Wherever you travel in the Western world, the chances are you’ll never be too far from a restaurant offering Italian food. But is it really Italian? Here an italian food blogger and culinary tour guide Monica Cesarato dispels a few persistent food myths.
“The first time I went to Britain, people were always telling me: ‘You Italians cook this and you cook that’ – and I had to tell them: ‘No, we would never eat that!’”
Often, these skewed ideas about what constitutes genuine Italian food are the result of emigration one hundred years ago.
“People don’t realize that the Italians who emigrated to the States and the UK were mostly impoverished farmers who couldn’t afford certain ingredients,” she explains.
Their style of cooking – known as ‘cucina povera’ (literally ‘poor kitchen’) involved using readily available ingredients and leftovers.
“Sometimes, 50 percent of an entire village would emigrate as a community and then carry on cooking like they did back at home,” says Cesarato. “But that wasn’t necessarily what everyone else was cooking back in Italy.”
Bear in mind, too, that dishes can differ wildly from one Italian region to another – so that what may be considered as generically Italian in America may in fact originate from some remote village in Sicily.
In Cesarato’s home region of Veneto, food is often very different from the rest of Italy, and therefore often undervalued or misunderstood abroad, she says.
As a port and a major centre for commerce and trade, Venice has been exposed over the centuries to many different cultures. This has left an indelible mark on the city’s cuisine.
But what about pizza? From the number of tourists who order it in restaurants in Venice, you’d think it was a traditional Venetian speciality. Wrong.
“Pizza came from Naples in the south of Italy,” says Cesarato. “But what people fail to realize is that it spread first to America and then to the rest of Italy.”
“We never really had pizza until people from the south of Italy started moving to the north for work in the 60s and 70s. Now, you see the locals making pizza too – but back in the 80s all the pizzaioli (pizza chefs) were from Naples.”
Persistent food myths of Italian dishes. Dishes that actually don't exist in the italian cuisine and never existed!
Pepperoni Pizza Want some spicy salami slices on your pizza? Then don’t ask for ‘pepperoni’ in Italy - it’s the plural for peppers, so you’ll end up with a pizza covered in grilled peppers. "If you want to order a ‘pepperoni’ pizza in Italian, then you have to ask for ‘salame piccante’ (spicy salami)." counsels Cesarato
Spaghetti with meatballs “Oh God!” sighs Cesarato. “Well, this is definitely not Italian.” The dish was probably created by Italian immigrants who moved to the US in the early 20th century. Unable to find good-quality tomatoes, they added meat – which was cheap and readily available. Traditionally, however, meatballs, or ‘polpette’ as they are known in Italy, are served either as a starter or a main course with potatoes, vegetables or beans. But definitely not with pasta!
Macaroni and cheese “I’m pretty sure the Americans invented this a long time ago,” says Cesarato. In Italy, however, there are strict rules about which sauces you serve with specific pastas - depending on their texture and shape. Macaroni ('Maccheroni' in Italian), for instance, is typically served with ragù or a tomato sauce. The closest Italian dish to macaroni and cheese that Cesarato can think of is “pasta pasticciata”, where you mix left-over pasta with béchamel and bake it in the oven. “But it’s not the same, and we’d never go out of our way to cook that.”
Ham and pineapple pizza I don't even comment on this. As far as I know, it was invented in Canada somewhere - but you’ll definitely never find this in Italy.
Italian dressing: this orange-coloured concoction of corn syrup, vinegar, vegetable oil and bell peppers is probably familiar to you, but there’s nothing “Italian” about it. In Italy, there’s really only one way of making dressing: by mixing olive oil and lemon, or vinegar (balsamic or red or white wine vinegar). You can either drizzle this directly on to the salad or mix it beforehand. "The truth is that Italians have relatively simple tastes, which makes it also healthier. I don’t know why the Americans and the British love to complicate things".-grumbles Cesarato.
Panini" In the US, a “panini” is a grilled sandwich. Ask for “panini” in Italy, however, and you’ll get several ordinary sandwiches (“panini” is simply the plural of sandwich or a bun). “Instead, you’d need to ask to have it toasted (“tostato”)"advises Cesarato. Sandwiches in Italy also tend to be simpler. “They don’t contain butter, for a start. Normally, a sandwich is just a roll filled with cheese, cold cuts and grilled vegetables.” If you fancy a more British-style sandwich, I suggest ordering a “tramezzino” - a triangular sandwich made with soft white bread with the crusts removed.
Garlic bread The idea that this could ever be considered Italian is particularly perplexing to me. It’s strange because a baguette is not even Italian in the first place. Italians, of course, rub their garlic bread to make bruschetta. It’s easy to spread the garlic on Tuscan bread, but try it on any other sort and it just breaks apart. Maybe that’s why Americans use garlic butter.
Spaghetti Carbonara with cream . Carbonara is definitely never cooked with cream in Italy,” says Cesarato. “And it should only be cooked with guanciale (pork cheek).” If you can’t get hold of this, then some pancetta will do. Other genuine Italian tips: the cheese should be either Pecorino or Parmesan. Crack the egg (Cesarato suggests using about one egg yolk per person but some Italians also use a whole egg) over the top of the pasta.
Penne Alfredo This is a definite no-no in Italy. Legend has it that, back in the 1920s, an Italian brought a similar dish over to America that was cooked with butter and sage. However, possibly short of ingredients one day, he substituted cream for the butter and parsley for the sage. Presumably his patrons liked it because the dish is now common in English-speaking countries. Not in Italy, though. “Just don’t go there,” sighs Cesarato. “In Italy, the only chicken you put in pasta is livers and kidneys when you make a ragù sauce. But that’s about as far as we go.”
Spaghetti Bolognese In Anglo countries, spaghetti Bolognese is a classic. For Italians, it’s a heinous crime against food. The dish probably came into being during the Second World War, when American and British soldiers passed through Bologna and tried ‘tagliatelle al ragù’. Probably because they didn’t know its name, they dubbed the sauce “Bolognese” and later substituted the spaghetti for the tagliatelle. “But the sauce just doesn’t stick properly to spaghetti,” Cesarato points out. “In Italy, you’d only serve ragù with pasta like tagliatelle, fettuccine or maccheroni.” Don’t even get her started on the sauce... “We generally use pork with a little beef, some garlic, a little tomato sauce, onions, celery, carrots and wine - but definitely no herbs or chilli,” she says. Oh, and you have to slow-cook it for three hours.