California’s Mediterranean climate is similar to Italy’s, so the Italian immigrants felt at home and were able to bring their food and culture to this new land. The California soil was ideal for planting crops Italians were used to growing, such as eggplant, artichokes, broccoli and Sicilian lemons. Italians also brought with them a love of wine as well as a history of making it.

Nearly 200 members of the Sacramento Italian Cultural Society and the Folsom Historical Society attended the opening reception for the exhibit “Nostra Storia” on January 28, 2000. This is a unique story about that wave of people from Italy, primarily from the area around Genoa in the region of Liguria, who settled in the foothills of the Mother Lode region (Sierra Nevada Mountains) of Northern California in the Mid-19th century. This is the first time that an exhibit has been created to tell the story of these enterprising people who contributed so much to the economic and cultural fabric of California. The history of the Italian Americans is often relegated to the margins of American history despite the fact that the Italians are the 4th largest ancestry group in America with more than 25 million Americans and two million Californians of Italian descent (based on the 2000 Census).This exhibit is part of the determination of this current generation of Italians, to see that the Italian immigrant story is told and included in the history of the nation.

California’s gold country has been profoundly influenced by Italian culture for the last 160 years. Immigrants from Italy’s northern provinces were drawn here by the lure of gold, but it was the allure of the California foothills where they found the terrain and climate similar to that of Italy, that convinced them to stay. California’s fledgling economy provided unparalleled opportunities for Italian businessmen and unclaimed land was available for agriculturalists. Settlement soon brought women and children and, within a decade, Italians represented a significant portion of the population in the region, numbering among the gold country’s leading farmers, merchants and tradesmen. The Mother Lode also offered women unique advantages and Italian women proved wonderfully resourceful when necessity demanded. The 1870s saw a second wave of immigration, as Italian laborers arrived to work in the large, corporate-owned gold mines. Descendents of many of these Italian pioneers remain in the gold country to this day.

Del Monte

Across the state, the Italians also settled on the farmlands and played a prominent role in developing today’s fruit, vegetable and dairy industries. By the 1880′s, Italians dominated the fruit and vegetable industry in the great Central Valley of California. Italian immigrants also left their mark on the California food processing industry. Marco Fontana arrived in the United States in 1859 and along with another Ligurian, Antonio Cerruti, established a chain of canneries under the “Del Monte” label. Most of their workers were Italian and their cannery soon became the largest in the world.

One of the most inspiring of California’s Italians was Amadeo Pietro Giannini, who was born in 1870 to immigrant Italian parents from Genoa. He started the first statewide system of branch banks in the nation by opening branches of his Bank of Italy in the Italian neighborhoods across the state. He later changed the name of his bank to Bank of America, which became the largest bank in the world.

The California wine industry also owes much to the Italian founders of the industry. Italians have been planting vineyards and making wine in America since the early colonial days when Filippo Mazzei, planted vineyards with Thomas Jefferson. The founding of the Italian Swiss Colony at Asti in 1881 as a cooperative of Italian immigrants from the wine growing regions of Italy, promoted the widespread participation and success of the Italians in the California wine industry and the vineyards in Napa and Sonoma.

Largest wine vat in the world, Asti, about 1900. The vat is still there, but today it contains water for fire protection instead of wine. (Cloverdale Historical Society collection)

Oakland, the other city by the bay, was a magnet for Italian immigrants in the early decades of the 20th century. Some relocated from San Francisco after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire; many more came to Oakland predominantly from Italy’s northern regions. As they established new roots and adopted new ways, they congregated largely in north Oakland’s bustling Temescal neighborhood and these Italian Americans nurtured their old country customs and traditions for generations–giving us a rare glimpse of bygone days.

Los Angeles’, “Little Italy”, presents a history of the city’s vibrant Italian enclave during the 100-year period following the arrival of the city’s first Italian pioneers in 1827. While Los Angeles possesses the nation’s fifth-largest Italian population today, little is known about its Italian history which has been examined by only a handful of historians over the past 50 years. Much of LA’s historic Little Italy has been masked by subsequent ethnic settlements, however, the community’s memory lives on. From pioneer agriculturalists and winemakers to philanthropists and entertainment personalities, Italian Americans left a lasting impression on the city’s social, economic and cultural fabric and contributed to Los Angeles’ development as one of the world’s major metropolises.

