A few months ago, Tim Niver brought his mother into the kitchen of his restaurant, Mucci's Italian, for a sort of staff training.
A descendant of Italian immigrants, Niver grew up eating classic Italian-American dishes with his family. He thought his mother could infuse a bit of that "spirit" into the restaurant's kitchen, which was staffed by mostly non-Italian chefs.
Niver's mother oversaw the making of a humble chicken liver dish. At one point, Niver messed something up.
"She spat out this Italian phrase, that translates to, 'Who put on your shoes today?' " Meaning: What are you doing?
Niver wasn't embarrassed, but proud. His mother had more to teach his staff than a recipe.
"That's the essence," he said. "There's a spirit behind this food. It's not just a cuisine, it's an idea."
The staples of Italian-American food — think spaghetti and meatballs, fettuccine Alfredo, lasagna, chicken Parmesan — make this a fare all its own. It's more American than Italian, though its roots are in the late 19th- and early 20th-century Italian immigrants who brought over their ability to stretch the simplest ingredients available to them. As generations continued making those marinara-enrobed dishes, these foods became woven into restaurant menus and family dinners across the country.
"Even if you don't have an Italian grandmother, whether it's pizza or lasagna, it brings back happy memories of food that you may have grown up with, that you're always happy to see again," said Jack Bishop, chief creative officer of America's Test Kitchen and one of the originators of Cook's Country magazine, which just published a cookbook on Italian-American cuisine.
Minnesota didn't see the same influx of Italian immigrants that cities like New York and Chicago did. Still, many families who settled here entered the restaurant business, from St. Paul to Hibbing, introducing their own spins on Italian food to a wider audience.
Local ingredients influenced dishes that are now linked to certain cities and neighborhoods across the U.S. Cioppino, a fish stew, grew out of San Francisco's seaside location. St. Louis pizza is topped with the smoky, local Provel cheese. And thanks to its turn-of-the-century wave of Italian-born miners, Minnesota's Iron Range is home to porketta, the fennel-encrusted pork roast inspired by Italy's porchetta.
These regional specialties are all featured in the new book by the editors of America's Test Kitchen, "Big Flavors From Italian America: Family-Style Favorites From Coast to Coast."
"Italian immigrants were responding to what was here and what wasn't here," Bishop said. "They were thinking of what was available, and how to translate that."
Because Italian immigrants came from a large country with strong regional identities, their food traditions could vary widely within the same city. Fred Yarusso, the third-generation owner of Yarusso Bros. restaurant in St. Paul, remembers roaming through the different enclaves in his city when he was a child, and seeing "who was cooking what." When his church attempted to put together a cookbook," they had to stop because nobody got along," he said. "All they did was argue, because they all cook a little different. Every family thinks they have something tricky."
Tina Suglia sees those squabbles play out today in Italian-American Facebook groups. "Is it 'sugo' or is it 'gravy'?" she said. "It's a sensitive spot. You get all these Italians arguing about what to call it."
Suglia is the owner of Nonna Rosa in Robbinsdale, with her husband, Francesco Suglia. Her family came from Calabria (the boot's toe), and her husband is from Bari (the heel). Though not far from one another, the two areas have distinct cuisines that merged at their 10-year-old restaurant.
"There are so many variations, and everybody wants to be right, but really, it's about where your family's from," she said.
Still, there are constants in much of Italian-American cuisine — specific ingredients, whole dishes, or simply a feeling.
"A lot of it is the sauce," said Mike Latuff, owner of the 48-year-old Latuff's Pizzeria in Plymouth.
"I think there's a lot of garlic, there's a lot of cheese, there's a lot of comfort in this food," said Niver. "It's nap-inducing."
"It's basically red sauce and spaghetti," said Mike DeCamp, chef at the Minneapolis modern Italian restaurant Monello, and its Sunday-only Italian-American counterpart, Mama DeCampo's.
DeCamp's heritage is Norwegian, but he grew up eating in Twin Cities Italian family restaurants, of which fewer and fewer remain. His Sunday supper is an homage to them.
"To me, Italian-American food kind of means my childhood," he said. "It's a good history. I don't want to see it go away."
Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4853 @SharynJackson