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São Paulo

Many Italians left Italy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and it was one of the largest modern emigrations any country has seen (Ireland was another). Argentina was a popular destination, but so were Brazil, the United States, Uruguay, Canada, Venezuela and Peru. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, an estimated 8.9 million Italians emigrated to the Americas, 7.6 million to other countries in Europe, 300,000 to Africa, 42,000 to Oceania and 13,000 to Asia.

Brasil’s Ellis Island-Santa Catarina

Italian Immigrants in South America

After Italian unification in 1861, the Italian economy improved. However, generations of subdividing plots, poor land management and farming methods and the phylloxera epidemic (microscopic root insect similar to an aphid that wiped out the Italian wine industry in the 1870s), all led to major ecomonic losses for most Italians. As a result, increasing numbers of young Italian men began seeking work abroad, first in France and Switzerland, then in the Americas, as transatlantic shipping became more reliable and less expensive.

Argentina was the preferred destination in the 1870s and 1880s, next Brazil until the turn of the century and, then, the U.S. until World War I. As the great majority of Italian emigrants were economic migrants, it was the availability of work, above all, that dictated their preferred destinations. Argentina was popular, at first, because of geography; farm laborers could find work in Argentina to earn extra income during the Northern Hemisphere winter. As the economy there boomed due to demand for its agricultural products, the need for laborers also grew and Domingo Sarmiento, president of Argentina (1868-1874), encouraged immigration. In 1890 Argentina suffered a severe economic downturn, a financial recession, which also affected its neighbors and the U.S. At the same time, Brazil’s coffee planters were becoming more aggressive in seeking cheap labor. São Paulo began to subsidize passage and lodging for new immigrants. In the 1880s, coffee plantation owners promoted Brazil heavily as a work destination, so a large proportion of Italian emigrants were attracted to Brazil. However, a few years later, word of the ill-treatment of Italian workers in Brazil led to outrage in Italy. This outcry sharply curtailed the number of Italian immigrants to Brazil and helped the numbers increase to the United States.

In contrast to the situation in South America, the U.S. needed cheap labor for its factories, not for farming, and many Italians preferred the life of a factory worker to that of a farm laborer or ranch hand. So the United States absorbed most of the Italian immigrants until after World War I, when a series of anti-immigration laws closed the country to Southern Europeans. After World War II, Italian emigration expanded to places like Australia, but improving economic conditions in Italy would eventually reduce immigration to more stable levels.

La Boca

File:Bocajrs 1908.jpg

Boca Juniors team, during the amateur era of the Argentine Football Association

The neighborhood of La Boca is known in Argentine history for being one of the oldest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. It’s port was the entry point for immigrants in the 1900’s and, today, it is known for the rows of brightly painted houses and the tango. Located in the very southern part of Buenos Aires, this area was once a trade center and shipyard. During the late 1800’s and into the 1900’s, the La Boca neighborhood became home to Buenos Aires’ first ‘Little Italy’. This community gave birth to the tango and the dance was celebrated in tango halls, bars and brothels. La Boca was popular for quite sometime, but as the years past, the neighborhood declined. Today, La Boca is mostly frequented by visitors for its famous Caminito Street, tango shows and to catch a world class football game at La Bombonera Stadium. The club was founded in April 1905 by five Italian immigrants.

The main areas of Italian settlement in Brazil were in the southern and southeastern regions, namely the states of São Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, Paraná, Espírito Santo and Minas Gerais.  Among all the Italians who immigrated to Brazil, 70% went to São Paulo. The rest went mostly to the states of Rio Grande do Sul and Minas Gerais.  In 1880, due to the great numbers of Italian immigrants, the Brazilian government created another Italian colony, Caxias do Sul. After initially settling in the government-promoted colonies, many of the Italian immigrants spread into other areas of Rio Grande do Sul seeking better opportunities.

Wine production introduced by Italians in Caxias do Sul.