San Pedro Port

While the downtown cluster (St. Peter’s Italian Church, Casa Italiana and the Italian Hall) may loosely be construed a Little Italy, San Pedro today represents one of the few visible local nuclei of Italians. This clustering on the Los Angeles landscape has arisen for a unique reason. Until recently, San Pedro was geographically and occupationally compact due to its function as Los Angeles’ port and due to what was, formerly, a significant fishing industry. San Pedro Italians came from two Italian island fishing communities: Ischia and Sicily. Although they arrived with the migrations of the early 20th. century (the Sicilians later), the independent nature of this group’s trade and the relative geographic compactness of San Pedro, fostered the preservation of ethnic loyalty.

Attracted by the mild climate and abundance of fertile land, Italians came to the Santa Clara Valley from all regions of Italy. Beginning in the 1880s, Italian men, women and children filled the numerous canneries and packing houses, supplying the rest of the nation with fresh produce. Once the largest ethnic group in the valley, the Italians’ impact on the region has been profound. Here are some of their stories:

Rodolfo Mussi was born in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania in 1914 to an Italian immigrant father, who worked in the coalmines. Rodolfo’s mother died at a young age forcing the family to return to Italy. The village of Riccione in Northern Italy did not offer much hope to young Rodolfo, who at age sixteen returned with his father’s permission to the United States. His father let him leave Italy on one condition: that he head to California not Pennsylvania. At sixteen with little money, no family or friends or command of the English language, Rodolfo went to work in the mud baths in Calistoga. He later moved to Stockton and went to work on a farm. He noticed a plot of land that was not being farmed and inquired about the property. He had no money to purchase the land or equipment to farm it, but his determination impressed the landowner, Mr. Lucas, who leased the land to Mussi. After thirty years, Mussi secured a twenty-five year lease and his sons still lease and farm the same land today

Joseph Solari II’s great grandfather arrived in Stockton in 1877 and his family was among the first to grow cherries in the area. Four generations of the Solari family farmed in Stockton and their products are sold around the country through the California Fruit Exchange, founded in 1901. The cherries and plums are packed on the Solari Ranch and then sent to the east coast. The Solari family was also involved with the founding of two additional organizations: the San Joaquin Marketing Association (1922) and the San Joaquin Cherry Growers (1935).

In addition to cherries, Stockton was also known for its tomatoes. Two families cornered the market for quality tomatoes and tomato products. The Cortopassi family business began in 1942 with fresh-packed canned tomato products. Today, their products are available only through food service distributors in the United States and Canada. George Lagorio began farming in 1945 on thirty acres. Today the Lagorio family farms over 10,000 acres. The ACE Tomato Company founded in 1968 ships worldwide today. Their Specialty Products include olive oil, walnuts, cherries and wine grapes. George’s daughter, Kathleen Lagorio Janssen and her husband Dean expanded the family business a few years ago with the purchase of olive orchards. Now the company also produces extra virgin olive oil.

Italian immigrants to San Jose, located south of San Francisco in the Silicon Valley, came from many Italian regions, but a majority of them arrived from villages in southern Italy and Sicily. There were two primary Italian neighborhoods in San Jose,  as its population grew in the early to mid twentieth century. The Goosetown neighborhood included Auzarias Avenue and North 1st. Street. This neighborhood bordered Willow Glen, where many Italian Americans still reside. The second neighborhood was around North 13th. Street and it included Holy Cross Church and Backesto Park. One Italian immigrant who eventually made his home in San Jose was Mario Marchese, who was born in 1878 in Palermo Sicily. He left home for New York in 1903 with other family members and, when he arrived in NY, he took a job moving furniture. In 1907 he married his boss’s daughter, Domenica Pavia. Shortly after the birth of their first child, they took the train west to California in search of a better opportunity. Mario and Domenica had ten children and lived in the Italian neighborhood known as Goosetown. Mario initially worked as a prune picker and was eventually hired by Navelete’s Nursery to oversee the orchards.

