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What is Italian American Cuisine


Craig Camp
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What is Italian-American cuisine? There is Italian-American home cooking and then Italian-American restaurant cooking and in my perception they are different things. Which one is what we refer to when talking about Italian-American cuisine?

For me Italian-American home cooking is an adaptation of Italian cooking by Italians to the available ingredients while the restaurant cooking is an adaptation to the perceived desires of the customers. In my opinion, the home cooking is superior to the restaurant version which will offer dishes regardless of the quality of ingredients available. For instance, offering Insalata Cuprese (tomatoes, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella) in February when the tomatoes have the consistency of baseballs.

When I say Italian-American restaurants I am not referring to places like the Babbo group, who for whatever you think of them, are inspired by Italian cooking, not Italian-American cooking, or those awful chain places like Maggiano’s, Macaroni Grill and others that use “Italian” like a Disney theme to bring in customers, but to the large number of restaurants serving expensive dishes born from the American perception of Italian food.

I often see comments from writers used to eating and criticizing every aspect of a meal at the finest French oriented restaurants writing positively about Italian-American restaurants where I see the food as over-garliced, over-sauced, over-portioned and over-cooked. Is this because diners have become accustomed to this type of food and just accept it or because they have low expectations of Italian-American restaurants. I no longer compare these restaurants to the real thing in Italy, so I have come to appreciate Italian-American cooking in its own right. When done well it is delicious and rewarding comfort food. I think a part of the problem comes from the owners of the restaurants themselves who often have contempt for the knowledge of their customers and know they can cover up poor ingredients with garlic and melted cheese.

I often find the best Italian-American restaurants are small, family run operations that try to bring the flavors of their own home into the restaurant. There often seems to be an inverse relation between price and quality and between fame and quality. One thing for sure, don’t trust a concierge who recommends a place in a ‘Little Italy’ when you ask for a recommendation for a good Italian restaurant.

What are your opinions on what constitutes real Italian-American cuisine and where to find it?

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The Hill in St. Louis is a perfect example of the best sort of Italian-American cuisine. The people there adapted to their surroundings and the ingredients available, but maintained their Italian identity. The Hill has very authentic Italian like the salumi sold by John Volpi and his sons. It also has lots of hybrid food, like St. Louis style pizza and "toasted" ravioli.

The best restaurants such as Charlie Gittos, Giovanni's, Dominics, and Lorenzo's do not serve Italian food that is authentic in the sense of what is served in ristoranti in Italia, but thats not the point. The food is delicious, well-prepared, and made from the best ingredients.

At the now closed Gian-Peppe's. Peppe Profetta served a great veal chop in a mushroom and white wine pan sauce, but he would just as happily pound the chop into the size of a dinner plate while still attached to the bone, coat it in bread crumbs, saute in EVOO, finish with lemon, white wine, and capers. He did this for his favorite customers because that is how his family ate veal at home.

Viviano's is the local grocery where the tourists come from the surrounding states to buy Cacciocavallo, san marzano tomatos, jugs of EVOO, mortadella with pistacchio, parmigiano regianno, salsiccia, and homemade pasta. All of it for less than the sale items at the area supermarket.

The Hill is still 90% Italian. the language is still spoken. At harry's bar the old men play bacci. The only sign that you are on the Hill is that the fire hydrants are painted red, green, and white. Its a real neighborhood, not just a creation for tourists.

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For me Italian-American home cooking is an adaptation of Italian cooking by Italians to the available ingredients while the restaurant cooking is an adaptation to the perceived desires of the customers. In my opinion, the home cooking is superior to the restaurant version which will offer dishes regardless of the quality of ingredients available. For instance, offering Insalata Cuprese (tomatoes, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella) in February when the tomatoes have the consistency of baseballs.

