Culture Discovery Vacations Blog

Italian Food You Won’t Find in Italy

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?

What we think of as Italian dressing is not at all Italian

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.

Italian Ice

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.

If you order Peperoni Pizza, you will get pizza with bell peppers.

Pepperoni Pizza

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 :-).

Lattes

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.

A Latte in Italy will get you nothing more than a glass of milk.

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?

19 thoughts on “Italian Food You Won’t Find in Italy

  1. Eric Marasco

    The whole latte/espresso thing in the states drives me crazy. When I order an espresso i don’t need two shots, that is a cup of coffee! My local Starbucks has finally started giving me a “regular” cup too. You have to train your Starbucks barista.
    Also, love the meatball take, my great-grandmothers meatballs in a Bolognese sauce would be a travesty
    Ciao
    Eric Marasco recently posted…Flexi-Vase- what is itMy Profile

  2. Michael Post author

    Eric… I know! If you order a “solo” espresso at Starbucks, you at least usually get close to the right quantity. But still, the coffee quality is awful, so it will never be quite right. And yes, I had a New York-Italian grandmother. Been there!

    Carol: Ouch! Just the mention of fiori di zucca kills me! I’m on a diet, so lets stay with discussions about BAD food, ok? See ya in 2 1/2 weeks!

  3. Federica

    You say: “What you think of as pepperoni is actually called “salame piccante”, but you will never see it offered as a type of pizza.” That’s not completely true: actually, “Pizza Diavola” is made with salame piccante! Thanks for this post,Michael. I’ve learned something quite funny about American food culture! 😉 Bye!

    1. Michael Post author

      Good point Federica. I should have gone into a more thorough explanation. “Pizza alla Diavola” does have something that resembles Pepperoni. Not as spicy, and an American would not be too happy having it if they were looking for a pepperoni pizza. It is not as spicy, and the amount of salame is not nearly what you would find in the states. Again, a good pizza in Italy is balanced, while in America, we think in order to be good, it needs MORE cheese, MORE salame, MORE, MORE MORE.

  4. PassagetoItaly

    When I went to Italy for the first time, the school I studied in had a coffee machine. It spits out a cup, you push which option of coffee you want, and it gives you a little mixer to go with it. Stupidly, and without thinking, I pressed the ‘latte’ button, and of course, got milk. I had never actually thought about it before pressing for my order, that only milk would come out. Not only was it milk, but it was hot milk., and it definitely didn’t taste that great.
    PassagetoItaly recently posted…Down South- Part IIIMy Profile

  5. OperaStud

    First let me congratulate you on a wonderful website, which I discovered just this morning via a friend having posted one of your articles and I have been perusing for the last few hours!

    As an Italian-fluent Italian-American who has spent a significant time in Italy both for work and for pleasure, I’m glad to see that I am not the only one who has made these observations!

    In fact, the discussions here about foods that are Italian-American but not authentic Italian is a discussion I have frequently with my Italian friends and colleagues. The thing that I try to make clear is that, in a certain sense, the various Italian-American recipes (from the early part of the 20th century, Pre-Olive Garden years, I should say) are arguably authentic to the Italian spirit. Having grown up with a family of Italian immigrants who arrived in the US c. 1900, it has to be remembered that most immigrants came from the south of Italy (Napoli, Caserta, Bari, and Sicilia) into a culture wholly not their own. In their efforts to preserve some element of their nationality, one of the best ways was through food. Take the argument of Spaghetti and Meatballs…at a time when immigrants were poor, food was scarce, the Italian immigrants had to be creative. There was not enough food to prepare a complete pranzo or cena, nor was there enough energy to heat the stove long enough to prepare several courses (this is going back to the old, old days), but they understood that ingredients for pasta were easy to come by and simple to make, and meat probably wasn’t the best cuts available so the best way to make use of it was to grind it up and make polpette…ergo, the two were combined along with a simple tomato sauce and voila, Spaghetti and Meatballs. The food may have broken with tradition, but true to the Italian creative spirit, new recipes and new traditions were born, something that, later on, other endeavors tried to exploit (the Italian Sub, Italian Vinagrette salad dressings, even the Caesar Salad–something which does not exist in Italy). Unfortunately the Italians proper are quite reluctant to give much praise or accolade to their countrymen who came to the US in search of opportunities and who inevitably created what can be argued as a sub-genre of Italian cuisine, yet still demonstrated the innate Italian sensibility to create out of necessity.

    I personally believe also that dipping bread in oil was for the purpose of salvaging older, stale bread for consumption. In those days little could afford to be wasted and if bread had hardened, the best way to soften it and make it taste better would have been to dip in in olive oil and some salt. The Italians in Italy would do well in some places to adopt this tradition…I love many things about my Motherland, but compared to the bread in France, Italian bread is just far too crusty!! I myself often drizzle a drop of oil on it to assist!

