How America became Italian (2022)

How America became Italian (1)
Italian Americans were ridiculed for their food choices in the early 20th century. Today, pizza and pasta are staples of the American diet. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Vincent J. Cannato is an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of “American Passage: The History of Ellis Island.”

When baseball legend Yogi Berra passed away last month, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred called the late Yankees catcher “a beacon of Americana.” Sportswriter Frank Deford had employed the same theme a decade earlier, calling Berra “the ultimate in athletic Americana.”

That is quite a testament to a man born Lorenzo Pietro Berra to Italian immigrant parents and raised in the Italian enclave of St. Louis known as the Hill. There, he developed the outsize personality that would color the American experience with Italian wit.

Traditionally, when we think of Americana, we recall Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” or Betsy Ross sewing the Stars and Stripes. Now we can also invoke Berra and his famous quote, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

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Berra, an anchor of the dynastic New York Yankees of the mid-20th century, exemplifies the broad influence that Italian Americans have had on American culture since arriving as impoverished and denigrated immigrants isolated in urban ghettos. From sports and food to movies and music, they haven’t just contributed to the culture, they have helped redefine it.

That would have surprised many native-born Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was on the rise. Most Italians came from the poverty-stricken southern regions of Sicily, Calabria, Campania and Abruzzo (although Berra’s parents were part of the minority that hailed from the North). These immigrants worked mainly as semi-skilled and unskilled laborers, providing much-needed muscle for the United States’ booming industrial economy. They toiled in steel mills and coal mines as “pick and shovel” day laborers or as brick- and stone-laying masons, as my grandfather and great-grandfather were.

Americans of that era saw Italians as a poor fit for democratic citizenship. Since many Italian immigrants were illiterate, immigration restrictionists sought to impose a literacy test for admission to the country that would have excluded Italians in large numbers. There was also a common belief that Italians were prone to violence. In 1893, the New York Times called Italy “the land of the vendetta, the mafia, and the bandit.” Southern Italians were “bravos and cutthroats” who sought “to carry on their feuds and bloody quarrels in the United States.” Three years later, the Boston Globe published a symposium titled “Are Italians a Menace? Are They Desirable or Dangerous Additions to Our Population?”

Nearly half of Italian immigrants were “birds of passage” who eventually returned to Italy. Those who stayed in America often settled together, forming poor ethnic neighborhoods. But these barrios were not simply replicas of their residents’ native country. Regional cultures — which distinguished Sicilians from Neapolitans — blended along with American customs that children brought home from public schools.

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Two events in particular helped develop the Italian American identity. Congress passed immigration quotas in the 1920s that primarily targeted people from Southern and Eastern Europe. The Immigration Act of 1924 slashed the annual quota for Italian immigrants from more than 42,000 to less than 4,000. Stemming the flow of newcomers into ethnic neighborhoods caused Little Italys to gradually shrink, and Italian Americans moved to the suburbs and diverse neighborhoods where they were more influenced by purely American music, movies and culture.

Then came World War II, which forged a strong feeling of national unity — one that was more inclusive than the nativist campaign for “100 percent Americanism” during World War I. At the beginning of the war, Italian immigrants who had not become U.S. citizens were deemed “enemy aliens.” But President Franklin D. Roosevelt determined that the designation was counterproductive as he sought Italian American support for the war and lifted it on Columbus Day 1942 , so Italians largely escaped the fate of interned Japanese Americans. A half-million Italian Americans (including Berra, who earned a Purple Heart) served in the U.S. military during World War II, with some of them fighting in the Italian countryside that had been their parents’ home.

As they joined the military and integrated into suburbs, Italian Americans shed the popular stereotypes surrounding them. Gradually, the customs developed in Little Italys found acceptance in the mainstream and were absorbed into broader American culture.

Food is a good example of this phenomenon. In the early 20th century, Italian immigrant dishes were scorned and became the root of slurs like “spaghetti bender” and “garlic eater.” Garlic’s pungency seemed un-American and uncivilized, and the strong smell was seen as evidence of Italians’ inferiority. Its popularity in American markets and recipes today shows how drastically this perception has changed and how enmeshed Italian American culture has become in broader American life.

