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Why Italian Food Is Becoming US Staple

AMERICANS have taken to Italian cuisine the way fusilli picks up pesto. Check local supermarkets and you'll see different pastas, olive oils, balsamic vinegar, and specialty produce. Words like zuppa, risotto, polenta, gnocchi, biscotti, and cannoli are becoming part of everyday food vocabulary.

It's a far cry from when Italian food in the United States meant "Mama mia, spaghetti and-a-meat-a-balls," and kids ate a canned version made by some mysterious chef.

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Americans have wised up. At least we'd like to think so.

Today, Italian cuisine remains the No. 1 "ethnic" cuisine in America. Ethnic? Italian food has become so American - and Americanized - that it's losing the ethnic label.

American gourmets may have whipped up pasta dishes 10 years ago, but the general public has come whole-heartedly to Italian cuisine only in the past five years.

The convergence of many trends has made Italian-American cuisine not so much a fad as a natural occurrence.

"There's so much about Italian cooking appropriate for right now," says Penni Wisner, director of public relations for kitchenware supplier Williams-Sonoma. "It's fast. It's light. It's endlessly variable. It's comforting - people are really interested in cooking food." Furthermore, "It's so easy: It's almost impossible to fail at. You don't have to really worry about presentation: Everybody knows it's supposed to look like a mess."

The trend has continued to snowball, Wisner says. "I've been amazed at its endurance."

Restaurants, cookbooks, magazines, mail-order companies, supermarkets, and other stores have fueled - or perhaps helped ignite - the boom, by making Italian cuisine more accessible.

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"Ten years ago, there were only maybe a handful of olive oils able to do well in this country," says Michael Klein, merchandising and product director for Balducci's, a specialty food store in New York. Now there are dozens, says Mr. Klein. He attributes Italian food's popularity to the public's gravitation toward a Mediterranean diet, which is perceived as "healthy," and to heightened travel to Europe in the early 1980s.

Not surprisingly, Italy is the largest supplier of imported pasta to the US. According the US Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Center, imports of pasta and olive oil have soared in the past five years. Pasta imports from Italy went from 50 million tons in 1986 to 86 million tons in 1991 (from $27 million to $66 million). Olive oil from Italy (82 percent of all imported olive oil) has risen from 35,000 tons in 1986, to 75,000 tons in 1991 (from $54 million to $173 million).

Produce imported from Italy, although not a large market, is also growing in popularity. "We have radicchio flying in constantly," reports Freida Kaplan of Freida's Inc., a specialty produce company based in Los Angeles. "It's incredible to see how this [lettuce] has taken off." She also notes other "Italian" food products (some of which are grown domestically) that have become increasingly popular: porcini mushrooms, arugola, basil (fresh and potted), cardoon, black beans, cilantro, pignolias (pine nuts ), and elephant garlic. Sales of sun-dried tomatoes have doubled every year since 1987, Ms. Kaplan adds, and "we've had an incredible year on fennel."

Just as Chinese food began with chop suey and evolved into restaurants serving regional cuisine (Szechuan, Cantonese, Mandarin), so Kaplan and other observers see Italian food becoming more sophisticated and specialized by region (Tuscan and Umbrian, for example).

"For the bulk of the American public - the mass market that goes to supermarket," says Klein, "you will see more Americanization of Italian food," such as different-shaped pasta for kids, pizzas, fast-food items. "You'll see a larger selection and range of prices and quality," for such items as olive oil and vinegar.

For those with educated palates, Klein adds, there will be more emphasis on regional cuisines as well as education about Italian food. Public television is trying to offer more authentic Italian cooking shows, he notes.

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