USA TODAY; By Don Oldenburg;
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.
Doubt that? Mariani makes an exhaustively convincing case for Italian being the global comfort food, but for scoffers, he needs only two words: pizza and pasta. Go to just about any major city anywhere, he writes, and chances are you’ll find an Italian restaurant or Italian dishes on the menu.
It wasn’t always that way. Not that long ago, Italian food was unknown beyond the Italian peninsula, or thought to be little more than macaroni or noodles. As recently as the early 1960s, Americans (other than Italian Americans) equated Italian fare with Chef Boyardee. Remarkably, many Americans then had never tasted pizza ? and didn’t even know how to pronounce it. Forget about knowing what authentic Italian food was about.
And it’s this phenomenal rise from obscurity to worldwide culinary status, from peasant kitchens and street spaghetti eaters of late 19th- and early 20th-century Italy to pioneering master chefs of la nuova cucina, that’s the main ingredient of this delectable full-course read. And underlying this history is the story of immigration ? the impact of millions of Italian immigrants adapting their homebased cookery to America and creating Italian-American dishes unlike those of their homeland.
Mariani, the food and wine correspondent for Esquire magazine and author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, serves up a fascinating story of Italy’s culinary evolution, starting with Greek and Roman times. He chronicles the stunning fact that prior to the seismic food shift following Columbus’ discovery of the New World, Italy knew nothing of chili peppers, potatoes and, yes, tomatoes! Throughout the book, Mariani stirs together splendid historical anecdotes and surprising facts. For instance, did you know that the most popular cookbook in Italy in 1891 didn’t mention tomato sauce? Or that the word “spaghetti” didn’t appear in print in Italy before 1939? Or that 19th-century Italian immigrants introduced America to ice cream and owned most of its grocery stores?
In a flavorful, conversational style, Mariani tells other tales, from the origins of Caesar salad and fettuccine all’Alfredo to the international rise of Italian wines from Prohibition’s “dago red” to today’s world-class Italian vino. Foodies will love the many back stories of legendary chefs and restaurants, such as Caffe Moretti in 1850s New York City (thought to be the first Italian restaurant in America), Alfredo’s in Rome, and Harry’s Bar in Venice. And Mariani brings us into the trendy trattorias of contemporary U.S. chefs like Mario Batali of New York’s Babbo and Del Posto.
At times, Mariani may obsess a bit on truffles or triflings. He dwells too long on the influence of the Italian mobster stereotype. But overall, this book is such a tasteful narrative that it will literally make you hungry for Italian food and arouse your appetite for gastronomical history.