There was, and even still remains, a lot of confusion among the food writers and dining public as to what “Northern Italian” means. I recently got the question from a friend who was trying to decipher a confused opinion on the subject from a local restaurant owner. Here is some reason for the confusion, excerpted from my ebook From the Antipasto to the Zabaglione - The Story of Italian Restaurants in America:
Geographically, northern Italian meant the areas north of Rome, excluding Abruzzo to its northeast (that region had been part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies whose capital was Naples). Actually, there is a central Italy between the north and south to be much more accurate, but for simpler gastronomic purposes, a north-south divide makes sense, with the north starting above Rome (again, excepting the region of Abruzzo to its northeast, which is certainly southern Italian).
Florence Fabricant of the New York Times gave the widespread understanding in 1977 what the term meant that “by local definition, ‘northern Italian’ signifies restaurants of some elegance that go lightly on the marinara, serve fettuccine, tortellini and scampi and do not feature meatball or pizza." This is what these restaurants portrayed, and what the public was to believe, but it was not really northern Italian. In the 1990s this still meant in practice, “very little more than fresh pasta made with eggs, appearing in place of…commercial pasta, and cream and butter substituting for olive oil and tomato in the sauces." A few dishes were usually done in this heavier fashion, but the biggest effort for a restaurant in transforming itself a “Northern Italian” one was the cost for new signage and menus advertising the billing.
Mimi Sheraton, the New York Times restaurant critic in 1981, reviewed Salta in Bocca, a “pleasant north Italian restaurant” that nearly garnered three stars in which the “recommended dishes” are almost a greatest hits collection of the southern Italian-American restaurant kitchen:
“Baked clams, mussels Riviera, roast peppers with mozzarella cheese, minestrone, pasta e fagioli, fettuccine casalinga, spaghetti carbonara, spaghetti al sugo, capelli d'angelo with seafood, linguine with white clam sauce, tortellini gratinati, fettuccine all'Amatriciana, fried squid, red snapper Livornese, scampi fra diavolo, chicken piccata, chicken scarpara, veal Genovese, veal paillard, osso buco, veal cutlet Milanese, veal cutlet Fiorentina, grilled veal chop, fried zucchini, sauteed escarole, zucchini with tomatoes, rugola salad, cheesecake, zabaglione, cheese and fruit platter."
Though the veal cutlet sported the “Milanese” and “Fiorentina” modifiers, the tortellini and osso buco were probably the only preparations to be found anywhere north of Rome. This lack of understanding was typical, and continued for a couple decades even among avid diners in the biggest markets. But, patrons and reviewers, too, liked the new dishes. These were something different and even novel, though “Northern Italian” also seemed to mean “more expensive,” that was good for the restaurateur.
Authentic northern Italian food was actually to be found in New York by the 1960s, at the reinvigorated Barbetta featuring a refined version of the robust cooking of Piedmont. This was a singular and upscale anomaly. Located in the theater district in Manhattan, it was founded in 1906 and given a makeover by the daughter of the founder. In “1962, she was determined to make Barbetta more Piemontese than ever, adding such typical dishes as fonduta, carne cruda, bagna cauda, bue al Barolo, and introducing white truffles and Piemonte's traditional white truffle dishes,” according to the century-old restaurant’s website. Other, and truly northern Italian restaurants, were to join Barbetta in Manhattan in the 1980s.
Though much of it was marketing or misinformation, there was some truth to this “Northern Italian” fare advertised beyond Barbetta. Fior d’Italia in San Francisco had been serving it even two decades longer than Barbetta. Some of these Manhattan-based restaurateurs were from northern Italy, some, like Giambelli had actually worked in restaurants in the north of Italy. They did serve some dishes from their home areas, if often in a richer fashion than at home. The majority of the menu – and certainly the overall style – was still better described as Italian-American, albeit sometimes immensely enjoyable Italian-American.