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That’s also apparent in red-sauce dishes that are staples in U.S. homes and restaurants. Big plates of spaghetti and meatballs, baked ziti, and chicken parmigiana are not common in Italy, but they reflect the unique Italian American culture immigrants created. Red sauce became prevalent in immigrants’ kitchens because canned tomatoes were readily available in U.S. markets. Meat was a rarity in southern Italy but abundant in America, and the growing incomes of even working-class Italian households allowed for larger portions of meatballs and other dishes.

Pizza, believed to have originated in Naples, epitomizes Italian Americans’ outsize influence on our culture, where pizza took on an entirely new meaning. Generally, Americans don’t like the original Neapolitan pizza, whose crust tends to be a bit soggy in the middle — unlike the crispier Italian American version. An Italian restaurant owner who opened a pizzeria in New York featuring Neapolitan pies told me his customers complain that his pizzas are undercooked.

Italian Americans have continued to put new spins on the Neapolitan creation. In Chicago, they created the deep-dish pizza. New Haven’s legendary Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana is famous for its white clam pizza, as well as its regular red-sauce and cheese version. In the classic American way, corporations also got into the act, from Domino’s to California Pizza Kitchen. Few foods are more ubiquitous in the American diet, and few are more synonymous with American cuisine.

While Italian Americans’ kitchens were changing the nation’s palate, their creativity was winning over the popular culture. Before the dawn of rock-and-roll, many of the singers who defined American music were Italian Americans: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Vic Damone, Tony Bennett, Perry Como and Louis Prima among them.

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Sinatra, specifically, transcended his time and has influenced American music beyond his death. His songs have become the cornerstone of what critics call the Great American Songbook. The music itself is a cultural mash-up, borrowing from African American jazz with lyrics often written by Jewish songwriters. But with his cocked hat, Sinatra possessed an air of confidence that popularized Italian American swagger and sartorial style. He sang without an accent, but between songs listeners heard a voice from the streets of Hoboken, N.J., with Italian-dialect slang thrown in.

Italian Americans have also made a mark on film. Two of the four greatest American movies, as judged by the American Film Institute, were not only directed by Italian Americans but narrate stories about the Italian American experience. Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” is a gritty, hyper-realistic tale of the rise and fall of middleweight boxing champ Jake La Motta. And Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” based on the novel by Mario Puzo, is a tale about the tensions of assimilation, as Michael Corleone abandons his American ambitions to take over from his father as crime boss.

Coppola and Puzo were walking a fine line with “The Godfather.” The movie reinforced the connection that many Americans made between Italians and organized crime, a stereotype that bothered Italian Americans. But Coppola and Puzo turned the Corleones into classic American characters, embodying the broadly relatable conflict between fathers and sons, tradition and modernity.

Italian immigration, at least on a large scale, is now a thing of the past. But the influence of Italian American culture remains. These immigrants and their children did not simply melt into a homogenous stew of Americanism; they created a lively ethnic community that helped shape mainstream culture.

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Today, Americans are once again concerned about the number of new immigrants and their ability to assimilate. It might not quite be “deja vu all over again” (to borrow from Yogi Berra), but the Italian American experience reminds us that immigration is a process of transformation for the individuals and for American society. That bilateral cultural evolution will continue to mold who we are as a nation.

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What brought Italians America? ›

Italian emigration was fueled by dire poverty. Life in Southern Italy, including the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, offered landless peasants little more than hardship, exploitation, and violence. Even the soil was poor, yielding little, while malnutrition and disease were widespread.

Where do Italian Americans come from? ›

Nearly half of Italian immigrants would eventually return to Italy, but today's Italian-American community is descended from those who decided to remain in America. They brought over their families and created ethnic enclaves in Northern cities and small industrial towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio.

When did Italians come to America? ›

Between 1820 and 1870, fewer than 25,000 Italian immigrants came to the U.S., mostly from northern Italy. These early arrivals settled in communities all across the country, from the farm towns of New Jersey and the vineyards of California to the ports of San Francisco and New Orleans.

Who was the first Italian in America? ›

The first sizable Italian immigration to North America involved certain religious refugees, the Waldensians, who migrated from Holland in 1657. About 167 Waldensians were brought over and settled in New Castle, Delaware, as well as in New Amsterdam.

