Burt Wolf's Table: Italian Food in America - #211

BURT WOLF:  For hundreds of years, the Italian cities of Florence and Venice have produced some of the finest food in Europe.  We'll learn a few of those recipes, and how those dishes were brought to America.  We'll also find out how the Italian cooks used the Prohibition years in the U.S. to make Italian food the most popular restaurant food in North America.  And we'll discover how they taught us to eat our vegetables.  So join me for Italian food in America, at Burt Wolf's Table.

During the 1880s, a conflict arose between the Italian immigrants to North America and the scientific community.  Researchers began to develop a series of theories about the relationship of what people ate and drank and their overall well-being, and to teach these theories as if they were new scientific truths.

They had some interesting ideas.  They thought that the tomato was poisonous and could actually kill you.  They thought that fruits and vegetables had so much water in them that from a nutritional point of view they were useless; they thought that green vegetables were the worst of all.  They thought garlic was so dangerous it was like a self-inflicted wound.  They were very nervous about you eating different foods at the same time; if you put meatloaf and mashed potatoes and peas and carrots on the same plate and ate them at the same time, it would put too much stress on your digestive system and you would get sick.  Ludicrous stuff.  Imagine a family showing up here in New York City from southern Italy, and the scientists and the government are telling them this stuff about food -- everything they love, and even more important, everything their mother tells them to eat, is now bad for them?  Outrageous.

Well, it's taken a hundred years, and what we've found out is everything that the Italians said was good for you ... is good for you!

When Americans talk about the food of northern Italy, we're usually talking about the cooking of the regional district called Tuscany.  Since the third century BC, Tuscany has been one of the great places for Italian cooking.  And for hundreds of years, the city of Florence has dominated the area.  The cooks of Florence prefer natural dishes without complex preparation.  They want the true flavors of the ingredients to come through, and they want them to come through without disguise.

When ancient Rome fell to the invaders, just about all the good cooking in Europe came to an end, and you don't see it make a comeback until the 1300s.  The big comeback came in Tuscany, and the city of Florence in Italy.  That was also the time where you see the first reemergence of a gourmet society.  It was called the Society of the Cauldron.  It had twelve members; each was a painter or a sculptor, and each had to come up with a new dish for their regular meetings.  Quite a bit of pressure.

You often see beans in their recipes.  Beans are very important in Tuscany.  As a matter of fact, other Italians often refer to Tuscans as "bean-eaters," and they really don't mean it in a nice way.  But if you know about good nutrition, to be skilled in bean cookery is a badge of honor.

This is the Tribeca Film Center in New York City.  On the first floor, there's a restaurant called Tribeca Grill, owned by Robert De Niro, Bill Murray, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and a few other famous eaters.

High ceilings, bare brick walls, and a relaxed, informal atmosphere.  The place has become popular for its seafood, homemade pastas, and a series of dishes with an interesting blend of French, Italian, and Asian influences.  The chef, Don Pintabona, is preparing an escarole and white bean soup.

A little vegetable oil goes into a hot pan; a little Italian bacon called pancetta; sliced onion; two cloves of chopped garlic; chopped carrot, chopped celery.  White beans that have been pre-cooked.  Chicken stock.  And some escarole or swiss chard or even spinach that's been blanched in boiling water for a few minutes and cut up.  A bunch of thyme.  Thirty minutes of cooking, and it's “thyme out” -- freshly ground pepper in.  And it's ready for the bowl.  Don garnishes the soup with a puree of basil, and finally there's a grating of pecorino romano cheese.

Beans are actually the seeds of plants in the legume family.  They're native to America, and were first brought back to Europe probably by Christopher Columbus.  When you're picking out beans in the market, go for the dried variety; they're more flavorful, more nutritious, and firmer than other kinds.

Central Park South is one of New York's most beautiful streets.  It runs along the park from Fifth Avenue to Columbus Circle.  Next to the statue of that famous Italian is one of the city's most famous Italian restaurants.  It's called Sandomenico, and it's owned by Tony May.  The chef is Theo Schoenegger.  One of his classic dishes is a large Roman pasta with fava bean sauce.

