Culture, Italian Food, Life in Italy

What food is truly Italian anyway? A list of misconstrued Americanized ideas

After being affiliated with the true Italian culture for four years, I have learned what food is really theirs and what food is made up “Italian.” Of course all this was a shock to me when I heard it. It was shocking because so many Italian-Americans convinced me that chicken parmesan is a main dish in Italy, and that chicken caesar salad is in every single restaurant. Of course I believed them, being Italian-American and all. Well, four years later I have learned that being Italian-American is just as close to being Italian as I am African.

Today I’m going to talk about the most noticeable “Italian” food that is not Italian, and instead is the misconstrued American idea of Italian. This misconstruedness is most likely the result of an Italian immigrant who came to American and wanted to make himself famous. Let’s take alfredo sauce for example, alfredo sauce is not the name of a sauce, it is probably the name of some guy named Alfredo (as Alfredo is a common name in Italy, and no such sauce exists). Follow along, and believe the unbelievable.

1. Alfredo sauce is a fake. In no restaurant in Italy, or homes of Italians will you find an alfredo sauce. They may make a cream sauce with some parmesan, tuna, and pepper, but this is just called a cream sauce. What bugs me the most is that Giada De Laurentiis, the famed Italian-American cook on the cooking channel, has her classic alfredo sauce and it’s not even Italian…(by the way her recipe is way too lemony, needs serious adjustments) So, why do you think Italians don’t have an alfredo sauce? It’s simply wayyyyyy too heavy. We Americans generally have cream, butter, or milk in all our recipes, Italians instead do not.

2.Garlic bread-nadda. In every Italian restaurant in the US like Olive Garden, Macarnoi Grill, The Tuscan Oven, all have garlic bread served with pasta. Unfortunately this is an American thing and not Italian. Garlic bread is so delicious and I miss it dearly, but it’s just not their thing. In fact, Italians stray away from garlic and onions a lot of the time. If there is garlic in a recipe, it is usually so fine that you can’t taste it much. They would never eat it slightly cooked like we do. As for onions, I’ve heard people complain that in Germany and in the US people are too liberal with onions. It’s just not as common to see an Italian eating a blooming onion, or eat onions on top of a hamburger.

3. Pesto and oil served with bread-not really. First of all, Italy is a very regional place. What I mean is that they tend to eat foods that come from that region. For example, pesto originates from Genoa, orecchiette pasta originates from the region of Puglia, arancini from Sicily and so forth. This doesn’t mean that people from Rome don’t eat arancini and people from Puglia don’t eat pesto, it’s just not as common as it is in the region it came from. With that said, I have never seen pesto and oil served with bread in Italy. Usually a waiter will bring out bread to the table, but it’s just that, rock hard bread. Pesto I’ve noticed is used to coat pasta.

4. Pepperoni is not pepperoni, watch out! When you visit Rome for the first time you may order a pepperoni pizza, classic right? Well, you’ll be disappointed that it’s not pepperoni, but actual peppers on your pizza with no pepperoni! Pepperoni means peppers in Italian (generally bell peppers, red, and yellow). If you want a pepperoni pizza you must ask for salame on your pizza.

5. Caesar salad may have died with Caesar. Perhaps caesar salad existed when Caesar was around, maybe he liked his salad a certain way and just named it after himself, but it’s not Italian that’s for sure. Caesar salad is something so cliche that I’m almost positive it was made up by some immigrant in NY in 1925. Salad in Italy comes pretty much in one way: lettuce, tomatoes, mozzarella, corn, possibly tuna, salt, and oil with vinegar. Thazzzz it. This is so sad to me b/c I love salads so much. My husband’s family love when I make salads because each one is different and unique. I have to explain to them that they actually have different names 🙂 This one is called waldorf, that one is wedge and so forth. It’s a whole new concept to them. Why don’t Italians have this salad? Well, the salad dressing of course! Italians don’t use salad dressings, mostly just oil and vinegar. I’m not sure this salad would ever make it in Italy if it was put in a restaurant.

