What is one the most widely used document in the Italian language in our good old USA? No, it is not a collection of Neapolitan song lyrics or the Constitution of the Italian Republic or the memoires of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Hero of Two Worlds. It is the menu of Italian restaurants.
The proliferation of Italian eateries has been prodigious in the past three or four decades. Going back as far as the fifties, when I migrated to California, I can testify that Italian restaurants in this country were mostly the reflection of old Italian lore, with often marked departure in choices from the actual food consumed in Italy. It was apparent then that the dishes of the old Italian emigrants, brought here by the multitudes of humble people prevalently from the South of Italy, had frozen in time, while the cuisine of Italy had actually evolved into many other forms. Thus risotto was unknown here, while in Italy it constituted a pillar of Italian cuisine.
Other unknown recipes were Bolognese lasagna, without ricotta but with Bechamel sauce, insalata russa, a medley of vegetables in a mayonnaise made with egg yolks, olive oil and lemon juice, a deli frequent offering, grana padano and stracchino cheese, San Daniele prosciutto and many other delicacies popular in the old country. Italian restaurants, at least on the west coast were rare and steak restaurants or French bistros were the preferred venue of formal or “serious” events.
The local Italian restaurant was often a pleasant but unsophisticated place with chekered table- cloths and a candle stuck in a fiasco (grass covered one liter jug). The food was all red, red sauce on huge meatballs and of course the Italian ever present pizza. Italian food was practically unknown in many rural areas. A friend of mine, finding himself in San Antonio, Texas on assignment, wandered into a local supermarket looking for pasta. He was directed to a section called “Ethnic Foods”.
One evening, dining at a real cozy restaurant in Carmel, we had the pleasure of savoring some new Italian dishes, the owner had brought some recipes from his native Tuscany; at a table next to us a lady called the waiter over to declare alarmingly: “This sauce is white!!!” She had been served pasta with butter and cheese. So the normal fare was all good stuff, really, but very limited.
Then things started to change. Italian chefs began opening Italian restaurants in our cities, bravely introducing the new and hitherto unproven offerings of the cuisine of modern Italy. Americans of all classes, not just the wealthy, began traveling in greater and greater numbers to Italy and discover what Italians ate at their restaurants. Americans also, on the wake of a greater concern for health, started distancing themselves more and more, really more so in the trendy cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, from the traditional meat and potatoes diet of their parents, and embracing the Mediterranean cuisine, in which Italy excelled, employing tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and red wine, all ingredients proven to be far healthier than saturated animal fats.
The convergence of all these factors has resulted in the multiplication of Italian eating places, from fancy restaurants to simple to-go outlets offering pizza and Panini. Italian things and food in particular had become trendy. Now, back to the menus. I am appalled at the laziness of some of these operators who publish menus full of misspelled Italian words. Just bear with me, you might judge me a nitpicker but the word Linguini does not exist; pasta is always represented by a plural, and the correct word is Linguine (plural of Linguina, a small tongue).
Similarly Osso Buco (which means Bone Hole, the veal shank dish) should not appear as I have often seen as Osso Bucco!! Carciofi should not be Carcioffi, and God help me, I have seen Prosciutto spelled Proscuitto, Parmigiana spelled Parmiggiana, Spinaci has become Spinacci and bruschetta is pronounced horribly as “brewsheda” instead of “broosketta” . I can continue like this ad nauseam. I am proud of my Italian heritage and I go out of my way to try and maintain language purity.
When I see a badly spelled Italian menu, probably created at great expense, I approach the owner and point out the mistakes; I do not do just that, I offer my free service of translating the next one. Please forgive my rambling; I am just an old sentimentalist who listens too frequently to Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes.