Italian-American food is based heavily (though not exclusively) on the traditional food of southern Italian immigrants, most of whom arrived in the United States from the late 19th and early 20th century. During this great wave of immigration into the United States, many of the peoples came particularly from the areas of Naples and Sicily and moved to large American cities, such as New York City and Boston. For many Italian-Americans, who identify their food with their locale and the home areas of their ancestors, the food is based on staples such as dry pasta, tomato sauce, and olive oil; whereas, for others, such as those from Northern Italian families in other parts of the United States may prefer Northern Italian staples such as rice, fresh pasta and butter.
For many Italian Americans, particularly in traditional Cattle ranching or "cowboy" states like California, Texas, Florida and Hawaii, Italian-American food tends to use a great deal more meat. Reasons for this are not universally agreed upon; some place it simply on the greater availability and higher quality of American meat (particularly beef), while others believe it to be a product of nutritional theories promulgated by early 20th-century social workers to ease integration of Italian immigrants into American society. Beef consumption has also been symbolic of many Italian-Americans' new found prosperity in these particular states (or regions) and within America at large; that is, as opposed life in pre-World War II Italy and Europe), where little beef was afforded or consumed; however, high-quality beef and its production is often seen as symbolically American.
Over time and with the development and appreciation of Italian cuisine in the United States, as well as the increased importation of goods and so on, some trends have seen the cuisine move towards a more “authentic” style that has either greater affinity with techniques and ingredients that are native to Italy, or otherwise a style that interprets the cuisine from the viewpoint of Italian culture as it exists throughout the world. Italian-American food also regularly imports innovations from Italy -- if not also try to mimic the producion of such goods domestically -- and includes relatively recent innovations such as espresso (now ubiquitous in American life), tiramisu, Nutella and so on. All of these introductions have been enthusiastically embraced and every year new products and cultural exchanges are shared between the trade of Italy and the United States, which is growing successful.
Italian American food is often somewhat pejoratively known as "red sauce" food, because of the significant amounts of tomato sauce that are often characteristic of Italian-American restaurant food for much of the 20th century. Some of this broader perception may be attributed and reinforced by the universal appeal of Italian style foods in the United States; for example, the common trend in much of American style foodservice is often towards perpetuating these concepts via mass marketing, just as it would for any other ideal type or abstraction, such as “Chinese food” or “Mexican food”.
A popular aesthetic associated with Italian-American food is the old fashioned clichéd image of the mom and pop "red sauce joint", a type of restaurant that specializes in such foods as spaghetti with meatballs and has tables decorated with red checked tablecloths and straw-covered Chianti bottles serving as tabletop candleholders. While the classic image of such a place has in many cases given way to more contemporary, upscale restaurant designs, the concept is common for more traditional Italian-American restaurants, to the point where some chain restaurants such as Papa Gino's, Maggiano's and Buca di Beppo have adopted such stereotypical touches as a red checked pattern in laminate tabletops as a stylistic hallmark.
Italian-American cooking has had considerable influence on the steakhouse tradition as well; many steakhouses were started by Italian-American entrepreneurs, including New York City's The Palm chain (named after a mispronunciation of the family name Parma) and the Massachusetts-based Hilltop (founded by local restaurateur Frank Giuffrida).
Within the United States there is a long standing heritage of institutions with top restaurant ratings that serve "Italian" style food. Many of these restaurants contribute to the ideals and standards of contemporary, fine-dining Italian or Italian American cuisine. Some of the more significant rating services that have made an impact include: the Distinguished Restaurants of North America (DiRoNA Award), Michelin series of guides, Slow Food guide, Zagat Survey, and others.
• As of the year 2008, the Distinguished Restaurants of America, lists 109 “Italian” style restaurants on its website, under that category and nationwide. Other regional ratings by examples include:
• Slow Food, based originally in Italy, lists several restaurants in regional guides (in printed book form only), such the San Francisco and the Bay Area guide. In that 2005 version of the guide, it lists 22 recommended restaurants that adhere to its standards of "authentic" Italian cuisine.
