How 'Italian Food' Became A Global Sensation

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Italian food, once considered cheap peasant food, now appears at three-star Michelin restaurants and on menus around the world. i

Italian food, once considered cheap peasant food, now appears at three-star Michelin restaurants and on menus around the world. hide caption

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Italian food, once considered cheap peasant food, now appears at three-star Michelin restaurants and on menus around the world.

Italian food, once considered cheap peasant food, now appears at three-star Michelin restaurants and on menus around the world.

Twenty years ago, Italian food was predominantly cooked by Italian immigrants in home kitchens. It was associated with Chef Boyardee's canned spaghetti, cheap ingredients and pasta with red sauce. There was no extra virgin olive oil, no celebrity chefs and no high-end pizza restaurants offering patrons their choice of eclectic toppings, followed by gelato in assorted homemade flavors.

"[Italian food] was considered fairly low-class but very lovable — with its pizzas and its red sauce and its marinara sauces," says food writer John Mariani. "But it has since become not just the most fashionable food in the world but also ... one of the healthiest."

Mariani, the food and wine correspondent for Esquire Magazine, is the author of How Italian Food Conquered the World, a social history of the world's most popular cuisine. He explains how the "poor man's gruel" transformed itself over the past two decades "to dominate global gastronomy," gaining status, class and recognition in restaurants as a healthy alternative to meat-centric diets.

How Italian Food Conquered The World
Palgrave MacMillan
How Italian Food Conquered The World
By John F. Mariani
Hardcover, 288 pages
Palgrave Macmillan
List Price: $25

That wasn't always the case. Italian restaurant food used to be associated with heavy creams, cheese-filled oily pastas and thick sauces filled with fatty cuts of meat and fish — mainly because of the abundance and low cost of ingredients, Mariani says.

"People thought, 'We could have 10 meatballs if we want. We can have pizzas that are 12 inches across instead of 6 inches across.' And this was translated into the restaurants into too much food, too much sauce and too much abundance," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It was only in the 1990s that the so-called Mediterranean Diet came along, where the whole food pyramid that we all learned about in high school was upended. The proteins were now at the tip-top, and the beans and the grains and the pastas and the olive oils were now at the broad bottom, which is most of what we should eat."

Italian food also got a boost from chefs using better ingredients. In the 1970s and '80s, Mariani says, chefs had no access to the ingredients they now take for granted — items like extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinaigrettes, fungi porcini, white truffles and true prosciutto were rarely seen outside Italy.

"These were ingredients that were not available in any way, shape or form to Italian cooks, however expensive their restaurants were," Mariani says. "They had to use white mushrooms instead of fungi porcini, and they had to use poor quality olive oil and no imported pasta. They were at a disadvantage to show off how delicious the food really could be."

Today, Mariani says, he is much more likely to order a more complex and interesting meat dish than plain old pasta in an Italian restaurant. And when he goes to a restaurant, he goes as himself — not in disguise, the way critic Ruth Reichl famously did when she reviewed restaurants for The New York Times.

John Mariani is the food and travel correspondent for Esquire Magazine and the author of The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. i

John Mariani is the food and travel correspondent for Esquire Magazine and the author of The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. Scott Stewart/Palgrave Macmillan hide caption

toggle caption Scott Stewart/Palgrave Macmillan
John Mariani is the food and travel correspondent for Esquire Magazine and the author of The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink.

John Mariani is the food and travel correspondent for Esquire Magazine and the author of The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink.

Scott Stewart/Palgrave Macmillan

"Even if I wanted to be anonymous, it's a moot point," he says. "It's a moot point for The New York Times critic and The Los Angeles Times critic. [The restaurants] all have their picture in the kitchen framed. I remember once being in a restaurant where Ruth Reichl was in a platinum-blond wig with big glasses, and the restaurateur nodded to me and said, 'See who's over at table six?' And I did."

Mariani adds that he has one tip for foodies who want to be treated like a restaurant critic when dining out.

"Become a regular, and you will be a king in a restaurant," he says. "Go there twice a month only. Not every week — go to a restaurant twice a month. They will love you and welcome you back and have index cards on you. That's the way to get really well-treated."

