The Washington Post
How Italian Food Conquered the Worldby John F. Mariani
Not so long ago, Italian food was regarded as a poor man's gruel-little more than pizza, macaroni with sauce, and red wines in a box. Here, John Mariani shows how the Italian immigrants to America created, through perseverance and sheer necessity, an Italian-American food culture, and how it became a global obsession. The book begins with the Greek, Roman,
Not so long ago, Italian food was regarded as a poor man's gruel-little more than pizza, macaroni with sauce, and red wines in a box. Here, John Mariani shows how the Italian immigrants to America created, through perseverance and sheer necessity, an Italian-American food culture, and how it became a global obsession. The book begins with the Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern culinary traditions before the boot-shaped peninsula was even called "Italy," then takes readers on a journey through Europe and across the ocean to America alongside the poor but hopeful Italian immigrants who slowly but surely won over the hearts and minds of Americans by way of their stomachs. Featuring evil villains such as the Atkins diet and French chefs, this is a rollicking tale of how Italian cuisine rose to its place as the most beloved fare in the world, through the lives of the people who led the charge.
With savory anecdotes from these top chefs and restaurateurs:
- Mario Batali
- Danny Meyer
- Tony Mantuano
- Michael Chiarello
- Giada de Laurentiis
- Giuseppe Cipriani
- Nigella Lawson
And the trials and triumphs of these restaurants:
- Da Silvano
- Union Square Cafe
- Il Cantinori
The Washington Post
“An entertaining and fact-filled chronicle.” Wall Street Journal
“Informative and entertaining examination of the rise of Italian cookery” Washington Post
“Eating Italian will never be the same after reading John Mariani's entertaining and savory gastronomical history of the cuisine of Italy and how it won over appetites worldwide.” USA Today
“Informed and enlightening, loving and luscious.” Kirkus Reviews
“Fact-filled, entertaining history.” Publisher's Weekly
“A comprehensive and entertaining chronicle of Italian food, as much about colorful characters as ingredients.” Everett Potter's Travel Report
“Making sense of Italian food's history is no small undertaking, but like any true professional, long-time Esquire Magazine food correspondent and legendary restaurant columnist Mariani handles the subject with ease.” Booklist
“Mariani captures the history and elemental beauty of a cuisine that really does seem to appeal to more palates than any other... you owe it to yourself to read this book.” Las Vegas Weekly
“John Mariani offers a full-course menu on the history of Italian cooking. The book has both a solid main course on changing food through the ages as well as tasty side dishes on Italian wine and the Mediterranean diet. To enjoy it properly, read the book with a glass of Vin Santo and a biscotti at your elbow.” George M. Taber, author of Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine
“John Mariani's thoroughly researched book is a fantastic and fascinating read, covering everything from the influence of Venice's spice trade to the impact of Italian immigrants in America and the evolution of alta cucina. This book will serve as a terrific resource to anyone interested in the real story of Italian food. Told in a conversational voice, Mariani knows his subject well and weaves a historical story rich in facts and traditions.” Mary Ann Esposito, host of PBS' "Ciao Italia," television's longest-running cooking show
“A mouthwatering, delectable and delightful romp through peasant kitchens and luxurious restaurants from Italy to the UK and America. Mariani is a cultural anthropologist, social historian and amiable dinner companion as he traces the evolution of Italian cuisine from the denigration to apotheosis.” Stanislao G. Pugliese, Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies, Hofstra University and author of Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone
“This is the book that John Mariani was born to write, and, quite frankly, I know of nobody else who has the rich family background, keen grasp of Italian culinary history, vast professional connections, and overall first-hand experience necessary to relate such a fascinating and important story. I found myself reading this chronicle as if it were a novel packed full of intriguing events, unexpected developments, and a cast of colorful characters, and if you love great Italian food (and who doesn't?), you won't be able to put the book down.” James Villas, author of The Bacon Cookbook and Pig: King of the Southern Table
“Equal parts history, sociology, gastronomy, and just plain fun, How Italian Food Conquered the World tells the captivating and delicious story of (let's face it) everybody's favorite cuisine with clarity and verve and more than one surprise.” Colman Andrews, author, Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food, and editorial director, The Daily Meal.com
“In this fascinating culinary and cultural tale, John F. Mariani details the imaginative genius of Italian-American chefs and restaurateurs who transformed restaurant meals from overcooked macaroni and jug wine into perfect bites of pasta al dente and heavenly sips of Barolo and Barbaresco, ensuring that Italian cuisine would be the envy of the world. With a sweeping narrative that begins in ancient Rome and concludes with a behind-the-scenes look at today's trendiest restaurants, How Italian Food Conquered the World is a food lover's delight. Raise la forchetta and dig in!” Maria Laurino
“John Mariani has written the definitive history of the how the Italians won their way into our hearts, minds, and stomachs. It's a story of pleasure over pomp and taste over technique. About the only territory they've left alone is Thanksgiving. And come to think of it, in my family we'll be serving spaghetti with turkey meatballs this year.” Danny Meyer
“Beautifully told, food critic John Mariani weaves together a captivating chronicle of the rise of Italian cuisine, from the courage and ingenuity of poor immigrants to the sophistication and business-savvy of today's five-star chefs. A book to be savored.” Marchese Piero Antinori
“John Mariani's superb writing has captured perfectly the rise of Italian food throughout history, unraveling the evolution of a cuisine that confused the world before conquering it! How Italian Food Conquered the World will fascinate future generations who wish to know more about Italian food and wine culture.” Tony May, restaurateur and owner of San Domenico and SD26
John Mariani offers a full-course menu on the history of Italian cooking. The book has both a solid main course on changing food through the ages as well as tasty side dishes on Italian wine and the Mediterranean diet. To enjoy it properly, read the book with a glass of Vin Santo and a biscotti at your elbow.
This is the book that John Mariani was born to write, and, quite frankly, I know of nobody else who has the rich family background, keen grasp of Italian culinary history, vast professional connections, and overall first-hand experience necessary to relate such a fascinating and important story. I found myself reading this chronicle as if it were a novel packed full of intriguing events, unexpected developments, and a cast of colorful characters, and if you love great Italian food (and who doesn't?), you won't be able to put the book down.
Italian food is great—no, world-altering—writes Esquire food and wine correspondent Mariani (The Italian-American Cookbook, 2000, etc.).
Beginning with a historical perspective, the author shows how "Italian food" really had multiple meanings and multiple menus due to the country's fragmented government until its 1861 unification. The great waves of Italian emigrants, especially to England and the United States, in the 19th century began the global love affair for pasta that has inflated during the past century. Mariani charts the rise of the first Italian-American brands (Ghirardelli, Ragù, Chef Boy-Ar-Dee) and examines countless films and TV shows that involve Italian cuisine—from early Mob movies throughThe Godfather and The Sopranos. The author also looks at popular song (Dean Martin's hit "That's Amore" earns some play time), Italian restaurants across America and the simultaneous rise of Italian wines and high fashion. Gucci and Armani appear in the same book with Rice-a-Roni and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, which premiered in 1937. Mariani lauds the health benefits of fine Italian food and snarls some about the low-carb Atkins Diet. Those pretentious French chefs, he writes, found themselves turning to olive oil and pasta to survive. And the influence of Ferran Adrià (seeColeman Andrews' Ferran, 2010) and other inventive molecular gastronomists? "Very limited," writes the author. Mariani sprinkles recipes throughout, from basic marinara sauce to more demanding dishes like "Egg-Filled Ravioli with Truffles," and profiles a host of relevant people and places, from Pino Luongo to Paul Bartolotta.
Informed and enlightening, loving and luscious.
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Read an Excerpt
How Italian Food Conquered the World
By John F. Mariani
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2011 John Mariani
All rights reserved.
