Story by the Staff
Photos by Manos Angelakis
Italian & Italian-American Cuisines
Authentic Italian and Italian-American cuisines are considerably similar, but are also very different in many ways.
While many Italian dishes from the North are meat, game or poultry- based and cooked without tomato, where the main starch is short grain rice (Arborio, Carnaroli, Vialone Nano), Italian-American dishes are similar to dishes from the South and especially from Naples, Sicily and Sardinia using beef or veal, poultry, fish and seafood and mostly ample tomato sauce which, the Italian-Americans call “gravy”, with the main starch being pasta or bread. Of course the reason is that many more Italians emigrated to the US from the poorer South, and especially the islands, than from the more affluent North.
“Sunday Gravy” was something many Italian-Americans grew up with; their mothers would throw meat into a pot and let it simmer with tomato sauce, onions, garlic, and a bit of olive oil. The resulting sauce is very similar to both a Neapolitan ragù and a sauce Bolognese. Neapolitan ragù typically uses more tomato sauce, red wine, and whole chunks of meat, while Bolognese uses finely chopped or ground meat, much less tomato, white wine and a touch of milk or cream. Ragù sauces are normally used with spaghetti or linguini, while Bolognese is used for wider-shaped pasta, like lasagna or pacchieri.
Fewer vegetables are used in Italian-American cooking and far more garlic, more sauce and much more cheese.
Authentic Italian dishes are very regional, each region having its own customs, traditions, and culture that define its food; for example Mozzarella in Carrozza is a regional Neapolitan sandwich created to reuse stale bread and no-longer-fresh bufala mozzarella. The snack is popular in Naples but there are Roman and Venetian variations that use Fior-di-latte mozzarella, which is sweeter and less fatty and made from cow’s milk. Real Italian food is also very seasonal. Italian fare was originally mostly beans, greens, vegetable soups, and breads. Expensive and labor intensive meat or pasta were mostly used in “special” dishes for religious feast meals.
Italians are really proud of their culinary culture and, because of that, they don’t experiment a lot in the kitchen. But there are chefs like Marina Ramasso, the owner and top toque at Osteria del Paluch and Davide Scabin of Combal dot Zero, and numerous others who are modernizing Italian food relying on historic recipes, authentic flavors and pushing the envelope of what great authentic Italian fare could be.
Dishes like Spaghetti and Meatballs or Chicken Marsala or Cioppino are not really authentic Italian but all three, when done right, are delightful and crowd pleasing.
In Italy, the meatballs, for example, come as a separate dish and not on top of spaghetti nor are they drenched in tomato sauce. Marinara sauce is usually made with tomatoes, lots of garlic, herbs, and onions; in reality it's an invention of Italian-American immigrants working with ingredients available in North America. Italians are more likely to order pasta “al pomodoro”, which is a sauce made from fresh tomatoes, olive oil, and basil. Pasta, while a staple of Italian-American dishes, is rarely the star in authentic Italian dishes.
In Italy, pasta is typically still hand-made in the kitchen and served as the first course (primo piatto) following the antipasto, which is the appetizer preceding all the other dishes; then comes the protein-rich meat or fish course (secondo piatto).
Side dishes are known as contorni, and generally consist of a fresh salad or cooked vegetables such as steamed, cooked or braised zucchini, fried peppers, asparagus in season, sautéed broccoli rabe or eggplant caponata.
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