This piece is adapted from my eBook, From the Antipasto to the Zabaglione: The Story of Italian Restaurants in America. I care more about the semantics of this than most.
“Northern Italian” became a buzz-phrase. It got diners excited. Immensely enjoyable, distinctive regional cuisines have long existed in northern Italy. As an amalgamation, it started being promoted, if not delivered, by at least 1970 in New York. “Where is the grand tradition of the North? I have two years searching for it and my exploration weaves a trail of mournful disillusion,” a lament at the top of Greene’s lengthy article. Some of the first press about the food of northern Italy came from Craig Claiborne, who introduced and championed Marcella Hazan in his space in the New York Times in 1970. A native of Emilia-Romagna, she was conducting cooking classes in her tiny Manhattan apartment at the time. The big boost came with the success of Hazan's first cookbook Classic Italian Cooking in 1973. “Hazan's effort to convey authenticity elbowed aside the older efforts,” concerning Italian food, according to Nach Waxman, the owner of Kitchen Arts & Letters, a Manhattan bookstore dedicated to culinary matters. That and subsequent volumes were influential both for cooks and diners. “Northern Italian” was not only something fresh, but something that was more seemingly more genuine. Soft pastas made with egg by hand, something Hazan championed, certainly appeared to be more authentic than spaghetti from a box that had been the pasta staple for decades.
A few years after Hazan’s success, in 1977 Giuliano Bugialli’s, The Fine Art of Italian Cooking was published and sold well, helping establish Bugialli as respected instructor and popular author. It focused on the cooking of Florence and Tuscany under the heading of “Italian.” A contributing subtext in these books – seemingly somewhat intentional based on the title – was the belief that northern Italian food was more advanced and sophisticated. Those northern regions were more prosperous and were home to the highlights of the Renaissance, after all. And, its cooks were not quite the swarthy immigrants of yesteryear, towards whom there might have still been a bias in some quarters.
There was, and even still remains, a lot of confusion among the food writers and dining public as to what “Northern Italian” means. Geographically, it meant the areas north of Rome, excluding Abruzzo to its northeast (that region had been part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies whose capital was Naples). Florence Fabricant of the New York Times gave the widespread understanding in 1977 as, “by local definition, ‘northern Italian’ signifies restaurants of some elegance that go lightly on the marinara, serve fettuccine, tortellini and scampi and do not feature meatball or pizza.” This is what these restaurants portrayed, and what the public was to believe, but it was not really northern Italian. In the 1990s this still meant in practice, “very little more than fresh pasta made with eggs, appearing in place of…commercial pasta, and cream and butter substituting for olive oil and tomato in the sauces.” A few dishes were usually done in this heavier fashion, but the biggest effort for a restaurant in transforming itself a “Northern Italian” one was the cost for new signage and menus advertising the billing.
Mimi Sheraton, the New York Times restaurant critic in 1981, reviewed Salta in Bocca, a “pleasant north Italian restaurant” that nearly garnered three stars in which the “recommended dishes” are almost a greatest hits collection of the southern Italian-American restaurant kitchen:
“Baked clams, mussels Riviera, roast peppers with mozzarella cheese, minestrone, pasta e fagioli, fettuccine casalinga, spaghetti carbonara, spaghetti al sugo, capelli d'angelo with seafood, linguine with white clam sauce, tortellini gratinati, fettuccine all'Amatriciana, fried squid, red snapper Livornese, scampi fra diavolo, chicken piccata, chicken scarpara, veal Genovese, veal paillard, osso buco, veal cutlet Milanese, veal cutlet Fiorentina, grilled veal chop, fried zucchini, sauteed escarole, zucchini with tomatoes, rugola salad, cheesecake, zabaglione, cheese and fruit platter.”
Though the veal cutlet sported the “Milanese” and “Fiorentina” modifiers, the tortellini and osso buco were probably the only preparations to be found anywhere north of Rome. This lack of understanding was typical, and continued for a couple decades even among avid diners in the biggest markets. But, patrons and reviewers, too, liked the new dishes. These were something different and even novel, though “Northern Italian” also seemed to mean “more expensive,” that was good for the restaurateur.
Authentic northern Italian food was actually to be found in New York by the 1960s, at the reinvigorated Barbetta featuring a refined version of the robust cooking of Piedmont. This was a singular and upscale anomaly. Located in the theater district in Manhattan, it was founded in 1906 and given a makeover by the daughter of the founder. In “1962, she was determined to make Barbetta more Piemontese than ever, adding such typical dishes as fonduta, carne cruda, bagna cauda, bue al Barolo, and introducing white truffles and Piemonte's traditional white truffle dishes,” according to the century-old restaurant’s website. Other, and truly northern Italian restaurants, were to join Barbetta in Manhattan in the 1980s.
Though much of it was marketing or misinformation, there was some truth to this “Northern Italian” fare advertised beyond Barbetta. Fior d’Italia in San Francisco had been serving it even two decades longer than Barbetta. As mentioned above, some of these Manhattan-based restaurateurs were from northern Italy, some, like Giambelli had actually worked in restaurants in the north of Italy. They did serve some dishes from their home areas, if often in a richer fashion than at home. The majority of the menu – and certainly the overall style – was still better described as Italian-American, albeit sometimes immensely enjoyable Italian-American.
Guinea hen at La Subida in Cormons, Italy, one of the best restaurants in northern Italy. This dish was terrific.