 

Brothers Andrea and Stefano D’Arrigo were born in Messina, Sicily and emigrated to the U.S. in 1904 and 1911 respectfully. They eventually settled in Boston, went to college and fought for the U.S. in World War I. They started D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of Massachusetts in 1923. Stefano travelled to California in 1925 on a wine grape buying trip. He observed the fertile farmland in San Jose and, soon after, D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of California was launched and they were growing vegetables in San Jose. The broccoli seeds arrived from Italy and were planted over twenty-eight acres, making them the first to introduce broccoli to the public under their brand, Andy Boy, trademarked in 1927. They remain one of the largest fresh produce growers in the country and the company is still family run.

Women Cannery Workers 

The Bisceglia Brother’s Canning Company employed many Italian immigrant women and was located on South First Street close to the Goosetown neighborhood. They earned less pay than the men but worked less hours. The women worked on the assembly line peeling, cutting, pitting and slicing by hand. By the 1930s and 1940s women were promoted to supervisors, better known to the employees as floor ladies. These women supervised thirty-five to forty-five women on the production line and they typically supervised their own ethnic group.

More than most people realize, the Italian Americans helped to shape the cultural landscape of California and the modern West. The enterprise and success of these Italian pioneers is a unique legacy – one shared by all of us. 

(Sources: We Are California: Stories of Immigration and Change A California Stories Project of the California Council for the Humanities.  www.weareca.org  The California Italian American Project is designed to make available to students and researchers basic information and resources about California’s original Italian communities.)                       

California is where pizza became “boutique” food, starting in the 1980s, as part of a larger attraction to the Mediterranean cuisine. Alice Waters put a wood-burning oven into her café at Chéz Panisse and Wolfgang Puck became famous by feeding Hollywood stars $100 caviar pies. Puck’s pizza man, Ed LaDou, went on to found the California Pizza Kitchen chain. The chain is widely known for its innovative and non traditional pizzas, such as the “Original BBQ Chicken Pizza”, BLT, Thai Chicken and Jamaican Jerk Chicken pizzas. They also serve various kinds of pasta, salads, soups, sandwiches and desserts. The chain has over 230 locations in 32 US states and eleven other countries, including 26 California Pizza Kitchen ASAP kiosks designed to serve passengers at airports and shopping malls. The company licensed its name to Kraft Foods to distribute a line of premium frozen pizzas in 2000 and Nestlé purchased Kraft’s pizza lines in 2010.

Chéz Panisse’s wood-burning oven

Italian Recipes That Make Use of California’s Bounties

Sweet Pepper Martini

Makes 2 Drinks

Giuseppe Luigi Mezzetta, founder of G. L. Mezzetta, immigrated to America from Italy to start a new life. He eventually saved enough money to bring his new wife, Columba, to California where their son, Daniel, was born in 1918. Giuseppe continued to work hard and was soon able to earn a better wage as a janitor for two large import/export firms. In 1935, father and son decided to open a small storefront business and the new company began importing Italian peppers, olives and other staples of the Mediterranean table.

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup Mezzetta Roasted Bell Pepper Strips, finely chopped
  • 4 tablespoons fresh squeezed orange juice
  • 1/4 cup simple syrup or agave syrup
  • 2 strawberries, thinly sliced
  • 2 basil leaves, cut into strips
  • 1 dash hot sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup vodka or gin
  • 4 Mezzetta Sweet Cherry Peppers, to garnish

Directions:

In a mixing glass or cocktail shaker add and mix all of the ingredients except the vodka. Fill the skaker with ice and add the vodka. Shake vigorously.

Strain the drink, using a fine mesh strainer, and pour into two martini glasses. Garnish with sweet cherry peppers.

(Note: to prepare simple syrup, combine equal parts sugar and water. Boil until the sugar has dissolved. Cool the syrup before using.)

