I would have to imagine that living in California at the turn of the 20th century was an exciting experience, especially in a newly developed cultural hub like San Francisco. In Andrew Beahrs’ work, Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens, he refers refers to the city as “Twain’s spiritual hometown” calling it “new, wild, transient, [and] irreverent,” succinctly hitting the nail on the head. Twain was living in San Francisco in the mid 1860s. By the 1890s, this city by the bay was less of a discovery and more of a destination. This is evidenced so beautifully by the images of the city’s skyline below. The first image, an illustration produced in 1857, and the second an illustration of a photograph taken just three decades later in 1887.
The City was a booming metropolis— a hallmark of the California culture that Dr. Jennifer F. Helzer of California State University, Stanislaus referred to as “a glimpse of what living in a ‘global village’ will be like.”
This is why I sought a restaurant to study in this city and in this period. It would have been an exciting time not only to live in San Francisco, but to eat in San Francisco. As we have studied throughout this “History of Food in America,” studying the development of foods and food practices really means to study the development of its contextual culture. San Francisco is a city of many traditions that contribute to its rich culture — and what sparked my interest in this particular menu is the still-flourishing Italian-American tradition in San Francisco to this day.
Dining in Rome
I recently traveled to Rome, a global capital and, more importantly, a food capital. Having experienced the largely Sicilian-American food that permeates New Orleanian cuisine my entire life (not to mention the very large, very loud Sicilian-American family from which I have been raised), it was interesting to see what true a true Roman meal looked like. Little was panéed, a meatball was never seen in contact with a plate of spaghetti, and dishes like cacio e pepe and prosciutto e melone were staples on most menus.
The dining experience, however, was what charmed me the most. Wherever we traveled in Rome, near the Bay of Naples, or in Umbria, (a central region in Italy bordering Tuscany and Lazio) the weather permitted outdoor, street facing dining that created an atmosphere that was not exclusive from its surroundings but rather flowed within it, while offering pause from the momentum of the city.
Tradition in San Fran
To enjoy this a little closer to home, this immersive dining experience can be found in North Beach, San Francisco. According to San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Carl Nolte, North Beach is not what it was in its former glory and now is more of a tourist destination than a neighborhood with families whose recent ancestors had immigrated from Italy or Ireland.
This is a recent transition. When Gigi Fiorucci, owner of Sotto Mare, arrived San Francisco in 1956 (when he was 12 years old) he recalls finding himself in a little American version of Italy. He did not speak English and his mother never learned to speak it living in North Beach. “Every alley was full of kids,” he said. Everything was about tradition.
In March of this year I traveled to San Francisco and walked around North Beach at dinner time to take in some of the lively atmosphere. I thought about what this “Little City” must have looked like when it was first being settled, and how the evolution of the city and culture surrounding immigrating Italians might have influenced the neighborhood.
A Menu of San Francisco’s Italian History
The date is February 26, 1897. The Musicians Club of San Francisco is gathering for an evening of dining and amusement to enjoy the novelty that is Italian cuisine.
These “Differente Thingamajigos” as they are are referred to on the menu include cioppino all’ italiana, an Italian fisherman’s stew, tagliarini all’ Napolitana, a pasta dish with its roots in Naples, and a classic Roman dish called vitello alla cacciatora, as well as an antipasto course, zuppa, and a dessert course among others. The event is presented by “Gustavo Hinricchi” and “E. Giulio Weberini,” which we can venture to say are attempts at Italian-ifying two very Germanic names— Hinrich and Weber. The menu is featured at Martinelli’s restaurant. Though this restaurant is now lost to time, its dishes can be traced to its old world roots as well its would be new world ties in late 19th century San Francisco. In order to understand this, however, it is important to look at the arrival of Italians to Northern California, the region in Italy from which they hailed, and what they chose to bring with them on this journey.
Italian American locality is often associated with New York and the significant history of Ellis Island. Yet, according to the Bancroft Library, until the 1890s, more Italians immigrants populated the West Coast than New England. Ligurians left in large part due to the French capture of the wine industry, which we know in retrospect was successfully implemented into Northern California culture as a result. They chose the Western Coast of the United States because many Northern Italians had settled in cities such as Stockton, Monterey, and San Diego during Spanish Rule decades prior.
To look at the many influences of regional Italian cuisine on the menu, I attempted one of the more approachable dishes, tagliarini all’ Napolitana. It is a simple, fresh pasta dish that can be prepared with many types of pasta. Tagliarini or tagliolini is a a thin, ribbon cut pasta about 2 mm wide and prepared from an egg dough with semolina, salt, and flour. It originated in the Piedmont region in northwest Italy. All’ Napolitana or alla napoletana is a style of sauce or preparation traditional in the Naples region. There were few steps, but each ingredient in the dish was highlighted for that reason.
