Have you ever glimpsed a perplexed expression on your waiter’s face after you tried to order Fettuccine Alfredo in a restaurant in Italy? Or have you ever ordered pasta marinara, expecting a tomato sauce, and instead received a shellfish pasta? The food served in many Italian restaurants in the United States is not quite as Italian as you think. This is where you can get lost in translation.
Since I moved to the U.S. 13 years ago, I have been baffled at what my American friends consider “Italian,” or what, especially among food items, carries an “Italian” label. So many in the U.S. are fond of Italy, and so many Italians have migrated here over the years to look for better fortunes, that parts of the Italian culture are embedded in America’s food culture. But I quickly realized that, for some reason, Italian-American and Italian-Italian foods have surprisingly little in common. Perhaps people who migrated here had to compromise and modify traditional recipes to use locally available ingredients, and perhaps, over time, their own tastes evolved. The result is a surprising new gastronomy that is Italian-inspired, but… does not exist in Italy! So here’s a survival guide, to help you do as the Romans would. Click the gallery button to check out ten common misconceptions about Italian food.
1. Fettuccine Alfredo
Look no further: you will not find this dish on restaurant menus in Italy. Your waiter will shake his head: Sorry, sir, never heard of it. I hadn't heard of it either before moving to the U.S. The Alfredo recipe, I later found, originated in an Italian restaurant in Rome and became famous in the 1920s thanks to a few American movie stars who ate the dish and raved about it back home. For Italians, this is simple butter-and-cheese pasta.(I insist: no cream!)
2. Spaghetti with meatballs
Another example of a classic “Italian” recipe that does not exist in Italy! Some regions in the South of Italy offer similar traditional recipes, such as the polpettine sauce from the Calabria, Sicily, and Puglia regions. These dishes feature tiny, marble-sized meatballs with tomato sauce, which are usually baked in layers of pasta (and not put on top of spaghetti).
3. Pasta with marinara sauce
Marinara in Italian means “from the sea,” and ordering a pasta or main course dish “marinara” means that it will likely be made with fish or shellfish. The only exception: Pizza marinara. This pizza recipe’s topping is in fact made with tomatoes, garlic and oregano, pretty much the ingredients for the American marinara sauce. The universal red pasta sauce you will find in Italy is, instead, the “pomodoro” or tomato sauce. It’s a very mild, mellow, and clean taste compared to the American marinara. You’ll fall in love with it!
4. Italian sausages—with fennel?!
You will be surprised to learn that most of the sausages in Italy have no fennel at all. In fact, fennel is an ingredient only in some local sausages in the south of Italy, and I tasted them for the very first time when… I moved to the U.S.!
5. Italian vinaigrette
Buckle up, friends! There are no vinaigrettes in Italy, whatsoever. Vinaigrette is a French word, and a French concept. What do Italians use for dressing their salads? Simple extra-virgin olive oil, vinegar (either red or white wine vinegar), and salt. That is really it! Sometimes vinegar is replaced by lemon juice, and balsamic vinegar has become more and more popular in the last 20 years. But this is the fanciest you will see while traveling the peninsula. Most of the time, even in upscale restaurants, you will be required to dress your own salad. Italians like this and find it interesting to look at the bottles, checking the kind of extra-virgin olive oil and vinegar they are using.
6. Olive oil with bread
No dipping bread in olive oil (or oil and balsamic) at the beginning of the meal! Yes, this is an American habit. While the French offer butter with their bread, Italians just dive into the antipasti platter instead: with plain bread.
7. Cappuccino? Not at the end of a meal!
Do not attempt such a heresy while in a restaurant in Italy. Cappuccino, my friends, is for breakfast. As is any coffee drink made with milk. (The only exception: caffè macchiato, an espresso with just a few drops of milk.) You can also have cappuccino as an afternoon snack, but as a closing for lunch or dinner, it is a no-no. Also, coffee is usually served after, and not during your meal. Italians only drink water (unflavored!), wine, or beer during their meals. Soft drinks are OK with pizza only, but they would interfere with the flavors of other dishes.
8. Eggs in the morning
Yes, you will find eggs in many hotels in Italy, since they are trying to meet the needs of an international clientele. But if you are a guest at someone’s house, this is what you will get for breakfast: coffee (black or with milk), cappuccino (if they own a coffee machine), or tea (usually with lemon). Maybe yogurt. And, something sweet: biscotti, fette biscottate (crunchy bread slices) or toasted bread with butter and jelly. Occasionally a slice of cake. Breakfast in Italy is usually light compared to the U.S.: no eggs, no meats, no savory dishes.
9. Pepperoni pizza
Pizza “con i peperoni” is in fact a pizza with bell peppers. The closest pizza to the American pepperoni is the “diavola” (devil), with hot chili flakes and slices of small spicy salami. It’s usually very hot—beware! Please, please, please! Also be wary of asking for chicken or Hawaiian pizza. Ai ai ai ai ai. This is truly profane for Italians. A year ago, after 12 years of living in the U.S., I dared tasting Hawaiian pizza for the first time at a birthday party. It was the only food available. I just had a bite and… I posted it on Facebook. You wouldn't believe the avalanche of shocked comments I got from my Italian friends: "Oh, no!" "You have gone to the dark side!" "You crossed the bridge!" "Beware!" "There is no way back!" "Nooo! You are now one of them!" Et cetera. I had to ask for their mercy! No panic, friends: I am far from being converted.
10. Surf and turf
Do not mix church and state! Fish goes with fish, meat with meat. Not many dishes in Italy combine the two. Another very taboo combination is saltwater fish (or shellfish) and cheese. So remember: do not ask for Parmigiano-Reggiano to sprinkle on top of your pasta alla marinara! (Remember? It’s a shellfish pasta!) In any case, now you know! Keep smiling, order from the menu, and Buon Appetito!