Twenty years ago, Italian food was predominantly cooked by Italian immigrants in home kitchens. It was associated with Chef Boyardee's canned spaghetti, cheap ingredients and pasta with red sauce. There was no extra virgin olive oil, no celebrity chefs and no high-end pizza restaurants offering patrons their choice of eclectic toppings, followed by gelato in assorted homemade flavors.
"[Italian food] was considered fairly low-class but very lovable — with its pizzas and its red sauce and its marinara sauces," says food writer John Mariani. "But it has since become not just the most fashionable food in the world but also ... one of the healthiest."
Mariani, the food and wine correspondent for Esquire Magazine, is the author of How Italian Food Conquered the World, a social history of the world's most popular cuisine. He explains how the "poor man's gruel" transformed itself over the past two decades "to dominate global gastronomy," gaining status, class and recognition in restaurants as a healthy alternative to meat-centric diets.
That wasn't always the case. Italian restaurant food used to be associated with heavy creams, cheese-filled oily pastas and thick sauces filled with fatty cuts of meat and fish — mainly because of the abundance and low cost of ingredients, Mariani says.
"People thought, 'We could have 10 meatballs if we want. We can have pizzas that are 12 inches across instead of 6 inches across.' And this was translated into the restaurants into too much food, too much sauce and too much abundance," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It was only in the 1990s that the so-called Mediterranean Diet came along, where the whole food pyramid that we all learned about in high school was upended. The proteins were now at the tip-top, and the beans and the grains and the pastas and the olive oils were now at the broad bottom, which is most of what we should eat."
Italian food also got a boost from chefs using better ingredients. In the 1970s and '80s, Mariani says, chefs had no access to the ingredients they now take for granted — items like extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinaigrettes, fungi porcini, white truffles and true prosciutto were rarely seen outside Italy.
"These were ingredients that were not available in any way, shape or form to Italian cooks, however expensive their restaurants were," Mariani says. "They had to use white mushrooms instead of fungi porcini, and they had to use poor quality olive oil and no imported pasta. They were at a disadvantage to show off how delicious the food really could be."
Today, Mariani says, he is much more likely to order a more complex and interesting meat dish than plain old pasta in an Italian restaurant. And when he goes to a restaurant, he goes as himself — not in disguise, the way critic Ruth Reichl famously did when she reviewed restaurants for The New York Times.
"Even if I wanted to be anonymous, it's a moot point," he says. "It's a moot point for The New York Times critic and The Los Angeles Times critic. [The restaurants] all have their picture in the kitchen framed. I remember once being in a restaurant where Ruth Reichl was in a platinum-blond wig with big glasses, and the restaurateur nodded to me and said, 'See who's over at table six?' And I did."
Mariani adds that he has one tip for foodies who want to be treated like a restaurant critic when dining out.
"Become a regular, and you will be a king in a restaurant," he says. "Go there twice a month only. Not every week — go to a restaurant twice a month. They will love you and welcome you back and have index cards on you. That's the way to get really well-treated."
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Italian food is now popular around the world. My guest, John Mariani, points out that it wasn't long ago that Italian food just about everywhere outside of Italy was regarded as little more than macaroni with red sauce, chicken parmigiana, pizza, and cheap wine.
Before World War II, only a handful of major cities around the world had any Italian restaurants at all. Mariani is the author of the new book "How Italian Food Conquered the World," which is in part about how immigrants to America created the Italian-American style of cooking that became so popular.
Mariani is also the author of "America Eats Out" and "The Dictionary of American Food and Drink." He's the food and travel correspondent for Esquire magazine and a wine columnist for Bloomberg News.
John Mariani, welcome to FRESH AIR. The Italian food that really caught on first in America - you point out it wasn't really Italian food, it was more Italian-American food. So what was the food that first caught on?
Mr. JOHN MARIANI (Author): Well, it was clearly the immigrants from the southern part of Italy. Eighty-five percent of the immigrants who came to the United States between 1880 and 1920, five million of them, 85 percent were from the south - Naples, Sicily, Abruzzo, where my people came from, Campania - and these were very, very poor people, who believe me, had never been to nor owned a restaurant nor probably so much as a grocery store.
And back in the old country they were spending 75 percent of their income on food, and that was a meager income. And when they got to the United States, they found they were spending only 25 percent of their income, and there was food available every day.
Out of this came the so-called Italian-American cooking, which was based very much on Italian products, but they weren't the same as Italian products over there because they just couldn't get them at that point. They did ship in their own cans of tomatoes. Curiously enough, the tomato came from America and went to Italy. But this kind of cuisine started out with pizza and a little pasta and some Italian salads, and it was only within the Italian communities in the United States, mostly New York, Boston, Providence, some in New Orleans. Sicilians went to New Orleans.
