Italy is world-famous for its cuisine. From fresh pasta and pizza to incredible wine, Italy has the perfect recipe for delicious food. Nowadays, you can get Italian food everywhere in the world. But, there are quite a few favorite Italian dishes that aren’t authentic Italian at all.
As we all know, in the 19th and early 20th century, there was massive emigration out of Italy, mostly to the Americas. These Italian immigrants took their culinary culture with them and, at least at first, they rather stubbornly stuck to their gastronomic ways. As always happens with immigration, dishes change when they get to a different country. The food adapts to the tastes of the people who live there, and therefore the ingredients available.
Despite their Italian roots, these dishes don’t represent today’s Italian dining and, in that regard, they can’t be considered authentic. So many dishes you’ll have thought were classic Italian dishes are, in fact, adaptations. Thus they are very hard to seek out in Italy itself. In other words, what we think of as “classic Italian” is not actually from Italy at all.
But as the quest for authenticity in food becomes ever more popular, it’s good to know where some of our “Italian” favorites actually come from. Read on to find out the 10 favorite Italian dishes that aren’t authentic Italian.
10 Favorite Italian dishes that aren’t authentic Italian
1. Spaghetti with meatballs
The classic American perception of “spaghetti meatballs” is actually no traditional Italian dish. Most likely, Italian immigrants invented this staple dish in NY during the first 1900s. Unable to find good quality tomatoes, they added meat, which was cheap and readily available, to the sauce in order to make it sweeter and thicker.
The fact is most pasta dishes are not topped with meat. In Italy, the type of meatballs you can find are “polpettes”, but they’re very small, and eaten as a standalone meal or with soup. But definitely not with pasta. If you find any of these dishes in Italy, it’s because they were brought back to Italy from the U.S.
“Polpette” is a really famous recipe dish in Italy. They adjust from town to town as far as ingredients, size and recipe are concerned. While we’re on the subject of meat and pasta, chicken is something you’ll never see atop pasta in Italy, it’s not a very popular meat in general.
2. Caesar salad
The well-known Caesar salad isn’t technically Italian. Even though it was created by an Italian restaurant owner in the 1920s, he was residing in Tijuana, Mexico at the time. Here’s the history of Caesar Salad.
It is a green salad of romaine lettuce, garlic, croutons, Parmesan cheese, eggs, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce. Despite the fact that the flavors in Caesar salad meet the Italian palate, this dish is unknown in Italy except for a few restaurants that cater to a North American clientele.
3. Chicken (or veal) Parmigiana
Chicken Parmigiana with breaded chicken cutlets, marinara sauce, parmesan and melted mozzarella cheese may be a classic Italian-American food. Eggplant parm originated in Sicily and Italian Americans modified it to include heartier ingredients like chicken, veal, and meatballs.
What is Italian, or at least it was born in Southern Italy, is “melanzane alla parmigiana“. Eggplants fried and layered with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and parmesan, then baked. This is the recipe in a nutshell.
4. Penne alla Vodka
The sauce of this pasta dish consists of tomato, onion, prosciutto, cream and vodka be hard-pressed to seek out cream sauces far south of Milan, including in Rome. So if you’re trying to find a dish like penne alla vodka — which incorporates a creamy sauce — at a Roman trattoria, you’re already off-base. Instead try: a simple “pasta al pomodoro” — it’s basically all the good bits of penne alla vodka, minus the cream and vodka.
5. Garlic Bread
Garlic bread is an American invention. The whole idea of smothering bread in either olive oil with lots of garlic was invented in the USA in the early 1940s. The closest Italian thing to it is bruschetta al pomodoro, which means thin slices with heaps of fresh tomatoes. Recently, restaurants in both America and Italy may also add onions and tomatoes for an even tastier appetizer.
6. Pepperoni Pizza
The word ‘pepperoni‘ actually means bell peppers, so if you ask for a pizza with pepperoni, chances are that you will receive pizza with bell peppers. Pepperoni pizza as we know it is almost never served in Italy, except in touristy areas. In contrast, in Italian, what Americans call “pepperoni” is referred to as salami.
If you want a pepperoni pizza, you should order “una pizza alla diavola“, or, a pizza of the devil, (spicy food here is usually “of the devil,” or sometimes arrabbiata, “angry”) which comes with “salame piccante” on it (spicy salami). Also instead of pepperoni pizza, try pizza topped with prosciutto. It is a much more common topping than ‘pepperoni.’
7. Italian dressing
Italian salad dressings are incredibly popular in the United States. But in Italy, people rarely dress their salads. To tell you the truth Italians don’t even know the concept of a premixed dressing that you can buy in a store.
Instead, people in Italy eat their salads with olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, salt, and sometimes balsamic vinegar at the table. That’s it.
8. Marinara sauce
Marinara sauce is a tomato sauce usually made with tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and onions. It can include the addition of capers, olives, spices, and a dash of wine as possible ingredients in its many variations. But its an invention of Italian-American immigrants working with ingredients that were available in America. In Italy, though, marinara usually means a shellfish sauce. Instead of marinara sauce, try ordering pasta al pomodoro or penne all’arrabbiata for a similar taste of American marinara in Italy.
9. Lobster Fra Diavolo and Shrimp Scampi
These wonderful seafood pasta dishes are American. “Lobster Fra Diavolo”—a pasta dish made with lobster, sometimes other seafood, that contains crushed red pepper to make it spicy. It isn’t originally Italian for two reasons: It’s made with Maine lobster, not the Mediterranean variety found in Italy, and Italians don’t eat pasta as a main course.
“Shrimp scampi” is a dish where large shrimp are sauteéd with garlic, wine, butter, herbs, and red pepper flakes, then served over pasta or rice. It is a staple in Italian-American restaurants, most likely the descendant of an Italian recipe that involves langoustines sauteéd in wine, olive oil, onion, and garlic. Langoustines are a type of tiny lobster, called scampi in Italian. Italian-American cooks adapted the recipe but kept the old name.
10. Spaghetti bolognese
Bolognese sauce (from Bologna) is a real Italian sauce, made with ground veal or beef, tomatoes (usually), garlic, and other ingredients. But no Italian would ever eat it with spaghetti. It needs flat noodles, like tagliatelli or fettuccine. Italians always use tagliatelle. Why? Because the sauce and the meat adhere better to flatter pasta shape, rather than thin spaghetti.
In conclusion, these are the ten favorite Italian dishes that shock people the most when they realise they are not authentic Italian. Whether from Italy or Italian American, we love Italian food!
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