Home / Columns / Our Food… Italian, Italian-American, or American?

Our Food… Italian, Italian-American, or American?

Last month I wrote about the “eternal question” (gravy or sauce?), which is a very Italian-American question in the sense that most non-Italian Americans would have little idea of its cosmic significance. This despite the fact that most Americans today enjoy Italian and Italian-American food as very much part of ‘their’ cuisine, particularly spaghetti. This has not always been the case, of course.

John's_Inc_Pizza_SpaghettiWhen Italians first came to the United States, Italian food was very much a strange cuisine. Here is Fredrick Bushee, a Social Worker of the South End House, describing the food of the Italians of the North End in 1897:

“The dinner of the ordinary Italian is made up largely of macaronic, French or Italian bread, and usually some meat and potato. That form of flour preparation known as spaghetti is most frequently used. This is boiled whole and served as a first course. The Italian experiences no difficulty whatever in eating this slippery food, for he merely sucks it into his mouth from his fork in a very unconventional if not elegant manner.”

Bushee is not critical here, but he is certainly describing a food that he is unaccustomed to as part of his daily American fare. And like other Progressives of that era, he saw Italian foods such as spaghetti as one of those foreign cultural items that would necessarily and appropriately slip away with the Americanization of Italians.

Certainly, Bushee had no conception that Americans could come to adopt this slippery food and line the streets of today’s North End to eat spaghetti along with other Italian dishes. Yet this is what happened. Thus, instead of Italians becoming Americanized, Americans became Italianized – to their lasting credit.

The hiccup in this development is this: I remember seeing a survey taken by the Ithaca Times, a local newspaper of Ithaca, NY, sometime in the early 1990s. It was one of those “best of” surveys, and two of the questions were:

1) What is the best non-American restaurant in Ithaca?
2) What is the best American restaurant in Ithaca?

I don’t remember the name of the winner of best non-American restaurant, but I can tell you that it sold Chinese food. And the winner of best American restaurant: Joe’s Italian Restaurant!

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.