Why didn't Italy colonize America? ›

Easy: because Italy didn't exist in the 16th century. During the period where England, Spain, and others were colonizing, Italy was a mass of smaller city-states as opposed to one large unified country. It wasn't unified and didn't become the country we know today as "Italy" until the late 1800s.

Did Italians colonize America? ›

The Italians never created real colonies in the Americas, and only made territorial colonies in other areas of the world mainly after their political unification in the 19th century.

What race is closest to Italian? ›

Southern Italians are closest to the modern Greeks, while the Northern Italians are closest to the Spaniards and Southern French.

How much of America is Italian? ›

According to a recent United Census Bureau estimate, 17.8 million Americans are of Italian descent.

Where did Italians descend from? ›

Clusters from the Caucasus and North-West Europe were identified for many Italian clusters as best proxies for the admixing sources in agreement with previous studies (21), while Middle Eastern and African groups were detected for Southern Italy and Sardinia (Fig.

How did Sicilians get to America? ›

Sicilians have a recorded presence of over 300 years on American soil. In the late seventeenth century, the brothers Antonio and Tomaso Crisafi sailed to America. By 1696 Antonio Crisafi was in charge of the Onondaga fort, located in what is now New York State.

Where did most Italians come from? ›

The peak period of Italian immigration to the United States occurred between 1880 and 1921, when approximately 4.2 million Italians came to America. The vast majority of these immigrants, about 80 percent, hailed from the Mezzogiorno in southern Italy, a region in the midst of great tumult and hardship.

Who came to the US first Italians or Irish? ›

The Irish were the first big wave of immigrants coming to America after the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s. Their story was treacherously enduring before eventually becoming triumphant.

Who originally founded Italy? ›

753 - According to legend, Romulus founds the city of Rome. 700s - The Greeks settle much of southern Italy and Sicily. 509 - The Roman Republic is established. 334 - The Romans begin to colonize and take over much of Italy.

Where did Italians migrate from? ›

Most Italian immigrants to the United States came from the Southern regions of Italy, namely Campania, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, and Sicily. Many of them coming to the United States were also small landowners. Between 1880 and 1914, more than 4 million Italians immigrated to the United States.

What did Italian evolve from? ›

The Italian language stems directly from Latin, just like other Romance languages like Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, French, Romanian, and other minority languages (Occitan, Provençal, Galician, Ladin and Friulan).

Who actually found America? ›

Before Columbus

We know now that Columbus was among the last explorers to reach the Americas, not the first. Five hundred years before Columbus, a daring band of Vikings led by Leif Eriksson set foot in North America and established a settlement.

Which country colonized the most? ›

United Kingdom (Britain) The British Empire was the largest of its kind in history, and once covered about one quarter of all the land on Earth. One of the last major colonies to be given up by Britain was Hong Kong which was given back to China on July 1st 1997.

Who colonized China? ›

From history, it can be known that China is a country which has been colonized by several nations such as Britain and Germany. Though there was a time with weakness and invasion of other countries, China recently became one of the countries that have the speediest development in the world.

Where did Italians settle in America? ›

“The most popular cities [for Italian Americans to settle] were Boston, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Rhode Island.” Later generations of Italian Americans settled more in South America then in North America. Over one-third of all the Italians who came to America called New York City “home”.

When did Italians stop coming to America? ›

Anti-immigrant sentiment continued until the 1920s, when severe restrictions on immigration were put into place by the U.S. Congress. When this legislation passed, the great era of Italian immigration came to an end.

Are Greeks and Italians the same genetically? ›

Italians and Greeks are related closely genetically.

What country has the most Italian descendants? ›

At an estimated 31 million, Brazil is home to the single-largest population of Italian descendants, followed by Argentina, where up to two-thirds of the population have at least one Italian ancestor. A further 17 million Americans self-report as being of Italian origin.

What are Italians race called? ›

Italians (Italian: Italiani [itaˈljaːni]) are the citizens and nationals of Italy and the primarily Romance-speaking ethnic group native to the Italian geographical region and its neighboring insular territories.

Who is richer Italy or USA? ›

Economy. United States has a GDP per capita of $59,800 as of 2017, while in Italy, the GDP per capita is $38,200 as of 2017.

