America has always had a love affair with Italian food, beginning with the first Italians to call the U.S. home. Between 1800 and 1894, over four million Italian immigrants came to join the American melting pot, which began the Italian lineage that would make them today’s fifth largest ethnic group. Most arrived hoping to escape their impoverished lives in Sicily and Southern Italy, and bringing with them a rich heritage of Italian cooking, as passed down from one generation to another. Since those early days, Italian food has become a rich staple of American culture, at one time only rivaled by Chinese fare, for the most popular true ethnic eating in the U.S. Ask any native Italian, and they’ll quickly report that what most Americans believe to be authentic Italian food is actually comprised of more morphed-than-true recipes that were most likely transitioned over time by the new life in the states. This has not and will never impact the true affection Americans hold for Italian and Americanized Italian eating.
The Neo-Italian Restaurant is the Authentic One
Until as little as 40 years ago, Italian restaurants in America fit nicely into a severely limited little box, comprised of red and white checkered tablecloths, garlic bread, spaghetti and heavy, meat-laden tomato sauce. There was the perfunctory pizza–being nothing near what it has become today–and then, the wine, which was mostly Chianti, served up in thick glass carafes. Vegetables were limited to what typically went into a salad–lettuce, carrots and tomatoes. And as still ascribed to by misconception, it was all about garlic and oregano, period. Today, the U.S. is rife with Italian eateries that span the range of menu listings featuring American Italian faves, and on to the ones that are known to offer the highly prized truly authentic Italian dishes. The following represent only a small smattering of the highly lauded Italian restaurants with U.S. addresses.
- Spiaggia, Chicago: Taking its inspiration for ambience and menu from the Italian coast–Spiaggia means “beach” in Italian–Tony Mantuano’s upscale Italian restaurant has won numerous awards that include the Best Chef in the Midwest Award, by James Beard, in 2005. Among its world class dishes that continue to draw diners, you’ll find Pugliese burrata with golden Osetra caviar and potato crisps, squid ink spaghetti with Maine lobster and toasted breadcrumbs, with their signature fish dish being wood-roasted steelhead trout with honey mussels, black garlic, butter-roasted turnips and Meyer lemon.
- Babbo, NYC: Mario Batali’s Babbo is revered as the finest Italian restaurant in America, where diners delight in amazing fine dining taste sensations while listening to rock music. Featuring an always-full bar for a wonderful meal prelude or follow-up, the light and airy upstairs dining and the rich romantic downstairs, this is where pasta meets Heaven. Scheduling a dining experience at this one of a kind eatery, even after 15 years, encounters a formidable wait list, however a close monitoring of their Twitter feed can net last minute opportunities for a sooner sensation.
- Vetri, PA: Melt in your mouth Italian richness, like saffron malloreddus with bone marrow and fennel, almond tortellini with white truffle, roasted baby goat with stone-milled polenta, served by the most confident, knowledgeable wait staff ever. Chef Marc Vetri knows the quickest culinary route to the hearts of diners, and even Chef Mario Batali has praised Vetri, calling it “possibly the best Italian restaurant on the East Coast.”
- Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, NYC: With a 20 year run, Il Buco is famed and prized for its unpretentious and delightful fare that includes American-influenced Italian dishes. Chef Justin Smillie has mastered the art of fried baby artichokes and grilled quail, refined his in-house pasta array to tempt and delight, and remains unsurpassed, when it comes to his octopus and spicy tomato sauce. A highly popular featured dinner dish is the razor clam – a must taste!