I'm not sure I buy that distinction, having dined in a ton of Italian-American homes including my own family's. (My middle name isn't Tony for nothing.) In my experience, the stereotypical Italian-American family and the stereotypical Italian-American restaurant buy the same ingredients from the same suppliers, and cook essentially the same list of dishes. (What dishes are Italian-Americans cooking at home that restaurants are never serving?) Italian-American homes -- just like all American homes -- are in my experience positively overflowing with bad tomatoes in February. The major difference I've noted between home and restaurant cooking is the emphasis in home cooking towards more slow-cooked dishes, as opposed to the cooked-to-order dishes more likely to be ordered in a restaurant. This is especially the case in homes where a grandmother lives and spends all day cooking sauce in the basement. But the restaurant's daily specials are likely to include the various slow-cooked dishes on a rotating basis anyway.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Perhaps this will make the distinction more clear. When I eat in a restaurant I expect them to cook better than I can. They have a staff, more time, better equipment, access to better ingredients, theoretically more training and they expect me to pay for the privilege of eating their food. I apply this measure to all restaurants from the Italian beef joint I like in Chicago to places sporting multiple Michelin stars.

When I eat in the home of a good Italian-American cook I find the meals almost always superior to what you can find in restaurants. The restaurants seem driven to always add ‘more’ of something to dishes. Maybe the home cook and the restaurant are buying the same brand of frozen calamari, but the home cook simply deep fries it and serves it crisp with lemon slices while the restaurant ends up adding all sorts of strange dipping sauces and herbs blended into the breading – paying more attention to this than changing their frying oil frequently enough.

By the way this reminds be of two horror stories. On ‘the Hill’ in St. Louis one restaurant (it was packed) served fried calamari with garlic butter poured over it. In Chicago one serves it on a plate covered with salsa rossa (ketchup and mayonnaise).

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A nice cookbook of Italian-American cooking is Nancy Verde Barr's We Called It Macaroni, An American Heritage of Southern Italian Cooking. (This book may be out of print, it was from a great series Knopf did, called Knopf Cooks American. Also in the series and on a related topic is Edward Giobbi's Pleasures of the Good Earth.)

Edited by Toby (log)
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A nice cookbook of Italian-American cooking is Nancy Verde Barr's We Called It Macaroni, An American Heritage of Southern Italian Cooking.

I bought that book for my father for Christmas years ago. I think I was in highschool. We used to make lots of the recipes. Thats a good memory. :smile:

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a grandmother lives and spends all day cooking sauce in the basement.

My Italian grandmothers always called it "gravy." :laugh:

Rich Schulhoff

Opinions are like friends, everyone has some but what matters is how you respect them!

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When I eat in a restaurant I expect them to cook better than I can. They have a staff, more time, better equipment, access to better ingredients, theoretically more training and they expect me to pay for the privilege of eating their food.

I cook at what I'd call the advanced-amateur level, and to me that means I rarely expect the food at a restaurant to be better than what I could cook at home. On the New York Times star scale, that means I typically expect to eat better at home than I would at a one-star restaurant, I expect similar quality from a two-star restaurant to what I cook, and the three- and four-star places are typically out of my reach (though often they're not, which is another issue). At anything below that elite level, though, I think I'm the one with more time resources, especially when you consider that a kitchen brigade of 9 might be cooking for 300 people while my kitchen brigade of 1 is usually cooking for 2 people. I'm able to go to various gourmet stores, greenmarkets, etc., and hand-pick ingredients for just a couple of portions, whereas in the restaurant business only the top-level places have access to limited-supply ingredients that I can't get retail. And of course I pay for the privilege of eating my own food, because I have to pay for the ingredients -- it's just that those ingredients usually cost me a quarter to a half of what the same dish would cost in a restaurant. Then of course there are some non-star restaurants that do particular things that I can't do, like the best pizzerias (though that's largely a question of specialized equipment). But the food at the typical Italian-American restaurant? What do they do that the average competent cook can't do at home?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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What do they do that the average competent cook can't do at home?