A little oil goes into a heated saute pan.  As soon as the oil is hot, in goes a cup of chopped shallots or onion.  That sautes for about two minutes, and a few red peppers get crushed and dropped in.  Three cups of chicken stock.  A little salt and pepper.  On goes the cover, and everything simmers for ten minutes, at which point it's ladled into a blender and followed by some pre-cooked fava beans.  If fava beans aren't available, use lima beans.  The pureed sauce is then strained and held aside.  Some chopped tomato and a few whole pre-cooked beans are sauted in a little oil.  The bean puree is added, and some pre-cooked pasta.  Some pecorino romano cheese, and it's ready to serve.

Mark Twain used to say:  "If you don't like the weather, just wait a minute; it'll change."  Sometimes I feel you can take the same approach to the history of nutritional advice.  If there's a scientific group and it's telling you you should or should not eat something, and you don't like the advice, hang on; in a couple of months they'll tell you something new.  My favorite flip-flop in the history of nutrition took place during the first two decades of the 20th century, right here in the U.S.

For centuries, the idea of good eating meant meat and fat.  Then in the early 1900s, researchers discovered vitamins and dietary minerals, and all the rules changed.  Suddenly, fruits and vegetables became good foods.

And that was very important to the Italians in North America.  The Italian immigrants here had a diet that was low in fat, low in meat, and very high in fruits and vegetables.  Magazines that had food columns were suddenly very busy looking for recipes that did a good job with fruit, and especially vegetables.  And the easiest place to find those?  The Italian community.  Within a few years, Italian food became the darling diet of the food reporter.

By the 1920's, Italian food had a status among the middle class; and today it is the most popular ethnic cuisine, and the original force behind our interest in vegetables.

Broccoli is a member of the cabbage family, and was probably first grown in Italy.  The ancient Romans had recipes for it; they used the flowerettes as if they were cauliflower, and the stems as if they were asparagus.  Broccoli is actually an Italian word, and it's used in many languages with very little change, which means that it was the Italians who introduced broccoli to the other countries of Europe.  And it was the Italians who popularized North America, and they did it during the early years of the century, at the exact same time that scientists were discovering the vitamin.  What a break for broccoli!

It's a good source of vitamin A and B, and it has more vitamin C than an equal amount of orange.  Broccoli also has significant amounts of calcium, iron, potassium, and fiber, and there are only forty calories in a full cup.  Make sure the buds on the plant are closed and bright green; if the buds are open or if they start to turn yellow, then it's past its prime.

My favorite story about broccoli deals with the opening of the Suffolk Downs racetrack in Boston, Massachusetts.  Just before the track opened, the Italian gardener who was in charge of the grounds was asked to plant something on the infield that was green and would grow quickly.  His choice was broccoli.  Great color; difficult to walk on.

Il Nido is Italian for "the nest":  a place where you will be protected and well-fed.  And that's a perfect description of one of New York's most respected Northern Italian restaurants.  Cozy, warm atmosphere, constant and professional attention, and great food ... my kind of nest.

Today, the chef, Luigi Campoverde, is preparing a dish of penne pasta with broccoli.  First the pasta goes into a pot of boiling water.  While that's cooking, the sauce is made by heating a little vegetable oil in a saute pan; two cloves of garlic are sliced and added to the pan; a cup or so of broccoli flowerettes go in; a little chicken stock; and a pinch of salt.  All that cooks together for five minutes.  At that point, the pasta is drained from the cooking water and added to the pan with the sauce.

One of the hallmarks of Italian chefs is to add the cooked pasta to the pan of sauce, so the pasta stays warm and it gets a good chance to absorb the sauce.  A minute more cooking to heat everything up; into a serving bowl; some grated pecorino romano cheese on top, and it's finished.  Lots of complex carbohydrates, low in fat.  Good dish.

On January 16th, 1919, the government of the United States passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.  That amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcoholic beverages.  For years, distilled spirits, wine, and beer were illegal.

NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER:  And then enforcement begins.  In Boston, as in every other city, government agents fight hopelessly against illegal liquor.  These homemade stills are but a few of thousands seized and destroyed.  Other thousands produce millions of gallons, and countless hundreds prosper in the business of bootlegging.

Government men get forty to fifty dollars a week for this.  It's work well done.  Here, as in all 48 states, still and product are discovered and destroyed.  Mash meant for market as bootleg booze is poured into the mud.

BURT WOLF:  Prohibition has come and gone with amazingly little impact on the way we drink in the United States.  But surprisingly, it's had an enormous effect on the way we eat.  Before Prohibition, when people went out to a restaurant, the restaurant served basically English food:  roasts, steaks, and maybe some French recipes adapted for the American market.

When Prohibition arrived, it was impossible for people to go to these restaurants and have a meal with a glass of beer or wine ... unless you went to the Italian neighborhoods and ate in the kitchens associated with the small rooming houses.  For decades, they'd been making their own beer and wine and serving it to the people who lived in the rooming house.  The local authorities more or less overlooked this brewing process and let them do what they wanted.  During Prohibition, the general public realized that they could go into the Italian neighborhoods, eat in these rooming houses, have a great meal and a glass of beer and wine at a low price; and suddenly Italian food became very popular.  As a matter of fact, today Italian restaurants are the most popular restaurants in the United States.  Here's to you.

But Italian recipes were not only for Italian restaurants.  Within a few years, classic Italian dishes began to show up in many other types of restaurants.  French restaurants began to serve pasta until the heading of "spaghetti a la Italiana."  The fashion for having Italian dishes on the menu in restaurants that are not just Italian is still quite popular.

An example of what I mean is the restaurant Adrienne, in the Peninsula Hotel on New York's Fifth Avenue.  One of their signature dishes is halibut with orzo and fennel.  Orzo is a traditionally Italian food.  Here's how the dish is prepared by chef Adam Odegard.

ADAM ODEGARD:  Okay, I'm going to steam the halibut ...

WOLF:  A filet of halibut goes onto a plate and into a steamer for ten minutes.  While that's cooking, a sauce is made.

ODEGARD:  And what I'm going to is I'm going to ... we're going to make a fennel emulsion, very light sauce, and I'm going to take a little bit of butter and a little bit of olive oil.  And we're going to sweat some garlic, chopped garlic.  Some fennel seeds.  Okay.  A bit of onion.  Fennel which has been Julienned.  A little seasoning there, and then we're going to put it on the fire.

WOLF:  The saute pan goes onto the stove and a little Pernod is added; Pernod is an alcohol-based drink with the flavor of licorice.  And finally some chicken stock is added.  While that's cooking, the pasta is made.  This is a very small pasta that looks like a rice; it's called orzo.  Orzo that's been cooked in boiling water goes into a saucepan, followed by the zest of a lemon, some chopped mint, butter, and chicken stock.  A few minutes of heat, and it's ready.  The presentation starts with a few slices of grilled zucchini, then the orzo, the steamed fish, the sauce, and some dried tomatoes.

Here's a second recipe from chef Adam Odegard.  It's a perfect example of how he takes a simple recipe and executes it with great technique.  It's a pan-roasted loin of beef.  The loin of beef is about the leanest cut; there are only about 180 calories in a three-ounce serving.  Beef is also a good source of iron, zinc, niacin, and vitamin B12.  The recipe starts by taking the loin and sprinkling on some chopped garlic, salt, and pepper.  Then place it into a frying pan that has a light coating of hot oil.  The meat is browned on all sides.  Vegetables are added.  Small pieces of celery go in, some onion, turnip, carrots, asparagus tips, and new potatoes.  Some chopped garlic and rosemary are added.  Five minutes of sauteing.  A little red wine.  Then into a 350-degree-Fahrenheit oven for 20 minutes.  When it comes out, the beef is sliced.  Then the vegetables go onto a serving plate; the beef; and finally the sauce.

