Last Tuesday, the Education Experiential Unit hosted “Lecture Me! Italian-Canadian Foodways: Redefining Italian Culinary Culture” at the Mississauga Central Library, featuring our very own professor Teresa Lobalsamo who some may know from ITA235H5F: Italian History and Culture Through Food.

When you think of a lecture focused on Italian immigrant integration into Canada, you may imagine Italiese (a hybrid language created from the English and Italian languages), car manufacturers, or labour skills. If so, you’ll be surprised to hear that this lecture chose possibly one of the greatest contributions to our country: food.

The years shortly before World War One and World War Two saw some of the biggest emigrations of Italians. While many arrived in Pier 21, Halifax, they would eventually leave for Canadian capital cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Being drawn to people similar to themselves lead to a ghettoization process and the creation of “Little Italys” in their new homes.

The first of these new Italy’s was in St. John’s Ward, which expanded as more families came to join their already-settled husbands and fathers. The bustling economy of Toronto led to a gradual increase in jobs and income, granting immigrants the power to buy more products, specifically Italian ingredients.

Produce stores responded to this demand with abundant supply, with the newly purchased “Power” grocery store at the forefront. Other stores opened in kind, such as La Paloma for gelato and Tre Mari Bakery for pastries. It also helped that during the fascist reign in Italy, the Regime allowed the exportation of Italian products. Many new-Canadians purchased familiar foods and brands, from Unico tomato conserves to Lancia and De Cecco pasta.

For some time, Italian cuisine did not share the haute culture of their French neighbours, and the low demand meant low prices. In 1959, Arnaldo Clinica Gastronomica won Italy its first Michelin Star, proving that reaching a higher food quality could lead to a greater popularity of these restaurants. The opening of La Scala in Toronto was the first in a trend of fine dining restaurants, and a quite significant change to Canadian cuisine. Unlike other restaurants at the time, they did not serve “red meat sauces” (an American creation). They instead served never-before-seen pasta dishes and classic veal plates.

While La Scala was serving a more fanciful platter, the streets were settling with Mastro’s Pizza. Located on 1965 Wilson’s Ave, it introduced the first wave of Italian food to Toronto like pizza and spaghetti (the former being another American invention). Not just that, but the sandwich craze at the time had brought the “hero” to Chicago, which was originally a slice of beef with sweet peppers pressed between two slices of bread. You may know it these days under the same name those in New England did, the “sub.”

The last type of restaurant that emerged from Italian culinary was the eat-in bar, such as Bar Diplomatico (1968). These bars lacked a kitchen, so meals were served from food cooked at home by mothers, daughters, and grandmothers and then brought in for customers to purchase. Restaurants like these were familiar landmarks for Italians to gather and discuss their daily lives, an integral part of any community.

“I could feel that there was much interest in the audience, and it manifested in the wonderful discussion during the presentation’s question section at the end,” said Lobalsamo about the Lecture Me event.

Many attendees were part of the local Italian community, and for them, food is more than just something to sate your appetite. It’s a sign of old roots merging with a new sense of identity, a vehicle for success to grant you a livelihood, and most importantly acceptance in the new world.

In an attempt to recover this heritage, the Italian professor has begun the “Menu Analysis & Digitalization Project.”

Menus used in newer, generalized restaurants such as Olive Garden have lost the Italian language and variety, even going so far as to change the meaning of words through misuse. While “shrimp scampi fritta” may seem fancy, it can be translated as “fried shrimp shrimp.” It is only in America that ‘scampi’ is a garlic sauce instead of a type of shrimp.

After spending the night in the theatre room surrounded by reminiscing elders and bright-eyed students, I feel that Lobalsamo spoke for us all when she said, “I would like to thank Italian immigrants for bringing Italian cuisine to the forefront of culinary culture outside of the country.”

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