Well - in short FG, everything you mentioned in your post is what they can't do, and that's what makes I-A home cooking what it is. I also agree with your assesment in an earlier post of the concentration on slow-cooked dishes which often only make their appearance in restaurants as "specials".

I am not a professional chef/restranteur. like FG, I think that at my best I can achieve advanced-amateur status. I am willing to go out on a limb though, and guess that a real I-A restaurant would be a hard one to keep open, and for a number of reasons. The canon of real I-A dishes is a relatively small one, which makes menu variety a challenge. The addition of "trendy" ingredients is often antithetical to I-A (or even continental Italian) cooking, which further exacerbates the variety problem. Those who really appreciate this cuisine, to my mind, are NOT prone to eating it out, and when they do they don't want to pay a lot for it, so overhead issues arise. Short menus (which I-A restraunts should probably have to stay within the scope of the cuisine, and what most "chefs" can probably handle) reduce the "return customer" factor.

I-A cuisine has always been problematic among "foodies" in that it can be accessible to the amateur cook, and is downgraded/denegrated out of the big four cuisines (French, Chinese, Indian and Thai). Of course, like the big four, the subtleties of I-A cuisine can be hard for the average diner to pin down. Plotnicki, in the otherwise frustrating "pasta is boring and not worth eating" thread points out that pasta execution is a VERY specific technique, and I agree. Perfect pasta, homemade or dried, seems elusive to most chefs (including Batali, who seems to murder a lot of macaroni on his show - although I have not eaten in his restaurants) and that difficulty seems to grow exponentially when facing 200 covers a night.

As far as Mr. Camp's "over-garlicked, over-sauced, over-portioned" comment - I think that is just the mis-guidance of any particular chef/restaurant - just as it can be of any nonna. The notion that all Italian grandmothers can cook is as patently false as the statement "pasta is boring and not worth eating". :raz: Nothing is sadder than a little old Italian lady who "thinks" she can cook standing proudly over her miserable gravy (yes, I adopted gravy after living in Philly).

I'm sure one of you e-gulleteers can straigten me out on this - I seem to remember a story of a restraunteur who hired four Italian nonnas to cook for his restaurant which would serve only the most "authentic" Italian food. If I remember the story correctly, the restaurant was called "Mamma's" and although their food was good, faced with 150-200 covers a night, they shattered under the pressure and fatigue and quit. Is this apocrypha or fact?

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I'm not sure if Italian-American cuisine as found in most Italian restaurants qualifies as true Italian-American cuisine. Certainly in the New York and New Jersey area, Italian-American food constitutes pasta dishes with a lot of red sauce, and protein dishes with a lot of red sauce. For variation, sometimes sauteed dishes with lots of garlic, butter, and a shot of red wine for good measure. Most Italian-American restaurants are just glorified local pizza shops. Not that I don't enjoy this sort of thing, but I think to find TRUE Italian-American cuisine, one must eat in the homes of real Italian-Americans.

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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In my experience, the local Italian place, where a grandma or a wife and husband carefully carry out the tradition of generations for an appreciative clientele (their "family") at fair prices is a fantasy. It may have existed in the Village in New York, or in Italo-American enclaves anywhere in America before my time, say right after the War (WWII), but is rare now virtually to the point of nonexistence. Wishful thinking about expeditions to the boroughs, where a secret colony of dinosaurs still roams, are uniformly disappointing. The place around the corner, and all its bretheren up and down the avenues of the East Side, cater cynically to feeders who either don't know any better or don't care. Now, good quality Italian-American food is had at Lydia's or Mario's or a few others of their ilk, and is limited to diners with a meaningful discretionary dining budget, or to an occasion.

It is far easier to satisfy one's persistent craving for Italian food at home, where shopping, cooking and eating in the Italian manner can be readily integrated into a routine, including multiple applications of the same ingredient and the use of leftovers, not to mention the crucial factor of having the food placed on the table at the optimum moment of readiness.