Excerpt: 'How Italian Food Conquered The World'

How Italian Food Conquered The World by John F. Mariani

How Italian Food Conquered The World by John F. Mariani Palgrave USA hide caption

toggle caption Palgrave USA
How Italian Food Conquered The World
By John F. Mariani
Hardcover, 288 pages
Palgrave Macmillan
List Price: $25

Italian immigrants may have catered primarily to their own neighbors, who were familiar with the food, but very soon the cafés and pastry shops began to be popular with other ethnic groups. Going to Little Italy became a city diversion, like going to Chinatown. Visitors accustomed to American apple pie, German strudel, and Jewish babka could go to an Italian café to sip dark espresso coffee with a lemon peel on the saucer and nibble on sugar-dusted, ricotta-stuffed cannoli and anise-flavored cookies with names like biscotti (twice baked), ossi dei morti (dead man's bones), baci di dama (lady's kisses), and brutti ma buoni (ugly but good).

Italian pastries almost glowed with color — the red, white, and green of Italy's new flag—while others were filled with pastry cream or custard and lavished with dark chocolate. Cookies full of hazelnuts and cakes riddled with candied fruit, once made only on feast days, were now always in the shop windows. In summer there would be freshly made citrus ices served in pleated paper cups from a cart pushed by the "hokey-pokey man," a name derived from the vendor's sing-song come-on, "O, che poco!" — "Oh, how little!"

Such sweets would have been a rare indulgence for most in the Old Country; in America they were a frequent treat. One of the earliest New York ice cream parlors to open, in the 1820s, was the fanciful Palmo's Garden, whose immigrant owner Ferdinand Palmo fitted it out with gilded columns, huge mirrors, and an Italian band. In 1892, opera impresario Antonio Ferrara opened a confections parlor under his name on Grand Street, where he could entertain his musician friends. Veniero's on East 11th Street began as a billiard parlor in 1894 that sold a little candy and coffee, evolving into an enormously successful pastry shop that created the cake for Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration.

Such cafés and pastry shops were small indulgences for the Italians in Amer­ica. None but a handful had any experience eating in or running a restaurant, nor was there usually any excess money to spend on such frivolities as dining out. With the food so good at home, there was little reason to eat out anyway. The few Italian restaurants that existed in the mid-nineteenth century in New York were usually owned by northern Italians. One, Riccadonna, was well known as a place where a four-course meal cost 30 cents (a modest sum then), and a grand feast of seven courses with wine was a pricey $1.25.

The Neapolitan immigrants did bring their favorite street food to America— the pizza, which they ate with the crust folded over, as a kind of sandwich or snack. Records indicate that the first true pizzeria — although that term for a place selling pizza was not then used — in Italy was established in 1780, when Pietro Colicchio opened Pietro . . . e basta cosï (Peter . . . and that's enough) in Salita Sant'Anna di Palazzo in Naples. He later gave ownership to Enrico Brandi, who changed the name to Pizzeria Brandi and in turn gave it to his daughter Maria Giovanna Brandi, who would marry the man who had made pizza famous, Raf­faele Esposito. (Pizzeria Brandi is still in existence.)

The local popularity of pizza as a street food of strictly Neapolitan origin made the arrival in 1889 of the new queen of Italy a reason to promote the city's native foods. Esposito commemorated her visit by naming a pizza after her, pizza alla Margherita, made in the three colors of the new Italian national flag — red toma­toes, white mozzarella, and green basil — which she diplomatically declared her favorite. The pizza alla Margherita became suddenly fashionable in Naples, though nowhere else in Italy — the word pizzeria did not even appear in Italian print till 1918 — but the idea came to America via the Neapolitans who settled in the eastern cities.

The first known pizzeria to open in the United States was G. Lombardi's in 1905 on Spring Street in New York. At first a grocery, the store began to sell piz­zas to the immigrants, specifically Neapolitans who craved it and for whom it was impossible to make in their home kitchens. From there, pizza's popularity grew rapidly, at first in and then beyond the Italian-American neighborhoods. By the 1930s, most of the Italian neighborhoods in eastern seaboard cities had pizze­rias, many just taverns, others freestanding.