    As for Pepperoni, well, I’m not quite sure how we got it, but again I believe it is something that originated with the Italian immigrants. Salumi were fairly easy and common to make, and just by adding the pepperoncini/crushed red pepper was enough to make it spicy. Of course, etymologically, PEPERONI is the vegetable and PEPERONCINI the spice. How a second P entered the word is not quite known, but as with many things in the evolution of linguistics, it is likely that the salame had been described as “SALAMI PEPERONI,” that is to say, salami with peppers, and either by virtue of the Neopolitan dialect which doubles oft-singled consonants in Italian, or by virtue of it’s being interpreted by English/American speakers who do spell the word PEPPER with two P’s, the word eventually came into being spelled as PEPPERONI…a simple, and truly harmless morphology of spelling, but one that continues to annoy and bother native Italians.

    As for coffee, well, I personally don’t drink espresso and I’m not one for drinking American coffee either…I do prefer a cappuccino whenever I do decide to take a coffee state-side or other…and this always garners me looks of shock and dismay in Italy, as one is technically not supposed to drink it other than in the morning. I don’t care, I like what I like! And cappuccino it is!! haha

  6. Michael Post author

    I very much agree with that last comment. The Italian Spirit is very present in Italian immigrant food in the US. To tell the truth, I enjoy these things as memories of my own childhood. Spaghetti & Meatballs… yes, not Italian. Call it New Yorkese, or Rat-Pack-Esque… it is still great. However, many people expect to find it in Italy.

    As for the olive oil dipping sauce, I am sure the practice of putting olive oil on bread has its roots as you mentioned. In fact, the concept is not strange at all in Italy. Just yesterday we harvested and pressed your olives… we were doing it! But the little dish for olive oil with various spices… that is a completely modern American thing, and it is recent enough not to be an immigrant thing.

  7. Gene

    These things are so true and Americans seems not to get !So many things we call “Italian” are so NOT and unknown in Italy.I am second-generation Italian-American and speak Italian fluently.I like to play on this topic and often mail foodstuffs to the relatives for them to try like: salad dressings,pepperoni slices,canned Armour hams,cheese spreads,pre-cooked bacon slices,etc.All really classic American foodgoods.Do they like the stuff? Absolutely NOT !Italians are so damn fussy (Puntigliosi !)about food.One thing they do love: Crystal Light lemonade mix !

  8. Dorothea

    Ciao!
    I’m Italian (and live in Italy), you make me lough a lot!
    My friend is the owner of a restaurant. During Summer ( when there is a lot of americans here) she takes off olive oil from tabels… because they finish all the olive oil before they eat the plates they ordered! Ahahaha! If you don’t know it, every kind of restaurant here offer bread, oil, salt vinegar for free…but is not very kind to finish all the oils and ask more when for the salads.

    1. michael Post author

      Dorothea, I completely understand why your friend removes the oil from the tables. But please let her know that the Americans are not trying to be rude. They assume it is there for the bread, since this is so common at Italian restaurants in America.

  9. Laila Keirstead

    I find it very amusing that we call those foods and dressings Italian foods when we all know they are Americanized. I have only been to a few authentic Italian restaurants in my life, but I think the food is just as good as the pizza that we make here. I believe that a lot of people would love to eat authentic if they saw it. My friend is actually in Italy right now and was telling me how delicious the food is over there. It really makes me want to go just for the food.

  10. Aldo

    Buon Giorno,
    I am first generation Italian. Often visit my family every 2 years or so. I must say, the Granita is “Italian Ice” without being called Italian Ice. If you go to a true Italian Bakery anywhere in the U.S. and you ask for Granita, 9 times out of 10 they kno what you are talking about. The only reason i say 9/10 is because the people that work there are most likely not Italian (i.e. Arthur Avenue, New York) and werent told what Granita is. Sad to say but much of a lot of places here in the U.S. that started as family owned, are no longer family owned because the children don’t want anything to do with it when they get older. So they bring in outside help.(which I am not discriminating or being racist about at all). But that’s not just Italian descent that’s other Nationalities too.

  11. Hazel Owens

    I didn’t know that it wasn’t Italian to dip your bread in oil or other sauce. I’ve seen it done at so many restaurants that I thought it was authentic. However, whether it’s authentic or not, I’ll still probably be dipping my bread in olive oil at any Italian restaurant in America; it just tastes too good to pass up! Thanks for the article.

  12. J

    As a 3rd generation Sicilian-American I would like to back up what OperaStud offered. First, Italy is not a monolith. It has Norther, Southern, Coastal and Mountain communities with their own peccadillos just like any other corner of the world, political boundaries be damned.

    Also, my immigrant relatives were hardy and poor people. They did what they could. Not only did they flee to a foreign country (while pregnant) they had only 8 years to find a toehold before the American great depression hit! They ate well with what they could make and had to break some of granny’s rules to do so. Such is the spirit of any great people 😉

    Frankly, it’s quite OK that Europe stays classical and those who left long ago keep their new rules. All the better for worthwhile travel.

    A small part of my family is Italian-Canadian and French-Canadian by way of Montreal. They will all tell you the same stories of French vs. French Canadians. Even my Italian-Canadian relatives love to point out how they do things differently in both Canada AND Italy. I love it.

  13. Matteo

    Exactly i was trying to order some similar of dish in Italy but i have not found. But when i was travel in Budapest i have found these in Oinos WineBar & Bistrot 🙂 Amazing Food.

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