Breaking Bread: Mythbusting Italian Food
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
Italy: glorious land of pasta, olive oil, and pizza!
One of my favorite aspects of Italian cuisine is the variety. This can be surprising to the uninitiated, coming from a stateside perspective. I can’t speak for iterations of Italian food in other countries, but here I have witnessed the dreadful homogenization or outright bastardization of Italian food far and wide.
Let me start here: there is Italian food and Italian-American food. Similar in ways, but distinctly different in many more. When Italians emigrated here generations ago, they couldn’t always find ingredients easily sourced back home, and so had to find suitable substitutions. Add in the the influence of other cultures and palate tolerances, and Italian-American food was born. Modern Italian food in Italy is frequently adventurous, drawing inspiration from other cuisines around the globe in a delicious melange.
However, classic Italian food is held to dear traditions and techniques nurtured over generations. So let’s clear up a few common misconceptions, because I am stubborn and a shameless Italian food nerd. Growing up with an Italian chef for a father (yum!), resulted in an in-depth culinary education early on. When I called Dad up for some fact checking, it became an hour-long treatise on the history of Italian food, climate, and geography. While Dad is from southern Italy, his training covered dishes from the top to bottom of the boot. I find I am largely partial to central and southern Italian styles, but there’s room for all!
Italian food is highly regional, so you won’t always find the same “classic” dishes in every town. Outside of the most common dishes found stateside – like lasagna, spaghetti & meatballs, and similar staples – the dishes on offer in the Bel Paese are often surprisingly foreign to many whom have never experienced food in Italy. In Sicily, you’ll find strong Greek, Arab, and North African influences. Sail up to Sardegna for a touch of Spanish in the northwest, or zip to the northern mainland for French or German inspiration. Southern Italy may bear traces of Greek elements, but is largely self-contained. Since Italy’s history is heartily spotted with various invading rulers over the centuries, they all left a little mark of their own traditions and recipes. Add to that the limitations imparted by varied terrain and climates within the country, and food gets very specific by region
Olive oil is not totally ubiquitous. It is a tremendously important element in the south (Sicily included), but up north you’ll find butter and cream the order of the day. In a time with rare or no refrigeration, that creamy goodness would spoil all too rapidly. Additionally, olive trees grow best in southern Italy and the islands, with pockets of exception in micro-climates further north. Cattle required proper grazing territory, which was more difficult to manage in the south. Sheep are well suited to the more rugged southern terrain & climate, so you’ll see lots of sheep based products in the south and Sardegna.
Okay, it’s not food but it definitely goes hand in hand! Wine is so much more than Chianti. Additionally, Chianti refers to the region, not the grape. The key grape used in Chianti wines is actually the Sangiovese, of which Chianti Classico must contain at least 80%. Italy is the proud home of some rare grapes you won’t find anywhere else: Trebbiano, Nebbiolo, Arneis, Cortese, Corvina, and Negroamaro. There are easily a dozen more, and only recently have these been shared with the masses outside of Italy. While wines from Puglia and Sicily have only become popular on American shores in the last few years, they have produced huge quantities for centuries that is drunk throughout Italy.
Did Marco Polo introduce pasta from China? Well, that depends on who you ask! While his travels certainly popularized the long noodle form, we all know Italian pasta and Asian noodles are definitely not the same. Pasta was in play well before Signor Polo was ever a twinkle in his parents’ eyes. Versions of sheet-type pastas were made in Etruscan and Roman times, and some evidence suggests dried pasta may have been popularized courtesy of Arab travelers. Pasta, like many Italian staples, developed over the course of centuries, with widely varied influences. The Nibble has a great in-depth article about the history of pasta, for those inclined to really get into it. Regardless of how it came to be, the result is fantastic!
Caesar Salad is most definitely NOT Italian. While countless restaurants stateside offer it on their menus, good luck trying to find it anywhere in Italy. If you chance upon a menu offering “Insalata di Cesare” in a restaurant in Italy, then you are most assuredly in a tourist trap. Common credit for the infamous salad’s invention goes to an Italian immigrant named Cesare Cardini, who lived and ran his restaurants in Mexico in the 1920’s to avoid Prohibition. Supposedly, he ran short of options on a busy night, and whipped up the first take of today’s Caesar with ingredients at hand. Even that tale remains hotly disputed, with some crediting its creation to an Italian restauranteur in Chicago around 1903. Though both credited creators were Italian, there’s no evidence of “Caesar” salad in Italy. If you’re curious, a good detailed account of this hotly contested salad can be found in this article from the Kitchen Project.
Fettuccine Alfredo is another popular dish this side of the pond that is erroneously considered authentic. While you will find various pastas tossed in cream sauces in Italy, the original Alfredo does not contain cream at all! The story goes that in 1914, a Roman restauranteur named Alfredo di Lelio was looking for a dish to satisfy his pregnant wife’s picky stomach. He kept it simple, mixing generous quantities of fresh whole butter with copious amounts of grated Parmesan. This made for a creamy, rich sauce that is simply called Pasta e Burro (pasta and butter) in Italy – and is one of my favorite comfort foods. He introduced the dish, which was prepared table-side with flair, in his restaurant to many famous guests. As is so often the case with spotting Italian-American dishes abroad, if a restaurant offers Fettuccine Alfredo on the menu, you’ve found yourself another dreaded tourist restaurant.
Pasta Carbonara does NOT have cream in it – I repeat, true Roman Carbonara has NO CREAM. It is a challenging dish to time properly, so that you don’t wind up with either scrambled eggs or snotty egg goo (sorry for the visual there) on your perfect pasta. The ingredients are quite simple: dry-fried guanciale (cured pig cheek, though you can use pancetta as a substitute), a modest amount of sautéed garlic, fresh black pepper, grated Pecorino, and egg yolks. When tossed with the pasta, the heat tightens up the sauce and makes it creamy but the fat from the dry fried meat keeps it slick. Cream is often added to lower the cost of the dish or as a cheat to avoid the dreaded Scrambled Carbonara. No peas, either. If you see cream or peas listed for Carbonara, you guessed it: tourist trap.
Of course, nowadays you can find Sicilian cuisine in Milan, or Ligurian in Florence – huzzah for globalization! When it comes to being a stuffy purist, these are just a surface-scratching selection of some of the common misconceptions I’ve encountered over the years. I could surely go on, but mercifully for you, I’ll stick to these particular staples. What is your favorite dish you’ve had while visiting Italy? Leave it in the comments below!
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