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That Italian-American Oddity: The Italian Steakhouse

The bistecca alla fiorentina from a butcher shop near Lucca last summer
The bistecca alla fiorentina from a butcher shop near Lucca last summer
Gene Riccetti

About the most famous Italian steak dish in this country, at least until Tuscany and the bistecca alla fiorentina caught the popular imagination within the past couple of decades, was steak pizzaiola, a creation of the Naples area that was probably served much more in Italian-American restaurant and households than anywhere in Italy.

This is because there are very few steakhouses in Italy, and the ones that exist today seem to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Outside of the Florentines and later other Tuscans, there has been no steak tradition in Italy. In fact, the bistecca in the famous bistecca alla fiorentina comes from the English “beefsteak” because there was no suitable Italian name for the dish. Italians typically do not each much beef, much less beef steak.

In contrast, “being American is to eat a lot of beef steak,” as Kurt Vonnegut rightly observed, and Italian-American restaurateurs found it both profitable and enjoyable to serve steak. The first might have been The Palm in Manhattan that opened in the 1920s, even if it did not consciously start out as a steakhouse. It was later joined, especially after 1990, by numerous others primarily in the Northeast and Midwest. These served similar preparations and steaks as the typical grand American steakhouses. What made them “Italian” was that the menu was filled out with a number of rote Italian-American dishes, and usually the restaurant’s full name included the phrase, “Italian Steakhouse.” That is pretty much all there is to it. Simple, but usually tasty.