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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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