Thursday, December 13, 2012

American Italian Food

By Patricia Winton

Spaghetti al pomodoro
(Spaghetti with tomato sauce)
Polenta con salsiccia
(Polenta with sausage)
Gnocchi alla parmigiana
(Potato dumplings with Parmesan)
Risotto con la zucca
(Rice with pumpkin)

Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo
The items listed above could appear on the daily menu of any restaurant in Italy, but without explorations begun by Italy’s native son, Cristoforo Colombo, not one could be there today. The fact of the matter is, many of Italy’s favorite foodstuffs originated in the Americas. Most traveled first to Spain.

Look at the first item. No, spaghetti, arguably Italy’s favorite food, did not originate in the New World, but the preferred sauce for that spaghetti is tomato-based. Native to South America, tomatoes were transported by Spanish explorers. Initially believed to be poisonous because they come from the nightshade family—it’s not called Deadly Nightshade for nothing—tomatoes were originally used by the Europeans as decorations. The first cookbook to use tomatoes in cuisine came from Naples in a recipe called ”Salsa di Pomodoro alla Spagnola,” Spanish Tomato Sauce, and tomato sauce is still a Neapolitan—in fact, Italian—favorite, especially when paired with the ubiquitous spaghetti.

The second American ingredient on our menu is corn, or maize. Columbus most certainly carried maize from Cuba, though it’s not clear if he transported it on his first or second voyage. Our menu has just one form of maize, or mais as it’s called in Italy, but Italians generally use it in three modes. First, canned kernels are popular additions to salads. I’ve never seen these served any other way. Grocery stores sell pre-mixed salad bowls topped by the yellow kernels and cans of them grace supermarket shelves. Second, the ears are roasted on a barbecue. The ears sold in the markets are much too mature for my taste. The sugar has turned to starch, and even if you cut the kernels off the cob, they taste starchy and vile. However, the calderrostai, who fire up charcoal braziers in winter for chestnuts, offer roasted ears in tourist centers, and people buy unshucked ears In the market. I must admit that I’ve never seen these on a restaurant menu.

The prime maize product is a coarse cornmeal that produces polenta, a cornmeal mush. The traditional recipes call for slow stove-top cooking that requires constant stirring for ages. Today, instant polenta is available in the supermarket here, boxed much like minute rice. It takes far less time to prepare and tastes reasonably good. Polenta can be spread in a rectangular pan and allowed to cool before being cut into squares. These squares, often grilled, serve as the base for toppings of cheese, fish, or sauces for antipasti. Polenta can also be spooned into bowls and topped with a sauce. Sausage, cooked in a robust tomato sauce, reigns as the favorite, but any hearty sauce with meat or game makes a filling, warming winter dish.

Preparing Gnocchi
Consulting our menu again, we see potatoes, which originated in Peru about 7,000 years ago. They also made their way to Europe with Spanish explorers, arriving in Italy in the mid-1500s. And while potatoes are fried, boiled, roasted, scalloped, and made into chips here, the Italians created a unique potato dish in gnocchi, a type of dumpling made with mashed potatoes, flour and eggs. The dough is formed into long ropes then cut into 3/4 inch pieces. They are then rolled across a grooved surface—like a fork or a wooden paddle designed for the task—to make ridges to catch the sauce. Like polenta, gnocchi are served in place of spaghetti. They can be sauced simply with butter and cheese or elaborately with lobster or asparagus.

The zucca in the next menu item is pumpkin. American lore tells us that the Pilgrims learned about pumpkin from the Native Americans and celebrated the first Thanksgiving with a pumpkin dessert. And that is certainly true, but in fact, Columbus carried pumpkin along with the other seeds to Europe a couple of centuries earlier. Pumpkin is rarely used in sweets here, but it is cooked as a vegetable, made into soup, flavors risotto, and stuffs ravioli. It is even used in place of potatoes in gnocchi some recipes. One of my favorite preparations is pumpkin gnocchi served with gorgonzola sauce. Ummm.

Other plants and animals native to the Americas are common fare in Italy today—from turkeys to tobacco. Columbus intended to chart a route that would bring flavors to enhance food in Europe. Instead, he brought a whole new supply of food, especially to his homeland.

I blog on alternate Thursdays at Italian Intrigues. Please join me there.


  1. Fascinating! And now I'm hungry for everything you wrote about. ARGH!!!

  2. I loved this piece. I love all of your work. Very interesting and informative.

    Emily McCoy

    1. Thank you, Emily. I working on putting together a collection of my old columns, which you probably haven't seen. I'll keep you posted.

  3. Wow, I learned a lot from this post, Patricia! And here I only knew about the food that originated from Columbus's hometown (pesto, for one). Fascinating stuff.

    1. Thanks, Supriya. In my current WIP, the professor prepares a lecture on this topic. Whether or not he gets to give it may lead to murder.

    2. That sounds like a delicious clue, Patricia!

    3. Thanks, Beth. We'll see how it proceeds.

  4. This is yummy culinary history here, Patricia. I may have to go and make a big pot of spaghetti now - with tomatoes and corn to celebrate the New World. :) It makes you wonder what Italian cooking was like before Columbus set foot on Hispaniola.

  5. Spaghetti and corn. There's a novel idea.