Last Updated on August 5, 2021 by Helga
When we’re speaking about real Italian food, if someone never visited Italy, and never tried authentic Italian food, might not even know what it actually is. You know, the food in Italian restaurants around the world might be called Italian, but just a few of them are authentically Italian. Each country and each restaurant changes somehow the recipes. One great example before we start talking about real Italian food in detail is the Spaghetti alla Carbonara.
There’s almost no place around the world where this simple Italian recipe would be done authentically, and in most cases, it has actually nothing to do with the real Italian spaghetti Carbonara. Well, in this article we’ll be discussing what is authentic Italian food, and what isn’t. By the end of this post, you’ll learn how to tell if a dish is actually Italian, or it’s just called as so.
You should know, that everything we discuss in this article is considered authentically Italian if it is something that’s popular in Italian cuisine, it’s part of the Italian cuisine or it’s considered being Italian by the Italians. We’ll discuss if different Italian food is used in the kitchen of Italians or if it’s used differently? Also, those originating from Italy but aren’t popular in the country, or they were completely recreated in the United States or other countries.
Let’s talk about… Authentic Italian food
In New York City – but also in my area, Washington DC – there are few authentic Italian restaurants. My subjective, but experienced, opinion is that 90% of the Italian restaurants in the US are not Italian at all. If the words “Italian food” conjures up thoughts of Italian American restaurant chains or pizza with a red-purple sauce and lots of garlic powder, well… this is simply not Italian!
I personally hate that type of cooking! Italian American food is loaded with too many strange-tasting additives. In fact, one might even call them “addictive,” because people end up getting used to their strong, overwhelming flavor, to the detriment of the much more delicate — and healthier taste of authentic Italian cooking.
Italian dishes are all about simplicity. Italians don’t like to stuff one dish with dozens of ingredients, instead, they prefer making many different but simple dishes. This is very much visible if you’re getting the chance to attend an Aperitivo or a dinner at an Italian house (in Italy!). The table will be full of many different things, but they are all simple, easy-to-make Italian dishes, with fresh and healthy ingredients.
When it comes to authentic Italian food, believe me, that the key is always the natural taste of great ingredients. And never the artificial spice mixes that you can buy in the shop. That’s done for business, and not for your health or healthy eating. So let’s see what are those Italian food types and Italian dishes that are not Italian? Also, we’ll discuss what is considered authentically Italian.
Pasta – the king of Italian food
You may already know that Italian pasta is the base of most Italian dishes. What makes the pasta still really authentic and interesting, that it comes in different shapes and even different colors. You might be asking how many types of pasta exist in Italy! Well, you should know, that each region and even each town and city has their traditional types of pasta that sometimes really defer. It’s great when you are planning to visit Italy to check out the pasta types for the region you’re visiting.
This way, you always know what is local and traditional Italian pasta in the place you’re visiting. This also gives you the possibility to try great Italian local dishes that you might not find anywhere else. So about the shapes. There are more than 350 types of pasta in Italy.
As we know, spaghetti, tagliatelle, macaroni, and farfalle pasta are really popular all over the world. But imagine that, 350 types of Italian pasta! If you eat a dish with a different shaped pasta every day, you won’t be eating the same shaped pasta for almost a year. This variety, and the creativity that has created it makes the Italian pasta a perfect base for different dishes. For more, read here how NOT to cook pasta.
Authentic Italian Dressing?
Here’s an example of Italian food that doesn’t exist in Italy. That so-called authentic Italian dressing. Just think about how many businesses are that basically make their living by giving their food dressings or salad dressings an Italian name, or putting it on the jars that it’s ITALIAN. As we all love Italy, obviously we want to buy it, am I right?
However Italian dressing doesn’t exist in Italy. Yes, there are different sauces sold here as well, but they aren’t popular among Italians who are still making their dishes the way they learned from the nonna (grandma). Also, in Italy it’s considered a sin to change traditional recipes, or to mix up eating and food traditions, so you can imagine how many people leave the grocery store with some kind of pre-made dressing. Looking it up online, there are more than 100 different brands and types of so-called Italian dressings just in the US.
Well, if you want to eat authentic Italian food, you stop buying those dressings and you start making the sauces and dressings with fresh ingredients, at home! That’s the Italian way. Anyway, Italian dressing is usually either olive oil, balsamic vinegar, or lemon juice. That’s it!
