Coffee

Italian Food You Won’t Find in Italy


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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?

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Eric Marasco
Guest

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

carol
Guest
carol

…no pizza with fiori di zucca in the States 🙂
really good explanation, Michael.

Federica
Guest
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!

PassagetoItaly
Guest

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.

arwen
Guest
arwen

there’s a little mistake, you can order pizza with salame piccante in any pizzeria in Italy

OperaStud
Guest
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… Read more »

Gene
Guest
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 !

Dorothea
Guest
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.

Laila Keirstead
Guest

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.

Aldo
Guest
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… Read more »

Hazel Owens
Guest

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.

J
Guest
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… Read more »

J
Guest
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… Read more »

Matteo
Guest
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.

Matteo
Guest

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.

Rose Decaro
Guest
Rose Decaro

Can I have a romaine mixed salad in Italy? What kind of vegetables do they give yu with yur chicken or steak??

Alyssa Saltzman
Editor

Steak or Chicken dishes don’t typically come with vegetables, vegetables would be ordered on the side marked as “contorni” on the menu, you can chose whatever you like, but typically the options are mixed salad, grilled vegetables, sautéed spinach etc.

Rose Decaro
Guest
Rose Decaro

What’s a normal breakfast in Italy?