The United States has often been referred to as, “the melting pot” of culture. Due to its relatively recent discovery, colonization, and freedoms, the American society is best described by this term. With influence and immigrants from across the world, different aspects of culture like art, architecture, food, and customs have combined, adapted, and evolved into a morphology of multiculturalism that has highlighted our rich national diversity. Italy, for example, is one such influence as millions of immigrants over the centuries have re-established their homes in the land of liberty. Italian food culture, with pasta at the forefront, has travelled with these immigrants to arguably become one of the staples of American cuisine. Of course, changes have occurred since the first “Little Italy” was organized, so it is important to determine whether the differences in mainland Italian and Italian-American noodle cuisine are different enough to be appraised as separate bodies of culture. This question will be investigated through a brief historical overview of Italian immigration with an analysis of ethnic centers such as Little Italy in Manhattan, an identification of evidence both for and against the continuation of noodle recipes, an analysis of American-based marketing of the noodle, and an identification of evidence for a reinvigoration of traditional Italian cuisine in the United States.
Historically, Italian immigration occurred in the largest numbers following the Risorgimentothat culminated in the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy on March 17, 1861 (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1998). While Italy was finally unified geographically, the people were not. “Decades of internal strife had left a legacy of violence, social chaos, and widespread poverty” (Library of Congress). After heavy taxation, newly titled citizens of the southern regions of Italy were often left with little choice but to emigrate. Word of prosperity from returning migrants quickly spread across the country, so America became a preferred place to relocate. As a result, between 1876 and 1930, 5 million Italians immigrated to America (Molnar, 2010). 4/5 of these migrants were from the southern regions of Calabria, Campania, Abruzzi, Molise, and Sicily.
Southern Italian cuisine has a greater focus on tomatoes, olive oil, eggplant, and peppers, so these ingredients, and the local dishes associated with them, took preference in the new world over the northern Italian items like risotto, gnocchi, and Florentine steak. The majority of Italian immigrants were contadini, or agricultural laborers, with less than 20% being craftsmen or higher status individuals (Molnar, 2010). Italians were the largest immigrant labor force to work in the mines, so many individuals who did not see an interest in that field decided to open small restaurants to make ends meet. Interestingly, around half of these immigrants ended up repatriating back to Italy. With such a promise for a return to their homeland, this suggests little motivation to assimilate into the greater body of American culture, thereby preserving the ethnic pasta recipes.
When foreign immigrants re-establish their homes in a new country, they often cluster together into ethnic centers. These large groupings of individuals tend to make the transition to a new way of life easier. The Italian-American ethnic group historically suffered through widespread discrimination as popular nativist theories marked Italians as outsiders. As a result, after passing through Ellis Island into America, many decided to group together into ethnic centers later known as “Little Italies” in an effort to preserve their language, culture, and food. More than 90 percent of Italian immigrants decided to congregate into urban areas in the northeast region, Midwest, California, and Louisiana (Pozzetta). Many of these centers, like the ones in New York City, Boston, Cleveland, and Chicago still exist to this day and are an excellent example of a flourishing Italian food culture. A walk down Mulberry and Mott Streets in Little Italy in Manhattan, for example, would show “shops selling fine Italian food products, ceramics, over two-dozen restaurants and cafes, and Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral” (Locker, 2012). It is clear that, at least in Little Italy, the culture surrounding the noodle has largely been respected over time. Menus at restaurants in these centers are mostly representative of southern Italian cuisine still found today, albeit with the tourist traps sprinkled in along the streets. As one example, a restaurant called Aunt Jake’s in New York City’s Little Italy has authentic handmade pasta in shapes like cavatelli, tagliatelle, pappardelle, and garganelli, with sauces like arrabiata, carbonara, and puttanesca. They also have the option to serve all of their pasta family style, which enhances the social aspect of the noodle that brings people together. Therefore, Aunt Jake’s is representative of traditional Italian dishes, suggesting that these ethnic centers have effectively preserved Italian noodle culture.
