As immigrants from the different regions of Italy settled throughout the various regions of the United States, many brought with them a distinct regional Italian culinary tradition. Many of these foods and recipes developed into new favorites for the townspeople and later for Americans nationwide. No one has contributed more foods to the American dinner table than the Italian immigrants. Strong Italian-American enclaves in New York City, Boston’s North End, Providence’s Federal Hill and South Philly have helped shape a new American hybrid cuisine. Based on Old World traditions, Italian-American cuisine is marked by an appreciation for the New World’s abundance.
Boston’s Pan Pizza
Boston’s Italian neighborhood is called the North End. It has a strong Italian flair and numerous Italian restaurants. The North End is also Boston’s oldest neighborhood and it still possesses an old-world charm kept alive by its mostly Italian-American population. The neighborhood also is a major attraction for tourists and Bostonians alike, who come seeking the best in Italian cuisine and to enjoy the Italian feel of the region. Hanover and Salem Streets, the two main streets of this bustling historic neighborhood, are lined with restaurants, cafes and shops, selling a variety of incredible foods. A trip to Boston would not be complete without including a meal at one of North End’s over one hundred fine Italian restaurants.
You’ll need a rimmed baking sheet, preferably non-stick, about 11 1/2-by-17 or a 16-inch pizza pan and a plastic dough scraper.
- 1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 3/4 cup warm water, or more if necessary
- 1 3/4 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Olive oil (for the pans)
- Extra flour (for sprinkling)
- Extra salt (for sprinkling)
In a bowl, sprinkle yeast into water; set aside for 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, and sugar. Stir to blend.
With a wooden spoon, stir in the yeast mixture. Add enough additional water, 1 tablespoon at a time, to make a dough that holds together, but is sticky and too moist to knead.
Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap so the wrap does not touch the dough. Lay a dish towel on top. Set aside for 2 hours.
Rub a large rimmed baking sheet or pizza pan with olive oil. Rub the center of 1 long sheet of foil with oil and set it aside.
Sprinkle the dough with a little flour. Use a dough scraper to transfer the dough to the baking sheet or pizza pan. Pat the dough with a little flour to within 2 inches of the edge of the pans.
Cover with foil, oiled side down. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes (or as long as overnight).
Remove pan from the refrigerator. Dip your hand in flour and pat the dough with your hand, adding as little flour as necessary, until it reaches the edges of the sheets.
Brush the top of the dough with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
- 12 slices provolone cheese or 1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) shredded mozzarella
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced, or 4 plum tomatoes, thinly sliced
- 4 slices good-quality ham, cut into matchsticks (optional)
- 1 cup grated Parmesan
Arrange racks on the lowest and center parts of the oven. Set the oven at 500 degrees.
If using provolone, arrange it on the dough, spacing out the slices. Add the cherry or plum tomatoes, spacing them out. Sprinkle with mozzarella.
Sprinkle with ham, if using, then Parmesan.
Bake the pizza on the lowest rack of the oven for about 10 minutes (check after 8 minutes to make sure edges are not burning).
Transfer the pizza to the center rack and continue baking for 5 minutes or until the cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown, the dough is golden and crisp at the edges, and the bottom is firm.
With a wide metal spatula, lift the pizza from the pan and transfer to large wooden board. Cut into rectangles, wedges, or strips.
Federal Hill’s Zuppa Di Polpette (Meatball Soup)
Federal Hill is the Italian neighborhood of Providence with many restaurants, bakeries, cafes, art galleries, cigar shops and markets. DePasquale Square is the center of the neighborhood. Historic Federal Hill is the “Heartbeat of Providence” and begins at Atwells Avenue, the street that flows under the arch. The gateway arch over Atwells with the La Pigna (pinecone) sculpture hanging from its center is a traditional Italian symbol of abundance and quality and the symbol of Federal Hill. It is a place dedicated to the Italian immigrants who gathered here as a community and is still a place of charm, warmth and hospitality to all. Numerous Italian restaurants and businesses line the main thoroughfare and its surrounding area. Garibaldi Square, with a bust of the “Hero of Two Worlds”, and DePasquale Plaza, with outdoor dining and two bocce courts, all contribute to the Italian atmosphere.
In a large 8 quart stock pot prepare the following:
- 1 small chicken broken up in pieces
- 1 large onion cut in quarters
- 2 carrots, sliced into thin rounds
- 1 medium ripe tomato cut in half
- 1 stalk celery, chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon thyme
- Pinch of turmeric, for a little color
Add enough water to cover 4-5 inches above the ingredients and cook for about one and one half hours. Remove the chicken and vegetables separately and cool.
