In less than a century, the cuisine has gone from relative obscurity to global sensation—here’s how.
Even if you regularly write about—and cook, eat, drink—Italian fare, it’s easy to take for granted just how beloved the cuisine is. Not only do those of us with Italian heritage dote on family recipes, but so too do most Americans and as it turns out, the rest of the world. In a global survey by market research firm YouGov, Italian scored the highest in terms of the percentage of people who had tried and liked the cuisine. The study polled participants across 24 countries regarding 34 cuisines ranging from Australian and Swedish to Singaporean and Moroccan. It was the most popular cuisine for Australians, Emiratis, Germans, Danes, and, not surprisingly, the Italians. In the U.S., Italian was the second favorite, just behind American food.
It’s a starkly different landscape from just less than a century ago. Before World War II, only a few major cities around the world had any Italian restaurants at all, according to food journalist John Mariani in his book, How Italian Food Conquered the World.
So how did a petite country that never boasted an empire like Spain, Britain, China, or Russia manage to woo the world with its incomparable flavors and dishes? The answer is, as you may expect, as nuanced as the cuisine itself.
1. Out of many, one
The motto, E. pluribus unum, is alive and well in Italian-American cuisine. While the U.S. dwarfs Italy in geographic scale, the latter is more complex in its regionalism. In fact, Italy was not united as a nation until 1861, it would take another 85 years for it to change from a kingdom to a republic. Accordingly, dialect, customs, and yes, food, vary greatly by region. Hearty risotto (in variations like ai funghi, alla Milanese, allo zafferano) to the north varies greatly from tiella (mussels baked with potato, onion, and rice) near the Adriatic and scafata (a sautéed medley of fava beans, bitter greens, and asparagus) in the Piedmont. Such regional favorites may be on the upswing now, but the sheer number of southern Italian immigrants before and after World War II led foods like pizza and pasta to dominate the category stateside.
2. Movin’ up
Many a chef—or nonna for that matter—would argue that even a dish as seemingly straightforward as spaghetti with marinara sauce is a labor-intensive feat. It’s true that hand-pressing pasta, peeling fresh tomatoes, and harvesting fresh can be somewhat involved, but the time commitment paled in comparison to the process in Italy. By and large, women spent most of their days (and household income) on food and cooking in Italy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By comparison, life in the U.S. required less time and money to put food on the table. By Mariani’s estimation, the extra time and discretionary funds paved the way to families striving to make the very best version of signature dishes, and, eventually, opening restaurants to serve the immigrant community and later the masses. Ironically enough, Mariani reports that the majority of these early restaurateurs had never stepped foot into ristoranti or trattorie back in Italy—save for maybe a pizzeria.