• Michelin names 4 Italian style restaurants with a one star rating in its 2007 San Francisco, Bay Area & Wine Country version of its guide (printed book form only). • Zagat Survey lists 3 "Italian" restaurants with "Top Rating" in its "2007 San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants" guide.
Of these regional restaurant ratings, it should be noted that these services are not available for all metropolitan areas of the United States; hence the popular perception of "top rated restaurants" is primarily associated with certain large cities in a few states in America. The DiRoNA award is one of the few programs that is both organized and recognized nationwide and also recognizes many Italian-American culinary personalities in its "Hall of Fame."
Italian-derived food has become remarkably common in convenience cooking, especially with canned foods such as Franco-American's SpaghettiO's as well as the popularity of Italian-American specialties from take-out counters in supermarkets and restaurants. In particular, the pizza parlor is one of the most ubiquitous of American eateries, with businesses ranging in size from single proprietorships all the way up to large chains such as Domino's Pizza and Pizza Hut. In a cross-cultural variation of the theme, refrigerated, ready-to-heat-and-eat spaghetti has become a popular convenience item in Asian convenience stores in the U.S.
Chef Ettore Boiardi was probably one of the first "Italian" celebrity chefs within the United States, so much so that he is credited with popularizing the cuisine to many non-Italian-Americans and the public at large. Chef Boiardi is more commonly known by his commercialized, eponymous brand name, "Chef Boyardee."
In recent years, Italian style food, if not all food in the United States, has been influenced by the likes of social and/or political movements like Slow Food. Despite criticism by some individuals, the organization was created, has grown and has had much impact in Italy (as well as Europe overall), most notably in its reactionary stance towards American style consumerism and fast food lifestyle. On its website, www.slowfood.com, The Slow Food organization claims that it was founded in 1989 "to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world." Today, many Americans and Italian-American restaurants have embraced Slow Food principles and created their own "Slow Food USA" organization with local chapters. It is becoming a new trend and influence in the perception of Italian-American cuisine itself. Many restaurants advertise Slow Food affiliation, as do consumers look for recommended products and support the movement’s general philosophy.
Italian-American food (and Mediterranean cuisine influence in general) has been highly influential in the American diet. It is one of the top three ethnic cuisines in the United States, according to the National Restaurant Association (known by industry professionals as the NRA). The NRA has stated:
"Italian, Mexican and Chinese (Cantonese) cuisines have indeed joined the mainstream. These three cuisines have become so ingrained in the American culture that they are no longer foreign to the American palate. According to the study, more than nine out of 10 consumers are familiar with and have tried these foods, and about half report eating them frequently. The research also indicates that Italian, Mexican and Chinese (Cantonese) have become so adapted to such an extent that "authenticity" is no longer a concern to customers.
Surveys have also shown that an overall trend towards the inclusion of so-called "alternate-source ingredients," as well as the "incorporation of ethnic cuisines, flavors and ingredients into restaurant menus" is now very commonplace. Rated high on the list of popular or "hot" items in the survey include "[Mediterranean style] flatbreads, [Italian style] “ciabatta bread,” Mediterranean cuisine, espresso/ specialty coffee..." and so on. Of course, pizza and spaghetti in particular have been almost completely naturalized (the former in particular is a standard part of many American diets, often in forms almost completely unrecognizable to Italian cuisine).
There is a strong association of Italian-American cuisine with the history of winemaking in the United States. Broadly speaking, the tradition among many Italian-Americans is to enjoy their food with the pairing of any wine to make the meal complete and sociable; hence, on most any table could be found a cheap "table wine" and often (especially during Prohibition) a homemade wine that is sometimes pejoratively known as "dago red." Such wines are still embraced as a symbol of Italian-Americans keeping their culinary traditions alive during Prohibition, and as well as until the extensive importing of higher-quality Italian wines in the 1970s and the appreciation of the new "finer" wines of California. The traditional straw-wrapped Chianti bottles still remain as emblematic fixtures on many of the habitual style Italian-American restaurant tables, both because of the wine itself and for the use of the empty bottle as a candleholder thereafter; however, this custom is seeming becoming passé, as the fiasco is no longer universal for Chianti packaging.
