Italian-American food stands on its own, apart from the many cuisines of Italy itself, as a great culinary tradition. Despite the fact that Christopher Columbus was himself an Italian, immigration to the United States from Italy did not begin in earnest until about 1880; over the next 40 years some four million Italians came to America, largely from the south of Italy and the island of Sicily. Italian-American cooking took the new country by storm. Spaghetti and meatballs, ravioli, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese, have been for generations as mainstream American as the hamburger and hot dog. Few foods today are as American as the pizza, originally an Italian import.
The southern Italian trend in immigration from Italy was not the only factor affecting the new cuisine. Most of the immigrants had been poor farmers in the old country; in America they clustered in cities. Old ingredients, including many specialty vegetables and seasonings, became unavailable; other ingredients, meats particularly, became more accessible even for the poorest immigrants.
In Italy, meats are served only sparingly as accents to multi-course meals. In America, meat can turn up in antipasto, in meatballs, in bracchiole (beef roulade), in a meat sauce, in sausage, or as a substantial steak. Veal and chicken are commonly served in a marsala wine sauce with mushrooms, with capers and lemon (piccata), or coated in batter and pan fried (francese). Chicken and veal Parmesan are particularly popular dishes (even on a general American menu); the meat is breaded and pan-fried, covered in sauce, then baked in a cheese topping. Chicken cacciatore (“hunter chicken”) in its American variant is a zesty stew of chicken, mushrooms, and tomatoes. The most popular form of shrimp is scampi, broiled in butter and garlic.
Tomato sauce reigns supreme in Italian-American cooking. The sauce is lovingly slow-cooked in large amounts, and ladled onto food in generous portions. By contrast, in Italy itself, small dollops of sauce, often quickly prepared, are used to accent foods. A creamy Alfredo sauce is also popular with the broad flat pasta called fettuccini, a white clam sauce with linguine. Garlic is used conservatively in Italy, rather more heavily in the United States. Among first courses, the hearty vegetable bean soup called minestrone, and breaded fried calamari (squid) are best known in America. The spicy vinaigrette called “Italian” salad dressing is widely used even in non-Italian restaurants in the United States.
Though usually a side dish in Italy, pasta in America is served as a main course in many shapes and configurations: plain, stuffed, in the potato-based dumplings called gnocchi, often baked in casseroles. The main course pasta dishes may be mixed with vegetables (the popular pasta primavera), flecks of meat, or nearly anything else. In American restaurants with no Italian connection, pasta is added to soups and salads; specialty ravioli are produced using fillings and sauces unknown in Italy. A popular format for all-you-can-eat restaurants in the United States is the “bottomless pasta bowl.” In St. Louis, Missouri, a city with a thriving Italian-American community (the Hill), a local specialty is batter-dipped deep-fried ravioli.
Italians all over Italy produce a wealth of cheeses, but it is a relatively expensive food and is used sparingly in cooking. Italian-Americans, like all Americans, have access to inexpensive cheese and use it in large amounts, often melting the cheese in gratin style atop dishes like lasagna, using fresh ricotta as a stuffing for manicotti or pasta shells, or, in the case of many dishes, using cheese both for stuffing and melting atop. The popular lasagna consists of layers of cooked pasta interspersed with meats, cheese (often ricotta) and perhaps vegetables, topped with cheese (parmesan and mozzarella) and baked to a golden bubbly crustiness. Mozzarella in carrozza (“mozzarella in a carriage”) is a luscious appetizer made by creating a small sandwich of bread and mozzarella cheese, dipping it into an egg batter, then frying it. A full course Italian-American meal may feature provolone cheese as part of an antipasto plate, an insalata caprese (Capri salad) of mozzarella, tomatoes, fresh basil and olive oil, a pasta dish sprinkled with grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, a veal, chicken, eggplant or shrimp Parmesan as a main course, and a slice of rich ricotta cheesecake for dessert.
The Tuscan tiramisu, a spoon-able concoction of Mascarpone cheese, eggs, ladyfingers, cream, espresso coffee, and liqueur, is by far the most popular Italian dessert in America. In many American cities, Italian gelato, a creamy egg-based frozen dessert, is available in fruit and other flavors. Italian ice (called “water ice” in Philadelphia), a simple cool treat made from frozen fruit-flavored water, is served in pizza shops in summer. Italian style coffees—espresso, cappuccino and caffe latte (called simply “latte” in American parlance and meaning “coffee with milk”)—are available in authentic forms and American variants at specialty coffee shops.
While Italian-American food is alive and well in cities across the country, the great wealth and diversity of true Italian regional cooking is also widely available in the United States. Gourmet shops and Italian delicatessens import Italian cheeses, canned Italian tomatoes and packaged sauces, dried pastas, preserved meats, olives and olive oils, and balsamic vinegars; American-based food companies produce their own Italian products. Italian delicatessens and salumeria (charcuteries) create fresh mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, sausages, preserved meat products, and fresh pastas. Major cities have Italian bakeries, pastry shops, espresso coffee shops, and restaurants offering Italian regional cuisines. A number of restaurant chains—Olive Garden, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Johnny Carino’s Country Italian, Carraba’s Italian Grill, Buca di Beppo, Maggiano’s Little Italy—offer configurations of Italian menus that mix both Italian regional and well-loved Italian-American dishes.