200 Years of Italian American Heritage, West Coast-style

Italian American Museum of Los Angeles' Taste of Italy captures centuries of West Coast history.

Now in its tenth year, the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles’ signature event, Taste of Italy, provides a vibrant portrait of Italianità on the West Coast.

In 2008, the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles (IAMLA) organized a humble wine and food tasting event for its members. With virtually no promotion, over 500 people attended the inaugural event, including many individuals who were unaware of the museum project, and the more than 200-year history of Italians in Los Angeles. Recognizing that the event, known as Taste Italy, had the potential to generate critical awareness for the fledgling IAMLA — then still under construction — museum leadership decided to make the event an annual tradition.

“As an educational institution, we thought Taste of Italy offered an outstanding opportunity to promote knowledge about the museum and the contributions of Italian Americans to our nation using cuisine as a vehicle,” explains Marianna Gatto, executive director-historian of the IAMLA and event co-founder.

The Italian culinary legacy is especially apparent in California, where Italian and Italian American agriculturalists introduced key crops such as eggplant, bell peppers, broccoli, and artichokes. Italians also played an integral role in the development of the state’s wine industry.

Originally regarded as an “Italian vegetable,” Sicilian immigrants Andrea and Stefano D’Arrigo made broccoli a staple on American tables.

Taste of Italy has changed tremendously since the inaugural event one decade ago, and is now among the most anticipated events in the region. Drawing upwards of 2,500 well-heeled attendees, Taste of Italy features 50 of the region’s top restaurants, world-class wineries and live entertainment set against the backdrop of Los Angeles’ Historic Little Italy.

Authentic Neapolitan pizza prepared by Prova, a Los Angeles establishment whose pizzaiolo, Vito Iacopelli, uses his family’s century-old recipe.

Gatto recalls how attitudes surrounding the event, and Italian food in particular, have changed since the early years of Taste of Italy. “One of the most common misconceptions we faced was that Italian food was defined solely by red sauce, pizza, and pasta,” explains Gatto. “We sought out participants that embodied the culinary diversity of Italy, and to promote understanding about Italy’s twenty distinct regions, each of which possesses its own flavor palette, ingredients, and culinary traditions, we identified the Italian region in which each dish originated.”

Drago Centro’s garganelli pasta with wild boar, fennel pollen, and parmesan. The Drago family, who immigrated from Sicily to Los Angeles in the 1970s, have revolutionized the region’s restaurant landscape.

The cuisine of the Italian diaspora is also well-represented at Taste of Italy. In addition to the time-honored favorites such as tomato ragu and meatballs, the event showcases other dishes unique to Italian diasporic populations in the United States, such as the muffaletta. Created by Sicilian immigrants in Louisiana and regarded as one of New Orleans’ most celebrated dishes, the muffaletta is a sandwich made on large, round loaves of bread with salami, ham, mortadella, provolone, Swiss cheese and olive salad.

The sandwich, which was popular among workers for its portability, derives its name from the Sicilian word muffola, which means “mitten,” and refers to the muffuliette, which is the name of the Sicilian fennel seed bread traditionally used to make the sandwich. Traditional muffalette can be found at eateries such as Little Jewel of New Orleans, which is operated by the grandson of Sicilian immigrants who settled in Louisiana, and is located in Los Angeles’ Little Italy.

Prosciutto di Parma with DiStefano burrata, EVOO and arugula.

The tenth annual Taste of Italy will highlight the southern Italian region of Puglia, the “heel” of Italy’s “boot.” Now a trendy tourist destination, Puglia is known for its ancient villages, iconic trulli, exceptional wines and olive oils, breathtaking beaches and almost year-round sunshine.

Beginning in the late 1800s, a large number of Pugliese settled in Los Angeles, and the city is home today to tens of thousands of people who trace their history to the region. East Side Italian Market and Maestro Sausage, two family-owned companies that were founded nearly a century ago by Pugliese immigrants in LA’s Little Italy, will be present at the event.

The Eastside Italian Market Deli, a popular Los Angeles eatery and one of the only remaining Italian delis in Los Angeles’ Historic Little Italy, began as a humble market founded by Pugliese immigrants.

The more recent immigration from Puglia will be represented by Chef Luigi Fineo, who helms the Santa Monica, Cali.-based Luigi al Teatro, and is the nation’s youngest chef to earn a Michelin Star. Di Stefano Cheese, a long time Taste of Italy participant, was founded by Pugliese immigrant Mimmo Bruno, who is credited for popularizing burrata in the United States. Burrata, a regional specialty of Puglia, is often likened “mozzarella’s creamier cousin,” and now appears on menus throughout the United States.

Puglia native Chef Luigi Fineo studied under famed Chef Thomas Keller at the French Laundry and became the nation’s youngest chef to earn a Michelin Star.

Although Taste of Italy has evolved tremendously since its early days, its organizers, the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, remain committed to the same values that inspired the event’s creation: fostering a sense of community, and generating awareness of the contributions of the nation’s fifth largest Italian community who have called Southern California home since the early 1800s.

The tenth-annual Taste of Italy, an evening of authentic Italian food, wine and entertainment to benefit the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, will take place on October 13 in downtown Los Angeles. For more information please visit www.iamla.org.

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