A Plate of Soup Surrounded by Too Many Spoons
Simply put, there was no Italian food before there was an Italy. There was Tuscan food and Ligurian food and Sicilian food and Sardinian food, but for two thousand years there was no Italian food. Not until 1861, when most of its 20 regions were unified as a kingdom under Victor Emmanuel II, was there a country called Italy. Even then, city-states such as Venice and Rome (which was declared the new capital) and some of the papal states remained separate from the new country. Before 1861 and for a century afterward, what people ate in Rome had little to do with what they ate in Bari, and when Florentines dined, it was not on the same food and wine enjoyed by Neapolitans or Venetians. There was regional food, but for two thousand years there was no Italian food. Then as now, and especially in the kitchen, Italians resisted being thought of merely as Italians.
The name Italy had of course been used for millennia, referring to the dozens of highly diverse regions on the long finger of mountainous land that divides the Mediterranean in two. "I call Italy all that peninsula which is bounded by the Ionian Gulf and the Tyrrhenian Sea and, thirdly, by the Alps on the landward side," wrote the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the first century BC in his Roman Antiquities. But he was speaking of Italy as he might of Asia or Africa rather than as a territory of indigenous people who regarded themselves as Italians. The Italian language, derived from Latin, is not even found in print earlier than the tenth century, and most people spoke only their local dialect, unintelligible to people in the next region, sometimes even in the next town, well into the twentieth century.
The story of Italy's myriad food cultures begins within the much wider context of the Mediterranean Basin and with the people who so relentlessly invaded the peninsula for more than two thousand years. With its rippling, ragged coastlines jutting out into the seas, its broad, fertile valleys, and hillsides ideal for viticulture, Italy was always ripe for trade and conquest. The Greeks settled in southern Italy and Sicily around 800 BC; the Gauls came to the northern Po Valley in the fifth century BC; soon afterward, Rome consolidated its power and began its march to empire, expanding its dominance over most of the known western world as far as Britain.
Then, beginning in the fifth century AD, successive barbarian tribes drove southward into Italy. The Visigoths sacked Rome in 410, and when the German general Odoacer declared himself King of Italy in 476, the Western Roman Empire came to its end. For the next thousand years every inch of Italy was fought over, divided, and restructured by successive invaders—Ostrogoths, Lombards, Byzantines, Franks, Normans, and Arabs, well into the fourteenth century, when the new northern Italian city-states struggled for hegemony, often through alliances with the papacy.
Sicily, valued as the bread basket of the Mediterranean because of its vast wheat fields, was controlled by the Greeks, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, and the Holy Roman Emperor in succession, before going into decline in the thirteenth century under inept French and Aragonese control. In 1713, Naples and Sardinia came under the rule of Austria, which also gained control over Tuscany and Venice; Corsica was sold by Genoa to France; finally, Napoleon invaded Italy in 1800, crowning his brother Joseph King of Naples.
It is little wonder, then, that Italy has been compared colloquially to a plate of soup surrounded by too many spoons. This varied political history is reflected in its culinary history, which reflects so many culinary influences. By the third century BC, Roman food culture had absorbed Greek cookery—a very simple diet of grains, vegetables, and fish—in only the most ancillary ways. The appetites of both wealthy Greeks and Romans favored sweet and sour flavors of honey and vinegar; one of the principle flavorings was fermented fish sauce, along with spices like coriander, cumin, and oregano. And well-to-do Romans valued the sweet wines of Greece over Italy's own wines.
The world's first known cookbook is Roman, entitled Apicius, after nobleman Marcus Gavius Apicius, or De Re Coquinaria (On the subject of cooking), which appeared during the first century AD. Probably compiled by Apicius's slave cooks for the slave cooks of other wealthy families, the recipes, nearly five hundred of them, provided little indication of measurements but gave a good idea of the lavish banquets mounted by men like Apicius. Dinners described by Apicius and early chroniclers like Cato, Pliny, Plautus, Plutarch, and especially Petronius in the "Trimalchio's Feast" section of his picaresque Satyricon, were as extravagant as any in history. There were tables piled high with exotica such as porpoise, dormice, coxcombs, ostriches, sows' wombs, cranes, flamingoes, and camels, all washed down with sweet, scented wine. The third-century emperor Heliogabalus once ordered six hundred ostriches to be slaughtered for pies to be served to his banquet guests and supposedly fattened vats of eels with the meat of Christians slain in the Coliseum. In most cases such gluttonous meals would be interrupted for guests to visit vomitoria in order to expel what they had eaten; then they would go back to the table and gorge for hours more.
