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

Tuesday 12 April 2011 00:00

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

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