The best Italian food I ever had in New York was at my neighbor's house. Over time, I became quite adept at inviting myself over. It was a tragedy when she moved away. Her sister can't cook.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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What do we think of the term "Southern Italian" (and its companions, "Northern Italian" and "Tuscan") to distinguish old-school Italian-American "red sauce" cuisine?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'm the one with more time resources, especially when you consider that a kitchen brigade of 9 might be cooking for 300 people while my kitchen brigade of 1 is usually cooking for 2 people.

The difference here is the specialization of the professional staff - each member repeats specific tasks and thus should be expert at them while the home cook performs all tasks.

I cook at what I'd call the advanced-amateur level, and to me that means I rarely expect the food at a restaurant to be better than what I could cook at home. On the New York Times star scale, that means I typically expect to eat better at home than I would at a one-star restaurant, I expect similar quality from a two-star restaurant to what I cook, and the three- and four-star places are typically out of my reach (though often they're not, which is another issue).

FG - Just for clarification does this mean that you think the NYT rates them too high? In other words on your own scale if they can't cook better than you do - how many stars SHOULD they have?

But the food at the typical Italian-American restaurant? What do they do that the average competent cook can't do at home?

I guess that is part of my point. The restaurants just screw up what is good basic home cooking instead of improving it - they overdue it.

Nothing is sadder than a little old Italian lady who "thinks" she can cook standing proudly over her miserable gravy

Now that is a SAD picture.

I think to find TRUE Italian-American cuisine, one must eat in the homes of real Italian-Americans.

I agree with this (except at the home of the nona ronfland metions) and think it is the drift of what I am trying to say.

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What do we think of the term "Southern Italian" (and its companions, "Northern Italian" and "Tuscan") to distinguish old-school Italian-American "red sauce" cuisine?

These are the most misused and misunderstood terms in the United States and are used without discretion by Italian restaurants depending on what they think will sell. "Northern Italian" is absolutely meaningless - actually it doesn't mean anything in Italy either. Piemonte and Alto Adige are both in northern Italy but the menus don't look much alike.

When I see a restaurant claiming to be ‘Tuscan’ I am particularly wary.

The major influence in what is called Italian-American cuisine is the cooking of Sicilia.

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What do we think of the term "Southern Italian" (and its companions, "Northern Italian" and "Tuscan") to distinguish old-school Italian-American "red sauce" cuisine?

Well by its emphasis that only those cuisines are the "good" Italian regions, its given Campagnian/Napolitano or Roman cuisine a really bad rap, for starters. If anyone has read Arthur Schwartz's really great Naples At Table, it would be self evident that "Northern Italian" aint necessarily where its all at.

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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What do we think of the term "Southern Italian" (and its companions, "Northern Italian" and "Tuscan") to distinguish old-school Italian-American "red sauce" cuisine?

These are the most misused and misunderstood terms in the United States and are used without discretion by Italian restaurants depending on what they think will sell.

I agree with that.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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FG - Just for clarification does this mean that you think the NYT rates them too high? In other words on your own scale if they can't cook better than you do - how many stars SHOULD they have?

I think a restaurant where the kitchen can on a consistent basis produce food as good as what a serious amateur cook can produce at home when he tries to cook well should get one star, provided service and other elements are adequate. In other words, a strong example of a neighborhood restaurant should get a star. I could see two stars for a restaurant that cooks with the same level of skill but uses more luxury ingredients, has a great wine list, beautiful premises, a lot of well-drilled servers, etc.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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What do we think of the term "Southern Italian" (and its companions, "Northern Italian" and "Tuscan") to distinguish old-school Italian-American "red sauce" cuisine?

The correct term for old-school Italian-American "red sauce" cuisine is "old-school Italian-American 'red sauce' cuisine". Use of the compass directionals to typify Italian food is stereotyping. More specific terms, especially as to regions, can be useful. One of the best Italian cookbooks is Ada Boni's "Italian Regional Cooking".

