Chicken Parmesan carved out a place on Italian restaurant menus around the middle of the last century. The thing is, it’s not from Parma and by all evidence it likely originated outside the Italian borders. Most recipes call for mozzarella and/or provolone with a slight few tossing in Parmesan as a finisher. Shenanigans! It’s half-truths and misappropriation nestled in a lightly salted bed of al dente angel hair.
There are people with what sounds like a marvelously fun job if you’re into musty old books and getting shushed by librarians because you’re cursing at the disorder neglect has imposed on the obscure corner of the research wing you inhabit regularly fun. They scour old cookbooks and menus, literature, and diaries looking for the first mention of a particular dish. Imagine these food historians as a better fed version of Oxford English Dictionary etymologists.
Those slightly overweight sneezy people have pinned the first appearance of Chicken Parmesan in Italy as being somewhere in the mid-1950s. That’s two or three years after it popped up roughly simultaneously in the US, Argentina, and Australia – the three top destinations of the 23 million people fleeing miserable poverty beginning after the end of WWI and ending around the mid-1950s. It’s what’s know as the Italian diaspora.
The calzone seems to have originated in Napoli in the 18th century. That shouldn’t be too surprising. Flatbreads with toppings on them have been around since we figured out how to mill grain, but the pizza as we currently conceive it came from Napoli too. They are a clever town.
As I understand it, the calzone was concocted so people could grab one on the go, thus the name “calzone” meaning trousers or pants legs since people ate them while walking as opposed to the soft crusted Neapolitan style pizzas that practically require a fork and a knife.
The original calzones were smaller affairs than what we are used to. They were sandwich sized and easy to carry around. If you’ve ever had a pastie in the Nordic tradition you know what they were like. Of course, now we present a monster that takes up the plate. I’m going to attribute that to the same basking in luxury that over took our mid 20th century wave of Italian immigrants. That diaspora saw twenty-three or so million Italians leave the poverty that gripped their home country and head for better pastures. You hear about Americanized Italian food having too much sauce and too much meat. That wasn’t a bunch of Yankees misreading a recipe and overdoing it. It was a bunch of dirt poor Italians arriving in the land of plenty and embracing fully the opulence available to them. Our calzones are huge.