In the cities there were taverns and food stalls, and in Rome, the attractions of the Coliseum, theater, prostitution, and thievery went hand in hand with gluttony, as fourth-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote, describing the vices of the Romans: "Attracted by the smell of cooking and the shrill voices of the women, who scream from cockcrow like a flock of starving peacocks, they stand about the courts on tiptoe, biting their fingers and waiting for the dishes to cool. Others keep their gaze fixed on some revolting mess of meat till it is ready."
But the common man of Rome and the rest of Italy lived on little more than bread, olives, a few vegetables such as chickpeas and broccoli, and, when available, meat. Landowning farmers enjoyed an additional bounty, especially eggs and fruits, perhaps even some animals for slaughter. The Roman legions marched down paved Roman roads on a diet of grains of oats, wheat, barley, and spelt, in the form of porridge and bread, along with a little meat. Everyone drank wine, usually cut with water. (By the end of the first century, aqueducts were providing Rome with 50 gallons of water per capita per day.)
Trade also brought different elements to the cuisine of the Italian peninsula. The seaside cities like Genoa, Venice, Naples, and Palermo grew wealthy both from importing and exporting food, especially spices. Wine and olive oil was shipped around the Mediterranean from Italian vineyards. In the interior of Italy inns lined the roads that were built throughout Italy to ensure the easy movement of merchants. By the time Rome had grown into an omnivorous empire, the universal taxation of conquered people and the import of spices from as far away as India brought untold wealth to the capital. Still, given their expense, such exotica as cinnamon, saffron, ginger, and coriander was available only to Rome's wealthiest citizens.
* * *
The disintegration of the empire in the fifth century led to the corruption of Roman law, the reversal of great advances in Roman agriculture and irrigation, and the closing off of well-established trade routes. Further, with the onset of the Dark Ages, most Europeans would endure five hundred years of food shortages and a diet that was barely sufficient to keep body and soul together, consisting mostly of grains and vegetables. Famines were frequent and long; chronic wars interrupted trade routes, and starving one's enemies by destroying foodstuffs or blockading whole cities was standard military policy.
The Black Death, or the bubonic plague, which probably began in China in the 1330s, reached Florence in 1348 and spread from there throughout the Western world, killing between one-third and two-thirds of the population. The vestiges of this epidemic did not entirely disappear from Europe until the nineteenth century. Towns were breeding grounds for disease, and food was also scarce in urban settings; for while they provided protection of food stores and granaries for its citizens, food was not produced there and merchants in town could sell only what was brought in from the country, and that was usually scarce. Almost all food, especially vegetables, was expensive for the peasants, with the exception of bread. Vegetable crops were dependent upon local farmers' ancient agricultural practices, which were unimproved for millennia, and crops were prone to failure.
Central markets were established within the city walls and became, after the church, the social center of the populace. Feast days, akin to the Roman idea of tamping down popular discontents with "bread and circuses" (minus the slaughter of Christians), were established by the church as a way both to maintain the people's link to their religion and to allow for a display of excess now and then, so that the extra expenditure on a little frying oil or honey was geared to a saint's holy day, and the killing of a pig was license to drink a little more wine than normal, as long as every part of the pig was eaten or preserved.
Otherwise, the church preached frugality in extremis. In the monasteries, monks had vegetable and herb gardens, but largely they depended on the local farms and towns to provide their sustenance, except for the mendicant orders, which depended entirely on begging. Not until the sixth century, when the Benedictines changed the rules for monks' diets, were they allowed to eat two meals a day; prior to that, monks subsisted on a single meal of porridge, dried biscuits, and little else. Still, only one meal was allowed on fast days, which could number at least two hundred per year.