The same goes for Italian-style bread crumbs or Italian seasoning. Concoctions you won’t find anywhere in Italy. Italian style bread crumbs are dried bread that was grated as anywhere else in the world the normal bread crumbs are made. And about that Italian seasoning… We in Italy use salt, pepper, sometimes oregano and basil, but NOT for each and every existing Italian dish. In Italy, you’re not overpricing the dishes. Remember, simplicity!
Marketing the not-authentic Italian dishes in the United States
In the mind of many Americans, Italian food continues to be associated with the image of a pretty big guy eating spaghetti with meatballs. But the reality is that, practically, no one eats spaghetti with meatballs in Italy. These days, some people do it now in Italy as well, but spaghetti with meatballs is not at all authentic Italian!
Italians do have meat sauce recipes that require long and laborious preparation (including marinating the meat for 3-4 days in aged red wine), but they also have an incredible number of variations of pasta dishes cooked with vegetables or seafood. The branding in the US for Italian products, Italian food, or Italian dishes is really an amazing marketing trick to make people buy their products, nothing else. It’s just great marketing for something that’s not actually authentic, as it is often being sold as.
The variety of the Italian diet, the continued, widespread reliance on fresh ingredients cooked on the spot, and the extensive use of vegetables, fruit, and olive oil all contribute to the generally healthy state of Italians who, on average, appear thinner than Americans, especially after they hit the age of 40.
It is known, in the end, that there is a direct relationship between being overweight and the heavy consumption of over-processed foods and sugary drinks, along with the avoidance of fruits, vegetables, and a little bit of wine with your meals.
Mind, this problem is not only American, but it begins showing also among Italy’s younger generations, more and more attracted by the American lifestyle and the fast food, that’s trying to break through in Italy as well.
A lot has been written about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Without going deeper into the matter, I would like to tell you that Italian food – that is found in Italy – is not only good for you, but it really tastes great! Enjoy the adventure of exploring authentic Italian food, not only a delight for the senses but also an expression of the cultural and traditional heritage of the country.
Italian food that doesn’t exist in Italy
Spaghetti with meatballs
As we have already highlighted, Spaghetti with meatballs is not authentic Italian food! We’ve seen it in Lady & Tramp, and a dozen other movies after, as well as millions of “Italian food” marketing materials… It is still not authentic Italian food. In Italy, in many places, the meatballs with tomato sauce, in Italian called polpette are prepared. Though, they are not served with pasta at all.
Not just that garlic bread isn’t a thing in Italy, but Italian cuisine has very few authentic dishes that are made with garlic. It is simply not a popular ingredient in Italy, and most dishes have no garlic inside. So, starting with that, garlic bread isn’t at all popular in Italy.
If people want to eat bread in an authentic way, they add some high-quality extra virgin olive oil on top, or tomatoes, or some other ingredients that are popular on bruschetta, but garlic isn’t on the list. What you can find in the US as frozen garlic bread, or in restaurants served as Italian garlic bread, that is not original Italian.
No, the fact that the name is Caesar doesn’t mean that the salad would be originating from Italy. You can Caesar salad in touristy restaurants, or in places that concentrate on healthy food and salads, but it is not authentic Italian food and it is definitely not popular in Italy. The Caesar salad is originating from Mexico, and it was first created by Caesar Cardini in 1924.
Chicken Parmigiana is not an authentic Italian food. It was created by Italian immigrants in the United States who have mixed American cuisine with the Italian one. Chicken is not served with pasta in Italy. Pasta dishes are the so-called primi piatti (first courses) that don’t have much meat.
There are some dishes that are made with meat, like the tagliatelle al ragu, but usually speaking, big pieces of meat are not served with pasta in Italy. So a pasta dish with chicken is not something that we can call authentic Italian, and it is definitely an Italian food that you’d ever find in Italy. You can find Parmigiana in Italy, but it is done with eggplant, and there’s no chicken or pasta on it. Imagine it as a Lasagna with eggplant slices instead of the lasagna sheets, and it’s completely meat-free!
Penne alla Vodka?!?
