The Italian American Table: Food, Family, and Community in New York City

By Camp, Charles | Western Folklore, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

The Italian American Table: Food, Family, and Community in New York City


Camp, Charles, Western Folklore


The Italian American Table: Food, Family, and Community in New York City. By Simone Cinotto. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013. Pp. xvi + 265, introduction, epilogue, notes, index, charts, photographs, maps. $90 cloth, $32 paper.)

At 265 pages including index and notes, Simone Cinotto's The Italian American Table is a substantial documentation of beliefs most foodways scholars, and most Americans, already share: that food is important to Italian American families, that the entrepreneurial spirit of Italian American emigrants shared Italian food with an ever-wider group of non-Italian Americans, and that, to some extent, the food story of Italian life in America has already been told by popular fiction, film, and television in a way that orients our contemporary understanding of Italian Americans and Italian food.

What Cinotto has to say isn't so familiar as, say, Robert de Niro's New York City settlement scenes from Godfather II. But Cinotto is probably correct to place high emphasis on popular culture given the degree to which we have become accustomed to using references to the Godfather films and the Sopranos as if these media products represent an agreed-upon index of Italian American food and life. There's more to this, but it's a touchy point. Simone Cinotto has spent a good deal of time in New York City, more than sufficient to gather the resources for the core of his book, which addresses foodways in New York during the 1920s and 1930s. But Cinotto is Italian, not Italian American-a difference that shows in his much shorter account of the commercialization of Italian American food that occurred from the late 1950s forward.

Does this really matter? In this day and age it would certainly be problematic-if not offensive-to insist upon American nativity as a pre-requisite for research such as this, and any scholar studying Italian Harlem in the 1930s would be well advised to explore Cinotto's varied sources on the subject. But for American readers there may be an odd, discernible echo in the text that derives from the distance between an Italian point of view on the subject and an Italian American one. With the exception of an account of successful Italian American restaurants across New York City, the settlement story for New York's Italian American population ends with the diversification of the upper east side neighborhood called "Italian Harlem."

Beginning in the early 1940s, Italian Americans became visible and active members of several other neighborhoods in Manhattan, as well as Queens and neighboring New Jersey. It may be warranted to see the early 1930s, when Italian Americans represented eighty percent of the population in upper-east-side Italian Harlem as a kind of zenith. But to view the dispersion of that community solely as a calamity is unfair to the ethnic groups for whom that same area proved to be vital settlement space. In 1939, the Federal Writers' Project's WPA Guide to New York City gave considerable space to Italian Harlem, but more to Spanish Harlem, just to the north, where overcrowding and ongoing immigration from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the African American South were pressuring existing division lines between Italian and Spanish Harlem. …

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