Italian cuisine dominates the US foodie scene, and represents some of the most popular dishes made in homes and restaurants across the country. In 2022 alone, Italian restaurants had a market size of $79.0 billion and experienced a 7.8% growth. Clearly, the demand for Italian food is only growing.
Italian cuisine was not always popular in the US. Italians started immigrating to the US en masse during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Italian immigrants traveled through Ellis Island, often settling in New York City, although many traveled westward across unknown territory to San Francisco. Their food was their connection to their homeland and their culture. While Italian immigrants had to adapt their food to their new country, Italian cuisine still retains many of its “old country” origins that make it such a popular food choice today.
4 Best Italian Dishes in the US
As a foodie, it is a monumental task to pick only the 4 best Italian dishes in the US because Italian food is so incredibly delicious and has such amazing variety– Italian cuisine truly has tastes for every palate, from comfort foods to fine dining. But there are a few dishes that really do stand out. Here are our 4 favorite Italian-American dishes.
#1 – Chicken Tetrazzini
One of the most popular and oldest Italian dishes in the US, Chicken Tetrazzini was created in the early 1900s by a chef named Ernest Arbogast at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California. Named in honor of the famous opera singer, Louisa Tetrazzini, Chicken Tetrazzini is the ultimate Italian-American comfort food. The dish is a pasta bake loaded with tasty chicken, delicious mushrooms, and mixed with butter or cream in a Parmesan cheese sauce made with wine or sherry. It is served over pasta, either spaghetti, egg noodles, linguine, or whatever pasta is on hand. The dish is usually garnished with chopped parsley and topped with more cheese, breadcrumbs, chopped almonds, or fried onions. No mushrooms on hand? No problem! Cream of mushroom soup also does the trick. The cheesy, gooey, pasta dish is a definite US comfort food.
#2 – Pizza
What American doesn’t love pizza? The US has epic levels of pizza-appreciation. Initially brought to the US by Italian immigrants and then made even more popular by returning American servicemen after World War II, pizza originated in the Italian city of Naples in the Campania region and took off in popularity in places like New York City, Trenton, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, San Francisco, and St. Louis. The first documented pizzeria in the US was on Spring Street in Manhattan, New York City in 1905, and was called G. (for Gennaro) Lombardi’s. In Italy, pizza dates back centuries. It was considered a fast, affordable, delicious flatbread for the working poor (lazzaroni) during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Yet, the word “pizza” was documented even as far back as 997 AD. Evolving from a type of flatbread with toppings such as tomatoes, anchovies, olive oil, garlic, and cheese, pizza has grown significantly in the US to include a huge variety of new (and sometimes unconventional!) topping combinations. One of the most popular pizzas is named after an Italian noble, Queen Margherita, with toppings of green basil, tomatoes, mozzarella cheese.
Another famous Italian-American dish, this one is a favorite for seafood lovers. A tomato-based seafood stew—called ciuppin in the Genoan dialect— combines regional influences from along the Italian Adriatic coast, but evolved into today’s dish in San Francisco. In the late 1800s, the Italian immigrants who worked at Meigg’s warf in San Francisco would toss their extra seafood into a simmering pot and mix in their on-hand stash of garlic, onion, and tomatoes. Traditionally, the dish is similar to the Italian dishes called ciuppin from Liguira, acciucco from Tuscany, and brodetto di pesce from Abruzzo, amongst other Italian culinary influences. The soup usually contains ingredients readily available to a fishing community, including local seafood such as mussels, clams, oysters, fish, crab, sardines, shrimp, scallops, squid, anchovies, and more. The seafood can be combined with tomatoes, herbs, garlic, onion, and other vegetables that are cooked in olive oil and either red or white wine.
#4 – Insalata Caprese
Known as the patriotic dish of Italy due to its resemblance to the Italian flag, this red, white, and green salad is made of red tomatoes, white mozzarella cheese, and green basil seasoned with salt, pepper, and olive oil. Originating in post-World War I Italy by a patriotic mason, insalata Caprese was named after the island of Capri. Believe it or not, despite its huge popularity today, insalata Caprese was not initially popular until the 1950s. The dish was served to the jet-setting playboy King Farouk of Egypt who wanted something light to eat after a day at the beach, and he loved it. Suddenly, insalata Caprese was on all menus in Italy and soon landed in the US. In the US, the dish became insanely popular due to its incredible combination of flavors and its extreme ease of preparation. A versatile dish, Americans can order Caprese as a salad, or in sandwich format as a hot panini or cold on a ciabatta roll.
Considering many Italian dishes didn’t arrive in the US until the late 1800s, Italian foods have taken the cuisine scene by storm. Italian food has certainly made its mark on US-based cuisine, and you cannot think about “American” food without including a number of dishes with Italian origins.