These are the familiar and long-popular dishes that came from the immigrants, along with their descendants, who arrived from Italy in the big wave of immigration from there that began in the late 19th century and ended with the restrictive immigration laws passed on them in the early 1920s; the dishes often feature long-cooked tomato sauce and melted mozzarella or provolone cheese, preparations that are mostly rooted in the area around Naples. Beginning with preparations and ideas from Italy, these dishes grew in this country adapting to what was available – more accessible and better meat, most notably – and the tastes of the Americans, whom they eventually became.
Below are the twelve greatest dishes, listed alphabetically, for what still might be America’s favorite cuisine. The criteria is deliciousness and popularity, even if that popularity is mostly local or regional. The first eliminates any dish featuring amazingly dull-tasting chicken breasts.
Caesar Salad – A fixture also on steakhouse menus across the country, and found on most restaurant menus regardless of cuisine, it seems, the ubiquitous Caesar Salad is certainly the best Italian-American preparation from Mexico. Created by an Italian immigrant – or his brother – to this country who had opened a restaurant in Tijuana just across the border to be able to serve alcohol to diners during Prohibition, this mix of romaine lettuce, egg, garlic, Parmigiano, olive oil, lemon, and anchovies was a created out of necessity on a busy night in 1924. It become a smash hit with the Hollywood set and other well-to-do folks who traveled south from Los Angeles. Interestingly, the original version of the Caesar Salad did not contain olive oil, anchovies or lemon juice, and used whole romaine leaves, rather messily. Olive oil was unobtainable in Tijuana in the 1920s, at least when the salad was first made, so a fairly neutral oil like corn oil was used instead. The slight taste of anchovies was found in the on-hand Worcestershire sauce that was used in their place. Lemons are not terribly common in Mexico; limes are. It was lime juice that was used in the first Caesar Salads. In Mexico, the word for lime is limon. When the recipe was transcribed for Americans, they thought limon was lemon, and so the substitution was made, all for the better.
Chicken Vesuvio – This classic Italian-American dish from Chicago that hasn’t trekked far from its birthplace, is big, robust baked dish featuring a whole chicken and potatoes that might have originated at the Vesuvio restaurant in Chicago in the 1920s. Named after the volcano near Naples, the restaurant was owned by a native of far-away Turin, though there were many Neapolitans in Chicago that might have been drawn to the name. The best version of it that I have had was at the tourist-laden Harry Caray’s restaurants – namesake Harry Caray was an Italian-American – both downtown and in the suburbs.
Cioppino – The famed fishermen’s stew necessitating a bib from San Francisco featuring Dungeness crab along with whatever else is readily available like clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, squid and a white fish in a tomato-y broth, is mostly an area favorite; a coastal location is very helpful for serving this. The name is clearly an adaptation of a Genoese word for a seafood stew, ciuppin, which makes sense as fisherman from around Genoa were the first Italians to ply the waters for seafood around the City by the Bay. Cioppino is cooked with tomato sauce – the Genoese use tomatoes, and somewhat sparingly – and this is a staple of Sicilian cooking, the homeland of the fishermen who largely succeeded the Genoese in San Francisco and whose offspring opened restaurants on Fisherman’s Wharf. So, it might be actually be a combination of the regional heritages from both areas in Italy and the bounty of the Bay and beyond. No matter the provenance, it’s a terrific dish when made with fresh catch, usually not far from the water in San Francisco.
Eggplant Parmesan – A dish found throughout much of Italy now, the version popular here comes from the Italian south with its marinara or longer-cooked tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. It is heavier here, as with all dishes translated from the Italian, with the eggplant slices breaded and more cheese used, used as a main dish rather than a side. The name can be puzzling, as Parmesan is not from the south, and the name in Italian is melanzane alla parmigiana means eggplant in the style of Parma. One Italian food historian credits the Calabrians for the dish, with the Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top, resulting in the name, not brought from the north, but a similar cheese obtained from Cistercian dairies in Calabria.
Fried Calamari – This dish is a hit even if the frying is overdone and the squid has spent a lot of time in the freezer and absolutely delicious with high quality seafood and expert frying. The side of marinara sauce might not be found in Italy with this preparation but it seems to make a lot of sense here. Deep-fried goodness is certainly some part, most part, of its appeal.
