16 Million Immigrants Left Italy and Redefined Cuisine Across the Globe


Italian immigrants didn't just flock to America, they traveled the world in search of new opportunities and brought their marvelous recipes with them.

By Dina Di Maio, ISDA Contributor

From the late 1800s to early 1900s, as many as 16 million people left Italy for more opportunity elsewhere. About five million of them came to the United States. Most were from Southern Italy. But they also went to other countries like Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru, Chile, Venezuela, Canada, Mexico, the UK, and Australia. In Argentina, about 60% of the population can claim Italian ancestry. There, the majority of immigrants were from regions of Northern Italy, and Southern Italian immigrants came later to Argentina. Over one million immigrants went to Brazil, and São Paulo has been described as an “Italian city.” Again, there were more Northern Italian immigrants to the country, but Southern Italians arrived after World War II.

The fact that the immigrants came from different regions of Italy affects the Italian food in the countries to which they moved. For example, the United States has more Neapolitan and Sicilian immigrants, so we have foods like pizza and cannoli. The tomato, prevalent in Southern Italian cuisine, is the star of many dishes in the United States. In Argentina, you find Italian foods like milanese—a filet of veal pounded thin and breaded; risotto; polenta; bagna cauda—an olive oil and anchovy dip for vegetables; and the focaccia-like fugazzapizza. (You find these foods in the United States too, in the small pockets where Northern Italians settled.)

Winemaking is a popular tradition the Italians brought to Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile. In Chile, they make prosciutto and salami, just like their ancestors did—and just like their Italian cousins do in America. Pizza is a popular food in Brazil, and in São Paulo, there are over six thousand pizzerias!

Like I write in my book, Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People, Italians settled all over the globe and carried on their traditions wherever they went. Northern Italian immigrants are the reason South American countries like Argentina and Uruguay serve gnocchi (or ñoquis) on the 29th of every month—in honor of a Venetian saint. There’s a region in Brazil where people speak an Italian dialect from Veneto called Talian. And panettone and other sweet breads are popular for the Easter and Christmas holidays. In the UK, Italian immigrants owned fish-and-chip shops and ice cream parlors.

To learn more about the Italian influence around the world, click here.

Polenta Recipe

6 cups water

2 cups cornmeal

1 teaspoon salt

Butter and grated cheese or tomato sauce

In a large pot, bring the water and salt to a boil. Slowly pour the cornmeal into the boiling water and stir using a whisk. Reduce the heat to low and cook for about 30 minutes or until done. Serve hot with butter and grated cheese or tomato sauce.

Dina Di Maio is a writer and lawyer and author of Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People.

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