How red sauce covered the globe

Marinara 'gravy' did more to integrate Italians into American society than Frank Sinatra or Joe DiMaggio. And it allowed for Italian cuisine to conquer the world, as John Mariani explains

In 1910, Italians were the lowest-paid workers in America. The manipulation of people who did not speak English was easy and effective, so it should not be entirely surprising to learn that approximately half of the Italian immigrants to the United States – more than any other ethnic group – returned to their native country. Some went back to fight in the First World War; others only after they had made enough money – some had even made fortunes.

This last group were proud returning sons and daughters who amazed their old friends in the old towns.

As Tuscan-born Angelo Pellegrini wrote in his book The Unprejudiced Palate, all the townsfolk were impressed with the returnees' fine clothes but also with their tales "of wheat fields so vast that no fast train could traverse them in a single day; of meats and sweets and fine clothes so universally enjoyed that it was impossible to distinguish the rich from the poor", insisting that no American "ever eats an entire sandwich – he always throws away the fringe of crust".

The problem for the southern Italian contadini who immigrated to the east coast of America was that they had largely come from a strictly agricultural background, yet found themselves in urban ghettos upon arriving in the New World, usually living under wretched conditions in tenement neighbourhoods, where they had little opportunity to learn English.

These Little Italys were compact neighbourhoods; squalid and prone to diseases. Yet there were jobs and there was money to bring home.

New York's Italian immigrant community dwarfed all the others – a mix of Calabrians, Campanians, Abruzzese, Barese, Pugliese and Sicilians, who had to learn first to live together, then to live among americani. By 1900, there were 220,000 Italians in New York; 10 years later, the number swelled to 545,000. By 1930, Italian immigrants represented 17 per cent of the city.

Italians moved into the Lower East Side, East Harlem, Red Hook in Brooklyn, the Bronx and, most of all, into the grid area south of Greenwich Village and north of Chinatown.

Pushcarts and horse-drawn wagons rolled through the narrow streets, full of bread, fish, even ice cream, because a relatively easy way for any immigrant to begin a new life in the city was to sell food, principally to their own people. The Germans and Eastern Europeans had their Schlächterfleischen butchers and bakeries, the Jews had their delicatessens and kosher butchers and the Italians had groceries, pastry and bread shops, live poultry markets and pasta stores. As early as 1848, a Frenchman named Antoine Zerega had opened the first commercial pasta plant in the United States – in Brooklyn. By the 1930s, Brooklyn and Queens had eight major macaroni plants operating. In 1929, there were 550 pasta factories in the United States (second only to Italy itself).

By 1938, there were more than 10,000 Italian-run groceries in America. There was good trade in importing canned and bottled goods from Italy. Photos, posters and food labels of the time show cans of imported tomatoes right alongside boxes of macaroni made in the US and cans of Carnation evaporated milk.

The grocers made their own salami and sausages, bakers reproduced the shapes and styles of Italian regional breads and though the mozzarella could not be made from the milk of water buffaloes as in the Old Country, they learned to make cheeses from American cows' milk. The first Italian cheese shop was Alleva Dairy, opened in New York's Little Italy in 1892, by Pino Alleva, from Benevento in Campania. Basilicata cheesemaker Savino Di Palo emigrated to New York in 1910 and opened a latteria dairy and Gennaro Ottomanelli emigrated from Bari in 1900 to push a sausage cart. He returned to Italy to learn butchery and came back to New York to open distinguished butchers, Ottomanelli.

The incomers clung fast to their culinary roots and a turn-of-the century social worker reported of Italian families: "Not yet Americanised; still eating Italian food."

Even far from the eastern cities, in small communities where Italians settled, their diet closely resembled that enjoyed in good times back in the Old Country. In one 10-block Italian-American neighbourhood called Greenbush in Madison in Wisconsin, the daily diet included polenta, vegetable soups, wild greens, eel, dried codfish, offal, baby lamb, cassata cake and Italian cookies.

The men also made their own wines, called Marsala. The immigrants' wines were usually made from zinfandel grapes, most of which were shipped from California, but some came from New York, where the Hudson Valley Wine Company was established in 1907 by retired Wall Street banker, Alexander Bolognesi. The grapes were crushed and fermented into cheap bulk wine that came to be known, at least as early as 1906, by happy American imbibers and bigoted detractors as "dago red".

During Prohibition, many Italians took advantage of the dispensation that wine grapes could be sold for home use as well as for sacramental wine.

