As immigrants from the different regions of Italy settled throughout 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 local communities and later for Americans nationwide.
Italians were some of the first European explorers and settlers of California. Italians first came to the state in large numbers with the Gold Rush. While most found little gold, they did find success in farming, fishing, commerce and making wine. Though we often associate Italians in California with San Francisco, the initial Italian settlers established themselves in such diverse communities as Monterey, Stockton and San Diego. Italian fishermen established themselves in fishing villages along the coast.
Across the state, the Italians also settled the farmlands and played a prominent role in developing today’s fruit, vegetable and dairy industries. By the 1880’s, Italians dominated the 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.
Another enterprising Italian was Domenico Ghirardelli, who traveled through the gold mines in the 1850’s, selling chocolates and hard candies. He settled in San Francisco after the Goldrush and founded the Ghirardelli chocolate empire.
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.
Many Italian families have made their living from cattle ranching in the Mother Lode foothills at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. One can still find many Italian family ranches in the region.
The Italians also played an important role in developing the olive oil industry in the foothills. The rolling hills of the Gold Country, which resemble the Mediterranean hills of Liguria, are dotted with the remnants of early Italian olive tree orchards and with newly planted trees similar to those found in Italy.
The California wine industry also owes much to its Italian founders. Italians have been planting vineyards and making wine in America since the early colonial days when Filippo Mazzei planted vineyards with Thomas Jefferson.
Drive down the California vineyard roads and you may think you are in Italy. The Italian winery names that are seen throughout the area stand as a reminder of the contribution of Italian-Americans in the growth of the California wine industry. Some of the most famous names in American wine got their start during the four decades leading up to Prohibition in 1919. Seghesio, Simi, Sebastiani and Foppiano all started in the late 1800s and are still operating today. Giuseppe Magliavacca’s Napa winery was by then a thriving business, Secondo Guasti had established the Italian Vineyard Company and Andrea Sbarbaro had founded Italian Swiss Colony.
Italian-Americans in California kept their vines in the ground and healthy throughout the Prohibition era. When Prohibition ended, they were rewarded but, more importantly, the families that had struggled to maintain their vineyards gave America a jump start in resuming the wine industry. Without the vineyards and the fully equipped wineries, America would have had to rebuild the industry from scratch, an industry that is synonymous with longevity and tradition.
Today, the California wine industry is dotted with Italian names. The Trinchero family name is hidden behind its non-Italian winery name: Sutter Home. Robert Mondavi, Ferrari-Carano, Geyser Peak (owned by the Trione family), Viansa, Cosentino, Atlas Peak (owned by Antinori), Dalla Valle, Delicato, Valley of the Moon, Parducci, Signorello, Sattui, Rochioli, Rafanelli and Mazzocco are all thriving wineries in America.
Recipes From California’s Wineries
Chilled California Garden Gazpacho
Recipe by Vicki Sebastiani from Viansa Winery.
Serve this course with Barbera, a wine flavored with plum, black cherry, wild berry and oak spice.
- 1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
- 1 large red onion, peeled and diced
- 1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
- 1 large zucchini, diced
- 6 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced (about 6 cups)
- 1/4 cup Italian white wine, such as Pinot Grigio
- 2 cups tomato juice
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- Dash Tabasco sauce
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1/2 cup minced fresh chives
- 1/2 cup croutons, preferably homemade
Set aside 1/2 cup each of the chopped cucumber, red onion, red pepper and zucchini. In a blender or food processor combine the rest of the vegetables with the remaining ingredients. Puree slightly, so the vegetables are left a little chunky.
Combine soup with the reserved vegetables, cover tightly with plastic wrap and chill 2 to 3 hours. To serve, top with a dollop of sour cream, a sprinkle of minced chives and several croutons.
Makes 8 cups.
From the kitchen of Ed Seghesio.
Serve this course with Arneis, which is both the name of the wine and the grape from which it is made. The name means “little rascal” in the Piedmontese dialect, so named because it can be difficult to grow. Arneis has a delicate aroma and flavor of pears, with a hint of almonds. The grape seems to have more acidity in California than in Italy, yielding a crisper wine.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 1 cup Arborio rice
- 1/2 cup Seghesio Arneis
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 3-1/2 cups chicken stock
- 1 ounce dried Porcini mushrooms, rehydrated in 1/4 cup chicken stock
- 1/4 teaspoon saffron
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
Simmer chicken stock in a separate pan.
Sauté onions in olive oil and butter until onions are clear in a large saucepan. Add the rice to the onions and sauté for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
Add the wine and garlic to the mixture and allow the liquid to cook down. Then add 1/2 cup of warm stock and the rehydrated porcini mushrooms with their liquid. Allow the liquid to cook down, stirring constantly.
As the liquid simmers, continue adding 1/2 cup of the warm stock. Repeat this process until the rice is tender, approximately 30 minutes.
With the last 1/2 cup of stock, add the saffron. When the rice is tender, stir in the Parmesan cheese and freshly ground pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
Serves 2 as a main dish and 4 as a side dish.
Grilled Chicken with Tapenade
Recipe courtesy of Louis M. Martini Winery.
Serve with Sangiovese, a Chianti-style wine.
- 1 chicken, about 3-1/2 pounds
- 1/4 cup tapenade, store-bought or homemade (recipe below)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
- Salt and pepper
Remove the chicken’s backbone (or have the butcher do it). Lay the chicken out flat. With your fingers, gently separate the chicken skin from the breast and thighs but do not detach it completely.
Rub oil all over chicken skin. Spread the tapenade evenly over the breast and thighs and underneath the skin. Season with rosemary, salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate 3 to 4 hours. Bring to room temperature before grilling.
Prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire. Arrange coals in a ring around the perimeter of the grill and set an aluminum foil drip pan in the center. Grill the chicken over the drip pan for about 20 minutes skin side down, with the grill covered; then turn, cover again and cook until done, about another 10 minutes. Let rest 5 to 10 minutes before cutting into serving pieces. Serves 4.
- 1/2 pound Greek or Italian black olives, pitted
- 4 anchovy fillets
- 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 teaspoons brandy
Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and blend until nearly but not completely smooth. Tapenade should have a slightly coarse texture.
Recipe courtesy of the Mosby Winery.
Serve with Tocai Friulano, a slightly sweet wine with aromas of honeysuckle and orange blossom along with the flavors of citrus and tropical fruit.
- 1-1/2 cups whole hazelnuts, toasted, and coarsely chopped
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup of hazelnut flour (finely ground hazelnuts, measured after grinding)
- 1 tablespoon orange zest
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
- 1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup cold butter
- 2 teaspoons anise seed
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Grease 2 baking sheets.
Combine flour, baking powder, hazelnut flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to blend the ingredients.
In another bowl, cream the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer. Add the eggs to the butter and sugar and beat well.
Stir in the flour mixture, the coarsely chopped hazelnuts, espresso powder, vanilla and anise seed. Cover the dough and chill for 1 hour.
Divide the dough into four pieces and shape each into a 9-inch log. Place the logs on the baking sheets and bake in the oven for 35 minutes.
Remove the loaves to a cutting board, cool and cut the pieces crosswise into 3/4” thick slices.
Return the slices, cut side down, to the baking sheets and bake an additional 20 minutes, or until dry and firm. Let the biscotti cool before serving. Store in airtight container for up to two weeks.
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