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Tuckahoe Author Discusses History of Italian Food

TUCKAHOE, N.Y.  -- Pizza really was invented in Italy, Marco Polo did not bring macaroni back from his travels to China and there was not so much as a single tomato plant in Italy until the 17th century.

These are just a few of the facts author John Mariani has in his book  “How Italian Food Conquered the World.”

Mariani, who has lived on Henry Street in Tuckahoe since 1979, visited the Tuckahoe Library Monday morning to discuss his research. 

In addition to having published four books, Mariani has worked as a food and wine critic for Esquire magazine and as a wine critic for Bloomberg News.

His latest book traces the evolution of Italian food and how you can find a high-end Italian restaurant almost anywhere in the world, including India, China and Japan.

Italian Americans who live in Tuckahoe would barely recognize the Italian food from long ago.

“The Romans ate sort of a gruel, some lentils, water, bread, very little meat and a small amount of vegetables,” Mariani said.

Mariani described Italy as a “plate of soup surrounded by too many spoons,” noting that the many conquerors of Italy influenced what the people ate.

“There is some evidence that macaroni comes from a Northern African dish,” Mariani said.

Mariani said potatoes, corn, chili peppers and the all-important tomato were brought to Italy from the Americas after Christopher Columbus’s journey.

“When tomatoes were brought back to Italy, initially, they were fed to hogs,” Mariani said. “But in the south, especially near Naples, the tomatoes grew so well, people started to eat them.”

Still, the Italians of those days were mostly starving and eating pretty badly. In addition to dealing with a dismal and skimpy food supply, early Italians had a ruling class, who did not treat peasants well.

Joanne Pergolis of Tuckahoe was one of roughly a dozen or so attendees who purchased a copy of the book and had it signed by the author. 

“I am part Italian and I like to cook,” she said. “I can’t wait to go home and read it.”

The book continues the journey of Italian cuisine to America  and pays particular attention to pizza. 

“I visit 20 cities around the world each year and no matter where I go, and no matter what kind of food is offered, there is always pizza on the menu,” Mariani said.

Pizza as we know it in America was created in Naples in 1889, Mariani notes.

“Pellegrino Esposito made a pizza for the visiting Queen Margarita and wanted to model it after the colors on the Italian flag,” Mariani said. “He used tomatoes for the red, mozzarella cheese for the white and basil for the green.”

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