6.Chicken parmesan is a big no no. How do “Italian” restaurants get away with calling this dish Italian? If they know Italy enough, they would know that the first thing about their food culture is to never eat pasta and meat together on the same plate. Bolognese sauce doesn’t count. When I described what chicken parm is to my English class they were all in disbelief and laughing. Granted, I think chicken parm tastes very good, it’s just American food that’s all.

7. Dipping sauces with calamari-fake-o. It’s just Americans who are obsessed with sauces. We put sauce on sandwiches, meat, fries, it’s everywhere! If you order calamari in Italy it will come with lemon and that’s it. They don’t have the mentality of dipping sauces.

8. Italian dressing-what? Like I said, Italians don’t use salad dressings. All the salad dressings in the supermarket (which are generally 5 all together) are international. When you go to Walmart and pick out your favorite Italian dressing, remember that it’s really American and should be called American dressing. The same goes for Italian coffee creamer. Italians drink espresso, not coffee, this should be a given.

9. Italian sodas, hmmm. In every Italian household you will find their favorite soda, coca-cola. There is no such thing as Italian-sodas, it’s American made-up. What is the deal here with America not having any pride in our own products? I mean come on, “Italian” soda when it’s really American, “Italian” dressing, “Italian” salad, whatever. It’s very clear that companies use the word Italian as a brand to up-sell their products.

10. Philly cheesesteaks come from Philly not Italy. Think about it, it’s full of onions. Never seen one in Italy. That goes for Italian sausage too, why does everyone think that Italy is known for sausages? It’s Germany people. Italy is known for pork, veal, horse meat, pasta, and pizza of course….::sigh:: this list is making me tired.

11. Oh my gosh, I almost forgot a big one. Lattes!!! If only Starbucks gave a real glimpse of Italian coffee maybe people wouldn’t be so confused when they travel to Italy. Let’s start with what latte means. Latte means milk. If you go to a cafe in Italy and want a latte you must say “cafe latte.”  All the little coffee names like cappuccino, macchiato or whatever refer to the amount of milk that is in the coffee. Each drink has a different level. So at Starbucks, a macchiato latte is confusing…what exactly is that? It’s a cup of latte with a little bit more latte? Okkie dokkie Starbucks. And also, the Starbucks drink sizes are so not Italian even though they pride themselves with the names. You will never see a venti or trenta size in Italy for a drink unless it’s beer, certainly not for coffee! Italians would gawk at someone drinking that size of a drink. But we all know that Starbucks firstly appeals to the American market anyway, and that’s why they have all these frilly drinks and names. Remind me later to tell you the story of when a Starbucks’ barista asked my husband if he wanted water in his espresso….

These were the most obvious observations that hit me throughout the years. I wanted to write about this because first of all it bothers me that there are so many misconstrued ideas of what Italian food is. Second, I hate when Italian-American cooks on tv hand out information like it’s the truth when it’s not. All the innocent American cooks have no idea that it’s not true especially when Italians who live there are telling them that’s the truth from what they know of their great great grandmother who once lived there, and how do you think that makes the real Italians feel that their food is not represented correctly? I know how it makes me feel when I go to a restaurant and they serve me a “hamburger.” It’s a joke. When you order a hamburger in Italy you get a piece of meat in the shape of a circle with no bread, no sauce, no lettuce tomato and onion…it makes me think “where did they come up with this idea of a hamburger?” Maybe my next post will be about the misconstrued American food in Italy…oh that will be a fun post, hopefully it won’t give me an ulcer.

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20 thoughts on “What food is truly Italian anyway? A list of misconstrued Americanized ideas”

  1. A couple of things. Pepperoni (sp?) as in spicy salami is salamino piccante. Salame is mild. Also, there are Italian sodas. Gazzosa, for example, which is lemony and very refreshing, and also chinotto, which is bitter and takes a bit of getting used to. Given the choice between good gazzosa and cola, I’m drawn to the former.