Italians have not only influenced the way we eat and drink in America, but they have also played an important role in the hotel business.  One of the great examples is the Mayfair Baglioni in New York.

The Mayfair Baglioni opened in 1925, and quickly became a favorite gathering place for New York society.  The lobby lounge was the place to take tea to see and be seen.  President Franklin Roosevelt's New York City townhouse was just across the street, and he used the Mayfair as an extension of his home, often putting up his own house guests at the hotel.  These days, after a $30 million renovation, the Mayfair Baglioni is still a favorite gathering place, and the guests are just as impressive.  The registry lists the King of Spain, Nancy Reagan, the Dalai Lama, plus just regular folks like Placido Domingo, Sophia Loren, and Mel Gibson.

There are a number of things that make the Mayfair Baglioni special.  First of all, it has an ideal location at 65th Street and Park Avenue.  It sits in a landmark residential area that is extraordinarily charming.  It's half a block from Madison Avenue, which is lined with the finest boutiques in the city, as well as the major art galleries, important museums, and Central Park is just one street away, as is the midtown business district.  Everything in the Central Park area and the mid-city area is within walking distance.

The second major reason for the Mayfair's fame are the Mariottis.  Dario Marioatti has been the general manager of the Mayfair since 1978.  Shortly after taking the post, he moved his family into the hotel in order to be able to oversee its operations on a 24-hour basis.  His wife Gabriella watches out for many of the special details that make life at the Mayfair luxurious.  Dario's first action was to move his office to a space just behind the reception area, so he could see and hear the comings and goings of his guests.

Dario is a perfectionist.  He spends over $100,000 a year on fresh flowers.  When he discovered a pothole out in front of the hotel, he called the city to have it repaired; but they didn't come fast enough, so he got his own street-repair company.  When he wanted to serve tea in the lobby lounge, he made arrangements for Lord Twining, the managing director of Twining's Tea, to come over from London and show everybody how to make a proper cup.  And when the hotel renovation was finished, all of the high tech was on the inside; the new elevators are still operated by white-gloved attendants.

The Mayfair is also the first luxury property in New York to offer its guests unlimited local phone calls at no charge.  For a rental fee, the front desk will give you a pocket-sized cellular telephone that operates within Manhattan and can place and receive calls worldwide.  There's a fitness center with treadmills, stationary bicycles, Lifesteps, Nordic Track, rowing machines, and free weights; personal trainers are available on request.

I like the idea of a personal trainer.  I assume that's somebody you can hire to do your personal training for you so you can go lunch; nice concept.

The hotel also has a putting room; or you can have a putter, golf balls, and a putting machine delivered to your own room, in case you feel the need to putt in private.


The Mayfair has established a pillow bank.  They have sixteen different designs; my favorite is the Full-Body Pillow.  You can pick out any design you want, have as many of them as you want.  Once you've made your choice, the information goes into the computer, and when you return to the Mayfair, all of the pillows are laid out on your bed.

The world-famous Le Cirque restaurant is located in the Mayfair.  And if you're staying in your room because you have the sniffles and you feel the need to be mothered, the Mayfair will send you a bowl of hot chicken soup.  And in keeping with the hotel's attention to detail, that chicken soup is offered in various ethnic versions.

The Mayfair is like home ... a gentle, all-providing home, with the feeling of a great family residence.  And yet it's right in the middle of New York City.

The Italian city of Venice is actually made up of 118 little islands that sit in the center of a lagoon.  The islands are connected with about 400 bridges, and the only way to get around town is by boat; and it's been that way since the last years of the fifth century.  That was the time when a group of people headed over to these islands in the hope of escaping from an invading army that was ravaging the mainland.

Venice was in an ideal location to handle seaborne trade, and by the ninth century it was a major commercial center.  By the 1200s, Venice was the strongest sea power in Europe, and in virtual control of the major trade routes between Europe and Asia.  The influence of Asia and the Middle East on Venice can be seen in its architecture, art, cultural traditions, and its food.