The preservation of southern Italian pasta across America can be seen through three dishes that are staples on the menus of most Italian-American restaurants: eggplant parmesan, spaghetti with marinara, and minestrone soup. The warm climate in southern Italy allows eggplants to thrive. In effect, parmigiana di melanzane, or eggplant parmesan, has become a classic Italian dish that can be seen across the world. This simple dish of battered and fried eggplant topped with mozzarella and parmesan over pasta has spawned various alterations like chicken or veal parmesan that also penetrated the American cuisine. In fact, eggplant has become so interwoven in the United States diet and agriculture, that New Jersey now grows 66 percent of the world’s yield (Bloom, 2015). Tomatoes are another important southern Italian crop. There are even specific breeds, like the San Marzano tomato, which are highly sought after and can only be grown effectively in the volcanic regions surrounding Naples. While there are countless sugo, or tomato-based sauces, from the southern regions of Italy, sugo di pomodoro, or spaghetti with marinara, is the most famous worldwide. Crafted with tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs, and olive oil, it is, “cooked vigorously and quickly to retain the zest and brightness of the tomatoes” (The Story Behind 5 Classic Italian Pasta Sauces, 2017). The quick and relative ease of the sauce makes it a perfect choice to be represented across the American working class. Finally, minestrone is another southern classic that has been well established in America. This thick vegetable soup with small pastas like orecchiette, elbow, or small shells has come to be a popular starter at Italian-American restaurants. These three dishes are evidence for the continuity and preservation of Italian pasta dishes in American culture, however, there is significant evidence promoting the uniqueness of Italian food in the United States.
With the majority of Italian immigrants coming from impoverished backgrounds, America provided exciting new opportunities for food. After visiting America, Massimo Bottura, chef of one of the top 50 best restaurants in the world, said that, “the best ingredient I discovered in America was ‘freedom.’ The freedom to experiment in the kitchen and the freedom to be open to those experiments in the dining room.” These immigrants were used to feeling disenfranchised by their more privileged neighbors from their homeland who could eat a richer diet, so they jumped on the opportunity to incorporate ingredients that they could not normally afford in Italy. While cucina di povera, or peasant cuisine, is delightful in its own right, many of these new Americans decided to expand their diet simply because they could now afford to do so. With the cost of beef drastically cheaper and more readily available in the United States, meatballs became a widely accepted topping for pasta that most people could afford. This was, “evident in the baseball-size meatballs that came out of the era, which could only have been invented by someone extremely excited by the prospect of an abundance of meat” (Horowitz, 2016). This new excitement from meat was not limited to meatballs alone. The traditional eggplant parmesan got adapted into chicken and veal varieties, and “Sunday sauce” took the title of the best sugo.Vastly different than the sugo di pomodorothat can be seen in Italy, Sunday sauce is stewed all day with meats like pork sausage and meatballs. Being such a hefty sauce, the noodle itself becomes more of an afterthought.
However, when appraising the Italian-American food culture as a whole, pasta is still more represented on menus. Following a traditional Italian meal order, pasta is served as a primi. It is designed to be only one small course in the greater overall meal, whereas in Italian-American food culture, pasta is commonly served in large portions as the main dish. Many Americans associate Italian food with just pasta, even though there is so much more to Italian food culture. While most of these Americanized items like spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmesan, and Sunday sauce are not authentically Italian, they have come to be so instrumental in the greater American food culture that has incorporated ethnic cuisines and adapted items like the noodle to be representative of what the United States has to offer.
The culture and love of pasta in America has been enhanced and altered in response to marketing and industrialization of the noodle. While Italy is known as the birthplace of the Slow Food Movement, where local food and traditional cooking takes precedence, the United States takes the opposite approach. In working-class America, speed and ease of cooking are of the highest priority. With more full-time workers, both men and women, there is less available time to prepare dinners every night, so quick and simple meals have become lifesavers. Of course, noodle manufacturers and grocery stores have capitalized on this trend. An average trip to any grocery store chain in America will offer consumers with nearly 100 choices for pasta. Standard shapes like spaghetti, penne, and macaroni take up the most shelf space; however, it is never too difficult to track down the orecchiette, bucatini, or cavatappi that a recipe may request. The difference in America, however, is that most of these pastas are dried. Dried pasta is much more convenient to produce, has a longer shelf life, and can be stored at room temperature. Dry pasta can simply be thrown into a pot of boiling water, so there is little prep work required to have a pasta dish on the table for dinner. For example, boxed Kraft macaroni and cheese can be enjoyed a mere 30 minutes after starting, but the tradeoff is the loss of nearly all of the pasta’s cultural roots. The process of making pasta from scratch, while only using a few ingredients, is not convenient enough for the American lifestyle, so dry pasta has won outright.
