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Excerpt: 'How Italian Food Conquered The World'

How Italian Food Conquered The World by John F. Mariani
Palgrave USA
How Italian Food Conquered The World by John F. Mariani

Italian immigrants may have catered primarily to their own neighbors, who were familiar with the food, but very soon the cafés and pastry shops began to be popular with other ethnic groups. Going to Little Italy became a city diversion, like going to Chinatown. Visitors accustomed to American apple pie, German strudel, and Jewish babka could go to an Italian café to sip dark espresso coffee with a lemon peel on the saucer and nibble on sugar-dusted, ricotta-stuffed cannoli and anise-flavored cookies with names like biscotti (twice baked), ossi dei morti (dead man's bones), baci di dama (lady's kisses), and brutti ma buoni (ugly but good).

Italian pastries almost glowed with color — the red, white, and green of Italy's new flag—while others were filled with pastry cream or custard and lavished with dark chocolate. Cookies full of hazelnuts and cakes riddled with candied fruit, once made only on feast days, were now always in the shop windows. In summer there would be freshly made citrus ices served in pleated paper cups from a cart pushed by the "hokey-pokey man," a name derived from the vendor's sing-song come-on, "O, che poco!" — "Oh, how little!"

Such sweets would have been a rare indulgence for most in the Old Country; in America they were a frequent treat. One of the earliest New York ice cream parlors to open, in the 1820s, was the fanciful Palmo's Garden, whose immigrant owner Ferdinand Palmo fitted it out with gilded columns, huge mirrors, and an Italian band. In 1892, opera impresario Antonio Ferrara opened a confections parlor under his name on Grand Street, where he could entertain his musician friends. Veniero's on East 11th Street began as a billiard parlor in 1894 that sold a little candy and coffee, evolving into an enormously successful pastry shop that created the cake for Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration.

Such cafés and pastry shops were small indulgences for the Italians in Amer­ica. None but a handful had any experience eating in or running a restaurant, nor was there usually any excess money to spend on such frivolities as dining out. With the food so good at home, there was little reason to eat out anyway. The few Italian restaurants that existed in the mid-nineteenth century in New York were usually owned by northern Italians. One, Riccadonna, was well known as a place where a four-course meal cost 30 cents (a modest sum then), and a grand feast of seven courses with wine was a pricey $1.25.

The Neapolitan immigrants did bring their favorite street food to America— the pizza, which they ate with the crust folded over, as a kind of sandwich or snack. Records indicate that the first true pizzeria — although that term for a place selling pizza was not then used — in Italy was established in 1780, when Pietro Colicchio opened Pietro . . . e basta cosï (Peter . . . and that's enough) in Salita Sant'Anna di Palazzo in Naples. He later gave ownership to Enrico Brandi, who changed the name to Pizzeria Brandi and in turn gave it to his daughter Maria Giovanna Brandi, who would marry the man who had made pizza famous, Raf­faele Esposito. (Pizzeria Brandi is still in existence.)

The local popularity of pizza as a street food of strictly Neapolitan origin made the arrival in 1889 of the new queen of Italy a reason to promote the city's native foods. Esposito commemorated her visit by naming a pizza after her, pizza alla Margherita, made in the three colors of the new Italian national flag — red toma­toes, white mozzarella, and green basil — which she diplomatically declared her favorite. The pizza alla Margherita became suddenly fashionable in Naples, though nowhere else in Italy — the word pizzeria did not even appear in Italian print till 1918 — but the idea came to America via the Neapolitans who settled in the eastern cities.

The first known pizzeria to open in the United States was G. Lombardi's in 1905 on Spring Street in New York. At first a grocery, the store began to sell piz­zas to the immigrants, specifically Neapolitans who craved it and for whom it was impossible to make in their home kitchens. From there, pizza's popularity grew rapidly, at first in and then beyond the Italian-American neighborhoods. By the 1930s, most of the Italian neighborhoods in eastern seaboard cities had pizze­rias, many just taverns, others freestanding.