Pesto Arancini Stuffed with Mozzarella

During his 25 years as a chef/restaurateur, Michael Chiarello has been acknowledged by the Culinary Institute of America, IACP, Food & Wine Magazine and many more for his success as both a Chef and restaurant professional. He has developed over 10 restaurants, including his hugely popular Bottega Restaurant in Yountville, California (Napa Valley), his new Spanish restaurant Coqueta on Pier 5 in San Francisco and his first in California, Tra Vigne, of which he was executive chef/partner until 2000. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY.

I visited Michael Chiarello’s restaurant, Bottega, two years ago when I was in California, and the food was outstanding. Restaurants don’t come any better than this one.

Recipe from Bottega by Michael Chiarello (Chronicle Books, 2010)

Makes 16 arancini; serves 4

Arancini, or rice-balls filled with a melting cheese, are for leftover-risotto days. I never make the rice from scratch when I’m making arancini at home. If you don’t have leftover risotto, you can make these balls from cooked Arborio rice but be sure to add a teaspoon or two of salt while the rice cooks. (Honestly, you’re better off making a big pot of risotto and then making arancini the next day.)

Arancini always remind me of my friend Mariano Orlando. He always made arancini the Sicilian way, his rice balls the size of oranges. We talked once about arancini and he kept saying in Italian, “telephone wire,” making a motion with his hands as if to stretch a length of cord. “What are you saying?” I asked him. “Why are you talking about telephone wire?” The cheese, Mariano said, should stretch like a telephone wire when you take a bite from a perfect arancini and pull it away from your lips.

Our arancini don’t have that same telephone wire of cheese; we use a little less cheese in the middle and a lot more cheese in the risotto. You can add more cheese to the middle if you want to go for the telefono filo effect. If you want to make these a few hours ahead, pour panko crumbs into a baking dish and rest the arancini on the panko before covering the dish in plastic wrap and refrigerating.

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups leftover risotto or cooked Arborio rice, cooled
  • 1 1/2 cups Blanched Basil Pesto, double recipe below
  • 4 ounces fresh mozzarella, preferably bocconcini
  • Peanut oil, corn oil, or canola oil for frying
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 cups panko (Japanese bread crumbs)

Directions:

Line a platter with parchment paper. In a large bowl, stir the risotto and pesto together until blended. Divide the rice into 16 more-or-less-equal portions.

Cut off about 1/2 teaspoon of mozzarella and then with your hands ball up one serving of rice around the cheese so it’s completely encased in rice. Gently place on the prepared platter. Repeat to form 16 arancini. Slide the platter into the freezer for 30 minutes to allow the balls to firm up.

Before you take the rice balls from the freezer, set up your dredging station. Pour the flour into a shallow bowl; the eggs into another shallow bowl; and the panko into a third shallow bowl.

In a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat 3 inches oil over medium-high heat until it registers 375°F on a deep-fat thermometer. While the oil heats, dredge each rice ball in flour and lightly shake off the excess. Dip in the egg and then in the panko. Gently drop 4 to 6 balls into the oil and cook until lightly browned, 60 to 90 seconds. Don’t overcook them or the cheese will leak out into your oil. Using a slotted spoon or wire skimmer, transfer to paper towels to drain. Repeat to cook the remaining arancini. Serve at once.

Blanched-Basil Pesto

Makes about 1 cup

Powdered vitamin C- also called ascorbic acid-is my secret for keeping pesto a fresh, appetizing green. The herbs go in boiling water and then straight into an ice bath, so I like to use a large sieve or colander to transfer all the herbs in one smooth move.

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves
  • 1 cup lightly packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon pine nuts, toasted
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt, preferably ground sea or gray salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon powdered ascorbic acid
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Set up a large bowl of ice water. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Place the basil and parsley leaves in a sieve or colander that fits inside the pan. Lower the sieve full of herbs into the boiling water, and use a spoon to push the leaves under so the herbs cook evenly. Blanch for 15 seconds, and then transfer the sieve to the ice bath to stop the cooking process. Let the herbs cool in the ice bath for 10 seconds. Remove the sieve, let drain, and then squeeze any water that you can from the herbs. Transfer to a cutting board and coarsely chop.

