By: Dina Di Maio, ISDA Contributor
In recent years, a number of food writers, chefs and those in the food media have been claiming that Italian-American food is something different from Italian food. They say it was created here in the United States. You probably heard the oft repeated line that there was a lot of beef in the United States when the Italian immigrants arrived over 100 years ago, and that is why they started making large meatballs. As a descendant of these Italian Americans, and as a writer and lawyer, I felt that I had to do something to defend my ancestors and their foodways. So I wrote a book about the history of Italian food in the United States, Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People. In it, I detail dishes eaten by Italian Americans, and how they are indeed, Italian. In fact, Italian Americans eat many foods that have their origins in pagan times, that even predate the Roman Empire. Italian-American food is not a “new” cuisine based on what’s currently available in the United States, but in actuality, it is a very old cuisine, time-honored and handed down through generations. Here, I list some—not all—prehistoric and ancient, pre-Columbian foods that Italian Americans still eat.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are one of nature’s oldest foods. Italians have a history of eating nuts that predates the Roman Empire. Honeyed nuts were a popular sweet or dessert, and Italian Americans still eat nuts with a honey syrup. At Christmastime, Italians put out bowls of nuts and nutcrackers so that guests or family can shell their own nuts, or in the alternative, they buy them already shelled. Popular nuts and seeds from ancient times that Italian Americans love are hazelnuts (filberts), walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, sesame seeds and chestnuts. During the Christmas season, Italian Americans roast chestnuts and some make cakes or cookies with chestnut flour or chestnut fillings. Pine nuts are also added to meatballs or braciole, can be sprinkled to decorate the holiday honey dough balls known as struffoli, or eaten as a snack. Many holiday desserts are made with nuts, seeds or nut fillings, such as biscotti and cookies like pine nut cookies, cuccidati (Sicilian cookies with a fig-nut filling), amaretti (macaroon-like cookies), calcionetti (Abruzzese crescent-shaped ravioli cookies filled with a chestnut, almond and fruit filling), sesame seed cookies and Sicilian marzipan. Sugared almonds are given out as wedding favors.
Olives and olive oil
Olive oil is the staple of Italian-American life. There aren’t too many dishes we make that do not use olive oil. We use olive oil to dress salads and vegetable dishes. We use olive oil for frying (yes, it has a lower smoke point than some other oils, but we still use it for frying). We use olive oil as a base for soups like lentil soup or pasta fagioli. We use it in sauces and gravies, like marinara or Sunday gravy. Olives themselves are eaten as part of an antipasto on special occasions, holidays and Sunday dinners. We eat many types of green and black olives and also make types of tapenades out of them (like the Italian olive spread used in a New Orleans muffuletta, a sandwich created by Sicilian immigrants). They accompany cheese and charcuterie plates at holiday tables. We also put some on our salads. Sometimes, we eat them for a snack, maybe with some cheese and bread. For Christmas, Neapolitans make a baccalá(cod) salad with black olives.
Recent archaeological evidence dates winemaking in Italy to 6,000 years ago. Italian Americans still make their own wine, and those who don’t, buy it. We use it for drinking with a special occasion, holiday or Sunday meal. Some Italian Americans cook with it, adding it to their Sunday gravies, or to meat dishes or cookies and biscotti. In the summertime, we cut up peaches and soak them in a dry red wine to eat as a dessert or snack.
Bread and breadcrumbs
It is often said that bread is the staple of life. True, many cultures have their own forms of bread. Italians also love bread, and it plays a huge role in their lives, including everyday and holidays. Italian Americans opened bread bakeries in every neighborhood where they settled. In Valdese, North Carolina, a town settled by Waldensians, Protestant Italians from the Piedmont region of Italy, they built an oven out of local field rock to bake their bread. The oven still stands at the Le Phare des Alpes men’s club, where they bake loaves twice a year. Italian Americans have bread with their pasta. We like to dunk Italian bread into the tomato gravy. We also like to dunk it into the delicious olive oil and oregano juice of a summer tomato salad. Bread is important during the holidays. During St. Joseph’s Day, the Sicilians of New Orleans create shaped breads as part of their gorgeous and elaborate tables of offerings to the Saint. In honor of St. Joseph, who was a carpenter, they make pasta with breadcrumbs and sardines, the breadcrumbs symbolizing sawdust. Italian Americans from the Marche region make a sweet pasta with breadcrumbs and stuffed squid with breadcrumbs to commemorate the day. Breadcrumbs are used in everyday cooking as well, as an ingredient in meatballs, in stuffing for vegetables, as a coating to fry things, or as a topping for pastas with aglio e olio(garlic and olive oil) or anchovy sauce.
Anchovies were eaten in ancient Rome. They were used to create one of the oldest condiments, what is referred to as Roman ketchup, garum. Italian Americans still use anchovies as a base for sauce used for pasta, as mentioned above in the breadcrumbs section.
The oldest cheese made from cow and sheep or goat’s milk was recently found in an Egyptian tomb, dating back some 3,300 years. The Italians made cheese in ancient times too. Ancient Romans wrote about ricotta. Ricotta is used by Neapolitans to accompany pasta with tomato sauce. It is used as a filling for the Easter savory pizza chiena, an egg-cheese-meat pie, and the sweet pastiera, a ricotta and wheat pie. It is also used in baked pastas like lasagna or ziti, or in stuffed pastas like manicotti or shells. It is used in the Sicilian St. Joseph’s Day sfinci/sfingi, and of course, in the Sicilian cannoli. Mozzarella is also used in baked macaroni, as well as in pizza chiena. It is eaten fresh as part of an antipastoplatter or with a tomato salad. Hard cheeses are used to top pasta or soup or eaten fresh as part of an antipasto platter. Italian Americans are predominantly from Southern Italy and prefer the sheep’s milk cheese pecorino romanofor their grated cheese.
Honey was an ancient sweetener. Italian Americans use honey to make a syrup to coat nuts or struffoli, Neapolitan and Southern Italian fried dough balls, a holiday treat. The calcionetti cookies mentioned above as well as the St. Joseph’s Day sweet pasta are also prepared with honey.
Wheat and wheat berry
Wheat is a sign of rebirth. It is no surprise then that it is the star of a signature Neapolitan Easter dessert, the pastiera, or wheat pie. The pie was made in pagan times, though, and carried over into Christian tradition. Sicilians and Southern Italians celebrate the Feast of St. Lucy on December 13 with a wheat berry soup or custard called cucciato honor the Saint for saving them from famine.
The ancient fruit is still enjoyed by Italian Americans. Many Italian Americans have their own fig trees and eat the fruit fresh. The Sicilian cuccidati cookie mentioned above in the nut section includes a fig-based paste.
Chickpeas and lentils
Both of these ancient foods are staples in the Italian-American kitchen. We make soups out of both and also serve both with pasta. They also make for good Lenten meals because they are meatless, although this is a tradition that arose after Christianity. Sicilians make chickpea fritters called panelle.
Dina M. Di Maio is a New York- and Tennessee-licensed lawyer with an MFA in creative writing from NYU. She has written and/or edited for Glamour, Family Circle, Time Out New York, the American Bar Association, and more, on many topics, including food and Italian culture.