How Italian Food Conquered the World - Book Review
A Comprehensive History
How Italian Food Conquered the World
By John F. Mariani
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)
Did you know that Delmonico's in New York was the first restaurant to allow women to dine alone — in
1868? Or that the Caesar salad was created in Tijuana, Mexico by Caesar Cardini in 1924? Would you
believe that Ralph Lauren once showed up to Sapore di Mare in the Hamptons wearing shorts and was
given a pair of the chef's checkered pants to put on? These are just some of the many interesting facts
that John Mariani so effortlessly brings to life in his engaging new book How Italian Food Conquered the
World. Having grown up in New York in an Italian family, written numerous books and articles about
Italian food, restaurants and wine, and traveled extensively throughout Italy and the United States,
Mariani is preeminently qualified to write such a book. He does so with evident gusto and insight.
Mariani's implicit argument is that Italian food conquered the world by first conquering the United
States. It was the Sicilian and Neapolitan immigrants to New York who brought the pizza and spaghetti
that are so ubiquitous today. From the very outset, Italian food in America has been dominated by
southern Italian food, in contrast to the diversity of regional cuisines found throughout Italy. The US has
also been a fertile ground for the creation of new Italian dishes such as pasta primavera, for example,
which was created by Egidiana Maccioni, wife of famed New York restaurateur Sirio Maccioni.
How Italian Food Conquered the World covers enormous ground. There are chapters on the spread
of regional Italian cuisine; Italian food, the Mafia and the movies; the Italian wine industry; nuova
cucina and alta cucina; the spread of authentic Italian imports in the 1980s, including olive oil, balsamic
vinegar, mortadella and gorgonzola cheese; and the close association of Italian food with Italian
fashion. And besides the hundreds of restaurants mentioned, Mariani paints vivid portraits of influential
individuals, from vintner Robert Mondavi and chef Wolfgang Puck to Slow Food-founder Carlo Petrini
and Italian Trade Commissioner Dr. Lucio Caputo.
Although Mariani disdains doing so, he continually resorts to comparisons between French and Italian
food, which on occasion come close to undermining his own thesis about Italian food's dominance.
He charts the rise of cucina italiana, for example, by measuring how much attention it receives in the
Larousse Gastronomique. Mariani's
real triumph, however, is in being able to show not only how Italian restaurants can now charge as
much for their dishes as French restaurants do, but that top French chefs such as Alain Ducasse have
put Italian dishes on their menus — two things that were previously unimaginable. Entertaining and
informing his readers along the way, Mariani boldly and brilliantly succeeds in making his case that
Italian food has indeed conquered the world.
Reviewed by Barnaby Hughes