The menu at Harry Caray’s – there are three of these in addition to their other concepts – has long-popular and more current Italian-American and Italian-themed preparations like Eggplant Parmesan, pasta alla Vodka, Shrimp Scampi, fried calamari, and a well-regarded signature Chicken Vesuvio, a Chicago Italian-American classic, along with salads, seafood, and then wet- and dry-aged steaks in filet, strip and ribeye cuts.
The Italian steakhouse, at least in America and at least in name, has predated Harry Caray’s use of it in recent years. There are hardly any steakhouses in Italy, though. Outside of the Florentines and later other Tuscans, there has been no steak tradition in Italy. In fact, the bistecca in the famous bistecca alla fiorentina comes from the English “beefsteak” because there was no suitable Italian name for the dish. Similarly, rosbif is the Italian word for roast beef. I was in Piedmont late last year, a region that is very proud of their beef, and asked a winemaker during long luncheon if there were steaks to be found in Piedmont – which I hadn’t encountered in two trips there – or anywhere else in Italy, in addition those Tuscan steaks. He said that there might be a steak somewhere in the Veneto, he wasn’t exactly sure where, but that was about it. There are plenty of steaks to be found here, of course.
“Being American is to eat a lot of beef steak,” as Kurt Vonnegut rightly observed, and Italian-Americans found it both profitable and enjoyable to serve steak, as have innumerable other restaurateurs over the years. The first Italian steakhouse might have been The Palm in Manhattan that opened in the 1920s, even if it did not consciously start out as a steakhouse. It was later joined, especially after 1990, by numerous others primarily in the Northeast and Midwest. These served similar preparations and steaks as the typical grand American steakhouses. What made them “Italian” was simply that the menu was filled out with a number of rote Italian-American dishes, and usually the restaurant’s full name included the phrase, “Italian Steakhouse.”
The phrase Italian steakhouse does make some sense in this country, even if there really is very little or no Italian heritage involved. What it translates to is a menu of aged steaks often from the great slaughterhouses of the Midwest in familiar cuts and preparations alongside a slew of Italian-American dishes. These have long been two of America’s favorite cuisines, after all, and what’s wrong with that?
Lunch at an actual steakhouse in Italy a few years ago