John F. Mariani’s “How Italian Food Conquered the World”

March 19, 2011

John F. Mariani’s informative and entertaining examination of the rise of Italian cookery suffers from a flaw all too common these days in American book publishing: title inflation. Not merely is it questionable to claim that Italian food has “conquered the world,” this really isn’t the subject of the book, which deals almost entirely with the rise of Italian cuisine in the United States. No doubt Mariani himself is an innocent party to this — the title was probably dreamed up by someone at his publisher’s office — but the reader should be warned not to expect what the title promises.

It is true that Italian food has spread all over the globe, especially in the endlessly enticing form of pizza, as anyone who travels just about anywhere can attest. Though Latin America scarcely gets a mention in Mariani’s text — so much for “conquered the world” — I can testify that within two blocks of the apartment my wife and I own in Lima, Peru, are two full-service Italian restaurants and, believe it or not, two Pizza Huts, more than are to be found within a couple of blocks of our apartment in Washington. In addition, a 15-minute walk away from us in Lima is the elegant Trattoria Mambrino, one of the huge city’s best restaurants and one in which any native Italian would feel at home.

That would seem to prove Mariani’s point, except that his real argument has less to do with restaurants than with how Italian ingredients and cooking styles have infiltrated the cuisines of other cultures. But to stick with Peru for just a couple of sentences more, this simply isn’t the case in that country. Peruvian food is known (and celebrated) for being a fusion of many cuisines, among them indigenous, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and African, but with the exception of the occasional appearance of pasta, Italian cuisine really isn’t one of them.

It’s here in the United States that Italian food has had its most visible and deepest influence, but only within recent years has what most Americans think of as Italian food become recognizable as such to Italians themselves. Today, as Mariani points out, thanks to the combination of readily available authentic ingredients and broader receptivity to the unadulterated foods of other places, Americans have gone beyond spaghetti and meatballs, learning about such matters as the different gradations of olive oil, the endless variations on pasta, the previously unknown delights of balsamic vinegar.

Still, as Mariani understands, celebrating the discovery here of the real thing — and in England as well — raises the possibility of dismissing the not-inconsiderable virtues of what is properly called Italian-American cookery. It came into being when “more than five million Italians . . . immigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1910 — 80 percent of whom were from southern Italy — seeking to escape la miseria of the Old Country.” They were poor, and they crowded into the Italian ghettoes of the big cities, most notably New York and San Francisco. They used cheap ingredients — pasta, canned tomatoes, garlic — and they tried to re-create the simple, hearty cooking of southern Italy. Though tomato sauce was virtually unknown in wealthier, more sophisticated northern Italy, it became a staple in the south and came to the United States along with the immigrants:

“While southern Italians increasingly enjoyed pasta with tomato sauce, it was in the United States where it became a ubiquitous Italian-American food, the first of many that would seem inextricable from any discussion of Italian cooking. Not only was it served with pasta, but it also was the sauce that was lavished on their meat, chicken stews, and seafood. They spread it on eggplant, used it as a dipping condiment for fried foods, and poured it on sausage and peppers. They cooked big meatballs in it. And it was the sauce that made pizza a pizza alla margherita.”

An early form of the sauce was marinara, “supposedly because it was made quickly, as soon as the mariners’ wives spotted their husbands’ returning fishing boats in the distance.” Quick and simple, over the years it “became the all-purpose ‘red sauce’ by which Italians would always become known in and out of their communities.” Never mind that “there is no record of Italians enjoying tomato sauce with pasta before the middle of the nineteenth century”; on this side of the Atlantic it became, in the words of the film director Martin Scorsese, “sacred to the Italian family.” Red sauce, turkey alla Tetrazzini, spaghetti alla Caruso and other staples of the Italian American menu have been scorned by food snobs for generations, but Mariani has unearthed one 20th-century visitor to New York to the contrary:

“A Sicilian named Niccolo de Quattrociocchi reported in his memoirs that he’d dined at an Italian restaurant ‘where I was introduced to two very fine, traditional American specialties called ‘spaghetti with meatballs’ and ‘cotoletta parmigiana,’ which he thought were ‘just for fun called Italian,’ but added, ‘as a matter of fact, I found them both extremely satisfying and I think someone in Italy should invent them for the Italians over there.”

Although this cannot much please devotees of true northern Italian food, to this day it is Italian-American food that much of the world thinks of when Italian food is mentioned. Since much Italian-American food is mediocre — think Chef Boy-Ar-Dee or Rice-A-Roni — it’s hardly surprising that it has a poorer reputation than the best of it deserves. Whether the best of it is as good as or inferior to the best of true Italian food is a matter of individual taste, but the two differ more substantially than their names suggest.

It’s also true, as Mariani says, that until fairly recently Italian food of any sort “never received anything like the respect accorded French cuisine, even though the ingredients used in French kitchens were no better than in Italian kitchens and it was very likely that a French meal was being cooked by an Italian back in the kitchen.” For the change in this perception, Mariani credits a number of people: Marcella Hazan, the author of “The Classic Italian Cook Book” and other influential books; Lucio Caputo, Italian trade commissioner in New York, who was instrumental in gaining international sales and respect for Italian wines; Tony May, “a fierce crusader for authentic Italian food,” who was Caputo’s counterpart for Italian cuisine; Wolfgang Puck, the Los Angeles chef who turned “pizza — long regarded as a low-class item that Italian restaurateurs should distance themselves from — into the chic food of the moment, and in so doing shower[ed] celebrity glamour onto the whole idea of simple, good Italian food.”

Puck is himself a restaurateur, and although this is meant to be a book about cuisine, there are long stretches when it turns into one about restaurants, most of them expensive ones in chic locales. This is perhaps understandable inasmuch as Mariani is the food and wine correspondent for Esquire magazine, which throughout its existence has sought to be hipper than hip, but these passages probably will not be of much interest beyond the clientele of those establishments. For me, at least, they slowed down what is otherwise a most engaging book.

HOW ITALIAN FOOD CONQUERED THE WORLD

By John F. Mariani

Palgrave Macmillan 288 pp. $25

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