Italian Americans: Assimilation and Perseverance
The Italian assimilation into the US was particularly difficult, marred by stereotypical images of unsavory people prone to criminality. Despite these depictions, Italians focused on building their American identities. Interestingly enough, it was through their food that Italians forced the rest of America to adjust. It was the Italian restaurants opened by immigrants here that changed and improved America’s understanding and appreciation of Italian culture. Once only available in their neighborhoods, Italian food has won its way into the hearts, minds and stomachs of all Americans. Here’s to another delicious week of featuring some of the most famous food from around the country!
Classically styled Chardonnay has a rich creamy palate of baked apples, poached pears and pineapples. Balanced and elegant with threads of baking spice and citrus. The majority of the wine is aged in French oak, lending a toasty creamy note to the finish.
Once in a while you see something in a film that, no matter how much time passes, you cannot forget. For me it is the pub scene in Pane e Cioccolata (Bread and Chocolate) when actor, Nino Manfredi’s character, an Italian immigrant in Switzerland, can no longer contain his national enthusiasm as he watches a televised soccer match – Italy vs Germany. Throughout the film he has been desperately trying to assimilate into a country that dislikes him and his kind by dying his hair blond to pass as Swiss. But he simply cannot suppress his deep feelings of Italian identity and sportive pride when Italy scores, and he springs to his feet shouting “GOAL, GOAL, GOAL!” It is a poignant scene depicting the premise of national identity and how immigrants’ dignity can be compromised daily by their circumstances. The scene ends when the “imposter” is forcefully thrown out of the bar, landing on a pile of garbage. (See scene here: https://youtu.be/mczHiP-1C7k or, if you have the time, I highly recommend the whole movie with English subtitles here: https://youtu.be/ixHxPFrk48Q)
It is interesting to note this film depicts the plight of Italian immigrant workers in the 1960s and 70s when more then two million Spanish and Italians worked in Switzerland, a nation of only five million. These struggles for acceptance have plagued immigrants for generations. The Italian assimilation into the US was particularly difficult. The great majority of immigrants were from the impoverished areas of semi-feudal southern Italy and Sicily. Stereotypes of Italians developed, aided by newspapers and media’s portrayal of Italians as dirty and prone to criminality. Despite these depictions, Italians focused on building their American identities. My grandmother - an excellent Italian cook - attended the then-famous Fanny Farmer Cooking School known for revolutionizing American cooking through its use of precise measurements and recipes, a novel culinary concept at the time. She wanted to learn the American way to help her family assimilate through food. Interestingly enough, it was precisely the area of food that the Italians influenced the rest of America to adjust.
This week’s menu features dishes invented or popularized in different areas of the US. The Italian American community known as “The Hill” in St. Louis, Missouri, has a specialty known as Toasted Ravioli, breaded and deep fried ravioli served with Marinara sauce (also thought to be an American rendition.) It is said to have been invented when a ravioli accidentally fell into the fryer at Mama Campisi’s Restaurant.
Growing up in New York, I knew of Italian Wedding Soup, so when planning our wedding dinner in Florence, I requested it to be served. Once again, the sophisticated Florentines had never heard of it. “Minestra Maritata” originated in Naples where the name describes the delicious “marriage” of its ingredients – meat, leafy butter greens, pasta and a hearty stock. Somewhere down the line, the word “maritata” was translated to mean “wedding” and so the assumed legend began that it was served to the bride and groom to provide energy on their special day.
Chicken Vesuvio is undoubtedly the signature dish of Chicago’s Italians. Just about every restaurant there serves it, and it is the quintessential Sunday night special in many Italian American homes. It is hard to know who invented it. Some say it first appeared on restaurant Vesuvio’s menu in the 1930s, while others believe the name pays homage to Mount Vesuvius, near Naples, from which many immigrants came. It is a flavorful combination of crisp roasted chicken, potatoes, and peas with lots of garlic, white wine and oregano.
It was well known in NY that Sinatra’s favorite restaurant was Patsy’s, a vintage Italian American eatery near Carnegie Hall, owned and operated by the Scognamillo family since 1944. Among the dishes he always ordered was Patsy’s Lemon Ricotta Torte, a perfect Italian ending to our menu as well.
The American wine world would not be what it is today without the vision and hard work of Robert Mondavi, whose family emigrated from the Italian Marche region. This week’s Chardonnay from Napa Valley with its mouth filling texture and lingering finish, pairs perfectly with our Italian American menu.
Traditionally the best cooking in Italy was not found in restaurants, but in the home. However, it was the Italian restaurants opened by immigrants here that changed and improved America’s understanding and appreciation of Italian food. Once only available in their neighborhoods, Italian food has won its way into the hearts, minds, and stomachs of all Americans.