As ever, the aristocratic courts had access to the best food and wine, and, except for the absence of slave girls, medieval banquets were not much less extravagant than those of ancient Rome. The rich, called the popolo grasso (fat people), ate meat in great quantities, eschewed fish except on fast days, and adored game dishes, so that the nursery rhyme about four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie was not far from the kind of dainty dishes actually set before the king.
The popolo grasso were also the main consumers in the lucrative spice trade. Spices, though extremely expensive, still made their way to European cities and made the merchants who sold them rich. Venice and other Italian port cities were strategically important at the onset of the Crusades in 1095, the original aim of which was to free the Holy Land from the Muslims. The church's success in rousing the populace of Europe to arms was based on religion, but the wars also offered cities, nobles, and merchants new opportunities for territorial and mercantile expansion, while liberating the poor from their wretched state in life. By the time the Crusades ended, with the Christians' abandonment of Acre in 1291, Europe had gained access to Arab culture, science, and trade; and since the papacy and Byzantine Empire had been weakened as the nobility and merchant class grew stronger, Italian city-states emerged as the new great powers in the Mediterranean. Venice was the ultimate victor because the city was under the protection of Byzantium and so well situated on the Adriatic. It also was closest to the spice sources and grew rich from its fishing trade and held a monopoly on salt drawn from its own lagoons.
Into this late medieval world sailed Marco Polo, a Venetian who began a remarkable journey in 1271 to reach Kublai Khan's court in China. During his travels, Polo conducted business with and for Khan, visited Southeast Asia and India, ruled the city of Yangchow for three years, and acted as an escort for the Khan of Persia's wife. After fifteen thousand miles of travel over fourteen years, he returned to Venice in 1295 and immediately joined his city's struggle against the port city of Genoa. After being captured, while he was imprisoned for two years, he dictated a memoir of all he had seen on his travels to Asia, a narrative that was to remain the principal account of the Orient for a Western audience until well into the nineteenth century.
Despite its exaggerations and probable falsification of some events, Polo's descriptions of the magnificence of Chinese cities showed Europe still to be in the shadows of the Dark Ages in art, science, architecture, warfare, and gastronomy. He described vast fleets of trading ships bringing spices from the East Indies, and the array of foods and aspects of cuisine that he encountered: exotic and familiar fruits, like bananas, vegetables, different cooking methods, tastes, refined sugar, eating places and three-story wine halls. He was astonished at the size and scope of the fish markets in Hangzhou, which brought seafood 25 miles upriver. Marco Polo could not believe that so much seafood could be sold in a single day.
He also described the passion the Chinese had for noodles, which he compared to the kind of vermicelli already enjoyed back in Italy. The long-discredited myth of Marco Polo's discovering noodles and bringing the idea back to Italy seems to have come from a misreading of one of the myriad corrupted texts that made up what came to be called The Travels of Marco Polo. By the same token, he also commented on the important role of rice in Chinese cuisine, a revelation that would have been far more surprising to Italians, because there was none being cultivated in Italy at that time.
Marco Polo's achievements were spectacular at a time when the world known to Europeans did not extend much beyond Persia in the east and certainly not beyond Portugal in the west. But far beyond dazzling his readers with his tales of adventure and challenging Europeans to learn from the Orient, Marco Polo stoked a raging appetite for foods and spices that could be found only in China, India, and the Indies. Indeed, the high price of spices such as cinnamon, saffron, and turmeric gives the lie to the absurd contention that medieval cooks doused their food with spices because the meat and fish were poor in quality. No one could afford to waste spices on bad meat or fish.
The prospect of unfathomable wealth—not political power, not the extending of the Christian religion—drove that appetite eastward. After Venice vanquished Genoa in the War of Chioggia in 1380, the way east would go through Venice, which acquired the name "La Serenissima." That is, until someone could somehow find a route sailing west.