Puree the vegetables through a food mill or processor and add back to the stock.
Cool the chicken and use it for chicken salad. If you like you can add some of the chicken cut into pieces back into the soup.
For the meatballs:
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoons fresh parsley
- 1/3 cup Romano cheese
- 1 large egg
In a mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients. Scoop out by tablespoons and form into small meatballs. Add them to the soup and simmer them for about 30 minutes.
- 2 tablespoons uncooked soup (small) pasta, per person, optional
- Lots of freshly grated Romano cheese
Cook the pasta and distribute it between the bowls. Ladle in the soup and meatballs and serve with the cheese.
Capellini Alla Positano from Philadelphia’s Bellini Grill
Philadelphia’s Italian American community is the second-largest in the United States. Named after its view of the Center City skyline, Bella Vista, Italian for “Beautiful View,” is one of Philadelphia’s oldest and authentic Italian neighborhoods. Bella Vista is home to many Italian-American treasures, such as the city’s first Italian American bathhouse, the Fante-Leone Pool, built in 1905 and the Philadelphia Ninth Street Italian Market, claimed to be the oldest open-air market still in operation in the country. More than 100 years old, the Italian Market was originally a business association of local vendors who banded together to compete with larger stores that were moving into the area. Today, the market houses an assortment of shops, bakeries and restaurants.
Makes 4 Servings
- 5 oz uncooked Angel Hair Pasta
- 4 tablespoons Olive Oil
- 1 teaspoon Chopped Fresh Chili
- 3 Garlic Cloves; minced
- 2 tablespoons Shallots; chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt
- 1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper
- 1/2 cup Fish Broth
- 2 ups Dry White Wine
- 3 cups Marinara Sauce (see recipe below)
- 8 oz Lump Crab Meat
- 1 bunch Fresh Basil; chopped
- 2 cups Grape Tomatoes
- 24 oz Canned Tomato Sauce
- 1/4 Yellow Onion, chopped
- 1 ¼ teaspoon Olive Oil
- 1 Garlic Clove; minced
- 1/2 tablespoon Fresh Basil, chopped
- Pinch Sea Salt
- Pinch White Pepper
For the marinara sauce: sauté chopped onion in olive oil until translucent. Add tomato sauce and remaining ingredients. Simmer for 30 minutes; stirring occasionally.
For the pasta: Cook pasta according to directions on package.
Sauté shallots, chili and garlic in olive oil for 1 minute; season with salt and pepper. Add fish stock and white wine, cook until slightly reduced. Add marinara sauce, stirring until combined.
Gently fold in lump crab meat, fresh basil and tomatoes – cook for 5 minutes. Serve sauce over cooked pasta.
Bakeries in New York’s Little Italy
Most of the Italian immigrants who made their home in America first landed in New York City. Many then traveled to other parts of the country; but by the early 1900’s, hundreds of thousands had settled in lower Manhattan, living in row houses and tenements in an area of about one square mile. For the unskilled, it was a hard life of cleaning city streets and ash barrels and, for the skilled, it was a hard life of working their trade in constructing buildings and roads. Others became fruit peddlers, bread bakers, shoemakers and tailors. Some opened grocery stores and restaurants or worked in factories. Most of the people who lived on Mulberry came from Naples; those from Elizabeth Street were from Sicily; Mott Street from Calabria; and most of the people north of Mott, came from Bari.
Sweets would have been a rare indulgence for most in the Old Country, however, in America they were a frequent treat. One of the earliest New York ice cream parlors to open, in the 1820s, was Palmo’s Garden, whose immigrant owner, Ferdinand Palmo, fitted it out with gilded columns, huge mirrors and an Italian band. In 1892, opera impresario Antonio Ferrara opened a confections parlor under his name on Grand Street, where he could entertain his musician friends. Veniero’s on East 11th Street began as a billiard parlor in 1894 that sold candy and coffee, eventually, evolving into an enormously successful pastry shop that created the cake for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration.
Arguably the most famous bakery and cafe in Little Italy is Ferrara, the two-floor dessert mecca with flashing lights and an outdoor summer-season gelato stand. Constantly packed with tourists and locals (on a recent Friday at 11 a.m., the takeout line was out the door), Ferrara has some of the most delicious cannoli this side of the Atlantic. Open since 1892, the cafe serves the dessert with a side of dark chocolate pieces and mixes small chocolate chips into the sweet ricotta-based filling.