  2. what’s wrong with the spelling of pepperoni? If I write in English I give the English spellings because I don’t like to swap around, just like I wrote lattes and salad in English. I never said that pepperoni was spicy. About the sodas, I know there are a few especially for having with an appetizer, but the concept of what Americans think is “Italian soda” isn’t true in my opinion. Anyway, this is all just my experience from where I live, everyone I talk to, and from traveling around.

  3. To me people in American with Italian great grandparents are more American-italian than Italian-American because over the generations they have become more Americanised. Plus like you said in your blog there are so many foods in America they eat now which isnt even Italian even though they think they are! love your post by the way 🙂

    1. Yes, I agree that nowadays people are more American-Italian. My cousins are a prime example. They have little traditions that their grandparents keep alive, but when one of my cousins came to visit Italy for my wedding she said she realized how American she is. She thought it was really ironic. Glad you liked my post!

  4. Italian soda: lemonsoda, oransoda. Pepperoni Pizza: Pizza Diavola, granted its much better than Pepperoni pizza. As for lots of onions, Pasta alla Genovese, which if you search for will be a pasta with pesto even though its really a red meat and onion sauce from Naples.

    1. I don’t remember if I’ve had pasta alla Genovese, I can’t keep track of it all, but good to know. When I make sauce I always use onions, but I take them out before plating because my mother-in-law said no one in our family would eat it that way at least. When I eat it I leave it in though! Every time I cook something they ask “did you put onions in this?” I’m like “calm down…”

  5. 4. Order a pizza diavola if you want something similar to a pepperoni pizza. It’s a bit spicier though. When I first moved to Napoli I would always order this, but now I have so many others that I prefer.
    5. You were close on the year. Caesar’s salad is credited to Caesar Cardini an italian immigrant, allegedly in 1924. It was made in my city, Tijuana, Mex.

  6. I am not American, I’m Brazilian, living in Italy for 6 months. And even then 80% of what you said is applicable in my situation! The most traumatic one was the pepperoni for sure! Hahaha. It’s really interesting to see how American culture influences the perception of many countries about other countries cultures, even when topic is food. Congrats for your blog! 🙂

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the read! What are some perceptions that Brazilians have about the Italian culture that is wrong that you have learned about since living in Italy?

      1. Hi! Basically the same thing as the American perception. Over the years I’m realizing that we are more americans than we can imagine. The pepperoni, for sure, was a huge surprise. For me also the pasta itself was kinda disapointing, because of a wrong perception. Brazilians like to mix everything they have in the fridge. So the good pasta means the bigger pasta, with many ingredients and a lot of sauce. In Italy a simply homemade tomato sauce is enough, and I can say that, for sure, it was traumatic in the beginning. Hahaha 🙂 The coffee is smaler than I imagined, and they don’t have the famous “frapuccino” (starbucks style), the one that I was sure that was real italian but it’s not.
        I’m still learning day by day. Maybe in some months I can come back to you with some more wrong perceptions 😉

      2. Wow I didn’t know that Brazil and the US were so similar in Italian ideas! Yes, I was disappointed about no frappuccinos either! I’d love to hear about what you find out in the future. Every day if I see something strange or different I’ll take a photo or I’ll write a note about it. That’s how I ended up writing this post b/c all my little notes 🙂

  7. I guess everything is dependent on your own experiences, but whenever I’m in Italy there is PLENTY of garlic. Garlic bread itself I believe to be a French thing, not Italian, but in Italy they have Bruschettas. When they make Bruscettas out there they certainly don’t scrimp on the garlic, lol! We toast the bread and literally scrub it all over with the garlic – but there is no butter used (I might be wrong there though). Like you mentioned, it is VERY dependent on the region too but rather than specific dishes, it is more the way they cook in each region and the ingredients they like to use. A particular pasta dish might be available all over Italy, but they’ll all cook it slightly differently and all claim their way to be the correct way. Obviously, the location from where that pasta dish originates is the correct way though! The point is, there isn’t really an “Italian” way of cooking, other than using the freshest ingredients

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