Let’s talk about…real Italian food

In New York City — but also in my area, Washington DC — there are few real Italian restaurants. My subjective, but experienced, opinion is that 90% of the Italian restaurants in the US are not Italian at all. If the words “Italian food” conjures up thoughts of Italian American restaurant chains or pizza with a red-purple sauce and lots of garlic powder, well… this is simply not Italian!

I personally hate that type of cooking: Italian American food is loaded with too many strange-tasting “additives.” In fact, one might even call them “addictive,” because people end up getting used to their strong, overwhelming flavor, to the detriment of the much more delicate — and healthier — taste of authentic Italian cooking.

Valid examples  of it are things such as “Italian dressing,” Italian-style bread crumbs,” or “Italian seasoning,” concoctions you won’t find anywhere in Italy. And do I really need to start with pasta? For more, read here how NOT to cook pasta. 

In the mind of many American, Italian food continues to be associated with the image of a pretty large guy eating spaghetti with meatballs. But reality is that, practically, no one eats spaghetti with meatballs in Italy.

Italians do have meat sauce recipes that require long and laborious preparation (including marinating the meat for 3-4 days in aged red wine), but they also have an incredible number of variations of pasta dishes cooked with vegetables or seafood. And when I say pasta, I don’t mean spaghetti only.

Funny comic Italian Food
Funny comic Italian Food

Again, you’ll find an amazing range of pasta shapes  in all different sizes, many of which are unique to specific regions.

There is more than taste and shapes, though.

The variety of the Italian diet, the continued, widespread reliance on fresh ingredients cooked on the spot, and the extensive use of vegetables, fruit and olive oil all contribute to the generally healthy state of Italians who, on average, appear thinner than Americans, especially after they hit the age of 40. It is known, in the end, that there is a direct relationship between being overweight and the heavy consumption of over-processed foods and sugary drinks, along with the avoidance of fruits, vegetables and of a little bit of wine with your meals.

Mind, this problem is not only American, it begins showing also among Italy’s younger generations, more and more attracted by the American lifestyle.

A lot has been written about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Without going deeper into the matter, I would like to tell you that Italian food — that found in Italy — is not only good for you, but it really tastes great! Enjoy the adventure of exploring authentic Italian food, not only a delight for the senses but also an expression of the cultural and traditional heritage of the country.

A little guide to recognize real Italian Food

You get my idea: when you are outside of Italy, having “Italian” printed somewhere on the menu is not synonym with authentic grub. If you’re after Italian-American dishes, then your spaghetti and meatballs or fettuccine Alfredo are perfect: when well made, they can be truly delicious.

Yet, if you’re after real Italian dishes, then you have to pay attention to a couple of things, both when you shop and eat out.

Shopping to cook real Italian

Shopping to cook a proper Italian meal is actually very simple, once you are into the gist, and pretty cheap, too. Italians tend to cook everything from scratch and that means you’ll probably spend less than you think at the supermarket: you’ll only need basic — but fresh — ingredients. So, if you’re planning to turn your kitchen table into an Italian one, you should keep these few things in mind when out shopping:

  • Invest in very good quality extra virgin olive oil: it’s at the heart of our cuisine and there is no reason to save on that. If you find it, do buy Italian, of course.
  • Always try to cook with what’s in season: in Italy, we like to eat what nature gives us, when nature gives it to us. So, forget about zucchini in December or oranges in August. They are just not going to be at their best.
  • Always keep the following in the kitchen: extra virgin olive oil, plain tinned tomatoes (without any extra flavor or herbs added), 00 flour (plain flour), dried yeast, dried herbs (oregano, rosemary, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves), pulses like lentils, a good chunk of parmigiano, fresh garlic, a couple of onions, canned tuna, good quality pasta (wholegrain too: we’re getting big into it!) and some seasonal vegetables. With these, you can make everything you want, really.
  • Dress your salad the Italian way: a dash of olive oil, a bit of red vinegar (or lemon, if you prefer it), a bit of salt. Forget about everything else.
  • Eat your bread without butter!
Eating proper Italian while out

Taking care of your shopping is easy, when compared to the difficult task of recognizing an authentically Italian eatery from a bad, spurious version of it. Let’s see if we can give you a hand!

  • Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity: Italian food is all about simplicity so, if a place has over complex, over rich dishes laden with cream and egg, than it’s not likely to be a real Italian place;
  • Pasta and chicken just don’t go together in Italy: I am not saying it’s not nice, but chicken is never served with pasta, nor is it, in fact, flavored with pesto.
  • Cream is not that popular in our cuisine: sure, we use it here and there, but if you see an “Italian restaurant” with a list of creamy dishes as long as Route 66, then you can rest assured the grub ain’t that authentic. Maybe good, but not authentic.
  • Mozzarella is a fresh cheese. You  can’t grate it: so, if they offer you grated mozzarella, just go. Costco imports excellent water buffalo mozzarella directly from Italy.
  • We don’t do lasagne with french fries, nor garlic bread.
  • Pasta is not a side dish for meat.

Here’s our little take on the difference between “real” Italian food and what its international version looks like. Mind, there’s no will to denigrate other countries’ cuisines here: in fact, there are many, truly delicious “non-Italian Italian” dishes out there. Problem is, they are not from the country they claim to be and this creates not only confusion, but also an overall problem about the way Italy is perceived and portrayed abroad. Let’s try to keep what’s inspired by Italian food separated from the real thing and we’ll certainly end up with happier, fuller stomachs!

Paolo Nascimbeni

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23 Comments

  1. Its regional. My family were Montana homesteaders from Piemonte and Val d Aosta. I remember very little shaghetti but exquisite meat ravioli a couple times a year. risotto with mushrooms from the mountains and early spring dandelion salads. Into the fall it was Sage Hen or Rabbit Cacciatore or Saiovie. They were forced. to make their own wine so there were a lot of stews even horse.. The highlight of the year was Bagna Cauda at the end of the year. I remember a 50 mile rounnd trip for anchovies.
    I do remember some pasta made from chicken stock and ketchup. We needed the carbs.

  2. Just returned from Italy with my family … food absolutely delicious… did not see any heavy people anywhere… all thin.. My 12 year old grandson said the mozzarella on the pizza there is delicious while in America we freeze the cheese .. maybe that’s why the pizza tastes different he said… not as good…

  3. The reason so many Italian dishes are the way they are is because when the Italians first came to America they were extremely poor and brought over non perishable items and made pastas and breads to fill them. Meat was later added to their meals once they made more money and felt as if it were a luxury to eat meat and starches together as the Americans did. They used what they had to feed their families and as we all know… fed whoever came to their door even if it meant less for them. That’s just what Italians do!
    So, you see the Italian-American cooking stemed from what they had at the time and the new generations passed it along. At least they cooked from the heart!

  4. Finally, someone is educating the American people that 99% of the Italian restaurants are not Italian cuisine, Bravo!
    They service food we that Italian never heard of and come up a stupid name for a dishes of pasta or whatever else on their menu.

    I can’t believe how people just love to eat Italian food, that is not, examples
    Fried ravioli (it tasted like cardboard and had no taste) also the
    eggplant parmesan was horrible. Spaghetti with seve with one huge meatball that had no taste to it and meatball was the size of softball,.

    People, keep on forcing me to go with them to try these Italian restaurant. I honestly, can’t say they disgraces the Italian cuisine and as I tell my husband who is Italian like I, they should call there restaurants anything else but not Italian restaurant.

    Begin Italian I prefer to eat at home, the taste of true Italian cuisine which I learned from Mia Bella Mamma

  5. Beatiful information! My mother’s family was from Northern Italy in the Lombard region. My mom told me that her father hated ketchuo and never on the table. He liked tripe. Also they made sauce with a piece of roast simmered in it. They had friends that brought them trays of ravioli from there past business in St. Louis where we are from. When I was a young girl, my family made ravioli with a recipe handwritten by a relative. It was delicious! I can’t wait to go to Italy and try the cuisine. It sounds amazing! I love to cook and try my best to stay true to the cuisine. Thank you!