And it grew in popularity because it was a very lovable, comforting and at that point very inexpensive cuisine. So that after World War II, when the Italians were starving again, until their recovery kicked in, the rest of the world started to catch on to Italian-American food rather than the regional foods of Italy, which were very, very different from one another.
So that a Tuscan was not eating the food that a Sicilian was eating, and a Sicilian was not eating the food that somebody from Rome was eating. They were very different - 20 different regions with distinct cuisines. So it took Italian-American cuisine to actually conquer the world.
GROSS: So getting back to Italian-American cuisine, so we're talking pizza, pasta, marinara sauce. This was based on home cooking. It wasn't really based on restaurant cooking, because as you pointed out, the Italian-Americans who were first selling this kind of food in restaurants and pizza places didn't likely ever go to a restaurant in Italy.
Mr. MARIANI: The only likelihood that they had ever been to something -facsimile of a restaurant, would have been a pizzeria, because those did begin in Naples after 1860. And the pizza margherita, as we know it, which is the typical - prototypical tomato, mozzarella and basil, was actually concocted on a specific week in 1881 when the Queen consort of the new Italy came to Naples and there was a competition among the pizza makers and he put together, very cannily, a pizza that had the colors of the new Italian flag, red tomato, white mozzarella, green basil. So the Italians - well, let's say the Neapolitans, at least, had familiarity with pizza, because that was a street food, that was a snack food and they might have had an extra couple of lira to spend, but...
GROSS: Can I interrupt you for a second? So it - this was named after Queen Margaret, who was making the visit?
Mr. MARIANI: Yes, yes, Margherita. So when those people came to America, one of the first things that appears in New York that is completely identifiable is the pizzeria, which in 1905, the first one - it's still there, open on Spring Street in Greenwich Village, it's called G. Lombardi's. And then they proliferated, and then there were Italian grocery stores where you can get an Italian sandwich. But it grew and grew in popularity throughout the 1920s and '30s. It was cheap food, just as Jewish-American food was cheap food. Chinese-American food was cheap food.
And it got its foothold early on. Also, as I said, five million of those Italians came over, so that's a lot of Italians to spread the word.
GROSS: So if Italian restaurants, early on in the history of Italian-American food in the U.S., were based more on home cooking than on what restaurant cooking was in Italy, how similar was what you'd eat in a restaurant to what an Italian family would actually eat at home? Because like if you went to an Italian restaurant back then, you'd probably get a really big plate of pasta, and then probably a fairly big portion of meat, maybe a big dessert.
I mean, Italian food when I was growing up was always seen in my neighborhood as very fattening food. Now Italian food is considered really healthy, Mediterranean cuisine, but you know, the cheeses and the pastas and the big desserts were not seen as healthy food.
Mr. MARIANI: Well, they weren't seen by most people as healthy food because they probably ate too much of it at those very little restaurants and trattorias. At home, as you say, that's where it was all taking place, because the abundance of American ingredients in every market changed radically the position of the Italian woman, especially the southern Italian woman.
Because back in the old country, her job was solely to get some food on the table, whatever it was. And in the north it was almost every single day, three times a day, polenta. In the south they might get pasta just a couple of times a week, a few vegetables.
When the immigrants came to the United States, they could afford to buy pretty much anything they wanted, so that the shift of the Italian housewife went from just getting food on the table at a subsistence level to becoming the best cook on the block. And part of that was the abundance. Part of that was that we can have 10 meatballs if we want. We can have a pizza that's 12 inches across rather than six inches across.
And this was translated into the restaurants, as you said, too much food, too much sauce, too much abundance, which Americans being big eaters just dove into for so many years. And it was not particularly healthy food, and it was not particularly the best of ingredients, necessarily, either.
It was only in the 1990s that the so-called Mediterranean diet came along, which I detail in my book, where the whole food pyramid that we all learned about in high school was just upended so that the proteins were now at the tip top, meaning the smallest amount you should eat, and the beans and the grains and the pastas and the olive oils were all on the broad bottom, which is what -most of what we should eat. That was a very big departure from how Italian food was viewed before that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Mariani, who writes about food, has written several books about food. His new book is called "How Italian Food Conquered the World."
Now, you talk about how after World War II, when, you know, processed food, canned food became really popular - there was all this, like, new food technology - that Chef Boyardee became like a really famous brand, and you tell the story of Chef Boyardee. I'd like you to tell the story.
Mr. MARIANI: Well, he was an Italian immigrant, grew up in the Midwest and had some restaurants. And during World War II, because pasta, let's - we'll say spaghetti - was such a cheap dish, and canning was the only way to get American GIs and servicemen fed, that he made a small fortune in the ration business during World War II. This also allowed those hundreds and hundreds of thousands of GIs and Air Force kids and Navy kids to get a taste of Italian food that kids who didn't grow up in the eastern cities probably had never really tasted before.