The influence of Italian-Americans on American wine and winemaking has been profound as well, and has been recognized since the founding of the United States as a nation. Indeed, Italian vintners were brought to the state of Florida as early as the year 1766 by Dr. Andrew Turnbull, a British Consul at Smyrna. More significantly, perhaps, was the contributions of Filippo Mazzei (often spelled "Philip Mazzei"), an Italian physician, a promoter of liberty and friend of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. Mazzei led a group of Italians in Virginia with the cultivation of vineyards, olives, and other Mediterranean fruit.
In later years, American viticulture was more influenced by the diaspora of Italians during the Great Migration that began in the 1870’s and reaching greater proportions from 1880 to 1920. Most of these Italians entered at the east coast of the United States at Ellis Island, whereas many of those quickly passed through to the American West Coast, where California still had the lure and aura of its famous “Gold Rush” and new prosperity. In that state, Italian-Americans were inspired by expanses of rolling hills and fertile fields. Prior Prohibition in the United States at the year 1919, many wineries had already made their start: Seghesio, Simi, Sebastiani and Foppiano all began in the late 1800s and are still in operation today. Others included Giuseppe Magliavacca’s Napa winery, Secondo Guasti’s Italian Vineyard Company and Andrea Sbarbaro’s Italian-Swiss Colony. From 1919 to Repeal of Prohibition in 1933, many Italian-Americans struggled to keep their vines in the ground and their vineyards going; yet, they persisted, often providing sacramental wine to the Roman Catholic Church or grape juice to the general market. These few holdouts can be credited with salvaging America’s viticulture heritage, in an industry that values the longevity and tradition of the vine and its produce.
Beyond the Prohibition and into today’s wine producing economy, Italian-American wineries maintain a forceful contribution to the domestic and world market. Some of these companies include: Atlas Peak (also known as Antinori), Cosentino, Dalla Valle, Delicato, Ferrari-Carano, E & J Gallo Winery, Geyser Peak (also knows as Trione family), Louis M. Martini, Mazzocco, Robert Mondavi, Monte Bello Ridge, Parducci, Pedroncelli Winery, Robert Pepi, Picchetti Brothers Winery, Rochioli, Rafanelli, Rubicon Estate Winery (also known as Francis Ford Coppola Presents), Sebastiani Vineyards, Signorello, Sattui, Trinchero (most often under the Sutter Home brand), Valley of the Moon, Viansa, etc.
On the Italian-American table today, there is an appreciation of California wine, American wine (other domestic), imported Italian wine; and, of course, the old standby Chianti (from Tuscany, Italy) or "generic" red or white table wine (often called vino da tavola) to high end "Super Tuscan" style wines such as Tignanello. Some of the first Chianti wine to arrive in the United States was standard, cheap wines; however, after a slide in the overall quality of Chianti production during the mid-20th century, improvements in the recipes and techniques used to make the wines have led to the creation of Chiantis ranging from simple table wines up to high-end Chianti Classicos. All of these and more are widely popular with Italian-American cuisine in the United States.
Specialties of Italian-American cuisine consist of both Americanizations of Italian classics and dishes specifically invented in the United States. Some of the names given below are derived from Italian dialects (particularly southern dialects such as Neapolitan and Sicilian) and are spelled as they are sounded out among English speakers.
There are many styles of cookbooks available in English, both on the subjects of traditional and authentic "Italian cuisine" and "Italian-American" food.
On Italian-American Winemaking
On Related topics of migration, immigration and diaspora