Italianità in America: A history of the cultural politics and social construction of authentic Italian cuisine in the U.S.

Document Type

Conference Proceeding



Conference Title

International Conference on Foodways and Heritage


Hong Kong Heritage Museum, Hong Kong, SAR

Conference Dates

January 3-5, 2013

Date of Presentation





This paper recounts the changing ways Americans have viewed authentic Italian cuisine in the US through history. The conception of traditional cookery has undergone numerous shifts stretching back to the 18th century, when the Grand Tour, Italian fashions and the image of the "macaroni" in the era of Thomas Jefferson was largely inherited from Britain. 19th century immigration and a significant population largely drawn from Southern Italy introduced a whole new set of foodways toward which Americans were extremely ambivalent. They feared strong aromas and garlic and consciously sought to assimilate immigrant children under the pretext of improving nutrition, introducing mainstream Anglo-Saxon foods in government programs. Despite these efforts Italian cuisine became mainstream in the early 20th century. This was thanks to industrially made pasta, canned tomatoes and other vegetables grown in the US, and of course through pizzerie. Italian cuisine, or an Italian-American version of it, more heavily based on meat and a profusion of ingredients gradually became ubiquitous, especially in restaurants featuring red checked table cloths and raffia covered bottles of chianti in the "dolce vita" era. Gastronomically minded authors soon found a series of very different cuisines among the regions of Italy and in cookbooks of the latter 20th century introduced several “authentic” Italian cuisines based on fresh ingredients and hitherto unknown techniques and cooking equipment. Americans raised on canned spaghettios soon learned how to make fresh pasta, drank espresso and Super Tuscan Reds, discovered dishes like polenta and moved far beyond the spaghetti and meatball version of Italian cookery. These books were targeted to social aspirants for whom cooking became a leisure activity and an expression of class. It took another generation, in the past decade or so, to recover and Italian-American cuisine, abandoning the pretentions of expensive imported cheese, wine and prosciutto and revalorizing the native local Italian-American cuisine which they perceived was in danger of being lost. Authentic in this case was drawn not from elitist products and recipes, but from nonna’s lost recipes cooked from scratch. These shifts reflect not only generational shifts among immigrant populations: the first generation holding on to foodways of their homeland, the second for the most part assimilating and the third desperately trying to hold onto their traditions, but also reflects a dramatically changing attitude toward Italy among all Americans. These various attitudes will be analyzed in terms of larger political and social movements, shifts in the economy and other historical forces including agriculture and patterns of import. How Americans conceive of real Italian food is a product not only of changing culinary fashions but larger socio-economic forces.