So after the war he marketed it and very, very successfully so, sold millions upon millions of cans. And I remember asking my mother for it growing up in the 1950s, and of course she arched an eye, and said, well, if you must. And I remember tasting it for the first time. It was just this overcooked canned spaghetti in a sweet tomato sauce, and I was just appalled at how bad it was.
But that very night that I tried it for the first time, there were millions of American kids eating that thing. Still do.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Yeah. And also, I think like in the '50s and '60s, dishes like chicken cacciatore were really popular. It's funny the way Italian food has gone in and out of fashion, like do you see chicken cacciatore on a lot of menus now?
Mr. MARIANI: You do now, and you see - I see more eggplant parmigiano, eggplant parm, if you will, on some of the toniest of Italian restaurants, and it's really, really good. And this is - and the reason it's really, really good is that in the past it was made with the cheapest possible ingredients. By the past I mean before the 1970s and early '80s.
Italian cooks and chefs had absolutely no access to what we now take for granted, which is to say extra virgin olive oil. Nobody ever heard of extra virgin olive oil. Nobody outside of the city of Modena, where it was used as a Christmas gift, was balsamic vinegar known to anybody. Funghi porcini, true prosciutto, which was kept out by the pork producers of America for so long, parmigiano reggiano, all of these things, and of course the ultra-expensive white truffles. These were ingredients that were not available in any way, shape, or form, to Italian cooks, however expensive their restaurants were.
So they had to use white mushrooms instead of funghi porcini, and they had to use poor quality olive oil, and not - no imported pasta. So they were at a disadvantage to really show off how delicious the food could be.
GROSS: So how did olive oil become a staple, not only of Italian cooking but of cooking?
Mr. MARIANI: Well, you're absolutely right about that. The French, who once completely eschewed olive oil, unless they were in the deep south of France along the Riviera, if you open the typical French cookbook in the 1980s, you would barely see olive oil mentioned at all. Today, pick up a French cookbook, and I would say that at least 60 to 70 percent of the recipes are using olive oil.
And this happened again...
GROSS: And sometimes instead of butter, right?
Mr. MARIANI: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you speak to a chef like Alain Ducasse, Roger Verge, all of these famous French chefs, and they extol the virtues of olive oil for its taste, not for its health benefits.
But what really happened with olive oil that made it so fashionable was that the International Olive Oil Commission in the 1980s was one of the major promoters and funders of that Mediterranean diet idea. And it coincided with the so-called slow foods movement which grew very rapidly out of Turin, that artisanal products and smaller producers make the best food, which seems very logical to most Europeans. But to the rest of the world, or least to Americans, we didn't know about that. We really didn't know.
Most Americans' idea of parmesan cheese was out of that little green canister that Kraft Foods made. So olive oil now, you can't go into any supermarket anywhere without finding half a dozen olive oils, and they're all extra virgin olive oil.
GROSS: Now, there's a lot of American chefs who aren't Italian, but who love Italian food, and who either specialize in it or serve it as part of their menu. Do you think Americans who aren't Italian-American have changed Italian food?
Mr. MARIANI: Yeah. The most salient example of that is a guy named Michael White. He's this big luggy Wisconsin Midwestern kid who fell in love with cooking and told his mother and father, I want to go to Italy to study food. And, of course, this is more than 10 years ago, they said, you've got to be crazy.
Well, he did, and he learned the right way, and he came back. And by working at some of the finest Italian restaurants in New York and Chicago, like Spiaggia in Chicago and San Domenico in New York, he learned this refined Italian cuisine, and he's opened a series of restaurants which I now consider among the best Italian restaurants in the United States, one of which is Marea. Marea, M-A-R-E-A, is on Central Park South.
And there, like Paul Bartolotta in Las Vegas, he is doing a kind of seafood, Italian seafood, which you will only find on the Italian Riviera made as well as he does.
Now, the interesting thing is being not an Italian-American, but an American kid, he puts his spin on everything. So his latest restaurant is called Ai Fiori, but there's a lot of French and global techniques in there. So he's not so staid, as many, many, many Italian restaurants in the old country are staid and never get out of their comfort zone. Guys like Michael White are not only leading the charge, but believe me, those are the chefs that the Japanese and the people in New Delhi, and the people in Shanghai are all looking to and often hiring to come over and either consult on their restaurants or to open a restaurant, a Michael White restaurant in Shanghai or New Delhi.
Just as some years ago Wolfgang Puck, who pioneered the so-called gourmet pizza, now has outposts all over the world.
GROSS: And he's not Italian, right?
