(Mirror) According to a much quoted truism from playwright Neil Simon, “there are two laws in the universe: the law of gravity and everyone likes Italian food.”
But, Simon’s Italian food is not what is served at the refined restaurants of Milan, Rome or Florence, or anywhere in Italy. What he was referring to – and what we typically think of as Italian food – is not Italian. It is Italian-American.
I moved to the U.S. from Italy to attend college in 1976. My introduction to Italian American cuisine took place on my first day of school.
The professor went through the list of names asking each student a few personal questions. When my turn came he asked me where I was from. "Italy" I said. His follow up took me completely by surprise: "oh so you must make a terrific spaghetti and meatballs.” I had no idea what he was talking about and when I replied "what's that?" the classroom exploded with laughter.
While it's largely known as an Italian dish, spaghetti and meatballs didn't originate there. Sure, Italy has its own version of meatballs, but they're different and they're called polpette which are always eaten withoutspaghetti. If you travel to Italy, you will not find it on any menu. And if you do, it is probably to appeal to the American tourist's palate.
About 4 million Italians immigrated to America from 1880 to 1920, 85% came from southern Italy, where political and economic circumstances left the region extremely impoverished, so it would be the cuisines of Sicily, Campania, Abruzzi (and not Venice or Bologna) making their mark in the U.S.
These poor immigrants went from spending 75 percent of their income on food in Italy to only 25 percent in America. More money meant more food. Meat, being abundant and cheap, became a meal staple instead of a rare luxury. The comforting meatballs were the perfect solution. The immigrants indulged and meatballs quickly went from golf balls size to baseballs and were made with significantly more meat and less bread which originally was used as filler.
Spaghetti were first paired with meatballs in Italian restaurants in America.
To satisfy the requests of their clientele, these early Italian eateries married the meat dishes with pasta. The theory is that spaghetti, being one of the only Italian ingredients available in the U.S. at the time, became more popular in the homes of the new immigrants who were enjoying their new wealth of food.
Many original "Italian-American" dishes have faded thanks to the evolution Italian food has experienced in this country since the mid 70's. At the time the apex of ethnic food was represented by the French, a cuisine that has sadly lost its spark and appeal in the last three decades. Italian food has instead flourished and survived the modesty and simplicity of the early immigrants. More contemporary Italian dishes with true Italian ethos are readily available as chefs have traveled frequently to Italy. Northern Italian restaurants have prospered and multiplied introducing Americans to dishes characterized by a lesser use of olive oil, garlic, pasta and tomato sauce and a heavier reliance on butter, rice, corn (for polenta) and cheeses for cream sauces.
Pasta in the north is by no means non-existent, but it does have to share time with delicious risotto and polenta. Northern Italian main courses often reflect people’s pride in their unspoiled countryside, and are likely to include some sort of game or wild fowl such as rabbit, quail or grouse. Seafood and shellfish are very popular on the coast, and rivers and streams provide carp and trout. The overall rule is “if it grows or lives well in the area, then it can make it onto the table.” For sure you will not find "Spaghetti and Meatballs" on these new, gourmet, high end (eg: expensive) Italian restaurant’s menus.
Excellent Italian food products are regularly imported, and locally sourced substitutes have improved dramatically. The most significant differences between Italian and Italian-American cooking are harmony versus abundance. Italian-American stereotypical cooking uses more garlic, more sauce, more cheese and meat and less fresh vegetables. The food is also “over cooked,” like the popular baked lasagna, ziti and manicotti. (Pasta as an entrée is almost never seen in Italy; it is typically the first course, in much smaller portions, and always “al dente”).
Nonetheless, here we are, over 100 years later, spaghetti and meatballs may not be truly Italian, but it has maintained its appeal and remains a symbol of Italian-American cuisine's history.
PS: Growing up in Italy I never had, or heard of, Italian Wedding Soup and there are no Greek Diners in Athens.