Italians are more than a little sensitive about their food but, honestly, who can blame them? Seemingly every culture continues to misrepresent their noble Mediterranean cuisine with greasy, sugar-laden, and highly processed poor substitutes, not to mention the ridiculous Italian-ized labels that contain some of the worst attempts at the language ever seen.
You can cook, promote, and sell whatever you want; just don’t call it Italian when it’s clearly not.
10. Italian Soda
Italian soda is NOT found everywhere in Italy, as many manufacturers claim on their websites. According to specialists and their extensive research, the birth of United States coincided with the introduction of soft drinks, a product already popular in the US by the early 1800’s. So why the Italy thing? It seems a couple businessmen, Ezilda and Rinaldo Torre, introduced a variety of syrups to North Beach around 1925, and pretended they were taken from authentic, handwritten, Italian recipes. More than likely, they were inspired by acqua e menta, an Italian summer drink prepared by mixing mint syrup with still water.
But that’s not soda, is it? Aranciata, gassosa, cedrata and chinotto are some of the country’s signature soft drinks, so try those instead.
9. Italian Dressing
Italian salad dressings are incredibly popular in the United States and Canada, but Italians have their own particular way of seasoning a salad, a way nicely summed up by an old saying from Alexandre Dumas, from one of the earliest and greatest works on food ever published, the Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine: “a salad dressing requires a spendthrift for oil, a judge for salt, a miser for vinegar, and a madman to mix them.” And we couldn’t agree more.
Native Italians don’t buy bottled dressings. The Mediterranean gastronomical culture is all about fresh and healthy ingredients: simple food, properly spiced, and cooked with passion and care. Why add an arsenal of sugars, salts, fats, fake flavors, colors and questionable ingredients, when it’s so easy to make your own dressing?
And if you’re in Italy, but don’t have access to a madman, fret not: salads are often served unseasoned in Italy, but you’ll always find olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper on the table to prepare a mix that suits your personal taste.
8. Garlic Bread
French bread smeared with butter and sprinkled with garlic powder, salt, and dried oregano or basil is not an Italian custom, no matter how many marketers say otherwise. Garlic bread is simply the American commercial version of bruschetta classica.
To celebrate the olive harvest, Italian farmers toast a chunky slide of country-style bread over the fireplace, rub it with a clove of garlic while it’s still hot, and then brush it with fresh olive oil on both sides. A sprinkle of salt, and the bruschetta is ready! That’s the classic recipe, but variations are abound: bruschetta al pomodoro e basilico (with chopped tomatoes and fresh basil); bruschetta ai peperoni (with peppers), bruschetta con melanzane (with eggplants) and so on. All of which beat a frozen piece of bread in a box by miles and miles.
7. Pepperoni/Italian Chicken Pizza
“Italian” chicken pizza and pepperoni pizza are two of the many delicious varieties of pizza that you absolutely won’t find in Italy. You won’t even find pepperoni there, as the word is simply bastardized version of the Italian word peperoni (bell peppers). Pepperoni (written with double p’s) is an air-dried spicy sausage. Order a pepperoni pizza in Italy, and you’ll most likely get a pizza topped with sweet peppers.
Pepperoni pizza, the way we know it, is an American invention from 1919 or so, when Italian-American restaurants, pizzerias, and butcher shops began to flourish in America.
6. Pasta Primavera
Despite its name, pasta primavera is not of Italian origin. The dish was created in the early 1970’s in Le Cirque NYC, one of the top restaurants of the international haute cuisine scene.
It all started in 1973 when Sirio Maccioni, founder of Le Cirque, and Jean Vernges, a classically trained French Chef and co-founder of Le Cirque, visited artist Edward Giobbi, and was intrigued by his mixture of vegetables and pasta. Vergnes discussed the concept with fellow French chef Jean Louis. Vergnes’ wish was to use fresh veggies like asparagus, zucchini, mushrooms, tomatoes, and string beans. Jean Louise agreed to this, but suggested making it more French as well, by adding pea pods and a creamy butter sauce. Maccioni then gave the recipe an Italian twist by serving it with basil, pine nuts and Parmesan.
Vergnes’ story is the most credible version of how Pasta Primavera was born, but Sirio Maccioni recounts a different version of what happened. He takes full credit for the classic recipe and claims to have invented it all on his own in 1975. In Nova Scotia. So no matter what story is true, the dish is still not Italian in the least.