The city of Venice sat right smack in the middle of the trade routes that brought rare spices from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.  As a result of the easy availability of those spices, plus exotic foods brought in from far-away places, and the great local ingredients, the cooking of Venice became quite spectacular.

Remi is the Italian word for the oars that are used to row boats, like the boats that are painted on the walls of the restaurant Remi in New York.  The mural depicts the Italian city of Venice, which is also the basis for the recipes created by owner-chef Francesco Antonucci.  A lover of seafood and pasta, he combines the two in a dish of tagliolini pasta and squid.

A little oil goes into a hot pan, followed by a chopped onion, some minced garlic, and thinly- sliced squid.  That's cooked and stirred for five minutes.  A splash of white wine, two chopped tomatoes, and some fresh herbs.  Francesco likes to use oregano, parsley, and thyme.  The sauce gets transferred to a saucepan, where it cooks for fifteen minutes.  Fresh pasta is cooked, drained, placed onto a serving dish, topped with the squid sauce, a few slices of pecorino romano cheese, a few more herbs, and it's ready to go.  Good taste and nice nutritional balance, too:  complex carbohydrates from the pasta and vegetables, and protein from the squid, all rather low in fat.

In most of the countries that border on the Mediterranean Sea, squid is a traditional seafood.  Even today, many Americans who are familiar with squad know it by its Italian name, calamari; and they usually had their first taste of it in an Italian restaurant.

Virtually all of the squid used in the United States comes from the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of California.  It's an excellent source of low-fat protein, and you find squid in most supermarkets; usually it's cleaned and ready to go right into your recipe, but every once in a while a little bit of extra prep is necessary, though not very much.

Inside the squid is a thin transparent bone.  It's important to remove this.  Just pull it out; usually it comes out in one easy motion.  Then check inside to make sure that you got all of it.  Then peel off any skin that's still on the outside; that should also come off very easily.

Then slice the squid or keep it whole, according to the recipe that you're going to use.  But don't forget about the tentacles.  Some of the best flavor is right there, so chop them up and get them in the pot.

The Chinese have been making something like ice cream for about 5,000 years, but it was the Italians who introduced ice cream to Europe, and eventually to the general public in North America.  The ancient Romans loved ice cream.  They would take a runner and send him up into the mountains to get ice, bring it back to town, mix it with crushed fruit and cream, and ended up with something that was a pretty good facsimile to what we have today.

Of course, the story of ice cream in ancient Rome followed a rocky road.  If you came back from the mountains and the ice had already melted, the emperor executed you.  Ha ha ... you think the Domino guys are in a hurry!

George Washington had an ice-cream-making machine, and Thomas Jefferson had his own recipe for it.  But it was up to the Italian immigrants to North America to make it the big deal that it is today.

The first advertisement in the United States for commercially-produced ice cream appeared on May 12th, 1777, in a New York City newspaper.  The manufacturer was an Italian named Philip Lenzi.  Over 200 years have passed since then, and Italians have continued to maintain an important position in the development of quality ice cream.  From Sedutto's in New York City to Ghiardelli in San Francisco, Italians have continued to garnish their just desserts.

The great migration of Italians to the United States that took place in the late 1800s took place only a few years after the unification of Italy into a single nation.  The immigrants arriving in the U.S. still thought of themselves as coming from a specific region as opposed to a nation.  And accordingly, they cooked the dishes of their old neighborhood, using their old neighborhood ingredients.

One of the classics is Bologna's rice and walnut cake.  Here's how it's prepared by chef John Halligan at New York's Righa Royal Hotel.

Milk, sugar, and medium-grain rice are simmered together for a few minutes, until the milk is absorbed, at which point the mixture is poured into a bowl.  A half-cup of walnuts are added, a little butter, candied fruit, lemon zest, and three eggs.  The batter goes into a cake pan, and the cake pan goes into a 400-degree-Fahrenheit oven for 30 minutes.  When it comes out, the cake gets a light dusting of confectioner's sugar and a fresh strawberry.

That's part of the story of Italian food in America.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for things that taste good.  I'm Burt Wolf.