In a blender, puree the herbs with the oil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, pepper, and ascorbic acid until well blended and somewhat smooth. Add the cheese and whir for a second or two to mix. Transfer the pesto to a bowl; taste and adjust the seasoning.

Press plastic wrap directly top of the pesto to keep it from turning brown and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week, or freeze it for up to 1 month.

Chef’s Note: Toast pine nuts in a small dry skillet over low heat, shaking the pan frequently. Heat for just a minute or two; as soon as you smell the fragrance of the pine nuts, slide the nuts out of the pan and onto a plate so they don’t burn.

Chicken in Tomato & Olive Braise

Chef David Katz, owner of Panevino, and faculty member at the Culinary Institute of America created this recipe to specifically pair with Mirassou wine. Chef Katz has spent nine years in the Napa Valley as a working chef and instructor at CIA Greystone focusing on the business of cooking and on food and wine education.

Serves 6.

Ingredients:

  • 6 chicken thighs, 5-6 ounces each
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt, more to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced about 1/8th inch thick
  • 1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 pinch hot pepper flakes, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel seed
  • 1/4 cup Mirassou Pinot Noir
  • 1 large can (1 pound 12 ounces) excellent quality diced tomatoes in juice
  • 2 teaspoons brine-packed capers, rinsed
  • 1 cup whole pitted green olives, rinsed
  • 1 ounce Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler
  • 1 loose cup whole parsley leaves, plucked from the stem

Directions:

Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F.  Select a 3 to 4 quart oven-safe baking dish, and set it aside. Heat a large, heavy skillet over a medium-high burner. While the pan is heating, season the chicken with the salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the olive oil to the skillet, allow it to heat through, then add the chicken pieces skin-side down. Cook until crisp and golden, about 5 minutes, then turn and brown equally on the other side, about 4 minutes. Remove the chicken to a plate.

Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of the fat from the skillet, and return it to the stovetop over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion, and stir often for 3 minutes, or until it smells sweet. Stir in the pepper flakes and fennel. Deglaze with the wine, stirring against the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release the browned juices. Add the tomatoes, capers and olives, and bring the skillet to a simmer. Cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Adjust the seasoning to taste, then pour the tomato mixture into the oven-safe baking dish. Arrange the chicken pieces over the tomato mixture, skin-side up, and sprinkle the shaved cheese over the chicken. Place the baking dish on the center rack of the oven and cook for 10 minutes, or until a thermometer reads 160 degrees in the center of the largest piece of chicken.

Garnish the dish with parsley leaves and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Serve with soft polenta or your favorite short pasta and a crisp green salad.

Italian Padella

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

“Padella” is Italian for skillet, as “paella” is in Spanish.

Ingredients:

  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 2 peppercorns
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar
  • 8 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 1/2 pound Italian sausage
  • 1/4 pound sliced ham
  • 1/4 pound salt pork
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 green or red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon capers
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander
  • 2 cups long-grain rice
  • 3 tablespoons tomato sauce
  • 1-1/2 pounds medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
  • 1-1/2 pounds squid, cleaned and sliced
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon saffron
  • 2 cups cooked peas
  • 24 mussels, scrubbed
  • 24 clams, scrubbed
  • 8 large prawns, shelled, deveined and cooked
  • 2 tablespoons pimientos

Directions:

Combine 2 tablespoons oil, oregano, peppercorns, garlic, salt and vinegar; mix with mortar and pestle to make a paste. Rub chicken with oregano paste.

Heat 1/2 cup oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add chicken; brown. Add sausage, ham, salt pork, onion, green pepper, capers and coriander. Reduce heat to low; cook 10 minutes.

Add rice and tomato sauce; cook 5 minutes. Add medium shrimp, squid, broth and saffron; mix well and cook, covered, until liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Stir in peas.

Steam mussels and clams in water until open; add large prawns and pimientos. Transfer rice mixture to large serving platter; top with mussel mixture.

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