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Bravissimo! Great Moments In Italian Food History

As the title of my book, How Italian Food Conquered the World, asserts, the domination of Italian food, from pizza to white truffles, is as evident in Boca Raton as it is in Beijing. In fact, it would be unusual to find any new restaurant that isn’t Asian that doesn’t have a pasta or pizza section on it.

Here are some highlights of the inexorable march of Italian food to the top. 

First century A.D.—The world’s first known cookbook is Roman, entitled Apicius (after the nobleman Marcus Gavius Apicius) or De Re Coquinaria.

Third  century A.D.—Party animal and emperor Heliogablus mounts extravagant, all-night orgy dinners at which he serves six hundred ostriches and vats of eels fattened on the meat of Christians slain in the Coliseum.

1295—After 14 years in the Orient, Marco Polo returns to Italy with news of the evolved food culture of China is compared with Europe. He also brings back rice to Italy, and mentions that the Chinese eat noodles just the way Italians had for centuries.

Early 14th century—The table fork becomes a convenient way to eat pasta without using your fingers, which continues to find favor well into the 20th century.

1492—Christopher Columbus sails west to find a spice route to the Orient. Soon tomatoes, potatoes, corn and other New World foods are being exported to Italy.

1533—Caterina dei Medici marries the king of France and moves with her cooks to Paris (though there is no solid evidence she brought Italian food into the royal kitchen).

1820s—The caffés of Venice become the most fashionable in Europe, entertaining guests like Lord Byron, Stendahl, Richard Wagner and Alexandre Dumas.

1856—Francesco Cirio founds his canning company Societa Anonima de Esportazione and exports Italian foods around Europe.

1861—The Unification of Italy helps bring Italian food culture into focus with the improvements in transport and national pride. King Victor Emmanuel II holds a state dinner featuring Italian food (though the menu is written in French). 

1880—The first of five million Italian immigrants, overwhelmingly from the south, particularly Naples and Sicily, arrive in the U.S., creating a new form of cooking called “Italian-American” food. Italian enclaves are established in the cities of the northeast like New York, Boston and Providence, as well as in San Francisco and New Orleans. 

1881—Neapolitan pizzamaker creates pizza alla margherita to honor the visiting Queen Consort of Italy, using the colors of the new Italian flag—red tomatoes, green basil and white mozzarella.

1891—Retired Florentine banker Pellegrino Artusi writes the first modern Italian cookbook for home use, in the Tuscan dialect, which sells 283,000 copies by 1910.

1900—An increasing number of Italians settle in California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys and plant vineyards and open wine companies. 

1905—The first pizzeria in America—G. Lombardi’s—opens on Spring Street in NYC. It’s still there.

1906—The oldest family run restaurant in the U.S., Barbetta, opens in NYC’s Theater District. It’s now run by family member Laura Maioglio.

1914—The totem for the big, generous, music-filled Italian-American restaurant Mama Leone opens on West 48th Street in NYC, drawing celebrities from the music and show biz world. It closed in 1992.

1917—Roman restaurateur Alfredo Di Lelio creates fettuccine all’Alfredo with butter and Parmigiano and it is popularized by visiting Hollywood movie stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford when they return to the U.S. 

1926—John Ganzi and Pio Bozzi open a speakeasy named Palm that becomes the prototype for the Italian Steakhouse after the end of Prohibition. They eventually open  25 branches.

1920-1940—Restaurants in the continental style proliferate in the grand hotels and resorts in Italy as trattorias increase in number within the cities.

1927—A Roman woman named Ada Boni publishes The Talisman of Happiness Cookbook that starts with 882 recipes (2,245 by 1976) and has enormous sales. 

1927—Vincent Sardi opens Sardi’s in New York’s Theater District and attracts the show business crowd. 

1931—Giuseppe Cipriani opens Harry’s Bar in Venice, attracting the world’s most celebrated clientele, including Americans who could drink liquor they could not obtain during Prohibition in the States. 

1931—The Italian oceanliners Rex and Conte di Savoia join the competition for Transatlantic travel offering the finest Italian cuisine and wines.

1937—Immigrant importer Giovanni Cantisano and his wife Assunta begin putting their tomato sauce into Mason jars in Rochester, New York, and sell it under the label Ragù and sell the company to Cheeseborough Ponds in 1973 for $100 million.

1945—U.S. soldiers return from the Italian Campaign with memories of the food they ate in Italy and developed an appetite for it that gave Italian dishes a vast popularity in the post-war period.

1953—Immigrant Hector Boiardi makes his first TV commercial for his canned Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee spaghetti and the brand becomes an American family staple.

1950s—The postwar Italian oceanliners continue to showcase fine Italian cucina, and many of its kitchen and service staff stay in New York to work in restaurants where they become waiters and cooks.

1955—Hollywood movies about Americans in Italy, like Roman Holiday, Summertime and Three Coins in the Fountain show a postwar Italy in which food and wine are crucial romantic elements. This is only increased with the debut in 1961 of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, whose title becomes emblematic of the Italian lifestyle.

1957—Arthur Frommer published Europe on Five Dollars a Day, allowing millions of Americans to appreciate Italian hospitality and food at a basic level in cities like Rome and Naples. 

1962—New York restaurateur Romeo Salta publishes Romeo Salta: The Pleasures of Italian Cooking.

1963—The Italian government raises the reputation for Italian wines under the D.O.C. and, later, D.O.C.G. appellations. 

1970s—Slowly but surely first-rate Italian wines and foods, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, Prosciutto di Parma and tartufi bianchi, are exported.

1971—Waverly Root publishes the authoritative The Food of Italy, detailing the history and culture of regional cuisines and wines. 

1971—Lucio Caputo is named Italian Trade Commissioner in New York and pours resources and money into education about Italian wines and food. 

1972—Sicilian-born Piero Selvaggio opens Valentino in Santa Monica, CA, and slowly becomes one of the most influential Italian restaurants in the world. 

1973—Marcella Hazan publishes The Classic Italian Cookbook

1973—Tuscan Sirio Maccioni opens the New York society restaurant Le Cirque with a French menu but the most popular dish becomes fettuccine alla primavera, and the restaurant evolves to become more and more Italian.

1977—Gualtiero Marchesi, capitalizing on France’s la nouvelle cuisine, promote a highly refined and imaginative la nuova cucina at his Milan restaurant. 

1980s—The success of Italian fashion designers like Giorgio Armani and Dolce-Gabbana in Milan create a great swell of interest in Italian trattiorias serving so-called lighter “Tuscan food,” and offshoots of Bagutta, Bice and Paper Moon opened in New York. 

1986—Italian guide Gambero Rosso is published, covering wines and restaurants throughout Italy. 

1986—The Slow Foods Movement is founded in reaction to Rome’s first McDonald’s opening.

1980s—The California “gourmet pizza” is created by Alice Waters of Café Fanny in Berkeley, Ca, and Wolfgang Puck at the Hollywood restaurant Spago.

1983—Tony May and other Italian food authorities found the Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani to educate the world, including Italians themselves, on modern and regional Italian food. He also opens both Palio and San Domenico restaurants in New York showing the cuisine and wine at a level of French haute cuisine. 

1987—A British woman, Rose Gray, and an American, Ruth Rogers, open The River Café, which becomes the most difficult to get into restaurant in London. 

1993— concept of The Mediterranean Diet helps makes the image of Italian food healthier than any in the West or France. 

2000—For the first time in 25 years Wine Spectator Magazine awards the Italian wine Solaia its Best Wine of the Year.