Given the low cost of its ingredients, pizza became more widespread than it was in Naples, and the toppings grew quickly in number, often with a regional twist, like the white clam pizza created at Pepe's Pizza, which opened in New Haven in 1925. Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, cooked in a black iron skillet, was the creation of Ike Sewell and Ric Ricardo of Pizzeria Uno in Chicago in 1943. The thickness of the dough and the lavish use of disparate ingredients typified the Midwestern idea that making a dish larger is always better.

A postwar boon to pizza makers occurred when GI Ira Nevin returned from Italy to New Rochelle, New York, and combined his family's expertise in oven re­pair with his newfound love of the pizzas he had had in Naples to came up with the Baker's Pride gas-fired ceramic deck pizza oven. Prior to that, pizzas were baked in hand-built, brick-lined ovens fired by coal.

In the eastern cities, pizzas were still considered simple, cheap, filling fare, es­pecially to be enjoyed on a Friday night, when Catholics were still forbidden to eat meat, with a beer or bottle of cheap red wine. By the 1950s, take-out made sales soar, so that special cardboard boxes were created for the purpose, usually imprinted with a roly-poly, mustachioed Italian pizzaiolo tweaking his cheek and saying "Hot and Fresh!" or "You've Tried All the Rest, Now Try the Best!"

Largely, though, most Americans at that time had never heard of pizza. "If someone suggests a 'pizza pie' after the theater, don't think it is going to be a wedge of apple," wrote New York Herald Tribune food columnist Clementine Paddleford in 1939. "It is going to be the surprise of your life,... a nice stunt to surprise the visiting relatives, who will be heading East soon for the World's Fair. They come to be surprised, and pizza, pronounced 'peet-za,' will do the job brown."

After the war, Americans began to recognize pizza as fast food right along with hamburgers, hot dogs, and French fries, so that by 1953, crooner Dean Martin (born Dino Paul Crocetti to Abruzzese immigrants in Steubenville, Ohio) had a huge hit with the song "That's Amore," by Harry Warren (born Salvatore Anto­nio Guaragna) and Jack Brooks, crooning "When the moon hits your eye like a bigga pizza pie/ That's amore!" Although Martin thought the song was ridiculous and did not want to record it, he debuted it in the movie The Caddy and the sin­gle went to number two on the Billboard charts.

The Americans liked such silly gimmick songs because Italians, more than any other ethnic group, seemed to correspond to favorite stereotypes of them as pizza-loving, pasta-eating, happy sensualists. By 1955, a character in the hit TV comedy show The Honeymooners could make a joke about low-calorie pizza and get a big laugh from the American audience.

The first frozen pizza was marketed by Celentano Brothers in 1957. A few years later Rose and Jim Totino, owners of one of the first pizzerias in Minneapolis, came out with their own brand of frozen pizza, which by the late 1960s was the top-selling frozen pizza in the United States. It was bought out in 1975 by Pills-bury for $20 million.

The Italians also loved their hero sandwiches, long, sliced loaves of seeded Ital­ian bread stuffed with mozzarella, provolone, ham, lettuce, peppers, and other foods, even meatballs or breaded chicken. The "hero" in question was the person man enough to devour one of the huge sandwiches, which also went by regional names like grinder, spuky, wedge, and, especially in Philadelphia and New Jersey, hoagie. Back in the 1930s, a version called the Italian beef sandwich appeared in Chicago, a hero made with slices of beef and its juices, topped with sweet peppers. In New England it might be called a submarine or sub, a name coined by grocer Benedetto Capaldo to commemorate the submarine base in Groton, Connecti­cut, where he had his store.

In 1965, a 17-year-old high school graduate in Bridgeport, Connecticut, named Fred DeLuca was trying to figure out how he would pay for college with a sum­mer job that paid only $1.25 an hour. At a backyard barbecue that summer, a fam­ily friend, Dr. Peter Buck, suggested he open a submarine sandwich shop and wrote out an investment check for $1,000. That first shop evolved into Subway sand­wich shops, with 16 units opened around the state by 1974. Three decades later, the franchised chain had more than thirty thousand stores in 92 countries.

Excerpted from How Italian Food Conquered The World by John F. Mariani. Copyright 2011 by John F. Mariani. Copyright 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited.

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John F. Mariani