For many travelers, myself included, the highlight of a trip to Italy is often the cuisine. We daydream of the food we will eat, each season bringing with it its own bounty. Travelers, particularly first time visitors, should note that Italian cuisine is very regional and seasonal, so depending on the time of year of your trip and the region visiting, you’re likely to find very different dishes. The summer heat is soothed by a creamy gelato and dinners are on the lighter side. Autumn brings forth mushroom dishes, and fresh fava beans and peas will be served in the spring. As a native of Italy, I have had the pleasure of eating its cuisine throughout the year, and can attest that each season brings its own unique flavors.
However, there are many, many dishes in which over the years have somehow been mis-labeled as Italian. Now, I want to clarify, there is nothing essentially wrong with these dishes, in fact, I cook a few of them at home myself. The concern comes when these dishes are believed to be authentically Italian, and a visitor expects to find these on a menu there. The dishes below will not be on any menu in Rome or Florence, or anywhere else in Italy for that matter. And if you do happen to find them, you should know that it’s probably a restaurant trying to cater to its American clientele. Since you’re in Italy, I advice to stick to authenticity as much as possible, and avoid any restaurant that serves the below.
Spaghetti & Meatballs
Nothing says truly authentic Italian cuisine like a nice dish of spaghetti and meatballs....Actually, the opposite is true! If you're in Italy looking at the menu and trying to find your favorite home dish and can't find this classic, it's because this dish is almost never served in Italy. Yes, Italians eat spaghetti, yes, we make meatballs practically every Sunday. But never are the two eaten together. Usually, the pasta is served as a first course, and it's frequently a "short" pasta, like ziti or rigatoni. And after that, the meatballs may be served as a second course.
So, you're in the mood to use your fork twirling skills and you’re looking for a nice dish of Fettuccini Alfredo? Well, good luck with that as any waiter in Italy is not going to know what you’re talking about. While the origin of this dish is very much Italian, believed to have been created by restaurateur, Alfredo Lelio, for his wife who was suffering from pregnancy malaise, the original dish was just plain pasta with butter, which is the Italian equivalent of chicken soup, mostly eaten when someone is sick and can’t tolerate much else. Alfredo added this to his menu at the restaurant and that’s how “Fettuccini Alfredo” was born. No one calls it this in Italy, it’s simply pasta al burro. It was Americans that played on this dish by fatting it up with cream and other questionable ingredients.
Chicken or veal parmigiana
If you’re looking for “parm” anything while in Italy, you will be served a delicious dish of eggplant parmigiana. A favorite of Southern Italy, eggplant parmigiana is prepared similarly to the Americanized chicken or veal version and prepared by cutting thin slices of eggplant, breading and frying them, then layered in tomato sauce and mozzarella and baking it to deliciousness. A delicious dish not to be missed, and also not to be confused with chicken.
The garlic bread found in the US is the bad replica of Italian bruschetta, an imposter. Italians frequently toast fresh homemade bread by the fire and rub a garlic glove and add a drizzle of olive oil. What you have here in the States is French bread cut in half and loaded with butter and dehydrated garlic bits. It’s just wrong. If you would like to try the Italian version, try some bruschetta instead.
Recently, I was on the phone with my aunt, who lives in Italy but has spent a good amount of time in the US. I was preparing to visit her so I asked her if she wanted me to bring her anything from the States. She lowered her voice, almost in shame:“Can you bring me a bottle or two of that stuff you know I like?” “That stuff?” What she was referring to was Italian dressing. She had a taste of it here and fell for it. In Italy, salad dressing is EVOO and wine vinegar. There is no such thing as Italian dressing in Italy. And yes, I did travel from Boston to Italy carrying Italian dressing in my luggage. I’m not proud of it.
You’ve overdone it on the gelato and pasta dishes and are now craving a nice, reasonably light and healthy salad, so you go looking for a Caesar salad. You’ll have to wait until you head back to the States for this one, as you will not find one on the menus of restaurants in Italy. Created by Caesar Cardini, an Italian American living in Mexico, this was just a creation of using what he had on hand at the time. Opt instead for a Caprese salad and you will not be disappointed.
The Italian word for shrimp is scampi, so if you ask for shrimp scampi in Italy, you’re essentially asking for “shrimp shrimp”. This dish is likely derivative of a Sicilian shellfish recipe that Italian Americans adapted over the years. While shrimp is served in Italy with lemon, garlic and olive oil, the version found in US restaurants has little resemblance to shrimp served in Italy.
If you’ve overeaten and are looking for something on the lighter side and ask for a dish of pasta with marinara sauce and think you will be served some pasta with red sauce, you might be disappointed to see seafood on your plate. Marinara by definition means “from the sea”, so instead opt for some “spaghetti al sugo di pomodoro” essentially the same thing as what we've come to know as marinara in the US.
Head to the café in the morning and ask for a latte and you will be served a nice, tall glass of cold milk. The barista may also wonder where you're 2 year old is, only kids drink straight milk in Italy. Much like the marinara sauce above, this is just a problem with translation more so than the ordered item. Ask for a cappuccino instead and you will not be disappointed. It’s practically impossible to get a bad one in Italy. Just be sure you don’t ask for one past breakfast time, drinking one past morning hours is shunned upon Italy, practically a sin punishable by stares and a sure giveaway that you’re not a local.
As you can see, many so-called Italian restaurants in the US, particularly the chains who shall remain nameless, have ill-prepared travelers of what to expect from authentic Italian restaurants in Italy. The best advice I can give any traveler is go to Italy without any pre-conceived ideas of what you should or should not eat once there. Go by the menu and daily specials, ask the waitstaff what they recommend, and if you do some homework beforehand, you're surely in for a delicious, authentic meal.
And a final tip
Stay away from any restaurant that serves dinner before 8:00PM. Italians dine very late and any restaurant that starts serving dinner before that is likely catering to the tourists, its cuisine may not be up to Italian standards.
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