The debate about Italian American food versus authentic Italian divides this country as deeply as our political allegiances. Do traditional Italian American dishes, like chicken Parmesan or spaghetti and meatballs, deserve a seat at the table?
Of course they do.
Imagine you moved halfway around the globe to a country with different traditions, agriculture and products than your own. What would you do if you craved macaroni and cheese? You may not be living in a community that produces cheese, or even wheat-based pasta, but you would likely familiarize yourself with what ingredients you could find and figure out a way to mash them together for a taste of home. Your American friends may not recognize the final dish as mac and cheese, but it would likely solve your craving and maybe even create a new culinary tradition to pass along to your family.
This is what Italian immigrants did when they arrived in America. They left their country for new opportunities, only to be met at Ellis Island with skepticism and xenophobia. They built strong networks with other recent arrivals and preserved what they could of their old way of life by creating new dishes in their new home.
And while Italian and Italian American culinary traditions may diverge, they are both rooted in family, ceremony and hospitality. An undercurrent of Italian cuisine, be it here or there, is the celebration of tradition. Hours-long dinners in Italy can be compared to the hours-long Sunday gravy stewing at Nonna’s, which bubbles away until it’s just right while everyone sits around bonding. Sure, in Italy, pasta may not be a main course, but here it reigns supreme, because pasta was affordable for the newcomers.
In Italy, food is not a monolith. It is hyper-regional and seasonal and varies significantly throughout the country. An Italian in the south may rarely make a truffle risotto, while a northern Italian would shy away from spices like Calabrian chilies. Traveling from north to south, east and west, it becomes difficult to distinguish what makes Italian food so, well, Italian.
In America, we may drink cappuccinos all day long, instead of only in the morning, like Italians demand we do. We may bread our chicken and top it with mozzarella cheese. We may even overcook our pasta or put cheese on fish (all Italian no-nos), but we don’t do it out of spite or ignorance. We do it out of reverence for our immigrant ancestors, who made do with the ingredients available to them and who spearheaded new traditions in a new country.