How do you go from being an obscurity, to a novelty, to a stereotype, to king of the world? It wasn’t easy, but, in the case of the cuisines of Italy, it did happen relatively quickly (50 years, give or take a decade), and the road it traveled makes for some mighty delicious reading in John Mariani’s How Italian Food Conquered The World (Palgrave MacMillan 2011).
Cuisine(s) is the word, because to an Italian, there is no Italian food. As the first sentence in the book makes clear: “Simply put, there was no Italian food before there was an Italy.” Until 1861, there was no Italy. Even today, an Italian (like Sirio Maccioni, for instance) will describe himself as a Tuscan (or a Sicilian or a Venetian) before acknowledging the single political entity that binds all of these regions. But it is the sheer deliciousness of foods from every region that have made made appetites the world over crave everything from marinara and meatballs to Parma prosciutto.
Mariani carefully charts how this all happened, starting with a quick trip through the exotic feasts of ancient Rome, chronicled by Apicius in the first known cookbook in the first century AD, to Marco Polo’s writings in the late thirteenth century, to the Columbian Exchange of discovered foodstuffs like chile pepper, cocoa, vanilla, corn, tomatoes (from the New World), for coffee, apples, lemons and garlic (from the Old). Along the way he puts to bed (finally, we hope) they myth that Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy. (In fact, all Polo did was point out similarities between the noodles of the two civilizations.) The discovery of rice would have been far more surprising to Italians in 1295, as Mariani points out, because none of it was being cultivated in Italy at the time.
Juicy nuggets like that abound throughout the book. One of the most fascinating chapters “Il Boom and La Dolce Vita” follows the slow change from Italian home cooking to the rise of ristorante in the home country in the ’40s and ’50s. Then and now, “…trattorias in Italian cities remained rigorously devoted to regional form and tradition, so that in Rome, most offered more or less the same local favorites — spaghetti alla carbonara; bucatini all’amatriciana; abbacchio (baby lamb); coda all vaccinara (oxtail) and more.”
Mariani uses one of these, fettucine all’Alfredo to demonstrate what he calls the “gastro-gap” between America and Italy in mid-century. It seems Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks feasted on it every night during their honeymoon in Rome (in 1927), popularized it as the anti-spaghetti and meatballs, and by the 1950s everyone from Bob Hope (who had the noodles draped over his head) to Walt Disney had been photographed trying the buttery concoction. Italians, on the other hand, wouldn’t recognize the dish as it’s made over here — usually with cream and even flour as a thickener — as fettucine is a Roman word for what most Italians call tagliatelle, and even most Romans refer to it simply as fettucine al burro (with butter).
Many chapters end with recipes of the classic dishes that have stormed the beaches of many a foreign country, but one: fettucine all carbonara remains steeped in creamy controversy. In his own cookbook, The Italian American Cookbook, Mariani adamantly damns its use, but another tome he lavishes praise upon (for being the first attempt to codify Italian food outside of Italy – the 851 page Great Italian Cooking by Luigi Carnacina) — calls for it (a 1/4 cup to be exact, on page 191) — perhaps providing the inspiration for another book: Why Italians Can’t Agree On Anything.
In another new book, Beauty and the Beast, Elisabetta Girelli describes Italians (as depicted in film) as always being wild, excitable, sensual, primitive, cowardly, comical and lawless…”united by a love of garlic, promiscuity and music.” Mindful of this, Mariani shows both pride and a touch of resentment over the treatment of Italians, and the Italian-American culture, by the mainstream media. In the chapter “This Italian…Thing” he grapples with a America’s Italians being famous for something many are embarrassed by, i.e., the popular images of everyone from the “that’s-a spicy meatball guy” to Tony Soprano — images imprinted on the American consciousness like Michael Corleone’s bullet to Sollozzo’s brain. As the son of a podiatrist, he understandably takes umbrage at these stereotypes, but to his credit, he gives goomba food its due. Marinara-drenched pastas continue to pack ’em in at restaurants in every corner of America and the globe, so he treats these often-artless recipes as the gateway drug to the good stuff –recognizing them as the original fusion food that ignited the spark in this revolution. You would expect as much from the man who wrote The Italian-American Cookbook, but he devotes the lion’s share of the book to the refined, regional cuisines of Italy and how they (and their chroniclers like Marcella Hazan, Mary Ann Esposito and Lidia Bastianich), elevated what is basically peasant food to a work of art.
For being so thoroughly researched, the book does lack a certain perspective about Italian food’s inroads in other countries. GQ restaurant/food writerAllan Richman famously wrote a few years ago that he found the Italian food better in Japan than in Italy, but Mariani never strays too far from the European-American nexus of its title. It would also have been nice if more of his opinions and anecdotes were on display. Instead, he sticks mainly to a reportage style the befits the banquet of facts he lays before the reader, but that remains (relatively) short on his immense perspective and sense of humor. That being said, his recounting of his honeymoon across America in 1977 — eating one atrocious Italian meal after another — is worth the price of the book alone. One of my first disastrous dinner dates took place in one of the restaurants he notes — Mario’s in Nashville — but unlike John and Galina Mariani, I didn’t have the chutzpah to send back the fettuccine three times.
Part historical treatise, travelogue, cookbook, and memoir, it is also a seriously researched and footnoted chronology of the rise of Italian food throughout the world, roughly from the time Italian immigrants like Mariani’s grandmother came to America in 1885, to the present, when globe-trotting chefs like Mario Batali continue to spread the word. Speaking of Italian food’s current number one ambassador, Mariani commits a small, but forgivable sin (by perhaps being a little too close to his subject?) by letting Molto Mario get away with saying (in a TV interview) that “his dream” is to run a 30-seat trattoria in Rome. I’ve heard variations of that balderdash from every famous chef from Paul Bocuse to Wolfgang Puck, and a more over-baked soufflé would be hard to imagine. Imagine Tiger Woods saying “his dream” is to be the pro at a nine hole, municipal golf course and you’ll get my drift.
But in a book as chock full of delectable morsels as this one, such a glitch can easily be overlooked. From Sophia Loren not saying (of her voluptuousness): “I owe it all to spaghetti,” to Neil Simon saying the only universal law is the love of Italian food, Mariani captures the history and elemental beauty of a cuisine that really does seem to appeal to more palates than any other. Whether you’re idea of Italian food is Buca di Beppo or Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, the chances are you are going to eat some of it this week, so you owe it to yourself to read this book.
HOW ITALIAN FOOD CONQUERED THE WORLD officially goes on sale March 15.