The Italians are among the most amazing people anywhere in the world. Ask any Italian. But make sure the person you ask is not a Sicilian, or they will kill you.
OK, enough of the Italian jokes. Point it, where I grew up, there was a large and vibrant Italian community. Loud, even. When our state elected the first Italian ever elected to high office as governor, the Italian community rejoiced, and so did everyone else because he was a great governor (a trait that does not necessarily run in family lines, I quickly add).
In many parts of the US along the eastern seaboard, your basic diner was established, initially owned, and may still be run, by “Greeks.” I put “Greek” in quotes because the exact Greeks in question are typically Cypriots or Cretans, and by “Cretan” I mean people from the island of Crete. The simple version of the story (subject to correction if you can provide a better one): During the post World War II era, but I think concentrated in the 1050s, diners became incredibly popular in the US, and that was about the time that many people were leaving Greek speaking regions of the Mediterranean because of unrest pertaining to British-Greek-Turkish conflicts. Both of those phenomena, the rise of the diner and the exodus of Greeks, ran for decades before and after the 1950s, but it happens that the two historical streams flooded, intertwined, and ponded up in the 50s, resulting in a rough equivalence between “Diner” and “Small Eating Establishment owned by Greeks” in many parts of the US. These were not, I repeat, not, Greek restaurants. Yes, you could get a Greek Salad at one, but mostly you were there to have breakfast of eggs and bacon, or a club sandwich, or something along those lines.
This digression to Greek restaurants is to demonstrate the potential relationship between large scale immigration or migration and the rise of a novel category of business opportunity, which has been known to link an ethnicity with a kind of business, often for a generation or more. Where I grew up, I believe a similar phenomenon happened a few decades before the rise of the Greek-owned American style diner: The Italian Restaurant.
I now live in Minnesota. There are very few, if any, valid Italian restaurants here.
Shortly after moving here, a friend visited from California, and a few of us, all of having lived formerly in or near Cambridge/Sommerville, Massachusetts, decided to go out and eat.
“Hey, I think I saw an Italian restaurant down by that intersection by 610, that might be good,” someone said.
“OK let’s try it. What’s the name?”
“Not sure, ‘Olive something,’ I think.”
“OK whatever, lets go.”
I was pleased to see that this restaurant was crowded, that meant it would be good. We put our name in and waited, finally got seated. We ordered a variety of dishes, salad, etc. The restaurant was OK. Having grown up among Italian restaurants, where the lowest ranked ones were excellent, “OK” in normal English means “very disappointing.”
We had eaten, of course, at an Olive Garden, a chain run by General Mills corporation, now the largest Italian themed chain in the US. Olive Garden restaurants are at present located roughly in correlation with population density in the US. But at the time, we all (who went to dinner that night) had been living in an area of the country where chains were mostly forbidden by zoning laws, and that was 20 years ago. But here is the point: Other than the Olive Gardens that seem to be located at every major highway intersection in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, there are hardly any Italian restaurants, or for that matter, Italians.
And if you find one, it might suck, like one I went to several years ago where they did not know how to drain pasta.
Anyway, I have proof. I recently perused a survey run by my (very) local newspaper here in the Western Suburbs of Minneapolis. When I got to the section on Italian Restaurants, this is what they had:
A handful of pizza joints that mostly aren’t very good (and by the way, a pizza joint does not count as an “Italian Restaurant” on the east coast, though the Italian ethnic link is important and noted). A handful of pizza joints and and one Olive Garden.
I hereby call for Italians who know the restaurant business to move en masse to Minnesota and fix this problem. Anything you’ve got, we’ll take. We don’t deserve it, but we will enjoy it.