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Origins of 5 Favorite Italian Meat Dishes

Looking at the origins of favorite Italian Meat Dishes.

When Italian immigrants arrived in America, higher wages and cheaper food allowed them to eat like kings. The only problem? None of them knew what kings ate. Instead, they created many new dishes. Like pasta sauces, Italian immigrants created new sauces for meat like veal and chicken. So, which meat dishes originated in Italy, and which were invented in America?

Here are the origins of 5 favorite Italian meat dishes:


The term is a cut of meat, not a sauce. Other terms are paillard and escalope, common in French cooking, cotoletta in Italian, and, in the United States, simply a cutlet. Technically, each of these refers to a specific, unique cut from a specific section of the animal, but domestic cooks are unlikely to notice the distinction. These are all names for thin, sliced meat. 

Alla Milanese 

The term means “in the style of Milan,” and refers to a veal cutlet breaded and fried in butter. This technique serves as the basis for numerous other meat dishes originating in Milan and other northern provinces, but a cotoletta alla Milanese is a simple breaded cutlet of meat, perhaps served with a lemon wedge. Acidity is meant to cut the taste of the oil. Alla Milanese meat dish can be traced back to 1134 when it was first served during the feast of St. Ambrogio at the Cathedral in Milan.  It’s similar to schnitzel served just across the border in Austria and Germany. Italians also typically use meat cut from the leg rather than meat from the rib as done north of the Alps. 


Marsala sauce takes its name from marsala wine, the base of the sauce. This wine was a Sicilian specialty that arrived in America by way of English traders who found it remarkably similar to Port. It was a sweet dessert wine competing with drinks like Sherry. However, according to Charlotte Druckman in the New York Times, by the 1920s, the prestige of the wine wore thin and cheaper bottles began diluting the brand. The Italian Cook Book from 1919, one of the earliest English language Italian recipe collections, has instructions for Pollo al Marsala with a sauce made from Marsala wine or sherry, but there is no mention of mushrooms common to Italian American recipes. Marsala wine also serves as the signature ingredient for sauces on Saltimbocca and Piccata.


Saltimbocca is a dish from Rome combining prosciutto and sage with a sauce made by deglazing the cooking pan with Marsala wine. Pellegrino Artusi includes a recipe in his classic volume Science In the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. He advises cooking the meat in butter and recommends it as a healthy dish. Rosella Rago notes in her book, Cooking With Nonna, that Italian Americans often add cheese to the traditional Roman version. While Roman-style Saltimbocca is regularly found in Italian American restaurants, Marsala and Piccata sauces are more common.  


The term is the Italian, feminine word for “larded,” but in a culinary context, means “pounded until flattened.” Ana Del Conte explains in Gastronomy of Italy that the cutlets are dredged in flour and then fried in butter. Americans more often see piccata made with chicken, but in Milan, Veal is preferred, or even a seafood version with swordfish. The sauce is made in the pan drippings usually with lemon juice and capers and often deglazed with wine, traditionally Marsala. 

Ian MacAllen

Ian MacAllen is America Domani's Senior Correspondent and the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.


Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, editor, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. Connect with him at IanMacAllen.com or on Twitter @IanMacAllen.