Italian-Americans: Dreams, Courage and Determination
There is much to tell about the Italian American experience as we reflect on their contributions and accomplishments during Italian American Heritage Month. Although they endured years of discrimination, Italian immigrants proudly helped build the America we know today.
Not the least of their accomplishments was the creation of a new Italian-American cuisine that has become highly influential in the American diet. This week’s menu will feature “Italian” dishes that originated in the US, paired with a wine made in Sonoma, CA by the descendants of one of the original Italian wineries in the US.
Louis Martini, Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
Our 2017 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon is a fresh, fruit-driven wine. It offers a welcomingly round mouthfeel with ripe notes of blackberry, blueberry and red plum. Hints of cocoa and oak on the finish add a savory layer of complexity to this approachably smooth Cabernet. (Read more...)
Chef's Travel Notes
There is so much to tell about the Italian American experience as we reflect on their contributions and accomplishments during Italian American Heritage Month. October was chosen for this celebration also because it coincides with Christopher Columbus’ birthday. Even as some are reconsidering his legacy, the holiday remains a source of pride for many Italian Americans. Columbus is at the top of a long list of Italians who have made valuable contributions to our country – explorers, inventors, statesmen, scientists, bankers, musicians, entertainers, and of course, cooks.
Italian immigrants began arriving in large numbers in the late 1800s as relatively unskilled laborers. Most of those early arrivals were young men leaving a semi-feudal Italian south that held little in the way of opportunity. My grandfather, Gennaro Russo, was one of those young boys coming from Rionero in the very poor region of Basilicata. He landed – alone – in Boston, found a job in a small dress factory, eventually moving to Brooklyn to live the American dream by opening his own business – the Christianne Clothing Company (apparently he rejoiced at the birth of his granddaughter, the first female in three generations!)
Arriving in America must have seemed like arriving in “paradiso” – certainly an unfamiliar paradise to those starving masses. They no longer had to grow their food but, rather, bought it. There was an abundance of everything and much more meat than they were used to. But many of the basic ingredients they knew could not be found here, leading to creative adaptations. Italian-American food is based primarily on the culinary traditions of Southern Italy. This all helps to explain why the immigrant dishes served here are unrecognizable to most Italians in the homeland, while Italian-American cuisine has grown to be highly influential in the American diet.
For this week’s menu, I thought it would be fun to feature “Italian” dishes that originated here in the US. Insalata di Cesare – Caesar Salad – does not come from Italy, it comes from Tijuana! To avoid prohibition, Italian chef Cesare Cardini, moved his San Diego restaurant south of the border to Mexico. The salad, improvised on a very busy night, became popular with Hollywood stars who crossed the border to drink. Even Julia Child, remembers going there as a young child.
Penne alla Vodka is one of those rare dishes that appears to have been invented here and then traveled back to Italy. It is a simple sauce of tomato, onion, pancetta, cream and vodka. Vodka helps to release the flavor of the tomatoes while acting as an emulsifier to keep the sauce from separating.
Pollo alla Parmigiana – Chicken Parmesan - is a totally American invention. You will not find it on any menus in Italy. It probably originated in Emilia-Romagna as a thin slice of veal topped with parmesan cheese. In America, chicken (much more affordable) subbed for the veal and the recipe changed with the addition of breadcrumbs, tomato sauce and mozzarella.
Sfogliatelle – or “zvoy-uh-dell” – as it is commonly pronounced in the Bronx – originated in a convent outside of Naples. It means “little leaves” and is a crispy multi-layered dough wrapped around a filling of ricotta cream. It is one of Italy’s iconic delicacies and, although it has remained largely true to its origins, I absolutely had to include it in a menu of Italian-American favorites. I guarantee most every Italian New Yorker loves them and has fond memories of waiting in line in a fragrant Italian bakery like I used to do at Ramona Lee’s in Franklin Square, Long Island.
There is a strong association between Italian-American cuisine and wine-making in the US – particularly in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. In 1899, at the age of 12, Louis M. Martini, traveled from Genoa to join his father in San Francisco. In the years that followed he established a legacy of passion and craftsmanship in wine making that still exists today. Their Sonoma County 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon is a fine example and pairs well with our menu. I am told their vineyards have been spared by the terrible California fires, but it remains to be seen how the heavy smoke will affect the grapes and future vintages.
Though ours is a very different immigrant story, Francesco and I came to Washington in 1988, filled with the same dreams and determination as my grandfather 75 years before. Our vision was to introduce authentic regional cuisine, food the Italians ate in Italy. At that time, Italian-American food had become one of the top three cuisines in the US. Immigrant Italian fare had gone mainstream and dishes like spaghetti and meat balls and pizza could be found on many American restaurant menus. Fortunately, unlike many Italian immigrants before, we were welcomed into the DC community with great interest and curiosity. We are immensely proud to celebrate our heritage, established by the courageous Italians who came to America before us.
Forza e avanti!