What are American Italian called? ›

Italian Americans (Italian: italoamericani or italo-americani, pronounced [ˌitaloameriˈkaːni]) are Americans who have full or partial Italian ancestry.

What city in the US has the most Italian? ›

Top 50 U.S. Cities With The Most Italian-Americans
1New York, NY1,882,396
2Philadelphia, PA497,721
3Chicago, IL492,158
4Boston, MA485,761
46 more rows
31 May 2019

Are Italians originally from the Middle East? ›

And the Italians are not from the Middle East. They are from Europe. They are Southern Europe. They do have things in common historically and genetically with people from places like Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine i.e. the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean.

What is the DNA of a Sicilian? ›

MtDna and Y DNA studies

According to one study, Y-DNA haplogroups were found at the following frequencies in Sicily: R1 (36.76%), J (29.65%), E1b1b (18.21%), I (7.62%), G (5.93%), T (5.51%), Q (2.54%).

Who are Italians ancestors? ›

The ancestry and IBD analyses provided evidence of admixture in Italy with three major ancestries detected, most represented in Northern Europeans, Southern Europeans and Middle Eastern, respectively (with a small percentage of a North African component found in South Italy and Sardinia), with different prevalence ...

Where are most American Italians from? ›

Most Italian Americans trace their roots to villages in the Mezzogiorno, or the regions that comprise Italy's south: Sicily, Campania, Calabria, Basilicata, Abruzzo, Puglia, Molise, and Sardinia.

How are Sicilians different from Italians? ›

Unlike Italian, which is almost entirely Latin based, Sicilian has elements of Greek, Arabic, French, Catalan, and Spanish. This can be seen in many Sicilian words, like azzizzari [to embellish, adorn] from the Arabic aziz [beautiful], or foddi [angry], which can be traced to the Norman French fol.

Why are there so many Sicilians in America? ›

Many Sicilians planned to return home after a few years making money in the United States, but the wartime delay allowed many to assimilate into better jobs and wartime experience, so they did not return. By 1924, about 4,000,000 Sicilians emigrated to the US.

What race is most in Italy? ›

Demographics of Italy
Nationalitynoun: Italian(s) adjective: Italian
Major ethnicItalians
SpokenItalian, others
12 more rows

How do Italians view Americans? ›

In general, Italians respect Americans and always welcome them as friends. They adore the curiosity of American tourists in regard to experiencing Italian culture, and they love the way that Americans enjoy their food.

What state has the most Italian? ›

The five states with the highest concentration of Americans with Italian Ancestry were Rhode Island (16.60%), Connecticut (16.32%), New Jersey (15.03%), Massachusetts (11.64%), and New York (11.53%).

Is Boston more Irish or Italian? ›

The simple answer is yes, Boston is more Irish than Italian. Italian immigrants make up about 3% of Boston's population, with 15% reporting Italian descent. Meanwhile, those of Irish descent make up about 20% of the city's population.

Was America built by the Irish? ›

Irish immigrants built America: Across the 18th and 19th centuries, the Irish helped build America, both as a country and as an idea. Physically, from the skyscrapers of Manhattan to the mines of Montana, this nation's infrastructure bears an indelible Irish imprint.

Who was the first ever immigrant to America? ›

Thousands of years before Europeans began crossing the vast Atlantic by ship and settling en masse, the first immigrants arrived in North America from Asia. They were Native American ancestors who crossed a narrow spit of land connecting Asia to North America at least 20,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age.

What was Italy before United? ›

Prior to the 1861 unification of Italy, the Italian peninsula was fragmented into several kingdoms, duchies, and city-states. As such, since the early nineteenth century, the United States maintained several legations which served the larger Italian states.

What country was Italy before? ›

In antiquity, Italy was the homeland of the Romans and the metropole of the Roman Empire's provinces. Rome was founded as a Kingdom in 753 BC and became a republic in 509 BC, when the Roman monarchy was overthrown in favor of a government of the Senate and the People.

Who first spoke Italian? ›

The language that came to be thought of as Italian developed in central Tuscany and was first formalized in the early 14th century through the works of Tuscan writer Dante Alighieri, written in his native Florentine.