  6. wow…..to be sure much food in American restaurants is far afield of their native ethnic origins, not just Italian, and are adjusted to the American palate…..eat a meal in an Italian house and you will realize how off base our versions are….Americans don’t understand that…..go to the UK and order a pizza, it just ain’t Italian, get over it, the same thing but different

  7. Been to Italy twice. The way of life is different there. From what is usually ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner to desserts. Food is light and simple. Food is also made healthier and not alot of added flavors. Sauce is sauce, pasta is a main dish, eggs and sausage for lunch. Breakfast consists of a light biscuit, cookie or pastry. Lunch is your heaviest meal of the day. Dinner is your appetizers. Pizza doesn’t have alot of toppings, usually just a couple and with no shredded cheese. So visit Italy, you would love and admire the “dolce vita” as they call it.

  8. “Pasta is not a side dish for meat.” It is in Nebraska, but the places that do that do not claim to be authentic Italian. They claim to serve cattle.

  9. Wonderful information! I am opening an Italian restaurant soon. I really want true Italian dishes. Thank you!

  10. Hello G pizzo!
    I am Italian and live in Italy and with my family we normally eat salad first. At the restaurant no, you are served salad with the second courses. Unless you order a salad as starter (which I sometimes do). But at home we like to have salad first.

  11. Salad before meal NEVER!!!

  12. Sauce? Gravy
    My family always calls it gravy. Made with meat.
    Marinara without meat.
    Always ate our salad at end of the meal. When did eating salad first begin???
    Nothing beats the food in Italy!!

  13. It’s interesting to know that Italian dishes rely on fresh ingredients in order to bring out certain flavors in their dishes. I think I’ll look for some restaurant menus and see which restaurant I’ll go to. This way, I can eat healthy while I eat in an Italian restaurant.

  14. Use what you have on hand & seasonal ingredients. Creativity in the kitchen is key. Limoncello Tiramisu anyone?
    Favorite dish at local restaurant
    – Gnocchi with Pesto Cream Sauce Portobello Mushrooms.. Owner is from
    Italy. I adapt, create, and yes have used
    hints from husbands family (origin Naples). Just found out that I do not cook or serve in an Italian manner.
    It is about enjoying what you do and sharing with family and friends. I
    enjoy cooking and eating Italian,
    and have received 5 stars (*****) from
    my father in law for my Wedding Soup.

  15. Patrick I McDermott

    Best advise I got was eat the local specials and drink the local wine.

  16. The idea of Itsliam food is not reality. Food differs from region to region. Northern food is very different from true Sicilian fare. Real, seasonal ingredients, less meat, more veggies, etc.. cetera are universal.

  17. I totally agree with your comments. There is not like having a meal in Italy. Correct, no meatballs on the menu. Every region has it’s own speciality, we have been fortunate enoughh to have visited from North to South and can say there’s no where like Italy.

  18. Please address the salad with the meal. In my family you always ate it last. Also the difference between sauce and gravy please!!

  19. True Italian cooking does not have lots of garlic. Sorry Ron.

  20. Well nobody I know went to Italy and came back disappointed with the food they may come back disappointed with other issues maybe but not the food. Meatball pasta is sometimes cooked in home cooking but it is very seldom seen in a restaurant menu ( In Italy ) –
    My main problem is the way it is cooked by most places in the US. Issues are ( assuming the ragu’ is made correctly which is a big if since many use powder garlic and other horrors) : They do not use salt or use too little salt in the pasta water How not cook pasta with Meatballs. Then look at the image. The pasta is still white !!! Pasta should be removed from the boiling water and finish cooking ( last 5 minutes ) in the sauce so that the pasta absorbs the sauce, that is called mantecare la pasta.
    As it shows the pasta will become quickly sticky and will quickly not be able to absorb the sauce

  21. I thought that it was interesting when you said that people who live in Italy rarely eat traditional meatballs and sauce. I have been thinking about taking a trip to Italy to try this dish but I have been worried that I would end up getting disappointed. I will be sure to enjoy this meal in America at a fiuine restaurant so that II can ensure its existence.

  22. I never took into account the fact that most of the Italian restaurants don’t make real Italian food. Thank you for letting us know that real Italian food is made with fresh ingredients lots of garlic. We are going to search online for an authentic Italian restaurant so that we can enjoy the real taste of Italy.

  23. My dad likes eating Italian food and my mom decided to go to an Italian restaurant for his birthday. It was explained here that there are only a few restaurants that serve authentic Italian food like prosciutto. Furthermore, it’s recommended to go to trusted restaurants when planning to eat authentic Italian food.

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