Italian Americans: New Country, New Identity
As the granddaughter of immigrants, I grew up in the shadow of stories not freely told – not fully understanding the suffering and sacrifices that came before. We were Americans, that was all we needed to know – that was all my grandparents wanted for us.
Struggling to assimilate in the New World while holding on to their traditions strengthened the primacy and power of the family. Putting food on the table for the family led to the creation of a new immigrant cuisine utilizing old favorite recipes with the addition of new locally available ingredients.
Chef's Travel Notes
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…”
As the granddaughter of immigrants, I grew up in the shadow of stories not freely told – not fully understanding the suffering and sacrifices that came before. My grandfather never spoke of Italy and had no desire to ever go back. We were Americans, that was all we needed to know – that was all my grandparents wanted for us. The decision to immigrate had to have been difficult beyond belief – filled with uncertainties and risk with extraordinary economic and social challenges. But no matter how hard it was to acclimate here, it was still better than back home in Basilicata, where the population had been marginalized by the government’s indifference resulting in devastating poverty.
In thirty years, from 1880 to 1910, over 5 million people (mostly men) immigrated to the US from Italy! Often one would come, establish himself, then send for family and friends. For example, in lower Manhattan you could find entire buildings or blocks with resettled inhabitants of the same village sometimes with the same butcher, grocer and even priest as in the old country. These enclaves eventually would turn into the city’s Little Italy. Today you can find Italian neighborhoods in almost every American city from the North End in Boston to North Beach in San Francisco.
Struggling to assimilate in the New World while holding on to their traditions strengthened the primacy and power of family. Putting food on the table for the family led to the creation of a new immigrant cuisine utilizing old favorite recipes with the addition of new locally available ingredients. New regional Italian American specialties were created, exemplified by NY’s pizza, St Louis’ fried ravioli, San Francisco’s cioppino, and Philadelphia’s cheese steak – just to name a few.
This week’s Antipasto Salad is an Italian take on America’s Chef Salad, found in almost every red sauce restaurant and pizzeria. Ours includes fennel salami, provolone, olives, artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes, marinated onions, and sweet peppers, tossed with romaine hearts and an herb-rich dressing – almost a meal in itself!
Mafaldine with Shrimp Scampi is a melding of the Old and New Worlds. In Italy, “scampi” are spiny, hard-shelled crustaceans, similar to small lobsters. Traditionally they were prepared with garlic, onions, and white wine. The same method was used by Italian-American restaurants to prepare shrimp (“gamberi”), which were much more abundant. So, the name “Shrimp (prepared in the style of) Scampi” was born. There are many versions here, frequently served over pasta or rice. In true Italian-American style, we have combined the primo (pasta) and secondo (shrimp) in one dish. Mafaldine is a type of long ribbon shaped pasta with curly edges – that, in my opinion, holds the sauce better than the frequently used linguine.
Our dessert, Lobster Tails, are the American cousins to the Neapolitan sfogliatelle pastries (featured last week.) They are extremely difficult and time consuming to make. They have three major components: a crunchy exterior shell made with hundreds of crisp layers, a middle layer of cream puff dough (to keep the outer shell from collapsing) and an interior filling of pastry and whipped creams. Our shells are shipped from Artuso’s Pastry in the Bronx, which we bake off and hand-fill with our fresh Chantilly cream. (See how New Jersey’s “Cake Boss” makes them at https://youtu.be/Bnhf-tIx39Q)
Trinchero Family Estates, the second largest family-owned winery in the world, is the American dream of Italian immigrants John and Mario Trinchero. In 1947, they moved from NY to St. Helena, CA and purchased Sutter Home Winery. They built their company by ignoring critics and by giving Americans what they wanted – affordable, easy-to-drink wines. The ever-popular White Zinfandel was their invention. Their Terra D’Oro line of handcrafted wines from some of Amador County’s historic, old-vine vineyards includes this week’s white wine pairing, Chenin Blanc Viognier, a 90-point perfect match for our buttery shrimp scampi.
My grandfather may have wanted his family to be American, but there was the flame of our Italian heritage that would not be denied. Maybe that was what drew his son – my father – to finally learn to speak Italian after he retired, and maybe it was that spark that drew me back to live in Italy. Pappa and Nanny Russo may not have told us stories of their Italy, but through the traditions of family and food they ignited a love of Italian culture that will be forever part of who we are – Italian Americans.
Viva l’Italia + God Bless America!