How Italian food like pizza and pasta became Americanized


The inspiration for Ian MacAllen’s book came to him one night several years ago over a plate of veal Parmesan at the now-closed West Village restaurant Trattoria Spaghetto.

“I knew they would look strangely at you if you ordered that in Italy,” says MacAllen, who has Italian ancestry. “But [veal Parmesan] was such a different food from what my wife and I had had when we were in Italy. I started Googling things about the origins of Italian-American food, and it didn’t have any good answers. From there, it spiraled out of control. Before I knew it, I was writing a book.”

“Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American” (Rowman & Littlefield) is the fascinating result, a well-researched look into how the cuisine of Italian immigrants made its way into the American mainstream, with pasta and pizza now synonymous with “American food.”

As Italian immigrants made their way to American shores, it was often the men who went ahead of their families alone. When they arrived, they suddenly found they were able to afford an entirely different standard of living.

Mulberry Street, the home of Little Italy, in 1900, where many Italians first came to New York and discovered exciting new foods to add to their cuisine.
Mulberry Street, the home of Little Italy, in 1900, where many Italians first came to New York and discovered exciting new foods to add to their cuisine.
Mediadrumimages/Detroit Photographic Company

“They had money to spend. Italy at that time taxed food you would grow in your own garden,” says  MacAllen. “They would come to New York and suddenly be able to buy meat all the time — they had access to all these foods they hadn’t eaten before. Then the families came over, and food became a way of celebrating their family’s reunification.”

The popularity of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee's red sauce led to a canned food business — and later a contract supplying food to Allied troops during World War II.
The popularity of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee’s red sauce led to a canned food business — and later a contract supplying food to Allied troops during World War II.
Getty Images

One chapter discusses master businessman Ettore Boiardi, best known as Chef Boy-Ar-Dee of Spaghettios fame. Boiardi’s Cleveland restaurant Il Giardino d’Italia was so popular in the 1920s that customers would show up with empty milk jugs, begging for his red sauce. That eventually led to a canned food business — and later a contract supplying Allied troops during World War II. Returning American troops now had a fondness for the canned spaghetti, seeking it out in the new Italian-American restaurants that had opened up across the country.

Chef and businessman Ettore Boiardi, also known as Chef Boy-Ar-Dee, popularized Italian food in the US.
Chef and businessman Ettore Boiardi, also known as Chef Boy-Ar-Dee, popularized Italian food in the US.

“In the ladies magazines of the time there were explainers about how to pronounce the words ‘lasagna’ and ‘pizza,’” says MacAllen. “Spaghetti and meatballs and tomato sauce were one of the few ethnic foods to end up in the military cookbook.” (The foods also got a boost in popularity in the 1920s, when a publication called The New Macaroni Journal published two of silent film star Rudolph Valentino’s favorite recipes; if a celebrity liked it, it must be good.) 



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