Why does Argentina not speak Italian? ›

In spite of the great many Italian immigrants, the Italian language never truly took hold in Argentina, partly because at the time of mass immigration, almost all Italians spoke their native regional languages rather than Italian, precluding the expansion of the use of Italian as a primary language in Argentina.

Why is there so many Italians in New York? ›

Between 1900 and 1914, almost two million Italians emigrated to America, most arriving in New York. By 1930 NYC was home to over a million Italian Americans – a whopping 17 percent of the city's population. Most Italian immigrants came from southern Italy and were contadini (landless farmers) fleeing severe poverty.

Are Italians genetically the same as Romans? ›

Yes, genetically speaking the DNA of modern Italians is pretty much the same of those of the Roman age. Later conquerers never settled in Italy in large numbers and even migrations during the Roman Empire couldn't modify too much the genetics of the peninsula.

Did Romans speak Italian? ›

Originally Answered: Ancient Romans spoke Latin. Modern Italians speak Italian. When did Italian become the language of Italy? Vulgar Latin, the language spoken by the Roman people, started to change slowly when the Roman Empire fell and communications became difficult.

What is oldest language in the world? ›

1. Egyptian – 2690 BC (circa. 4700 years old) The first known language ever was a proto-language on the African continent, and the first known proto-writing system was created in Nigeria. So, it is perhaps no surprise that the oldest language on this list is also from and used in Africa – Egyptian.

What were the pull factors that brought Italian immigrants to America? ›

Poverty, overpopulation, and natural disaster all spurred Italian emigration. Beginning in the 1870s, Italian birthrates rose and death rates fell. Population pressure became severe, especially in Il Mezzogiorno, the southern and poorest provinces of Italy.

Why did Italians come to America in the 1950s? ›

In the early migration, most came from the southern regions of Italy, driven here by famine, unemployment, natural disasters, and, yes, discrimination from their own. They hoped for a better way of life.

Where did most Italian Americans immigrate from? ›

About 5.5 million Italians migrated out of Italy to the United States from 1820 to 2004, in several distinct waves, with the greatest number arriving in the 20th century from Southern Italy.

What are the pull factors of Italian immigration to America? ›

Examples of Pull Factors
  • The first Italian immigrants responded to the prospects of employment, increased wealth and a better standard of living in America (economical factor)
  • To find more fertile land to escape hunger and disease and find safety in a more settled climate and environment (environmental factor)

What percentage of America is Italian? ›

Nationally there were about 5.1% (nearly 16.7 million) Italian Americans in 2017, according to Census data.

Why did Germans come to America? ›

They migrated to America for a variety of reasons. Push factors involved worsening opportunities for farm ownership in central Europe, persecution of some religious groups, and military conscription; pull factors were better economic conditions, especially the opportunity to own land, and religious freedom.

What is the most Italian state in America? ›

Today, the state of New York has the largest population of Italian-Americans in the United States, while Rhode Island and Connecticut have the highest overall percentages in relation to their respective populations.

What state has the most Italians? ›

The five states with the highest concentration of Americans with Italian Ancestry were Rhode Island (16.60%), Connecticut (16.32%), New Jersey (15.03%), Massachusetts (11.64%), and New York (11.53%).

What city in the U.S. has the most Italian? ›

Top 50 U.S. Cities With The Most Italian-Americans
1New York, NY1,882,396
2Philadelphia, PA497,721
3Chicago, IL492,158
4Boston, MA485,761
46 more rows
31 May 2019

What is the most Italian city in America? ›

Toms River is home to the largest Italian-American population in New Jersey, 29,062 to be specific. Strictly by population, it's the most Italian city. About 29,000 people out of the total population of 91,000 in Toms River! That's almost 30%.

Why do people leave Italy? ›

As well as a lack of job opportunities in Italy the tax rates are also very high. This creates another incentive for young Italians to leave the country and find work elsewhere. Compared to other Western countries, including America, the rates of taxation of your income is pretty high in Italy!

How much Italian do you have to be to be considered Italian? ›

Most nations apply jure sanguinis in their nationality laws to certain degrees. Italy is one of the countries where a person can easily be recognized as Italian citizens by having at least one Italian ancestor.


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