When travelers book their trips to Italy, there’s usually one aspect they’re particularly excited about: the food. Oh, to drown in dishes of fra diavolo and swim in pools of spaghetti and meatballs! To inhale the pungent, sweet smell of garlic bread and eat cheesecake by the pound! For anyone with a penchant for comfort food, it seems like a dream.
There’s just one problem: Unless you want to spend all your time in restaurants that cater exclusively to Americans, you'll have a tough time finding any of the dishes that have been marketed to you for years as Italian. That’s because so much of the food that we consider Italian, well, isn’t. It’s Italian-American. And, for the most part, that’s an entirely different cuisine — so different, in fact, that few Italians would recognize many of the dishes if served to them.
After all, the 7.5 million Italians who emigrated to America between 1876 and World War I were, for the most part, poor and hungry. Back home, they survived, barely, on items like polenta, or black bread in brine. Richer foods, like meat, cheeses, and even pasta, were for special occasions or flush times. In the States, however, immigrants found that they not only earned more — their money went further. And so they weren’t about to go eating the same foods that reminded them of the lean years. Instead, they were going to eat like kings. If that meant making meatballs that their cousins back in Italy would find absurdly (impressively!) large, and then putting them right on the spaghetti, that other sign of prosperity, then so be it. This was America, baby. Land of the free … and the well fed.
Another big change came from the fact that, often for the first time, Italians in the U.S. ate (and cooked) together. As anyone who has traveled from Florence to Rome can tell you, Italian food is extremely regional; even today, traditional trattorie, catering to local clientele, tend to serve dishes so local, you wouldn’t find them in another city — the tortellini in brodo of Bologna, the carciofi alla romana of Rome, the sfogliatelle of Naples. That was even truer at the turn of the last century, particularly for Italians who would have had little means, or reason, to travel across the country. But now, in the U.S., immigrants from different regions found themselves living in the same tenement buildings and cooking in the same kitchens. Recipes were swapped. Tips traded. And a fusion cuisine — albeit one that leaned on some of the traditions of Southern Italy, where most of the immigrants were from — emerged.
No need to be disappointed that your "Italian" favorites won’t, in fact, be on the menu abroad. Here are some of the most classic dishes you'll recognize from the States — and what to look for in Italy instead.
1. Garlic bread
Turns out you don’t have to smell like a fresh garlic clove throughout your time in Italy. Italian dishes are much lighter on garlic than their Italian-American counterparts. (The same goes for onions.) And in the country of olive oil, rubbing bread in butter is generally a strange thing to do, regardless. For that reason, it’s thought that garlic bread was invented in the U.S. in the 1940s.
Instead, try: bruschetta al pomodoro
This bread is toasted, too — and even rubbed with a (slight! slight!) amount of garlic. It’s then topped with lots of fresh tomatoes. Look for it in Rome, and remember two things: Not only can you get away with pronouncing it broo-SKEHT-tah here without sounding like a jerk (in fact, waiters who don’t speak English might not know what you’re ordering otherwise), but it's either an antipasto or a snack during aperitivo (a pre-dinner drink), not something to be served or consumed alongside a main course.
2. Spaghetti and meatballs
In his memoirs, a Sicilian named Niccolo’ de Quattrociocchi wrote that, while eating at an Italian restaurant in New York in the early 20th century, he encountered two “very fine, traditional American specialties” for the first time. One of these? Spaghetti and meatballs.
Instead, try: polpette al sugo
You can find meatballs in tomato sauce in Rome and south of Rome; they're just not served on pasta. They’re often much smaller than those you’d see in the U.S. But there’s a bonus: If you choose your trattoria carefully, they should also be much fresher. While frozen everything is starting to encroach on food culture in Italy, the trend is still a few years behind the U.S. In other words, it’s the perfect place to try those meatballs without all that carbohydrate distraction.
3. Fettuccine Alfredo
It’s like macaroni and cheese ... with an Italian twist. Or so I always thought — until I moved to Italy. Turns out, there’s only one restaurant I ever heard of that served it: Alfredo’s, in Rome. It was created there in 1920 by the chef, Alfredo, to appeal to American clientele. No surprise there, really, since nothing about the dish appeals to traditional Italian palates; putting cream on pasta is so rarely done that in Rome, the home of pasta carbonara, the recipe calls for not a hint of cream. And, again, there’s the whole issue of using butter. But legend has it that, when honeymooning in Rome in 1920, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford liked Alfredo’s pasta so much they brought the recipe back home. The gooey concoction has tortured American stomachs ever since.