Making All’ Napolitana
- tagliolini pasta
- ripe tomatoes (I used Roma and Campari tomatoes)
- 1 red onion
- extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp. sugar (optional)
- fresh basil
- Parmigiano Reggiano, grated (to taste)
- black pepper
First, remove the stems from the tomatoes and cut a cross shape in each of them to prepare them to be peeled and deseeded.
Put the tomatoes in a pot of boiling water for 15-30 seconds. This is to loosen the skin, not to cook the tomatoes. Remove the tomatoes and put them directly into an ice water bath. Set these aside.
Peel the red onion and garlic and finely chop. Then peel and remove the seeds from the tomatoes and roughly chop.
In a sauce pan, brown the onions and garlic with the extra virgin olive oil.
A interesting note about olive oil: Olive oil has historically been important to the Near East Mediterranean both economically and culturally. In Italy, olive oil production began in the VIII-VII century BCE and became of economic importance from the Phoenicians and later the Greeks. Italy’s environmental conditions and history have made it the central point of olive oil production. Today, regions in southern Italy account for 80 percent of the country’s production, while central-northern regions such as Tuscany, Lazio, Campania, and Abruzzo account for the rest. The country ranks second in the world (after Spain) in terms of production and is the world leader in olive oil consumption (650,000 metric tons).
Returning to the recipe: add the tomatoes with salt, black pepper, and sugar if desired. Allow this to cook on low heat, stirring occasionally for 15 min. While the sauce is cooking, bring a pot of water to a boil and cook the tagliolini al dente.
Learning terminology: “Al dente” translates to “to the tooth” — meaning the pasta should be firm to the bite. Egg pastas cook faster because of their ingredients, and are often cut with bronze dies (or mold that the pasta is pushed through) which create a more porous pasta. Teflon is typically used because it is cheaper, but bronze is the more traditional method, and has become more popular in the United States because of suppliers like A.G. Ferrari— 98 year old gourmet retailer from San Francisco!
After cooking the pasta, add it to the sauce pan with fresh basil and some of the remaining pasta water. After tossing the pasta in the sauce, sprinkle with Parmigiano Reggiano and serve.
The Evolution of Parmesan
In 2008 the EU granted Parmigiano Reggiano Protected Geographical status under PDO or Protected Designation of Origin, naming it the only hard cheese that can legally be called “Parmesan.” This is because, like Champagne or Gruyere, the product name refers to its place of origin, in this case, Parma or the Parma-Reggio region in Italy. It was first crafted in the Middle Ages by monks and it was named caseum parmensis in Latin and shorted to Pramsen in the regional dialect in the 14th century. By the 1530s, Italian nobles began to refer to the cheese as Parmesano meaning “of or from Parma.”
I quickly learned the difference between true Parmesan and Parmesan imported from outside of Parma when shopping for the cheese for this dish. True Parmesan was marked as such on the rind (pictured above) and on packages of grated Parmesan, specifying it was “from Italy.” This cheese was much more expensive that the other varieties of Parmesan, most of which specified it was from Argentina.
Tracing this recipe through history was an interesting study of the diffusion of cuisine. The menu from Martinelli’s is a relic of the era in which this diffusion of Italian culture into the United States began in Northern California. This dish, while simple, represents a blending of Italian cultures that have permeated the American palate. The regional cuisine throughout the United States has influence native to its own resources and to the cultures and heritages that have influences the region. The history of food in the United States is unique in the fact that it inadvertently pursued the globalization of cuisine from its earliest form and continues to develop that tradition today.
Written By: Maggie McGovern
Originally Published: May 7th, 2018 || Last Updated: April 4th, 2022
A part of Doc Studio’s History of Food in America Collection
- “History Of Parmigiano Reggiano.” Parmesan.com. Accessed April 27, 2018.
- Nolte, Carl. “Last of the Old-time Italians in North Beach.” SFGate. January 25, 2015. Accessed
- “San Francisco Skyline.” See a Larger Version. Accessed April 27, 2018.
- “California’s Other Little Italies.” Jovina Cooks. October 21, 2013. Accessed April 27, 2018. “Italian Americans in California.” Italian Americans in California: Introduction. Accessed April 27, 2018.
- “America at the Turn of the Century: A Look at the Historical Context – Before and After the Great Earthquake and Fire: Early Films of San Francisco, 1897-1916.” The Library of Congress. Accessed April 27, 2018.
- “Martinelli’s San Francisco.” Menus.nypl.org. Accessed April 27, 2018.
- Iverson, Cheryl. “Importance of Olive Oil Production in Italy.” AMA Manual of Style, 2009. doi:10.1093/jama/9780195176339.022.40.