From Sicily to Little Italy
How cucina povera became cucina abbondanza
Plates piled high with spaghetti and meatballs, veal Parmesan buried under a blanket of cheese, long-simmered tomato sauces—these classic Italian-American dishes are Sicilian innovations even though few Sicilians ever ate them before coming to the U.S. Between 1876 and 1924 almost one-third of Italy’s population immigrated to America. Most came from poverty-stricken regions of the rural south and Sicily. As Nancy Verde Barr describes in her fascinating cookbook We Called it Macaroni, theirs was a classic cucina povera, peasant food that made a bounty out of humble ingredients. When they came to the U.S., however, that began to change.
At home in Italy, Sicilians made eggplant or zucchini Parmesan, never chicken or veal. Thanks to the island’s mild climate and rich volcanic soil, tomatoes grew year round and the sauces made with them were fresh and quickly cooked. Pasta was served in small portions before the main course, lightly dressed with simple ingredients like raisins, fennel, and fresh sardines. Fish or eggs were the featured proteins, meat reserved for celebrations. But as they acclimated to life in a new country, Sicilians changed not only what they ate, but how the world thought about Italian food.
Most of these immigrants settled in cities like New York, Boston, and Providence, Rhode Island (places, not incidentally, near the coasts, where they could still fish). Though they left behind an agrarian life, they continued to grow vegetables wherever they could—in backyards, on rooftops and windowsills. They opened food markets that catered to other Sicilians, from traditional bakeries to fish carts. For a while, at least, they continued to eat as they always had.
As they became more affluent, Sicilians started eating more meat and upping the portion of cheese in their macaroni. Their new neighbors, not all of them Italian, didn’t always appreciate the pungent flavors of prized ingredients like wild mint, peperoncino, and salt cod. Sicilian cooks learned to tame their tastes and their food became richer, the portions bigger, and the flavors less bold. Eventually, these immigrants gave birth to a new cuisine, an Italian-American hybrid celebrated in red-tablecloth restaurants where candles stuffed into chianti bottles illuminate meals that would be unrecognizable in their native Sicily.
The sweet and sour flavors of Sicily—Living la vita agrodolce
Poised at the tip of Italy's boot, the tiny island of Sicily (but still the biggest in the Mediterranean) has absorbed some sizeable changes in its cooking over the centuries. The island’s central location and abundant natural resources made it a prime target for invasion. Ancient Greeks and Romans, Arabs from North Africa, Normans from Northern Europe, and aristocrats of medieval Spain all left delicious traces of flavors from home in the pantries of Sicily's cooks. Today, the island's cusine still stands apart from mainland Italy.Read more