How my definition of “Italian food” has changed

In the United States, Italian food is undoubtedly one of the most well-known and well-loved international cuisines (with good reason). In fact, “Italian” cuisine is so prevalent in the US that it has never felt foreign to me…that is, until I lived in Italy and my definition of Italian food completely changed. I now realize that many popular dishes that I thought were authentic don’t even exist in Italy (i.e., fettuccine alfredo)…or are completely different (i.e., pizza)! It’s really  “authentic American imitation Italian,” as my dad calls the American version of Italian food after visiting Italy.

The good news is, Italian food in Italy is even better than I ever imagined. Authentic Italian cuisine deserves to be known apart from what we call “Italian” in the US and that is the inspiration for this blog – to preserve and honor traditional Italian cooking.

How I used to define Italian cuisine

In the United States, the term “Italian” is thrown around liberally to describe food that has any of the following ingredients: tomatoes or sun-dried tomatoes, tons of gooey mozzarella or parmesan, Italian seasoning (a mixture of dried basil, oregano, rosemary and thyme), and of course, TONS of garlic or garlic powder. I used to think that dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmigiana, and fettuccine alfredo were the epitome of Italian food…or just throw some Italian seasoning on anything along with lots of garlic…and voila, it’s “Italian!”

Believe it or not, Italians rarely use *all* of those herbs in Italian seasoning together; not every dish has cheese (especially not those with seafood!); chicken doesn’t go on pasta (chicken is served as a secondo); meatballs are also served without spaghetti as a secondo (and if they are, the meatballs are really really tiny); pizza doesn’t have a million toppings and the crust is so thin you can fold a slice in half; most Italians only use a whole garlic clove to flavor the oil and then remove it, rather than adding tons of chopped garlic to a dish…and the list goes on! The point is, authentic Italian food is really different from what we know in the U.S.

There is no “Italian” cuisine – it’s regional

As an American looking at Italy from the outside, it’s easy to think of the 20 regions of Italy as one single unit with a common cuisine and language, when in fact each region has its own culinary traditions, climate, livestock, vegetation, history and even dialects. It’s a fascinating concept for Americans that an entire country slightly smaller than the state of California can contain much more diversity than our entire country.

As a result, Italian cuisine is so much more interesting and diverse than I ever imagined! I love that I am constantly learning about the history and traditions of each region of Italy through its local cuisine. For that reason, I think it’s nearly impossible to define Italian cuisine by naming dishes or ingredients, to me Italian food is defined by a common cooking philosophy: fresh, local, seasonal, homemade.

Italian cuisine is more than pasta and pizza 

Whenever an American wants to have “Italian” food, it usually means they want to eat pizza or pasta. It’s true, different versions of these dishes are widespread throughout Italy. However, unlike Americans who pile protein, carb, and veggie dishes all onto the same plate, Italians eat in courses. So pasta is only a primo piatto, or first dish, and these seem to be more famous in the US than a secondi piatti, or second dishes which are usually meat, poultry, or fish. For example, I recently tried some non-pizza or pasta dishes that I would never guess are Italian, like vitello tonnato, which is sliced veal spread with a type of tuna-mayonnaise sauce.

Why is Italian food so different in the US? 

It’s true that many Italian-American dishes were inspired by their original Italian counterparts. Take spaghetti and meatballs, for example. Italians usually eat meatballs, or polpette as a secondo without pasta. If meatballs are eaten with spaghetti, they are tiny compared to the American version! (see Bear’s spaghetti & meatballs)

Bear and I recently watched Anthony Bourdain NoReservations Naples episode where he goes to the motherland to discover the origins of our Italian-American cuisine. As the story goes, food was suddenly more affordable and abundant in America for Italian immigrants, so our Italian-American cuisine reflects that: extra sauce, more meat. Not to mention, in the US we don’t always have access to authentic Italian ingredients.

I find comfort knowing that I can cook some of my beloved Italian dishes when I’m in the US.

 

What are some other differences you’ve noticed between Italian food in Italy and “Italian” food abroad? 

-G

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One Comment Add yours

  1. I have been to Italy 4 times to date- as far north as San Fedele Intelvi (I could walk to the Swiss border in 90 min) and as far south as Roma. I am very much looking forward to exploring ALL of the regions, especially to experience the various foods. When I am in Italy I tend to lose weight, which surprises me every time, but after this last time I clear as to why. The food is fresh, almost always free of preservatives, I walk a lot when I am there and don’t each much sugar. I feel so good when I am there. I rarely drink cappuccinos when I am here (Philadelphia), but have one almost daily when I am there- and they are PERFECT every time!?
    A HUGE difference I noticed that you never mentioned is the fact that most Italians eat their amazing pizza with a fork and knife. It is still quite a challenge for me to do. I did it a couple of times when I was there in June. The pizza is usually one size, which is equivalent to our version of a medium of large. It isn’t sliced and it’s customary to each it with a fork and steak knife. When I get “take away” pizza I do what you said- fold it and eat it as a slice, but I don’t do that in public there. Also, i find it funny that most “vegetarian” pizza there has eggplant, zucchini and/or squash atop it, but in long, wide strips. I don’t really like it and have learned to enjoy the 4 cheese (my favorite) , spinach or margherita styles. I eat pizza about every other day when I am there.
    Another intriguing difference to me, that moreso goes along with food is how wine accompanies most meals there, but I’ve never seen anyone drunk when I’ve been to Italy. Public drunkenness is frowned upon but the wine flows and is legal to drink pretty anywhere. Supermarkets carry liquor, wine and beer and Italian people do enjoy their wine and beer, yet Italy has one of the lowest rates of alcoholic consumption in Europe. It’s remarkable. I love Italy, miss it a lot and hope to live there sooner than later.

    Like

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