It's not going too far to claim that America would never have fallen in love en masse with Italian food were it not for Marcella Hazan, the Italian-born cook and teacher who died this morning at her home in Longboat Key, Florida. Pizza and pasta, to be sure, were well established in postwar America, along with shrimp "scampi," steak alla pizzaiola, lobster fra diavolo, garlic bread and all the other warhorses of Italian-American cooking that have lately been undergoing a retro revival at the hands of hipster chefs like Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone.
But these were ethnic, not mainstream, foods. Italian dishes were seldom allowed into white-tablecloth restaurants, unless they had French names and some cream thrown in. Chefs were trained to cook French food, and that’s what any chef who wanted to make a name and charge fancy prices served. Today, a new restaurant without pasta (even if it's gluten-free) on the menu is a rarity, risotto is ubiquitous, and no serious diner would give a second thought to an ambitious restaurant’s charging as much for Italian food as for French. Americans eating out prefer Italian food, cheap or expensive; the Olive Garden has grown to 800 locations since its opening in 1982, and last year had $3.5 billion in sales.