Italian immigrants everywhere ate fairly well and quite nutritiously, while spending less than a quarter of their income on food, whereas back in Italy they had spent up to 75 per cent.

The immigrants' access to everything that had once been available only to the rich or on a special holy day – big platters of pasta, tender beef, lamb, pork and even veal, a chicken that had not grown old and tough and wonderful sweets – not only improved their diet but increased their new sense of being Italian-Americans. Many proudly put on weight and men patted their stomachs as a sign of the abbondanza of their new country. Such abundance had the effect of throwing the Italian housewife and mother into an entirely new role. In the Old Country, her job was to produce a family, then to see that it had enough to eat; in America, she was now expected to prove herself a good cook, capable of making a wide array of dishes, even delicacies. These dishes were served almost always with one kind of tomato sauce or another. There was a simple one of garlic, oil and tomatoes called marinara, supposedly because it was made quickly, as soon as the mariners' wives spotted their husbands' returning fishing boats in the distance.

Pasta alla marinara, which might be combined with golfball-size meatballs, was a staple of those southern Italian immigrants who had lived along the coast in Italy.

Marinara, chunky with tomato and other, smoother tomato sauces, became the all-purpose "red sauce" by which Italians would become known both in and out of their communities. Yet for decades, marinara was still not found much in southern Italian cookbooks or on menus. It is not among the recipes in La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy (2009) compiled by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina. Nor is there a listing for marinara in The Oxford Companion to Italian Food (2007).

The earliest instance I have found in US popular culture was in the 1930 movie Rain or Shine, directed by Sicilian-born Frank Capra, when a character refers to spaghetti "with some marinara sauce".

By 1939, a New York restaurant guide recommended, rather offhandedly, a "Mixed Fish Soup Marinara Sauce" (40 cents) at Del Pezzo restaurant on West 47th Street.

There was also meat sauce – in Italy it would be called a sugo di carne – in which garlic would be sautéed in oil, then removed; meat, either ground or as a hunk of beef, would be browned and then tomatoes, onions, peperoncino and herbs, especially oregano, would be added, cooked for hours till the meat broke down and the sauce thickened, full of flavour.

It differs significantly from the well-known Bolognese ragù, which has plenty of vegetables and ground meats, but either no or very little tomato or just a tablespoon or two of tomato paste; in any case, ragù was a rich family's dish, not for peasants.

In 1937, one enterprising importer, Giovanni Cantisano, and his wife, Assunta, began putting their tomato sauce into Mason jars in their Rochester, New York, basement. They sold it to neighbourhood stores, then expanded through the US under the label Ragù. They later sold out to Cheeseborough Ponds which, by 1973 – the year Giovanni died – had sold $100m worth of the sauce.

In his memoir, An Italian Grows in Brooklyn (1978), restaurateur Jerry Della Femina told how, growing up in the 1930s, "there were no restaurants in my neighbourhood. We didn't go out to eat. We ate either at our house, or cousin Ronnie's, or Uncle Dom's, or whatever. My grandmother would start making her meat sauce at seven in the morning on Sunday and within five or six hours that smell would be all through the house, covering everything – and then it would go out the front door and into the streets, to mix with the aroma of neighbouring meat sauces".

Film director Martin Scorsese has said of those red sauces: "The Italians of my parents' generation are held together by the notion of family. That is why the pasta sauce is so sacred to the Italian family." Amazingly, there is no record of Italians enjoying tomato sauce with pasta before the middle of the 19th century, although – as Pellegrino Artusi suggested – it was becoming very popular, especially in the cooking of the south – Abruzzo, Molise, the Marches, Basilicata, Puglia, Campania, Calabria and Sicily – the very regions from which the immigrants had come.

Thus, while southern Italians increasingly enjoyed pasta with tomato sauce, it was in the US where it became a ubiquitous Italian-American food, the first of many that would seem inextricable from any discussion of Italian cooking.

Not only was it served with pasta, but it was the sauce that was also lavished on their meat, chicken stews and seafood. They spread it on eggplant, used it as a dipping condiment for fried foods and lavished it on sausage and peppers. They cooked big meatballs in it. And it was the sauce that made a pizza a pizza alla margherita.

And, most importantly, tt was the sauce that – though far more commonly associated with a general idea of Italian food than the actual regional cuisine of Italy – fought the ground war in Italian food becoming the world's most popular cuisine.

An extract from 'How Italian Food Conquered The World' by John Mariani published by Palgrave Macmillan (£16.99). To order a copy for £15.29 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit

Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform