As we learned with Alfredo Sauce in the “Who is Alfredo Sauce, and Why do Americans Keep Asking About Him? ”, that which you believe to be Italian, very often is not. Since we do culinary vacations in Italy, you can imagine how many people come with certain expectations about Italian food, only to learn… well, NOT Italian. Some of these things I list may seem obvious to you, but everything I list here has been an expectation by more than one person.
Hoagies / Sub Sandwiches
About ten years ago, a friend came to visit us in Italy. He spent about a week, and when he was about to leave, I asked him how he liked it. His immediate response was that he was actually quite disappointed with the food. I naturally asked him to be more specific, and his response was that he had really been looking forward to having a really good Italian Hoagie in Italy. I explained that there was nothing Italian about a Hoagie, but that didn’t make him any happier. It didn’t really sink in. He had this expectation, and it simply was not met.
A Hoagie (or Italian Sub) is really nothing more than an American sandwich with Italian-inspired ingredients, but it is by no means Italian. As Americans, we live our lives with the belief that more is always better. “Extra Cheese”, “Mile High”, “Super Size”, “Everything on it”… I could go on ad nauseum. So an American walks into an Italian deli, and when ordering a sandwich, it has to have everything under the counter in order to be good. The Italian Hoagie is born.
In Italian culture, more is not better. It is all about balance. So a hearty sub (It would be called a Panino in Italy) will have a delicate mixture of a few ingredients. The closest you will get to your Italian Hoagie is a baguette with a little prosciutto, a little mozzarella, and a few tomato slices. Balanced ingredients to create a symphony of flavors, not “stacked high with more”, therefor better.
There was an Italian deli in our neighborhood in Los Angeles. The owner was an Italian immigrant who had owned this place for years. There was a tacit understanding there when you ordered a sandwich from him. If you walked in speaking Italian, you hardly had to order. He knew what to do, but business is business, so if you were not speaking Italian, he made the “mile high” hoagie, shaking his head all the while.
Olive Oil Dipping Sauce
Find me an Italian restaurant in the states that doesn’t bring out bread and dipping sauce. Naturally you would think it is Italian. But in Italy, bread is eaten plain. No butter, no sauces. After you eat a dish of pasta, or a second course that is saucy, you may pick up some of the sauce with the bread. Yum, that is called “Scarpetta”, but it is generally considered poor table manners. But you will never see olive oil dipping sauce. Tourists will walk into restaurants and see olive oil, vinegar and salt at the table, then will instantly make their own dipping sauce. The thing is, those are there for salad, since in Italy you dress your own. When a waiter not accustomed to tourists sees this dipping concoction, they will wonder what on earth you are doing. They won’t stop you, but I can pretty much guarantee that they are talking about it in the kitchen. Don’t these people know the salad condiments are not for bread?
Italian Salad Dressing
Since I am on the subject of Italian salad, there is no such thing as Italian Dressing. Pick up any bottle of “Italian” salad dressing and read the ingredients. You will see oil, vinegar, peppercorns, hot pepper, rosemary, garlic, oregano, basil, black pepper, parmesan, sugar, thyme, etc. As I explained with the Hoagies, it is a complex recipe of Italian-Inspired ingredients with the more is better attitude.. But if any Italian tastes this stuff, they will likely spit it out in disgust. You will NEVER find this stuff in Italy. Dressing for salad in Italy is simply Olive Oil, Vinegar, and Salt. Period. Salad is always served with no dressing so that you can do it yourself to your taste.
Spaghetti & Meatballs
OK, you can get Spaghetti with a red meat sauce (Bolognese) just about anywhere. You can get meatballs (Polpette) just about anywhere. But together? For the love of God, don’t you have ANY standards? After all, everyone knows that two types of food shall never touch the same plate! This may seem ridiculous to you, but this is a really big deal in Italian culture. The spaghetti is a ‘first course’, and the meatballs are a ‘second course’. The thought of having them together is unheard of, and to take it a step further and have them on the same plate? Oh my, sacrilege! Additionally, those meatballs would never have the sauce from the pasta.
Growing up I used to love having “Italian Ice”. In Italy, there is nothing like it. I think Italian ice derived from something called Granita, which is more like a slushy. Granita is very similar a Slurpee, except it is a little more coarse.
Order a pizza with pepperoni in Italy, and be ready for a shock. You will get bell peppers on your pizza, not the spicy salami we call pepperoni. You may even see the term ‘pepperoncini’ and think you are in the right neighborhood. You are not; this will yield you a pizza with crushed red pepper. What you think of as pepperoni is actually called “salame piccante”, but you will never see it offered as a type of pizza.
While on the subject of pizza, you also won’t see extra cheese, pineapple-ham, BBQ chicken pizza, etc. Pizza is usually much more traditional in Italy, but I have to admit that in recent years, I have seen many pizzerias in Italy get pretty bold. I know of one place that makes a “Hot Dog & French Fries” pizza. They also have an “America Pizza”, which among other ingredients that make me lose my appetite includes Ketchup & Mustard. With that in mind, while Italians once got offended at the thought of pineapple & ham on a pizza, on this subject they no longer have any culinary high ground to speak from in my opinion :-).
So a man walks into a bar. He orders a latte, and walks out with a glass of milk. Another man walks into a bar and orders a “Venti Latte”. He walks out with TWENTY glasses of milk. Huh??? When I go to Starbucks and order a Venti Latte, I get a large cup of coffee and steamed milk. Don’t these Italians know anything? Well, they know that “LATTE” means “MILK”, and “VENTI” means “TWENTY”. So the man just asked for twenty cups of milk… and got just that.
We had a guest fall into this once (not the twenty part). He ordered a Latte in a coffee bar, and then walked up to me with a glass of milk and a puzzled look on his face. “Why is there no coffee in my latte?” When I explained to him that latte simply means milk, and if he wanted coffee in it, he would need to order “Caffe Latte”, he simply responded, “Well, it’s just not the same without coffee.” No, it is not.
While there are many ways to order coffee in Italy, they are mostly focused on coffee and milk. They don’t have any of the candy flavors and complex options we have. You will never find a “Grande Cinnamon Dolce Half Caf/Decaf Mocha Cappuccino”. You will just find “Cappuccino”, and it can be “Caf” or “Decaf”. There are all kinds of other options, but that is the subject of another post.
On that note, the coffee will very rarely be served in a take-away cup. We had one guest get truly upset about this when they ordered a cappuccino, and it was served in a ceramic cup. She simply couldn’t understand the reasoning behind the ceramic cup. “What if I want to take it with me?” The coffee culture in Italy is not like it is here. No form of coffee is intended to be consumed over a period of minutes or hours. All coffee drinks are small and pack a punch. It is more like doing shots. You would never expect a shot of vodka to be served in a takeaway cup, would you?