Ferrara’s Bakery Tiramisu
Enrico Scoppa and Antonio Ferrara, opera impresario and showman, opened the cafe in New York City called Caffé A. Ferrara. Enrico Caruso, the great opera singer, thought the coffee marvelous but loved the cookies and cakes.
- 1 box (7 oz.) Savoiardi or Lady Fingers
- 6 eggs, separated
- 1/2 pint heavy cream
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 cup strong warm coffee
- 1/4 cup coffee liqueur
Arrange Savoiardi in rectangular serving dish, (approximately 11″ x 13″).
Lightly soak Savoiardi with a mixture of coffee and coffee liqueur.
While gradually adding sugar, beat egg yolks (approximately 5-10 minutes) until very stiff and egg yolks appear pale in color.
Beat heavy cream until very stiff and fold into egg yolks.
In a separate bowl, beat egg whites with a wire whisk or electric beater until very stiff and gently fold egg whites into the cream mixture. Add vanilla and fold gently.
Cover Savoiardi with this cream mixture. Cover with aluminum foil or plastic wrap.
Refrigerate at least one hour before serving. Sprinkle with cocoa or chocolate flakes before serving.
Tiramisu may be frozen and should be defrosted in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours before serving.
Di Palo’s Ricotta Cheesecake
Di Palo’s in New York’s Little Italy is the iconic Italian deli, the stuff of dreams for anybody who cooks Italian. Lou Di Palo, whose family has owned the store for 104 years, is still working behind the counter. He is the great-grandson of the founder, is the fourth generation, along with his brother, Sal and his sister, Marie. When you stop in, you’ll almost always find two or more of them there, offering tastes of cheeses, slicing speck or prosciutto or dishing out orders of Eggplant Parmigiana. They make their own ricotta and mozzarella and have for decades.
Lou Di Palo shared his grandmother’s recipe for a true Italian-style cheesecake.
- Unsalted butter, for greasing
- 2 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup crushed Zwieback cookies or graham crackers, plus extra for garnish
- 3 pounds fresh ricotta
- 6 eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 4 teaspoons orange-blossom water
- 3/4 cup cream
Butter a 9-inch springform pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Mix 1/2 cup sugar and the crushed cookies in a small bowl and evenly coat the bottom and sides of the buttered pan with the mixture.
In a large bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups sugar and the ricotta, eggs, vanilla, orange-blossom water and the cream. Pour into the cookie-coated pan.
Sprinkle the top with additional crushed cookies and place the springform pan on the center oven rack on a cookie sheet to catch any leaks.
Bake for 1 hour or until the center no longer jiggles; it may crack slightly. Let cool, remove from pan and serve at room temperature.
Cassateddi Di Ricotta (Ricotta Turnovers)
This traditional Sicilian recipe for sweet ricotta turnovers is adapted from “The Little Italy Cookbook: Recipes from North America’s Italian Communities” (out of print) by Maria Pace and Louisa Scaini-Jojic. The authors suggest using a pasta machine to get the dough thin enough to make the pastries.
- 1 pound ricotta, drained, see note at the bottom
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 4 eggs plus 1 egg white
- 1/4 cup shortening, melted
- 1/3 cup milk
- 4 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- Oil for deep frying (about 2 cups)
- Confectioners’ sugar
For the filling, combine the ricotta, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and egg white in a large bowl; set aside.
Combine the 4 eggs, melted shortening, remaining 2 tablespoons granulated sugar and milk in a small bowl.
Mound 3 1/2 cups flour on a board; make a well. Pour the egg mixture into the well; sprinkle on the baking powder. Use a fork to incorporate the liquid into the flour to form a dough; add a little more milk, if needed. Knead briefly until the dough is smooth. (Add flour, if needed.)
Divide the dough into four pieces. Take one of the pieces and flatten; dust with flour and roll until it is 1/16th-inch thick and shaped into a 4-inch-wide rectangle.
Place 1 rounded teaspoon of filling along one side of the dough at 3 1/2-inch intervals. Fold the top half of the strip over the filling and press edges together to enclose completely.
Cut with a pastry cutter or knife into individual squares or half moons. Lay each piece on a lightly floured baking sheet; repeat with remaining pieces and filling.
Heat the oil in a deep skillet. Fry several turnovers at a time until golden. Remove with a slotted spoon; drain on a rack placed over paper towels. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar.
Draining ricotta: Place ricotta in a wire sieve in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight to remove excess water. For faster results, cover the ricotta with a small plate that fits in the sieve and weight that with a heavy can. If you can, use fresh whole milk ricotta from a specialty market for the richest flavor.