The Italians established many vineyards in the region. Today, the wine produced in these areas of Italian colonization in southern Brazil, is much appreciated within the country though little is available for export. Many Italians also worked in factories (in 1901, 81% of the São Paulo’s factory workers were Italians). The workers established themselves in the center of the city, living in multi-family row houses, and these urban centers gave birth to typical Italian neighborhoods – a Little Italy, (such as Mooca).  Other Italians became traders selling their products throughout the region. A common presence on the streets of São Paulo were the Italian boys selling newspapers. Despite the poverty and poor working conditions faced by many Italians in Brazil, over time, most of this population achieved some personal success and changed their low class economic situation. The children of Italians, born in Brazil, often changed their social status as they diversified their field of work, leaving the poor conditions of their parents behind.

Italian Students in Brazil.

St. Vito Festival is one of the most important Italian festivals in São Paulo. It is a celebration in honor of Saint Vito, the patron saint of Polignano a Mare, a city in the Puglia region, in Italy. Many Italian immigrants in Brás, a São Paulo district, came from Puglia. Festa de São Vito is also a time when the Italian community in São Paulo gathers to party and eat traditional food. Other important Italian celebrations in São Paulo are Our Lady of Casaluce, also in Brás (May), Our Lady of Achiropita, in Bela Vista (August) and St. Gennaro, in Mooca (September). As São Paulo grew, so did the Italian community and the St. Vito Festiva. An estimated 140,000 people attend the festival every year.

Italian Influences In Argentine and Brazilian Cuisine


Argentine cuisine has been strongly influenced by Italian cuisine. Italian staple dishes like pizza and pasta are common. Pasta is usually served simply prepared with butter, oil, tomato or bechamel-based sauces. Pizza (locally pronounced pisa or pitsa) more closely resembles Italian calzones than it does its Italian ancestor. Typical Argentine pizzas include pizza canchera (thick crust, tomato sauce, no cheese), pizza rellena (stuffed pizza), pizza por metro (pizza by the meter) and pizza a la parrilla (grilled pizza). The most popular pizza, Argentine fugazza comes from the Italian focaccia (Genoan), but the addition of cheese to the dish (fugaza con queso or fugazzeta) is an Argentine invention. Fainá is a type of thin pizza made with chickpea flour (adopted from northern Italy). The name comes from the Ligurian word for the Italian, farinata. 

Nevertheless, pasta surpasses pizza consumption in Argentina. Among them are tallarines (fettuccine), ravioles (ravioli), ñoquis (gnocchi) and canelones (cannelloni). It is common in Argentina for pasta to be eaten with white bread, which is unusual in Italy. This can be explained by the fact that Argentine pastas tend to come with a large amount of tomato sauce (Italian sugo). Sorrentinos are also a local dish with a misleading name (they do not come from Sorrento, but were invented in Mar del Plata). They look like big round ravioli, stuffed with mozzarella, cottage cheese and basil and served in tomato sauce. 

Polenta comes from Northern Italy and is very common throughout Argentina. Just like polenta in Italy, this cornmeal dish is eaten as a main course with sauce and melted cheese. Milanesa Napolitana is an Argentine innovation, despite its name, and it consists of breaded meat with cheese, tomatoes and sometimes ham on top of the meat. Pasta frola, a recipe heavily influenced by Southern Italian cuisine, consists of a buttery pastry with a filling made of quince jam or milk caramel (dulce de leche). Argentine ice cream (Spanish Helado; Gelato in Italian) is particularly popular for dessert. Its creamy texture comes from heavy cream and the flavors range from classical chocolate with almonds to Dulce de Leche to kiwi, wine or tangerine. Ice cream was again a legacy of the Italians.

Pizza de Fugazza

Fugazza, a kind of pizza, though it lacks a tomato-based sauce and has a thicker, airy crust. It’s always topped with a pile of sweet onions and sometimes with mozzarella cheese and cooked in a deep pizza pan or cast-iron skillet. Fugazza makes a great appetizer or main dish. You can add other toppings of course – olives, herbs, ham, etc. The onions are typically not pre-cooked in Argentina

Yield: Makes 1 14-inch pizza.


  • 2 2/3 cups bread flour
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons yeast
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 cup warm water (100-105 degrees F)
  • 1 large white onion
  • 2-3 teaspoons dried oregano
  • Grated Parmesan cheese
  • Thin slices of mozzarella cheese (optional)


Place the warm water in a small bowl. Stir 1 teaspoon sugar into the water and sprinkle the yeast over the water. Set aside for 5-10 minutes, until mixture is bubbly.