5. Caesar Salad
An ongoing debate surrounds this delicious salad. One thing is for sure, it isn’t Italian. Most culinary historians credit Caesar Cardini with the authentic version. Caesar Cardini and his brother Alessandro moved from Milan to San Diego after World War I, and decided to open a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. Their signature Parmesan-and-crouton-based salad soon became very fashionable among Hollywood celebrities, and somehow earned a reputation for being an authentic Italian dish.
4. Chicken Parmesan
Chicken Parmesan, despite the very Italian name, is as American as the hot dog. There’s no authentic Italian recipe for combining pasta with chicken, and the two are always served as different courses.
In fact, up until recent rises in poultry production, chicken meat was rarely eaten in Italy. According to a 1956 record from the Italian National Union of Aviculture, the average Italian ate less than 5 pounds of poultry per year at the time.
Thus, many Italian immigrants had little experience with cooking poultry when they touched down in America, so culinary traditions were adapted to the available ingredients. As a result, eggplant Parmesan – a classic Italian dish – inspired chicken Parmesan, and nobody looked back.
3. Macaroni And Cheese
Establishing the origin of this dish is more complicated than it seems. It’s a delicious plate, but it isn’t Italian. Bechamel, the mother of all white sauces and one of the mainstays of French cuisine, is the base of the classic mac & cheese recipe. Some claim that maccheroni, prepared with various sauces, was a very popular dish in Paris during the 18th century. Last we checked, France is not Italy.
Many bloggers have mistakenly traced the origin of mac & cheese to Italy, thanks to a recipe from El Liber de Coquina, a 13th century Italian cookbook. The dish called De Lesanis is seen by these bloggers as the first mac and cheese dish, despite being based around layers of pasta sheets, like the similarly-named lasagna.
It’s true that some Italian dishes are, technically, just pasta and cheese, but the additional ingredients, as well as the method of preparation, are what set them apart from other similar recipes. For an Italian, there’s nothing worse than overcooked, mushy pasta, drenched in a sea of cream and cheese.
2. Fettuccine Alfredo
If you are planning to visit Italy, and can’t wait to eat the famous Fettuccine Alfredo, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. Fettuccine Alfredo, Shrimp Alfredo, Chicken Alfredo, or any other dish named after Alfredo di Lelio doesn’t exist anywhere in Italy, except for one place in Rome that Italians don’t actually like.
It all began there, almost one hundred years ago, at a restaurant owned by Alfredo di Lelio, whose wife experienced some problems during pregnancy, including loss of appetite. Remember when your mom gave you chicken soup or toast when you had an upset stomach? Well, Italians eat plain pasta with a little bit of butter and Parmesan when they can’t keep anything down. It’s that same remedy that worked also for Alfredo’s wife. He didn’t invent the recipe; he simply modified the quantity of ingredients used in it. The restaurateur added Fettuccine Alfredo to the menu when his wife started feeling better again.
Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks are the ones who popularized the dish in the States. Further enriched with heavy cream, garlic, and Lord knows what else, Fettuccine Alfredo quickly became an American sensation. Meanwhile, most Italians have never even heard of Alfredo, and the recipes he named after himself don’t represent classic Italian cuisine.
1. Spaghetti Bolognese
There’s nothing Italian about this dish, and nothing Bolognese either.
The pasta and the classic sauce come from two completely different cultures. Emilia Romagna, a food lover’s paradise, is a region of Northern Italy. Its capital is Bologna. The Bolognese sauce (ragù alla Bolognese) is a typical Emilian dish, but spaghetti was a southern Italian staple. Emilians actually serve ragù with tagliatelle, the region’s signature pasta.
Combining these two in a single dish, though apparently quite marketable, is a big no-no. Why? Because spaghetti is too thin to hold the rich sauce. Spaghetti Bolognese, the Frankenstein dish we know today, is not even served with the classic Bolognese sauce, but rather some watered-down version that’s easier for spaghetti to handle. The most authentic sauce recipe is the one documented by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, and subsequently recorded by Bologna’s Chamber of Commerce. The official recipe limits the ingredients to beef, pancetta, carrots, celery stalks, onions, tomato paste, white wine and milk.