Italian-American food qualifies as a certified authentic cuisine in its own right, a hybrid of what Italian immigrants brought with them to the United States and modified along the way to American citizenship and assimilation. But it’s not what you’re going to find in Italy—not in Rome or Palermo or Verona.
Those early 20th century immigrants, predominantly from southern Italy and Sicily, couldn’t get away from Ellis Island fast enough to set up their kitchens and start feeding their families, as well as the rest of the surrounding area. Because of a lack of some products and the availability of others, a necessary shift in methods and a change in recipes occurred, subtle at first, but becoming more noticeable as the first generation born in this country began setting up their own kitchens.
This gradual process of culinary evolution then came into contact with the prepared food/TV dinner era of the 1950s. No self-respecting Italian-American mother ever would have served her family green bean casserole topped with canned French fried onion rings, but picking vine ripened tomatoes from home gardens was replaced (or at least augmented) by the pureed version from the can, and cheese was often shaken rather than freshly grated.
The post-World War II decade was also when the children of immigrants found themselves higher up on the economic ladder, and what better way to flaunt this success than at the table? Portions became larger, sauces became thicker and richer, and entire dishes never known in the old country became part of our daily menus—spaghetti and meatballs, manicotti, chicken parmigiana, etc. Even Tony Soprano wouldn’t be able to find the ubiquitous chicken parm in Italy. You can have it here, but you won’t find it there.
You will, however, find luscious eggplant parmigiana (melanzane parmigiana), owing its name to the town of Parma where it originated and not to the king of Italian cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano. And you’ll find meatballs (polpette), not plopped on top of spaghetti, but standing on their own as a second course (after the pasta course) with or without tomato sauce. You’ll encounter such an infinite variety of fabulous dishes you’ll never miss that chicken parm.
A short list of some other differences from here to there:
-Spaghetti with clam sauce: look for spaghetti or linguine vongole veraci, made with tiny clams in the shell, olive oil, garlic, parsley, peperoncino (chili pepper)—never with cheese, cream, basil, oregano, or angel hair pasta.
-Shrimp scampi: no such dish. Shrimp scampi translates to “shrimp shrimp” in Italian. Among the many varieties of shrimp besides scampi are gamberi, gamberetti, and mazzancolle.
-Sun-dried tomatoes: a rarity in any region, but used occasionally in the South.
-Italian hoagies, submarines, grinders: sandwiches in Italy are flat, never overstuffed and are called panini or tramezzini.
-Fettuccine Alfredo: only on the menu at the eponymous restaurant on Via della Scrofa in Rome, where it was invented in the 1920s. The original recipe called for fettuccine, butter, and Parmigiano-Reggiano—no heavy cream. In fact, if Italians use cream at all in their sauces, it’s used very sparingly, so you won’t encounter the popular Italian-America “pink” sauce.
-Sauce or gravy, whatever you call it—it helps to know the two basic Italian tomato sauces (among the many regional varieties):
a. Ragu is a meat-based sauce, confusing because of a certain brand on our grocers’ shelves.
b. Sugo di pomodoro is a light, quickly cooked meatless tomato sauce, made from either fresh tomatoes or from canned tomatoes called la salsa (more confusion).
NOTE: Marinara generally refers to pizza alla marinara—with tomatoes, garlic, and oregano. But, if you ask your waiter for spaghetti marinara, he’ll know what you mean.
-Biscotti: the Italian word for “cookie.” If you want the long, hard sweet we think of as biscotti, you must ask for tozzetti or cantuccini.
So don’t go to Italy in search of Nonna’s wedding soup or the sausage and peppers at Angelo’s Trattoria in St. Louis. Enjoy those dishes that are ensconced into the honor roll of Italian-American recipes when you go to Grandma’s or when you’re in Missouri. In Italy, allow yourself to discover and fall in love with Italian food in the place where it all began.