As much as Americans adored places like Mamma Leone’s, Italian-American food was often referred to as grub for “greasers” and “garlic eaters.” It wasn’t until the arrival of first-rate Italian ingredients—many of which had been kept out of the U.S. by trade laws—in the 1970s and ’80s that Italian-American cooks were able to reproduce the regional flavors that travelers to Italy complained they could never find in the States. This included prosciutto di Parma, extra-virgin olive oil from different locales, parmigiano-reggiano, arborio rice, funghi porcini, balsamic vinegar, and outstanding Italian wines from producers like Angelo Gaja and Giovanni di Piero Antinori.
By that time, many Italian-American restaurants had become tired and tiresome, and some restaurateurs tried to refine the clichés—and justify higher prices—by turning to northern Italy for inspiration. In New York there were Romeo Salta (opened in 1953), Nanni (1968), and Il Nido (1979); in Santa Monica, California, Valentino’s (1972). They all downplayed the red sauce factor, substituting butter and cream sauces and adding—at $20 a plate—risotto and, of all things, polenta, a dish that had been the thrice-a-day staple of poor northern Italians who could afford to eat little else. This food was welcomed as authentic regional Italian: Lasagne with meatballs and meat sauce was dismissed in favor of lasagne alla Bolognese, with besciamella and spinach pasta. Italian-American cheesecake and cannoli were replaced by tiramisù and panna cotta. The old chianti bottles in straw fiaschi baskets were abandoned in favor of expensive barolos, barbarescos, and “super-Tuscans.” Murals of Mount Vesuvio were painted over in favor of blown-up photos of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. Red-checkered tablecloths disappeared; now the tables were set with Frette linens.
The zeitgeist looked north for another reason: Italian fashion and design (centered in northern cities like Milan and Florence) was all the rage in the 1980s. The chicest new restaurants in the U.S. proclaimed they were Tuscan-style trattorias or grills (even if they didn’t serve Tuscan food). Among the first to promote their Tuscan origins were Da Silvano, opened in 1975, and Il Cantinori (1983). Both, still operating in New York’s Greenwich Village, became darlings of magazine editors, art gallery owners, and other members of the cultural elite. Before long, their menus were copied across the country, and extra-virgin olive oil became the new red sauce.
These northern Italian—inspired places adopted the tenets of the Mediterranean Diet, named for a book written in 1994 by cookbook author (and saveur contributor) Nancy Harmon Jenkins. The basic argument was that what real Italians ate—a diet abundant in vegetables, seafood, grains, and olive oil—was far more healthful than the meaty, rich, fried, cheese-laden, red sauce–drowned food of Italian-Americans. Quick sautéed greens and farro were in; chicken parmesan and meatballs were out.
But who doesn’t love meatballs? As influential as the Mediterranean Diet has been, the Italian food you are most likely to encounter in London, Berlin, Moscow, or Mumbai will be far closer to the old “red sauce” archetype than to regional Italian menus featuring Alba’s white truffles, Sardinia’s cheeses, or Venice’s cuttlefish ink risotto. Even the most trailblazing purveyors of modern Italian cuisine in America, while proudly serving regional specialties, still champion the good old-fashioned Italian-American classics, even if they change the names. The addictive, confectioners’ sugar-dusted fried doughballs known in the Italian-American canon as zeppole often show up as similarbombolini, and what used to be called plain macaroni is now broken down into specific subclassifications, whether it’s rigatoni rigate, garganelli, or casarecci. At Osteria Morini in New York City, Michael White—born in Wisconsin and trained at San Domenico, the Michelin 3-star outside of Bologna—serves mostly Emilia-Romagna-style food, but he also offers meatballs in tomato sauce and pasta with white clams.
Moreover, traditional Italian-American restaurants are opening in higher profile, trendier spots. The 10-table, infamously hard-to-get-into Rao’s in New York City opened in Vegas in 2006, serving classics like meatballs and veal chops. And, Rubirosa, owned by the same family that runs the 51-year-old Staten Island pizzeria Joe and Pat’s, recently opened in downtown Manhattan, serving the kind of food I grew up on, in a dining room painstakingly designed to evoke the classic midcentury neighborhood red-sauce joint. The chef, Albert Di Meglio, and owner Angelo Pappalardo, both worked at the Manhattan restaurant Circo in the 1990s, owned by Sirio Maccioni, the man responsible for inventing pasta primavera and making it one of the most popular dishes of the 1980s at his celebrated Le Cirque. Rubirosa is returning to the Italian-American classics by serving the likes of sautéed broccoli rabe and stuffed clams.
Perhaps the place offering the most creative take on Italian-American cooking is the widely praised—”aggressively Italian-American,” as Sam Sifton, former restaurant critic for The New York Times put it—Torrisi Italian Specialties. In a storefront on Mulberry Street, Little Italy’s main drag, Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi typically serve more than 300 Italian-American-style hero sandwiches at lunch, and at the neighborhood’s annual San Gennaro festival, they set up a booth hawking mozzarella sticks. But where they really capture Italian-American food’s melting pot qualities and spirit of innovation is at dinner. In a dining room decorated with a poster of Billy Joel, fifty bucks gets you five courses, which may include their inspired take on garlic bread, slathered with tomato-garlic butter; bowls of still-warm, made-to-order mozzarella; gemelli from Severino, a 40-year-old pasta company in New Jersey, in a hearty duck ragù; maybe tilefish with pickled green tomato relish or duck breast with broccoli rabe and mulberry mustard. The meal ends with a paper cup of Italian ice and a plate of cookies. That was last night; tonight it will all be different.
Whenever I eat at these new school, or cheffy, Italian-American restaurants, I never expect the food to taste just like my mother’s. These restaurants are a testament to the fact that Italian-American food is its own living, breathing cuisine; that can evolve just like any other. What I love most about where Italian-American cooking is now is that there’s an equal respect for the tried and the true, as well as the changing tastes of the day: even at home, the dishes I prepare tend to be lighter, and maybe a bit brighter with fresh herbs, than they used to be. But they still embody all that is genuine, and generously wholesome, about Italian-American food. And they’re served with gusto and with just one intention: to make me and my family and friends very, very happy.