In the current issue of Houstonia, Robb Walsh has an article about spaghetti and meatballs, that all-American favorite. Here is my take on its origins, excerpted from my eBook From the Antipasto to the Zabaglione: The Story of Italian Restaurants in America, available on Amazon.com, etc.:
Spaghetti was long part of Italian-owned restaurants’ offerings. It was meriting mentions in the New York papers by 1880. Pasta, in general, as “macaroni” was written about even thirty years earlier. A well-loved food back in southern Italy, versatile, and inexpensive to provision, it provided nice margins for restaurant owners. From its early years on, the long, thin strands of pasta were commonly mixed with sauces made of sautéed mushrooms, with butter, and with garlic and oil. There was also the favorite one with most immigrants, if not non-Italian patrons at the time: “Americans cannot understand the Italian mania for the invariable tomato sauce,” reported the New York Daily Tribune in 1904. But, it was with “tomato sauce” that spaghetti won the hearts of Americans in the ensuing decades. This sauce was based on the marinara sauce found in and around Naples, and similar to sauces used in much of the cooking in the rest of southern Italy and Sicily. Americans quickly embraced this usually zesty accompaniment that could made year round with canned, peeled tomatoes. These were easy to work with, and were probably even better suited for sauces than were freshly picked tomatoes. Garlic, onions, dried oregano and fresh basil, or some combination of these along with some dried spaghetti in the hands of a decent cook was all that was needed.
At some point, both on menus and in the homes of the immigrants, spaghetti in tomato sauce joined with the meatball on the plate. Meatballs were part of the southern Italian tradition; it was a way to make poor quality meat much more palatable. Usually stretched with bread or bread crumbs, it was always served as a main course, after the pasta. In America, since beef was plentiful and easily affordable, those meatballs eventually became quite larger and beefier than their Old World precursors, and served much more frequently. The additional calories and protein were certainly welcome by those doing heavy labor, a majority of the male immigrants. Here, with a much quicker lifestyle and limited time for meals, the meatball and pasta were served together. This dish, a certifiably American creation and possibly even a restaurant one, was to be one of the most popular throughout the country. In 1924 Cane’s Spaghetti Station No. 1 in Glendale, just north of Los Angles was offering “Spaghetti or Ravioli with Polpette” (meatballs in Italian), as a part of a three-course 60¢ lunch. It took a couple of decades to fully conquer the Italian restaurants; it was missing from the menus of popular Italian restaurants in Chicago in the late 1920s and Los Angeles in the 1930s. Spaghetti and meatballs eventually proved appealing to restaurant owners because it was inexpensive to prepare and substantial for the customers.
By the 1950s spaghetti and meat balls were ever-present on Italian menus, and those menus in communities that could support a family Italian restaurant were quite similar coast-to-coast….