Chicken Riggies – Utica, New York – This odd name doesn’t immediately signal any connection to an Italian-themed preparation, and doesn’t seem very appetizing, regardless. “Riggies” here means rigatoni. It’s a heaty pasta dish featuring sauteed chicken breast, sweet and hot peppers, onion, heavy cream and tomatoes over rigatoni. A chef named Bobby Hazelton is credited with creating the dish at the Clinton House restaurant in the village of Clinton, which was taken by one of his cooks to the Chesterfield in nearby Utica where it first appeared on a menu in 1982. It’s popularity in area where Italian-American flavors are a mainstay ensured it became a specialty of that part of upstate New York.
Cincinnati Chili, Two-Way (to Five-Way) – Cincinnati – It's not the chili that's Italian but the spaghetti here. Invented by immigrant restaurateurs from Macedonia in the early 1920s incorporating a regional love of chili along with the Americans’ affection for spaghetti, this is take on chili can include a bazaar’s worth of spices in addition to cumin and chili powder: cinnamon, allspice, cloves, paprika, turmeric, coriander, nutmeg, and oregano. And also Worcestershire sauce and unsweetened chocolate, all mixed into ground beef that has not been browned. As someone who grew up with Texas chili, I find the slightly sweet and certainly very different-tasting Cincinnati chili rather unappealing; pouring a lot of it over spaghetti, even more so. That’s called two-way. It goes all the way to five-way with warmed red kidney beans taken from a can, diced onions, and then topped with thinly shredded cheddar cheese with the chili and spaghetti at the bottom.
Joe’s Special – San Francisco – The famed, nearly namesake dish of Original Joe’s restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach – not New Joe’s – can be thought of an Italian-American take on the frittata. At least my father and his father called it the frittata when he lived in San Francisco in the 1960s and frequented the restaurant. It is actually a mess of scrambled eggs with garlic, sauteed onions, mushrooms, ground beef, chopped spinach. The popularity of this dish has remained very regional, just the Bay Area for some reason though it is quite versatile, working well for breakfast, lunch and dinner and reputedly is welcome when suffering from a hangover, plus pairing well with a cold light beer for any of those meals. It’s easy to make at home, too, and quite tasty, if one of the ugliest Italian-American dishes around.
Johnny Marzetti – Columbus, Ohio – This is a hearty baked casserole of ground beef, cheese, tomato sauce, and pasta dish that is probably as much middle American as it is Italian-rooted. It’s seemingly disappeared entirely from restaurants in the city associated with it, though. The name has been associated with a long-shuttered restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, Marzetti’s, with Johnny Marzetti, being the brother-in-law of the owner. But, the connection between the dish and the restaurant might have only started after the proprietor Teresa Marzetti’s death in 1972. No menu from the Marzetti’s restaurants over many decades has the dish. A recipe for a broadly similar preparation and the name Johnny Marzetti appeared in a Columbus newspaper in 1916. And there are comparable dishes in nearby states bearing different names, as those in the Mideast and Midwest love their casseroles. Teresa Marzetti’s restaurant has received some actual renown that you might have noticed in the supermarket aisles: the T. Marzetti salad dressings that began with a Marzetti restaurant in the 1950s.
Pepperoni Roll – West Virginia – A yeasted and shelf-stable roll filled with sticks of pepperoni sausage that was probably first made by the wives of Italian coal miners looking to provide a food that could be easily carried to and eaten in cramped worksites, the pepperoni roll had its commercial start with Giuseppe Argiro at the Country Club Bakery in the town of Fairmount in the 1920s or 1930s. There are versions filled with peperoni slices and ground pepperoni, too.
Spiedies – Taking its name from the Italian word for skewer, this sandwich specialty of Binghamton, New York features marinated cubes of meat – usually chicken or pork these days for the traditional versions – grilled over an open flame to develop a nice caramelization on the exterior that are then placed into a big, crusty Italian-style roll. Spiedies have been around since the 1920s, when the meat was just lamb, and the popular Italian dressing-like marinade has been available commercially since 1951. An example of a hyper-local item, these were completely unknown in Ithaca just fifty miles away when I lived for a couple of years.
Toasted Ravioli – St. Louis – Deep-fried ravioli that is sprinkled with grated Parmesan cheese and served with a side of marinara sauce for dipping is a St. Louis specialty that has slowly grown in popularity beyond the Gateway Arch and that works well at casual Italian-American restaurants and for a bar snack. It was the result of an accident in the 1950s at a restaurant called Angelo Oldani's on the Hill, the Italian neighborhood in St. Louis, when a new cook, a German, thought that the boiling oil was meant for the ravioli and dropped in the pasta. The deep-frying made for a different, if still enjoyable dish, especially when paired with some grated cheese and a tomato sauce.
Utica Greens – Utica, New York – This is the second dish from Utica, which is only about 60,000 folks, but a large number of Italian-Americans, and the basis for this was a commonly planted vegetable in the gardens of the southern Italian immigrants and their descendants, escarole. This is even from the same restaurant that put Chicken Riggies on the menu, Chesterfield. Called Greens Morrelle there and its successor establishment, it was named for the chef who invented them in 1988. It’s Utica Greens elsewhere: escarole with fried prosciutto, hot cherry peppers, grated Romano cheese and seasoned bread crumbs, a regional favorite that hasn’t spread very far.
Pepperoni rolls from Barney's Bakery in Weirton, West Virginia