introducing Italian varieties made in China. So far, nearly all the joint ventures and large investments in wine are being made by the French. By being absent, the Italians are missing out on being part of the pioneering generation in China. They conquered American palates over generations, it’s time to consider a new frontier.


Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post