To make pasta even more simplistic, companies have even found ways of developing canned versions of spaghetti with meat sauce that have become cult American classics. Hector Boiardi, an Italian immigrant, rose to fame as the head chef at the prestigious Plaza Hotel in New York City. After repeatedly being asked by patrons for a way to have his spaghetti at home, he decided to create, “take-out meal kits that included dried pasta, cheese and cleaned out milk bottles filled with marinara sauce along with instructions on how to cook, heat and assemble the meal” (Klein, 2015). These meal kits quickly surpassed dine-in revenue, so Boiardi decided to scale up his production. Capitalizing on the eagerness for quick meal options for Americans, Chef Boy-ar-dee outstripped Boiardi’s ability to run the company. After selling his business to American Home Products for six million dollars, the brand continued to expand and has become a mainstay on supermarket shelves in America and around the world.
Where fast and easy pasta dishes were saved for the home, Italian restaurants became a preferred dining spot to indulge in more time-consuming creations. Of the 800,000 restaurants in the United States in 2015, about 100,000 served Italian food (McMillan, 2016). In comparison to Chinese and Mexican restaurants that each numbered about 40,000, pasta definitely has made its mark on the American restaurant scene. However, with a much smaller subset of these Italian restaurants actually being authentic, the majority are run by big chains that have outposts across the United States. With 892 locations across the United States, Olive Garden is the largest chain of Italian-themed restaurants. Olive Garden prioritizes innovation and food trends in their menu creation, so they serve items like loaded pasta chips, sirloin over fettuccini alfredo, and chocolate brownie lasagna. They have also continued on the themes of indulgence that are present in American food culture. Servings are large and calorie ridden. Long gone are the days of the simple and healthy pastas with olive oil, garlic, and chili. Instead, Olive Garden serves their pastas as rich treats to the taste buds, likely being part of their marketing strategy as well. Fat enhances flavor and leaves people wanting more, so Olive Garden serves their pasta dishes laden with cheese and meat. However, they do still maintain a thorough understanding of the communal aspect that pasta creates. Their mission statement on their website reads that, “we believe that life is better together, and we know everyone is happiest when we’re with family. Whether that’s family by relation or by choice; traditional, blended or extended; neighbors, coworkers or teams; friends, groups or just “the gang.” We love everyone like family.” Pasta is a medium to connect people, and it is therefore the duty of Italian-American restaurants like Olive Garden to foster those connections around their dishes. While many of these Italian restaurants fall under the umbrella of Italian-American food culture, there has been a recent resurgence of authenticity in the United States.
With the turn of the century, Millennials kickstarted the foodie trend that has resulted in a reinvigoration of traditional Italian cuisine. This group of individuals, “love sharing experiences with their friends both in-person at the table and online” (Howe, 2017). With social media continuously on the rise, regional specialties of pasta like cacio e pepe or bucatini alla amatricianahave become mainstream and incorporated into the Italian-American body of food culture. Food photography has become an entire branch of social media, and as a result, new and exciting foods are sought out by this group. Regional specialties of pasta have filled this niche and the Italian food scene has become more authentic as a result. One such example is the Italian grocery market/restaurant complex called Eataly. The first Eataly opened in 2007 in Torino, Italy as, “a school, a market, a table to gather around: a place to learn about food and, through food, about life” (The Story of Eataly). At this one-stop shop, people can choose from a large selection of handmade pastas, cheese produced in Italy, beautifully selected produce, and end their experience with a scoop of gelato. With several locations in New York City and across the United States, this brand that emphasizes the Slow Food Movement’s tenants of quality ingredients and authenticity has become the perfect playground for foodie culture to flourish and be shared amongst individuals. The noodle has become rejuvenated and viewed as an art-form once again.
Noodles are a vessel for creativity that can be modeled and adapted to any nation’s agricultural availability, cultural preferences, or diet. The concept of the noodle is broad and open to interpretation, so the possibilities for a culture to take in the noodle as their own are endless. Southern Italians came to the United States in large numbers following the Risorgimento, and the greater body of ethnically diverse Americans took their classic Italian pasta dishes, kept some authentically preserved, and adapted others to this new and exciting land. With limited access to their homeland, Italian-Americans continued on in their new way of life, and as they changed as a people, the pasta did as well. Italian-American pasta has become a distinct entity with flavors and ingredients that are authentically American but still maintain the deep Italian roots. These roots are continuing to flourish as a more globalized and food enthused society has brought some of the classic Italian pastas to be cherished again in the United States.
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