Place the flour, olive oil and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer and mix together briefly using the dough hook. Add the yeast/water mixture and begin to knead. The mixture should come together as a soft, stretchy dough, pulling away from the sides of the bowl. Add a bit more flour, if mixture is too wet or add a bit more water, if mixture seems dry, crumbly or overly firm. Knead for 5-10 minutes, until dough is smooth, soft and elastic.

Oil a bowl and place the dough in the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let dough rise until doubled in size.

While the dough is rising, peel and slice the onion into very thin strips. Place them in a bowl of cold salted water and soak for 30 minutes. Drain onions well and dry them with paper towels.

Once the dough has risen, punch down and shape into a smooth ball. Pour 3 tablespoons of olive oil into a 14-inch pizza pan with 1 inch sides. Place the ball of dough in the middle of the pan and flatten gently with your fingers. Let dough relax for 10 minutes.

Continue to flatten dough in the pan, pushing it toward the sides of the pan, letting it relax in between, until the dough covers the bottom of the pan.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Sprinkle the onions over the top of the dough. Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil over the onions and sprinkle with the dried oregano.

Place the fugazza in the oven. Bake for 15 minutes or until edges start to turn golden brown. If desired, remove fugazza from the oven and top with thin slices of mozzarella cheese and sprinkle with grated Parmesan. Return to the oven and bake until fugazza is golden brown and crispy around the edges. Brown onions under the broiler for the last 3 minutes of cooking, if desired. Remove from the oven and cut into slices to serve.

Pizza de Fugazzeta

Fugazzeta is a variation of the popular Argentinian, fugazza, an onion-topped pizza that is very similar to Italian-style focaccia. Fugazzeta is a double crusted version of fugazza, stuffed with cheese and topped with the same sweet onions. Fugazzeta de verdura has all of this plus a layer of sautéed spinach and vegetables.

Yield: 1 12-inch pizza.


  • 2 3/4 cups bread flour
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 onion
  • 6-8 ounces mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
  • 1/3 cup grated aged provolone cheese 
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Parmesan cheese


Warm the milk to 100-105 degrees F and place in a small bowl. Stir the sugar into the milk and sprinkle the yeast over. Set aside for 5-10 minutes, until mixture is bubbly.

Place the flour, 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer and mix together briefly using the dough hook. Add the yeast/milk mixture and begin to knead, adding the water gradually. The mixture should come together as a soft, stretchy dough, pulling away from the sides of the bowl. Add a bit more flour, if mixture is too wet or and add a bit more water, if mixture seems dry, crumbly, or overly firm. Knead for 5-10 minutes, until dough is smooth, soft and elastic.

Oil a bowl and place the dough in the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let dough rise until doubled in size.

While the dough is rising, peel and slice the onion into very thin strips. Place them in a bowl of cold salted water and soak for 30 minutes. Drain onions well and dry them with paper towels.

Once the dough has risen, punch it down and divide into two pieces. Roll each half into a smooth ball. Pour 3 tablespoons of olive oil into a 12-inch pizza pan or cast iron skillet. Place one ball of dough in the middle of the pan and flatten gently with your fingers. Let dough relax for 10 minutes.

Continue to flatten the dough, pushing it toward the sides of the pan, letting it relax in between, until the dough covers the bottom of the pan. Oil the counter and roll the other piece of dough into a 12-inch circle, letting it relax in between until it holds its shape.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Place the slices of mozzarella cheese over the dough in the pan. Sprinkle the provolone over the mozzarella. Place the other round of dough over the cheese and seal the edges of the two dough circles together.

Top the pizza with the sliced onions. Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil over the onions and sprinkle with the dried oregano and some Parmesan cheese.

Place the fugazzeta in the oven. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown and crispy. Brown the onions under the broiler for the last 3 minutes of cooking if desired. 

Remove from the oven. Let cool for 5-10 minutes before cutting into slices to serve.

