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: