Ten "Italian" Foods You Won't Find in Italy

Posted by Eva Sandoval on February 27, 2013 at 1:11:45 PM EST | Post a Comment

Italian cuisine might just be the world's favorite; adored from Tokyo to Chile. The Italians themselves are so attached to their national dishes that you'll be hard-pressed to find an Italian who visits a foreign country and doesn't long for a "fix" within hours. But unfortunately for that homesick, hungry Italian tourist, something fishy often happens to their cuisine as soon as it leaves the motherland. Immigrants must make do with local ingredients and, if they want their restaurants to survive, adapt traditional recipes to please their clientele.

When the first waves of Italian immigrants arrived in America from Southern Italy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they couldn't get good-quality olive oil, the right produce, or arborio rice, but were, instead, able to afford ample quantities of cheese and meat. They pioneered a culture of "abbondanza," building on traditional recipes and creating new ones; always sure to use as much of a good ingredient as possible. The result? A hearty, delicious cuisine that has never seen the light of day in the land that inspired it.

So, before you book it to Italy with dreams of feasting on your favorite "Italian" dishes, you may have another thing coming. If they're on this list, you'll have to wait until you're back stateside to enjoy them.


Shrimp Scampi

Words in Italian or Italian dialects were often corrupted or misused by non Italian-speaking descendants of Italian immigrants. "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.


Marinara Sauce

Pasta alla marinara ("mariner style" pasta) does exist in Italy, but it's usually prepared with shellfish or olives—sometimes both. In the United States, the term "marinara" refers to the simple tomato-based "red" sauce that's ubiquitous in Italian-American cooking, slathered on everything from pasta to meat.


Garlic Bread

So what do you use to sop up all that gravy and red sauce? Garlic bread, of course—the more garlic and butter, the better. But good luck finding garlic bread in Italy, where bread is almost always baked plain and served without butter.


Pepperoni Pizza

In Italy, you'll find pizzas topped with potato slices, anchovies, sausages, broccoli rabe, corn, prosciutto... but no pepperoni. That most beloved of "Italian" salami varieties was first mentioned in print in an American ad in 1919. It is thought to have been inspired by spicy dry salamis from Southern Italy and Apulia, or soppressata from Calabria. Note: authentic Italian pizza is far less cheesy than its American counterparts, and definitely won't have a cheese-filled crust. What's more, the word peperoni (pronounced the same, spelled with one less "p") refers to peppers, not salamis.


Mozzarella Sticks

This heavenly, melty, crunchy dish comes to your red-checkered tablecloth straight from Little Italy. Put plainly, if you're really hankering for mozzarella sticks when you're in the actual country of Italy, there is one place you'll find them—McDonald's.


Italian Dressing

This tangy, bell pepper-and-herb flecked salad dressing is a favorite in many American restaurants. But "dressing" as Americans know it doesn't exist in Italy—there, salads are exclusively dressed with oil and vinegar, or sometimes just oil.


Lobster Fra Diavolo

A dish so good it should be Italian, we agree. But this dish that combines tomato sauce with lobster, hot peppers, and pasta is American and only American. Perhaps the Italians can learn something about this mouthwatering combo?


Sunday Gravy

In Italian-American communities, eating a red sauce—or "gravy"—loaded with various kinds of meats and sausage is a beloved Sunday tradition. The recipe derives from Neapolitan ragù, but you won't find Sunday gravy in Naples. Or anything with the word "gravy" in it, for that matter.


Chicken, Veal, and Meatball Parm

In Italy, the parmigiana treatment is given to eggplants, not chicken or other meats. Italian immigrants added deep-fried meat cutlets or meatballs and doubled the mozzarella; thus, these sandwiches and plates were born.


Rainbow Cookies

These beautiful cookies, also known as Tricolor Cookies or Seven Layer Cakes, can be very easily found in Little Italy and on occasions like the Feast of San Gennaro, not in Italy. They were invented in New York by Italian immigrants who designed them to invoke the flag of their motherland.


The Conundrum: Spaghetti and Meatballs

What could be more Italian than a plate of spaghetti and meatballs? Spaghetti and meatballs are, perhaps, the most famous "Italian" food outside of Italy. Yet, it's very rare to find spaghetti served with meatballs within the boot, where meatballs—polpette—are almost always served on their own. The most popular theory holds that the recipe was invented by poor Italian immigrants in America who wanted to make a satisfying main dish using cheaper cuts of meat. However, some food historians believe that prior to Italian immigration to the United States, small meatballs were sometimes served in Southern Italian baked pasta dishes.

So can I get it in Italy? You'll have your work cut out for you, but in recent years, spaghetti con polpette can sometimes be found in restaurants, served with small meatballs rather than meatballs the size of your fist ("abbondanza" is an Italian-American concept, after all). But while popular Italian food sites and celebrity chefs like Benedetta Parodi offer recipes for the savory dish, they're quick to give credit to Disney's "Lady and the Tramp" or Middle American "Little Italies" for the inspiration.

Photo credits: Shrimp Scampi via Shutterstock; Marinara Sauce via Shutterstock; Garlic Bread via Shutterstock; Pepperoni Pizza via Shutterstock; Mozzarella Sticks via Shutterstock; Italian dressing via Shutterstock; Lobster Fra Diavolo via Shutterstock; Sunday Gravy via Shutterstock; Chicken Parm via Shutterstock; Rainbow Cookies via Shutterstock; Spaghetti and Meatballs via Shutterstock

Posted in Restaurants, Travel Tips Tagged: Food, Italy, Tips

Member Comments (7)  Post a Comment

  • Nekhbet on Feb 27, 14 at 04:19 PM

    I must agree with misterblahblah.

    Marinara sauce does exist. And it hasn't fishes part in it. Or I would never eat it, otherwise. Garlic, oregano and tomatoes are the ingredients. Your garlic bread is a variant of our bruschetta and lobster fra diavolo is really similar to dishes with lobsters. It has many variants, depending on the region. I've seen it with the same ingredients you have posted.
    About spaghetti with meatballs, my mom is usual to cook "Timballo" with meatballs, tomato sauce ( sugo ) and eggs, she uses a kind of pasta and she uses the oven ( like for pasta al forno ) to cook it. Also Timballo has many variants, hardly you will find on google images the one that my mother cooks!

    Our cuisine is pretty big, we have different ways to cook even the same dishes based on the region.

    Pepperoni pizza does not exist: it is true, because we haven't pepperoni in Italy ( we have Peperoni, but they are another thing! ) but salame piccante, they are similar but not the same.

    Also, italian immigrants to America probably adapted our dishes with what they could find there. Personally, when a friend of mine living abroad tells me some said "Italian" dishes, it happens to ask myself "What????".
    It is normal! To taste real Italian food, you must go to Italy ( and be carefull where you go, it happens to find some crappy restaurants if you are a tourist ). Same for other cuisines, like French or Spanish. You would find adaptations. Or you can check for "Starita" in New York. They are Italians and it is a taste of the Neapolitan food. My boyfriend is from Naples and I have never eaten their cuisine before he asked me to go with him. I was used to Northern Italian food and not even all!

    For example, in North Italy pizza is not like the Southern Pizza. I prefer the second, all the way. The real pizza is from Naples and I LOVE it! I have never eaten something better and when I'm back home, I completely miss it when I buy a local pizza.

    And you'll find it funny, but my boyfriend loves American Food. I know when we're coming to visit your country, he will eat a lot!

  • misterblahblah on Jun 5, 13 at 11:10 AM

    hi, i have lived in italy for 9 years and i also love to cook. your article is inaccurate in two cases.

    marinara does exist. the association with the sea, and thus seafood dishes, is, while technically correct, off base. it refers to the sauce on the original pizza. it was not cooked ahead of time but in the oven and consisted of only tomatoes, garlic and oregano. this probably explains why so many americans ruin their pasta sauces by using oregano. outside of america this sauce is often called neapolitan sauce...again from the pizza, not the sea as commonly mistaken (even wiki gets it wrong). americans often wanted more of the sauce and so the precooked version began almost always heavily based in oregano and garlic unlike most other italian red sauces.

    pepperoni pizza does also exist but is called salamino piccante or spicy salame. it is rarely actually what americans think of as spicy. it is almost the same as american pepperoni. despite the fact that very spicy salames are readily available in italy it is the very mild version that is used in pizzas in most of italy.

  • EvaSandoval on Mar 12, 13 at 04:31 AM

    Amen, Miguel.

  • miguel60610 on Mar 10, 13 at 01:24 AM

    This happens to most "ethnic" foods and meals in America. The dish is adapted for American tastes and, in some cases, was invented in America. To get the real foods from any given country, one has to get on a plane and travel straight to the source.

  • rodsuar on Mar 6, 13 at 10:08 AM

    When I was in Rome a few years ago I could not find any ricotta cheesecake to save my life (believe me, I searched). Can't say all of Italy is missing this dessert but Rome was out.

  • EvaSandoval on Feb 28, 13 at 02:24 PM

    Thanks, Iason!!!

  • Iasonb on Feb 28, 13 at 12:01 PM

    Great Stuff Eva!

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