Given the low cost of its ingredients, pizza became more widespread than it was in Naples, and the toppings grew quickly in number, often with a regional twist, like the white clam pizza created at Pepe's Pizza, which opened in New Haven in 1925. Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, cooked in a black iron skillet, was the creation of Ike Sewell and Ric Ricardo of Pizzeria Uno in Chicago in 1943. The thickness of the dough and the lavish use of disparate ingredients typified the Midwestern idea that making a dish larger is always better.

A postwar boon to pizza makers occurred when GI Ira Nevin returned from Italy to New Rochelle, New York, and combined his family's expertise in oven re­pair with his newfound love of the pizzas he had had in Naples to came up with the Baker's Pride gas-fired ceramic deck pizza oven. Prior to that, pizzas were baked in hand-built, brick-lined ovens fired by coal.

In the eastern cities, pizzas were still considered simple, cheap, filling fare, es­pecially to be enjoyed on a Friday night, when Catholics were still forbidden to eat meat, with a beer or bottle of cheap red wine. By the 1950s, take-out made sales soar, so that special cardboard boxes were created for the purpose, usually imprinted with a roly-poly, mustachioed Italian pizzaiolo tweaking his cheek and saying "Hot and Fresh!" or "You've Tried All the Rest, Now Try the Best!"

Largely, though, most Americans at that time had never heard of pizza. "If someone suggests a 'pizza pie' after the theater, don't think it is going to be a wedge of apple," wrote New York Herald Tribune food columnist Clementine Paddleford in 1939. "It is going to be the surprise of your life,... a nice stunt to surprise the visiting relatives, who will be heading East soon for the World's Fair. They come to be surprised, and pizza, pronounced 'peet-za,' will do the job brown."

After the war, Americans began to recognize pizza as fast food right along with hamburgers, hot dogs, and French fries, so that by 1953, crooner Dean Martin (born Dino Paul Crocetti to Abruzzese immigrants in Steubenville, Ohio) had a huge hit with the song "That's Amore," by Harry Warren (born Salvatore Anto­nio Guaragna) and Jack Brooks, crooning "When the moon hits your eye like a bigga pizza pie/ That's amore!" Although Martin thought the song was ridiculous and did not want to record it, he debuted it in the movie The Caddy and the sin­gle went to number two on the Billboard charts.

The Americans liked such silly gimmick songs because Italians, more than any other ethnic group, seemed to correspond to favorite stereotypes of them as pizza-loving, pasta-eating, happy sensualists. By 1955, a character in the hit TV comedy show The Honeymooners could make a joke about low-calorie pizza and get a big laugh from the American audience.

The first frozen pizza was marketed by Celentano Brothers in 1957. A few years later Rose and Jim Totino, owners of one of the first pizzerias in Minneapolis, came out with their own brand of frozen pizza, which by the late 1960s was the top-selling frozen pizza in the United States. It was bought out in 1975 by Pills-bury for $20 million.

The Italians also loved their hero sandwiches, long, sliced loaves of seeded Ital­ian bread stuffed with mozzarella, provolone, ham, lettuce, peppers, and other foods, even meatballs or breaded chicken. The "hero" in question was the person man enough to devour one of the huge sandwiches, which also went by regional names like grinder, spuky, wedge, and, especially in Philadelphia and New Jersey, hoagie. Back in the 1930s, a version called the Italian beef sandwich appeared in Chicago, a hero made with slices of beef and its juices, topped with sweet peppers. In New England it might be called a submarine or sub, a name coined by grocer Benedetto Capaldo to commemorate the submarine base in Groton, Connecti­cut, where he had his store.

In 1965, a 17-year-old high school graduate in Bridgeport, Connecticut, named Fred DeLuca was trying to figure out how he would pay for college with a sum­mer job that paid only $1.25 an hour. At a backyard barbecue that summer, a fam­ily friend, Dr. Peter Buck, suggested he open a submarine sandwich shop and wrote out an investment check for $1,000. That first shop evolved into Subway sand­wich shops, with 16 units opened around the state by 1974. Three decades later, the franchised chain had more than thirty thousand stores in 92 countries.

Excerpted from How Italian Food Conquered The World by John F. Mariani. Copyright 2011 by John F. Mariani. Copyright 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited.

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