Italian Restaurants, American Eaters, and the Making of an Ethnic Popular Culture
This chapter examines how Italian restaurateurs used food to represent Italian American identity and nation outside the community. In the interwar years, the position of Italian Americans in the larger life of New York City was still far from secure and subject to a complicated range of attitudes. The exclusionary Immigration Act of 1924 was filled with fearful allusions to the racial inadequacy of Italian immigrants and their inability to make good American citizens. At the same time, however, Italian immigrant restaurateurs and restaurant workers were beginning to transform cultural differences into highly marketable products for mass consumption. This chapter first provides an overview of the economy of Italian restaurants during the period 1900–1940 before discussing how popular culture, race, and performance converged at such establishments. It also considers customer–worker relations in Italian restaurants and shows that Italian restaurants attracted non-Italian middle-class customers by offering popular Italian food in an original and ultimately appealing ethnic narrative.
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