Pizza de Fainá

Fainá is a nutty, peppery flatbread (related to the italian flatbread, Farinata) made with garbanzo bean (chickpea) flour. It makes a great appetizer, (especially with toppings), but it’s most often served as an accompaniment to pizza. In fact, topping a slice of pizza with a piece of fainá is a very common practice in both Argentina and Uruguay, where fainá is popular. When pizza and fainá are paired this way it’s called pizza a caballo (horseback pizza).

pizza a caballo

Fainá is very quick and easy to make and you can find garbanzo bean flour (gluten free) at many natural food stores.

Yield: 1 12-inch flatbread


  • 2 1/2 cups garbanzo bean flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 7 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2-2 1/2 cups water


In a medium bowl, whisk the garbanzo bean flour together with the salt, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, the Parmesan cheese and a generous amount of ground black pepper.

Whisk in 1 3/4 cups of water until the mixture is well blended. Set batter aside for about a half hour, to let the garbanzo flour absorb some of the water.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. When it is hot, place the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a 12 inch pizza pan. Heat the pan in the oven until very hot.

Gradually stir remaining water into the batter mixture until it is thin enough to pour. Remove the hot pizza pan from oven and immediately pour the batter into the pan. The batter should make a thin (about 1/4 inch) layer. Place the pan back in the oven and bake until fainá is golden and crispy (about 8-10 minutes). Cut the faina into pieces and serve.


Italians brought new recipes and new types of food to Brazil that eventually changed Brazil’s cuisine. Aside from the typical Italian cuisine like pizza, pasta, risotto and ossobuco, Italians helped to created new dishes that, today, are typically Brazilian. Galeto (from the Italian Galletto –  grilled chicken), Frango com Polenta (Chicken with fried polenta), bife à parmegiana (beef prepared with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese), Catupiry cheese ( a soft, mild-tasting cheese that can be spread over toast, crackers and bread or used in cooking), new types of sausage, such as Linguiça Calabresa and Linguiça Toscana (literally Calabrian and Tuscan Sausage), Chocotone (Panettone with chocolate chips) and many other dishes were created or influenced by the Italian community.

Frango Con Quiabo

Brazilian comfort food – a simple dish of stewed chicken with okra. Okra can be used to thicken certain Brazilian stews, but in this recipe the okra is fried separately and then added to the stew at the very end, a technique that keeps the okra crisp and tender, yet not slimy. Frango con quiabo is often served over a polenta-like corn pudding called angu, as well as over rice (or even both).

Yield: Serves 4.


  • 2 whole chicken breasts, cut into serving-size pieces
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 3 tablespoons vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2-3 cups fresh okra (or one bag of frozen okra)
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped fine
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped fine
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1-2 cups chicken broth
  • Angu, for serving, see recipe below


Cut the stems off the okra and cut the okra into half-inch rounds. Place okra in a colander and salt generously, tossing to coat all the pieces with some salt. Season with black pepper. Let okra rest for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

For the marinade, whisk together the lime juice, vinegar, 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, minced garlic and salt and pepper to taste.

Place the chicken pieces in a dish or ziplock bag and cover with the marinade, turning chicken to coat. Refrigerate the chicken for at least 30 minutes (chicken can marinate several hours to overnight).

Place 4 tablespoons of vegetable  oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the okra and fry for about 5 minutes, until the edges start to brown. Using a slotted spoon, remove okra to a plate covered in paper towels, and set aside.

Add the chicken pieces to the same skillet and cook briefly until browned on all sides. Remove to a plate and set aside.

Add the chopped onion, pepper and tomato to the skillet. Cook vegetables until soft and fragrant, about 8-10 minutes.

Add the chicken back into the skillet and add some chicken broth until the chicken is about half covered. Simmer chicken, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked through and most of the liquid has evaporated.

Just before serving, add the okra to the chicken. Serve over Angu (creamy polenta) or rice.


A simple Brazilian side dish made of cooked cornmeal, similar to polenta. Angu is traditionally prepared with cornmeal, water and a little salt for flavoring. Chicken or beef broth can replace some of the water to add more flavor. Angu can be very creamy or it can be cooked longer until it’s thick enough to be placed in a mold. A popular way to serve angu is to shape it in a fluted ring mold, then serve the main dish (such as chicken with okra) in the middle of the unmolded cornmeal ring.