Even before Marco Polo's return from the Orient in 1295, the project of finding a sea route to India for the sole purpose of obtaining spices had been undertaken by other determined merchants. Brothers Ugolino and Vadino Vivaldi left Genoa in 1291 with a ten-year plan to reach India by sailing westward and down the African coast. They never returned, and their fate is unknown.
In 1488, Portuguese nobleman Bartholomew Diaz actually rounded the tip of Africa but was prevented by a mutinous crew from pushing on to India. Finally, in 1498, Vasco da Gama, sailing from Lisbon, reached Calcutta, returning a year later, his hold heavy with Indian spices. His achievement paid off tremendously well for Portugal: within 25 years of his voyage, it had become Europe's principal conduit for Eastern spices and charged exorbitantly for them, effectively loosening Venice's hold on the spice trade.
Six years earlier, however, a Genoese sea captain named Christopher Columbus had sailed under the Spanish flag straight westward in search of the Indies but instead found a New World of unimaginable wealth—not rich with the soughtafter spices of the Orient but far, far richer in foods that led to what became known as the Columbian Exchange. This reciprocity of trade, from Europe to the Americas and back, was truly a revolution. Food historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto has called it "a long-term structural shift in history [and] one of the biggest modifications ever inflicted by man on the rest of nature" as plants and animals that had developed in isolation for over two hundred million years were suddenly, as of the sixteenth century, "shifted around the world in a convergent pattern." From the New World to the Old came amaranth grain, avocadoes, various beans, bell peppers, blueberries, cashews, chile peppers, cocoa, vanilla, corn, papayas, peanuts, pecans, pineapples, white and sweet potatoes, pumpkins, quinoa, and tomatoes. In turn, the Old World sent to the New apples, artichokes, asparagus, bananas, barley, black pepper, cabbage, carrots, coffee, lemons and limes, garlic, lettuce, oats, millet, olives, peaches, peas, rice, rye, soybeans, sugarcane, tea, and, perhaps most important, wheat.
Europeans also brought bees, chickens, cows, geese, horses, pigs, sheep, and water buffalo to the Americas. Spaniard Ponce de Léon introduced beef cattle to Florida in 1521 and his countryman Francesco Vásquez de Coronado brought them into southwestern America; the Spanish brought hogs to Florida in 1539. Within decades, the gastronomies of both hemispheres were mightily enriched and drastically altered; within three centuries many of the imported foods had become staples in areas where they had been completely unknown.
Excerpted from How Italian Food Conquered the World by John F. Mariani. Copyright © 2011 John Mariani. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Meet the Author
John Mariani is a food and travel columnist for Esquire, wine columnist for Bloomberg News, has a newsletter that goes out to 40,000 subscribers. He has been called by The Philadelphia Inquirer "the most influential food-wine critic in the popular press." He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food&Drink, The Dictionary of Italian Food&Drink, and with his wife Galina, The Italian-American Cookbook. He lives in Tuckahoe, New York.
Lidia Bastianich is an American chef and restaurateur. Specializing in Italian and Croatian cuisine, she has been a regular contributor to the PBS cooking show lineup since 1998. In 2007, she launched her third TV series, Lidia's Italy. She also owns four Italian restaurants in the U.S.: Felidia and Becco in Manhattan; Lidia's Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Lidia's Kansas City in Kansas City, Missouri.
John Mariani began his career as a journalist at New York magazine in 1973. Since then, he has become one of America’s premier food writers. He is a columnist for Esquire and Bloomberg News, was nominated three times for the James Beard Journalism Award, and is the author of several highly regarded books on food, including references such as Mariani’s Coast-to-Coast Dining Guide, America Eats Out (winner of the IACP Julia Child Cookbook Award for reference), and most recently, How Italian Food Conquered the World. He is also the author of The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink andeditor of Italian Cuisine: Basic Cooking Techniques, the primary Italian textbook at the Culinary Institute of America.
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