Asian grapevine

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 March, 2012, 12:00am


I was invited to a discussion led by television chef Lidia Bastianich about the evolution of Italian food in America while I was in New York last week. She spoke about her journey through the United States, researching her seventh cookery book, Lidia's Italy in America. Bastianich is not only an author and television celebrity but also a successful restaurateur with 22 Italian restaurants in the US. Her latest book is a chronicle of the Italian immigrants' experience in America, seen through the food they eat.

I love the idea of looking at food through the wider sociological lens and understanding how each dish was created. The book highlights the huge influx of Italians into America in the late 1800s, resulting in them becoming the fifth-largest ethnic group, after the Germans, Irish, English and African-Americans. One of the biggest impacts Italians had on America has been in food and wine. Pizza has become so Americanised that there are regional reference points such as Chicago's deep-dish pizza or New York's thin cheesy style.

Bastianich, who is from Friuli in northeastern Italy, arrived in the US in the late 1950s and found that Italian food in America had nothing to do with Italian food in Italy - at least not the Italy she knew and loved. The explanation is that the first generation of Italian immigrants were from southern Italy, mostly from Sicily, Campania and Calabria, and the food America embraced was inspired by these regions.

She describes how the basic ingredients in America were different from Italy and recipes were adapted accordingly. Tomatoes in the US are larger and there is more juice as well as seeds. The tomatoes were less sweet than in Italy and the seed content meant the flavour was more bitter, so sugar was often added to sauces. Also, since there was more juice, the cooking time was extended to allow the sauce to reduce. The abundance of meat in the US meant more was used than would be found in Italy.

What evolved as Italian food is more distinctly Italian-American, argues Bastianich. You won't find Americans' favourite Italian dishes in Italy such as spaghetti and meatballs, baked cannelloni and veal parmigiano.

The Italians in America made a huge impact on the food culture, but equally, their influence on America's wine industry has been formidable.

Consider what the American wine industry would be like without the Gallos, Mondavis, Sebastianis and Coppolas. It was the Gallos who introduced affordable drinking wine so it could be enjoyed as a normal part of a meal. Brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo have the world's largest family owned wine company. It sells 80 million cases of wine around the world, 75 million in the US.

At the higher end of the business was Robert Mondavi, who died in 2008. After breaking away from his family's Charles Krug winery in 1966, Mondavi set up his eponymous label to make wines to rival the best from Europe. He captured the palates of many Americans who loved the riper, more approachable versions of their favourite European wines. He was a pioneer in varietal labelling; doing away with long and intimidating European names encouraged a host of new drinkers. He created new styles and labels such as fume blanc, which was a fuller-bodied often oaked version of the crisp sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley.

These Italian-American pioneers adapted to the environment. They worked with what they found in America. Spaghetti suddenly had the addition of giant meatballs, sauvignon blanc was made rounder and less sharp by ageing it in barrels.

It is hard to imagine America's food and wine scene without the Italian-Americans. They have had such an impact over the past century. Of course this is evolving and the influence of neighbouring Mexico and Latin American cultures is also huge, as well as many Asian cultures, but these countries do not have Italy's rich wine heritage.

As China's wine culture and production grows at a rapid pace, the Italians should make more effort towards imparting their influence not just on selling their wines in this market but also on influencing winemaking styles and introducing Italian varieties made on the mainland. So far, nearly all the joint ventures and large investments in wine are being made by the French. By being absent, the Italians are missing out on being part of the pioneering generation in China. They conquered American palates. It's time to consider a new frontier.

Jeannie Cho Lee is the first Asian Master of Wine.