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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Well by its emphasis that only those cuisines are the "good" Italian regions, its given Campagnian/Napolitano or Roman cuisine a really bad rap, for starters. If anyone has read Arthur Schwartz's really great Naples At Table, it would be self evident that "Northern Italian" aint necessarily where its all at.

When I was travelling in Italy on a student's budget and an adequate but not lavish per diem from a fellowship in the summer of 1991, the city where I ate the best food was not in Siena or other Tuscan cities (not to take anything away from them) but in Napoli. This was equally true of their savory and sweet things. I also found that good wine is to be had in Campagna, even if the region is not famous for its wines internationally. For good measure, there's a naturally lightly carbonated water from close to Vesuvius that has an interesting taste from its mineral content.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I think Italian American food as I've known it came mostly from families who immigrated from Calabria,Sicily,Abruzzo,and Campania.The foodstuffs that weren't available here dropped by the wayside,and simplified versions of favorites became popular.I grew up in a mostly Italian American neighborhood in Mount Vernon,N.Y.Most of the houses were on very small patches of land,and most of our neighbors grew as many vegetables and fruits as possible on their property.There was lots of tomato sauce and fried peppers.

Edited by wingding (log)
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The major influence in what is called Italian-American cuisine is the cooking of Sicilia.

Are you referring to home cooking or restaurant cooking here?

I would have thought the cooking style of Naples to be the major influence for restaurants - at least in terms of the "red sauce cuisine" that FG mentioned. My father was Sicilian, and the specialities I ate at home as a child were never featured in the neighborhood I-A restaurants (NY and Tri-State areas). I'm talking about things like caponata, pasta con sarde, spiedini carne, cappozelle, panelle, etc.

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The major influence in what is called Italian-American cuisine is the cooking of Sicilia.

Are you referring to home cooking or restaurant cooking here?

I would have thought the cooking style of Naples to be the major influence for restaurants - at least in terms of the "red sauce cuisine" that FG mentioned. My father was Sicilian, and the specialities I ate at home as a child were never featured in the neighborhood I-A restaurants (NY and Tri-State areas). I'm talking about things like caponata, pasta con sarde, spiedini carne, cappozelle, panelle, etc.

I am referring to home cooking. I am not sure there is a distinct regional restaurant style.

I suppose this will vary depending on where you are. In Chicago and St. Louis, Sicily was the source of the last great Italian immigrations. However then there were all those mixed marriages that happened here - you know his family was from Naples and hers from Palermo. It is true as you note that what we call Italian-American food is a blend of the various southern regions.

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Quote by Craig Camp:

I am referring to home cooking. I am not sure there is a distinct regional restaurant style. I suppose this will vary depending on where you are. In Chicago and St. Louis, Sicily was the source of the last great Italian immigrations.

Thanks for answering. I don't really know anything about I-A populations outside of NY. If you had told my Grandfather there were Sicilians living in the midwest he would have assumed they were sent there by the witness protection program. :rolleyes:

But I wanted to respond to your original post too:

Quote:

What are your opinions on what constitutes real Italian-American cuisine and where to find it?

I think the problem is that I-A cooking hasn't been codified to any degree, so we wouldn't even know what it is we're looking for. Any opinions on that, or info on where it's been defined or documented?

I agree with you about the "too much garlic/too much cheese" (and I believe Jason made some similar comments on restaurants as well that hit the mark for me).

In a way, I think I-A missed the boat, evolution-wise: It should have gone the way of Batali, and adapted regional ingredients to Italian prep philosophy ("less is more"). Instead, it went with the American philosophy of "more is better" and gilded the lily. I think this was true of both home and restaurant cooking.

I think this is changing, from where I sit (for the better), but again - is it a codified, definable cuisine yet?

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