Mr. MARIANI: No. He's an Austrian kid. He's an Austrian-born, Southern California chef. He came there in the '70s, cooked strictly nouvelle French cuisine. And then when he opened Spago, because he didn't have much money, he said, well, I just want this to be a really good pizzeria, but I want it to be the kind of pizzas that you could get in Naples, rather than Italian-American, or at least the American pizzas.
And in addition, he struck really gold when he came up with the so-called Jewish pizza, which was with smoked salmon, caviar, and sour cream on top.
GROSS: I have to say those kinds of pizzas make no sense to me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I think I'm kind of a traditionalist in that respect. But...
Mr. MARIANI: Oh, me too.
GROSS: Like I don't understand, like, pineapple on pizza and things like that. Can you explain it?
Mr. MARIANI: Well, that is very typically American corporate. Which is to say that Wolfgang Puck comes along, or Alice Waters up at Chez Panisse, and they make a few interesting pizzas that go a little beyond the, outside of the usual circle, and they add ingredients that are unusual, but that's their interpretation.
What happens then is something like California Pizza Kitchen gets hold of it, and says, let's have 35 different pizzas. Let's put anything we want. Let's put barbecued chicken on top. Let's, as you say, call it a Hawaiian pizza and put pineapple. And I think at a certain point a pizza stops being a pizza, or at least stops being a good pizza or anything like a good pizza.
GROSS: You give some recipes in your book, and one of the recipes is for marinara sauce. What's your favorite recipe for a simple-to-make marinara?
Mr. MARIANI: This will be my easiest and quickest answer.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MARIANI: You take a pot, you put in three or four cloves of garlic, brown them in olive oil, take them out, pour in a can of tomatoes, which have been peeled. Cook that for about 20 minutes to 30 minutes. Mush them up if you like. Salt, pepper, a couple of sprigs of basil, and that's it.
I mean, many times people - there's a story in the book that I tell, and it was going to be the subtitle of the book called "Stretching the Sauce," and my mother was a very good cook. I brought five or six friends home from college, just walked in the door, and said, hi Mom. And she had finished dinner, and she was oh, sit down, sit down, I'll make you something. And I said, well, no, don't go to any trouble. And she said, no, no, I'll just stretch the sauce.
Well, that sauce only took 20 minutes to make, and for her it was, again, to show off her prowess as a wonderful Italian-American chef. But that is what a marinara sauce is, and curiously enough, you won't even find the name marinara in the Oxford Companion to Italian Food.
It's not something they use in Italy. This was an Italian-American word creation for the so-called red sauce that - there's an interesting quote in the book from Martin Scorsese about how the red sauce - the marinara sauce became a religion. And on Sundays, every Italian housewife, sometimes grandma, was either making a very, very long-cooked meat sauce which could take three, four hours or more, or the marinara sauce which took 15, 20 minutes.
GROSS: Now, correct me if I'm wrong. Your grandparents were both - your grandmothers were both from Italy?
Mr. MARIANI: Yeah. My mother's side of the family was from Campania, south of Naples, and my father's side was from Abruzzo, which is east of Rome, in a little Adriatic town called Vasto, which I've seen pictures of in 1905 when they came over. You would have emigrated too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MARIANI: Now, it's a quite - now, it's quite a fashionable resort for the Germans and the Austrians who just come right down the coast. But it was not a nice place to be back then. It was poverty-stricken as all of these southern Italian towns were.
There's a quote in the book from Booker T. Washington, a former slave who became one of America's great educators, and he wrote a book called "The Man Farthest Down." And he visits Italy, this is in the 1880s, 1890s, and he saw 12-year-old children, 10-year-old children working in coal mines. And he said, the American Negro of the South is not the man farthest down. I have seen the man farthest down, and who are much worse off than the American Negro.
These were people who had to get out of town, and one of the great options was America.
GROSS: So sometimes I ask musicians to redeem a song - to take a song they love but that other people think of as square or corny or sentimental, and they're often criticized for loving the song. I'm going to ask you to redeem a food, to take a food that is mighty unpopular, but you think is really quite good.
Mr. MARIANI: I think, and I'm seeing more of it, that tripe, which is cow's stomach, and it has to be cleaned by the butcher, and it's snowy white and looks like a bathing cap, and it can be very, very chewy. But when it is stewed in the Italian manner with tomatoes and onions and chili peppers and parmigiano cheese, it is one of the best dishes in the world, and I'm seeing it more and more and more on menus, and I couldn't be happier.
GROSS: Do a lot of butchers sell it?
Mr. MARIANI: No. It's - you really have to go to a specialty butcher. You're not going to find tripe in the A&P.
GROSS: Right. Okay.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Okay. Well, John Mariani, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. MARIANI: It's been a great, great pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: John Mariani is the author of "How Italian Food Conquered the World." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Mariani is also the food and travel correspondent for Esquire magazine.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.