Instead, try: cacio e pepe
This traditional Roman pasta is simply cheese and pepper, just like the name says. Pasta gets swirled with a mixture of Pecorino Romano cheese, fresh black pepper, and a touch of olive oil, a mixture melted together by the pasta’s heat. And that’s it. No fuss, no muss, no antacids needed.
4. Chicken on pasta, ever
“Che schifo,” a friend of mine said when she first heard that this was a thing in the U.S. Her scorn needed no translation. Putting meatballs on pasta is something that Italians don’t usually do, but still, like Quattrociocchi, can see the merit of (after all, many other pasta dishes incorporate meat into the sauce, like the famous ragu alla Bolognese — although it’s worth noting that the meat sauce is served in Bologna with just a touch of tomato). But that benefit of the doubt simply doesn't extend to chicken. It’s a separate dish. End of story.
Instead, try: fish on pasta
This, for some reason, is okay (although, like meat in a ragu, it almost always will be broken up into small pieces, not served whole on top of a pile of pasta). Specialties vary across Italy’s (sea- or river-proximate) regions, but some of the most delicious seafood pastas can be found in Sicily, where dishes incorporate local catches ranging from pesce spada (swordfish) to sarde (sardines).
5. Lobster fra’ diavolo
This rich, spicy dish was likely served for the first time in the early 20th century — in New York. “I suspect that it came from Long Island,” Italian-born cookbook author Anna Teresa Callen told the New York Times in the newspaper’s intrepid attempt to track down the dish’s origins. “A heavy tomato sauce with hot peppers, seafood, and pasta all in one dish is not Italian cooking,” another Italian food writer said. Others pointed out that the dish hinges on using American lobsters, a tough find at even the most luxury of food establishments in contemporary Italy.
Instead, try: pasta all’arrabbiata
Pastas that incorporate seafood and tomatoes are common in Southern Italy and Sicily, although rarely spicy and not heavy. If a spicy kick is what you’re after, then while in Rome, look for pasta all’arrabbiata: “angry pasta,” which gets its name from using peperoncini, or red chile peppers, to give the otherwise-simple sauce (tomatoes, olive oil, and parsley) its kick.
6. Chicken or veal parmesan
The other Italian dish that Quattrociocchi was so tickled by? Cotoletta parmigiana, or “veal parmesan.” This one also seems to be an immigrant invention; at the very least, you don’t see it at places that cater to Italians back in Italy. And, like putting chicken on pasta, the idea of layering melted cheese on meat is something that would make the noses of most of my Italian friends turn right up.
Instead, try: melanzane alla parmigiana
Similar concept, but with eggplant. Look for this in Southern Italy, especially in Sicily.
7. Penne alla vodka
Good luck getting to the bottom of this one. Like the other dishes on the list, in my way-too-many meals in Italy, I never saw this; others say that it was a flash-in-the-pan trend (no pun intended) that hit Italy in the mid-1970s, then disappeared. In any case, vodka isn’t, obviously, a traditionally Italian drink. And, again, a pasta sauce with cream — in Italy, penne alla vodka usually includes tomatoes, onions, cream, and vodka — is pretty tough to find in the old country.
Instead, try: anything else
No, really. Anything else. Please. Penne alla vodka doesn’t even make sense: What little flavor vodka has gets burned off in the cooking, leaving you with a sad tomato-onion-cream sauce. What did that vodka ever do to you? Instead, order any local specialty — anything — and if you really want to feel a little kick, follow up your dinner with an order of grappa or limoncello: Alcohol you’ll actually be able to taste.
It’s the go-to dessert of Little Italy restaurants everywhere, but good luck finding this delicious, decadent dessert on menus in Italy.
Instead, try: cassata siciliana
Sweetened ricotta mixes are common in Southern Italy, particularly in Naples and Sicily (although they’re not generally as heavy, or sweet, as anything you’d taste in a cheesecake). They fill cannoli, sfogliatelle, and a myriad of other pastries. The closest to a cheesecake in terms of sheer decadence, though, is the cassata siciliana, a liquor-soaked sponge cake that gets layered with sweetened ricotta, covered in green almond paste, and iced; it likely took on its current appearance in the 18th century, when it would have been consumed only around Easter celebrations. In this case, in terms of richness, the Italian version might just give the Italian-American one a run for its money.