First of all, vodka is a spirit with no taste. It’s like you’d be adding simple, clear alcohol to your pasta. Indeed, alcohol and other ingredients such as chili work well together, yet Penne alla Vodka is definitely not an authentic Italian food its origin is unclear as well. It was probably invented in Bologna, Italy but it’s not clear.
However, even if it was invented by Italians, it is not considered an authentic Italian dish, and it is not at all popular in Italy. In America however, it is really popular. Guaranteed, you will find more Penne alla Vodka in restaurants in the United States than in Italy. I personally never in my life seen this dish in any local, authentic Italian restaurant or Osteria in Italy. Maybe in tourist places?
Fetuccine Alfredo – or anything with that Alfredo sauce
The Alfredo sauce is a big one. Italians deny the Alfredo sauce and they absolutely deny using it. The Alfredo sauce was invented in a restaurant in Rome, Italy by Alfredo di Lelio around 1892. Even though it was invented in Rome, the Alfredo sauce never made it to the list of authentic Italian dishes, and it never became popular on the peninsula.
As I have already highlighted, Italians like to prepare sauces from scratch, so those sold in shops are a no-go. Also, a pasta dish covered in butter and cheese is actually heavy and it does not do good for your stomach. Not to forget that Italians don’t drink milk (and the butter has the same effect) after midday because it’s not doing good for your digestion.
Many reasons why the Alfredo sauce did not become popular in Italy, and it’s not something you’d find in authentic Italian restaurants or on Italian tables. It is super famous and popular in the United States, it has Italian origins, but it’s not authentic Italian food. – At least it’s not considered as such in Italy.
Another dish that’s not authentic Italian. Rainbow cookies are another invention of Italian immigrants in the United States in the 1900s. The Tricolore cookies, that honor their origins are really popular in the US, but they are still not authentic Italian food, and if you ask Italians in Italy, most of them won’t even know what the Rainbow cookies are.
Pasta alla Carbonara with fresh cream?!?
Pasta alla Carbonara made with fresh cream, ham, or anything as such is a big NO. This super famous Italian dish is done with 4 ingredients, which are pasta, eggs, and guanciale. It’s not made with fresh cream, it’s not made with ham, bacon, or hot dog sausage, and it is definitely not made with onions and parsley.
In Italy, we are adding Pecorino Romano cheese to it and maybe we add some on top at serving (or Parmigiano Reggiano) but that’s it. You can find an original Carbonara recipe on our site as well if you want to know how it is done. The important fact you should remember is, that the Carbonara has no fresh cream in it. As with butter and milk, fresh cream is considered heavy and it is not a key ingredient to Italian dishes.
Usually speaking, the pizza outside of Italy, in each and every country has nothing to do with the Italian pizza. Overstuffed pizza with millions of toppings and canned pasta sauce, or dry mozzarella... Just no! In Italy, pizza is made with fresh and tasty ingredients.
The sauce is made with fresh tomato or tomato puree. It doesn’t have extra spices and it doesn’t have 8 different toppings. A pepperoni pizza doesn’t have many ingredients indeed, and you will find a different version of it in Italy, such as the Piazza con Salsiccia piccante that usually has different names, such as the Vesuvio in Sorrento, but it’s not a pepperoni pizza.
Also, when on a pepperoni pizza are 100 slices of pepperoni, on an Italian version there are just a few pieces of them. The key is the great sauce, the great cheese, and the perfect temperature at baking. As every Italian dish, a pizza in Italy is simple, with a reduced quantity of the topping. And it is still great!
No, no no…! Pineapple on the pizza is a big NO in Italy. Hawaiian pizza is not originating from Italy. The Hawaiian Pizza was invented in the 1960s in Canada. And if you ask Italians, each of them will tell you on this pizza topping combo that fa schifo! that means it is disgusting. So again, Hawaiian pizza is not originating from Italy, and it is definitely not popular in Italy.
As we already discussed at the dressings in this post, an Italian dressing isn’t Italian… If you ask for dressing in Italy, you’ll get extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, or balsamic vinegar, depending on what you’ve ordered. You won’t get any creamy, or tomato-based dressing with added spices and flavor enhancers. Simplicity, natural taste, fresh ingredients, remember that!
Another authentic Italian food that’s actually not authentic Italian. The Marinara Sauce originates from Italy indeed. But it is not popular and not authentic. When we speak about authentic Italian food, we consider the food and dishes that are overall accepted and used by Italians in Italy.
Marinara sauce, just as every other type of “Italian sauce” is a no-go. I can’t highlight it enough times, that in Italian kitchens, everything is made fresh from scratch. This means, that the so-called Marinara sauce in Italy is made fresh when we’re cooking specific pasta with a tomato-based sauce.
So what’s the problem with the Marinara sauce? Why I’ve put it on this list of non-existing Italian dishes? It’s because the Marinara sauce that’s there on every grocery store’s shelves, in Italy is done fresh from scratch for specific dishes, and it’s not something you’re buying in the store.
Guide to recognizing real Italian food
When you are outside of Italy, having “Italian” printed somewhere on the menu is not identical to authentic grub. If you’re after Italian-American dishes, then your spaghetti and meatballs or fettuccine Alfredo are perfect, and indeed, they can be delicious. Yet, if you’re after real Italian dishes, then you have to pay attention to a couple of things, both when you shop and you’re eating out.
Shopping to cook authentic Italian food
Shopping to cook a proper Italian meal is actually very simple, once you are into the gist, and it’s pretty cheap, too. Italians tend to cook everything from scratch and that means you’ll probably spend less than you think at the grocery store! You’ll only need basic – but fresh – ingredients!
So, if you’re planning to turn your dining table into an Italian one, you should keep these few things in mind:
- Invest in very good quality extra virgin olive oil: it’s at the heart of our cuisine and there is no reason to save on that. If you find it, do buy Italian, of course!
- Always try to cook with what’s in season: in Italy, we like to eat what nature gives us, when nature gives it to us. So, forget about zucchini in December or oranges in August. They are just not going to be at their best.
- Always keep the following in the kitchen: extra virgin olive oil, plain tinned tomatoes (without any extra flavor or herbs added), 00 flour (plain flour), dried yeast, dried herbs (oregano, rosemary, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves), pulses like lentils, a good chunk of Parmigiano, fresh garlic, a couple of onions, canned tuna, good quality pasta (wholegrain too: we’re getting big into it!) and some seasonal vegetables. With these, you can make everything you want, really.
- Dress your salad the Italian way: a dash of olive oil, a bit of red vinegar (or lemon, if you prefer it), a bit of salt. Forget about everything else!
- Eat your bread without butter …..but not together with pasta!
Eating out – Proper Italian dishes
Taking care of your shopping is easy when compared to the difficult task of recognizing an authentically Italian eatery from a bad, spurious version of it. Let’s see if we can give you a hand!
- Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! Italian food is all about simplicity so, if a place has over-complex, over-rich dishes laden with cream and egg, then it’s not likely to be a real Italian place!
- Pasta and chicken just don’t go together in Italy! I am not saying it’s not nice, but chicken is never served with pasta, nor is it, in fact, flavored with pesto.
- Fresh cream (cooking cream) is not that popular in Italian cuisine! Sure, we use it here and there, but if you see an “Italian restaurant” with a list of creamy dishes as long as Route 66, then you can rest assured the grub ain’t that authentic. Maybe good, but not authentic.
- Mozzarella is a soft, fresh cheese! You can’t grate it and it’s not smoked or vacuum-packed dry either. Mozzarella is sold in a plastic bag conserved in its own liquid! So, if they offer you grated mozzarella, just leave! That’s not a real Mozzarella. A tip though: Costco imports excellent water buffalo mozzarella directly from Italy.
- We don’t do lasagne with french fries, nor garlic bread!
- Pasta is not a side dish for meat! Pasta is a primo piatto, which means it’s the first course and it’s eaten before the meat!
Here’s our little take on the difference between “real” Italian food and what its international version looks like. Mind, there’s no will to denigrate other countries’ cuisines here! In fact, there are many, truly delicious non-Italian Italian dishes out there. Problem is, they are not from the country they claim to be and this creates not only confusion but also an overall problem about the way Italy is perceived and portrayed abroad. Let’s try to keep what’s inspired by Italian food separated from the real thing and we’ll certainly end up with happier, fuller stomachs!
Original Article by Paolo Nascimbeni – Complete makeover by Helga Dosa