  • 1 1/2 cups stone ground yellow cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons butter


Bring water and chicken broth to a boil. Slowly stir in the cornmeal.

Season with salt to taste. Cook at a low simmer, stirring frequently, until cornmeal reaches desired consistency, adding more liquid if necessary. Remove from heat, stir in butter and serve.

If using a mold, cook cornmeal until very thick, about 30-40 minutes. Stir in butter. Use 1-2 tablespoons additional butter to grease the inside of a ring mold generously and pour the hot cornmeal into the mold. Let cool for about 10 minutes before gently unmolding. Serves four as side dish.

Bife à Parmegiana


Serves: 4

  • 4 steaks
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 tablespoons wheat flour
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 8 tablespoons bread crumbs
  • 1 cup of tomato sauce
  • 4 oz mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • Salt to taste
  • Oil for frying


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Season the steaks with garlic and salt. Dredge steak in the flour, the beaten egg and breadcrumbs, in that order. Fry in hot oil until golden brown.

Spread some tomato sauce on the bottom of an ovenproof dish. Arrange the steaks side by side in the dish and cover with the remaining sauce and mozzarella slices. Sprinkle oregano on top.

Bake for 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted. Serve at once.

Chocolate Panettone – Chocottone

Chocottone is the clever name for the chocolate version of traditional Italian panettone. It’s a rich chocolate brioche bread, baked in a high round dome and drizzled with chocolate glaze. Chocolate chips and nuts replace the traditional dried fruits.


  • 2 1/4 cups flour, divided
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons raspberry jam
  • 1 tablespoon instant yeast, divided
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 8 tablespoons softened butter, divided
  • 4 tablespoons Nutella, or other chocolate/hazelnut spread
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons good quality vanilla
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup pecans, chopped fine
  • 2 tablespoons flour

Chocolate Glaze:

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup chocolate chips
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tablespoon corn syrup


Make the sponge:

Place 1 1/2 cups flour, 2/3 cup water, 2 tablespoons raspberry jam and 1 teaspoon yeast in a small bowl and whisk together. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set in a warm place to rest for 3 hours.

Make the dough:

In the bowl of a standing mixer add the sponge, 3/4 cups flour, 1/4 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon yeast. Use the hook attachment to knead the dough until the mixture is smooth and stretchy, about 3-5 minutes.

Add 3 egg yolks, one at a time and knead until dough is smooth, shiny and stretchy.

Cover dough with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size.

Return dough to the mixer and add salt, vanilla, honey and 1 teaspoon yeast. Knead for 1 minute. Add 3 egg yolks, one at a time, and knead until smooth.

Add the 8 tablespoons softened butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Add the Nutella, 1 tablespoon at a time and continue to knead until dough is shiny, stretchy, and pulls away from the sides of the bowl (about 5 minutes).

Toss the chocolate chips and pecans with 2 tablespoons of flour. Add them to the dough and knead briefly, until just mixed in.

Place the dough in a oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.

The next morning, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and shape into a ball. Make a small “x” in the top of the dough by snipping it with scissors.

Place dough inside of a 6 inch diameter panettone mold, or use a clean, buttered coffee can lined with parchment paper. Let dough rise in a warm place until triple in size (at least 3 hours).

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F for 30 minutes. Place the panettone in the oven and lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees F.

Bake the panettone for about 1 hour, until it has risen high and springs back a little when pressed on top (like a muffin).

Let panettone cool in the pan on a rack.

Make chocolate glaze:

On low heat, melt 3 tablespoons butter with 1 cup chocolate chips. Add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, a pinch of salt and 1 tablespoon corn syrup. While still warm, drizzle icing decoratively over top of panettone .

Store panettone wrapped in plastic for up to 1 week.

Approaching the ferry slip with a view of the Main Building at Ellis Island, NY.

This post concludes my articles on the history of the Italian immigrants and their journey to find a better life in the Americas. My next weekly feature will look indepth at the contributions Italians have made world-wide in the arts, cusine and as world leaders. Hope you will look forward to those posts.

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