Italian Beef – Thinly sliced roasted beef swimming in plenty of its cooking juice that’s usually served as sandwich with a Italian-style roll and topped with the piquant pickled vegetable mix, giardiniera, this particularly Chicago creation is a wonderfully messy treat that deserves to be more easily found elsewhere. The product of the plentiful beef from the stockyards in Chicago and Italian-Americans who needed to stretch the less savory cuts, this has been around since at least the late 1930s. These days Italian beef is often sirloin or top or bottom round cooked for a while in broth with garlic and oregano and other spices creating plenty of the signature jus. The roast is cooled, sliced thinly with a deli slicer and then put back into the cooking broth, the jus, that’s been reheated, usually for a few hours. Italian beef is always the main protein at the Riccetti family reunion in the Chicago area.
Lobster Fra Diavolo – Taking the southern Italian preparation of shellfish with factory-made pasta to include instead the large and sumptuous lobsters found readily near the coastal big cities in the northeast where Italians settled, this had been on Italian-themed restaurant menus since the 1930s, at least in New York where it is most popular. Featuring tomato sauce seasoned with plenty of chopped garlic, oregano and red pepper flakes, it’s another exuberant of Italian-American cooking. The seemingly frightful name “fra diavolo” means “brother devil” in Italian and refers to the heat of the red pepper flakes, which rarely used with reckless abandon in this, and also the red of the tomato sauce and cooked lobster.
Meatball Sandwich – Beefy meatballs in tomato sauce that are topped with mozzarella melted in a restaurant’s salamander broiler all in a fresh crusty roll to absorb the sauce is one of the best-loved Italian-American sandwiches, maybe any type of hot sandwich. It can be absolutely delicious in spite of its seeming simplicity with quality components, as the combination can seem perfect at times.
Pizza – Pizza is amazingly popular; it’s an easy canvas on which to embrace a wide variety of ingredients and flavors, and can be done so affordably. I enjoy pizza in most of its forms – there are more than a few – as seemingly most people do. The vast majority of the pizza eaten in this country is much more American than Italian or Neapolitan evolving from the style that developed in New York City beginning in the early 20th century that grew distinct from its Neapolitan antecedent. Pizza originated in Naples, the big, chaotic and historic port city in southern Italy, but pizza actually spread more quickly throughout the U.S. than it did elsewhere in Italy, as odd as that may seem. Maybe not, as we still eat a lot of pizza here.
Shrimp Scampi – A dish of sauteed shrimp cooked in olive oil with plenty of garlic, some white wine and finished with lemon juice and chopped parsley, this has long been a staple of Italian-American restaurants. You know what you are going to get reading “shrimp scampi,” which has been on menus for decades, though the dish’s name is a misnomer. Scampi, which is plural, is the Venetian dialect for langoustines, small lobsters that are a different family from shrimp, and there is nothing like this dish in Venice. No matter, it is delectable when made well with high quality, fresh shrimp from the Gulf.
Spaghetti and Meatballs – An decidedly American creation, maybe starting by the 1920s, the combination of meatballs from the traditional Italian protein-based second course and the pasta from the first to meet the demands of the much faster-paced American lifestyle, it probably still is the most commonly served pasta dish at Italian-themed restaurants here. Though it might be scoffed at Italian food traditionalists – and pretty much every Italian – it remains a staple on American tables and it can be delicious with top-notch meatballs, whether the usual predominantly ground beef ones or softened with pork or veal, tasty tomato sauce and quality pasta that is not too overcooked. Kids love it, regardless.
Veal Parmesan – My favorite dish growing up is derived from Eggplant Parmesan using the much tastier veal, an item that the Italians seemingly adapted from their immigrant brethren from central and eastern Europe. Tender, mild but still flavorful veal cutlets that have been battered and pan-fried pair beautifully with the tomato sauce and melted provolone or mozzarella. Once a star attraction at most Italian-themed restaurants, the now-pricier veal long lost out on many menus to the comparatively much more boring and texturally less pleasant Chicken Parmesan. Understandable, but unfortunate.