Italians can be very strict about their food. What shape of pasta goes with a particular sauce, when to drink certain types of coffee and which herbs or other ingredients must or must not be added to certain dishes are considered matters of great importance.
But as always happens with immigration, dishes change when they get to another country, adapting to the tastes of the people who live there, and the ingredients available. So, many foods you may have thought were classically Italian, are in fact adaptations, and are very hard to find in Italy itself.
Here are six examples…
1. Spaghetti Bolognese
Head to Bologna, and you won’t find spaghetti served with Bolognese sauce, only tagliatelli. Emilia Romagna, where Bologna is the capital, serves “ragu alla Bolognese” – ‘ragu from Bologna’. The sauce is called ragu, not Bolognese.
We’re really only just starting to use the word ragu in the UK to describe a meaty pasta sauce.
Tagliatelli is used because it holds the meaty sauce better. And a true Bolognese ragu will be much meatier than the tomato-heavy sauces we serve in the UK; they’ll use just a little tomato paste and no chopped tomatoes at all.
The authentic ragu recipe, documented by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, and subsequently recorded by Bologna’s Chamber of Commerce, limits the ingredients to beef, pancetta, carrots, celery stalks, onions, tomato paste, white wine and milk.
2. Spaghetti and Meatballs
Spaghetti, yes; meatballs, yes. Together, no way. Italian meatballs are called “polpette”. In most regions of Italy, polpette are fried and eaten as they are, mostly as a second course without sauce.
Another possibility is to insert a small cube of fontina cheese into the middle of each polpetta before flouring and frying.
In southern Italy Italian meatloaf, or “polpettone”, which literally means ‘big meatball’, is often served with a tomato sauce that is prepared directly in the pan with some onions and diced tomatoes. In this variation, you baste the polpettone with the tomato sauce, but it is never served with spaghetti.
Leftover polpettone can be used for sandwiches – or panini, as Italians call them. This is perhaps the origin of the American ‘meatball sub’.
3. Garlic Bread
The Italians do eat garlic rubbed on toasted bread – with olive oil, not butter – and call it bruschetta. But they will toast an Italian bread such as ciabatta, not a French baguette, as has become popular in the UK and America.
And you definitely won’t find it served with pizza or pasta – it will be given as an antipasti. The most common bruschetta is served with freshly chopped tomatoes and a sprinkling of salt and a drizzle of good olive oil: bruschetta al pomodoro.
In America and the UK, we often top our pizzas with pepperoni. But in Italy, “peperone” means peppers – as in bell peppers. You’re more likely to get a pizza topped with “prosciutto crudo” than a spicy salami.
It is served, but it will be a spiced salami not pepperoni. Pepperoni is an American-invented word.
Of course, espresso is a drink in Italy, it’s just not usually called that – it’s simply un caffè. A double espresso is caffè doppio. The most common coffee is a single espresso shot – un caffè – served at drinking temperature and drunk standing up at the bar.
While we’re on the subject, Italians only drink coffee with milk in the morning. Either cappuccino or one of the forms of caffé latte: caffè macchiato (espresso plus a dash of milk) or latte macchiato (hot milk with a dash of coffee). Don’t simply ask for a latte, or you’ll get a glass of milk.
And don’t order a vente anything if you’re a Starbucks fan, as it literally translates as ‘twenty’; nor a hazelnut-syrup soy milk frappuccino. The Italians keep things classic and simple – they won’t have an option of skimmed or full-fat milk, for example.
If you really want to look like a local, order caffè corretto first thing in the morning, a pick-me-up espresso with a dash of grappa or other spirit.
6. Chicken or Veal Parmesan
This isn’t as common in the UK as in America, but again, is an Americanised version of an Italian dish called melanzane alla parmigiana – from southern Italy – aubergine fried and layered with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and Parmesan, then baked. The Americans developed this idea using meat instead and also serve it on top of pasta. The Italians really prefer to keep their pasta course (primo) and meat course (secondo) separate.
The abundance of expensive meat in America when the large influx of Italians migrated in the early 20th century is probably the reason for this development. Thus, chicken and veal Parmesan were born.
Thankfully, we only teach our guests how to cook real Italian food with the help of a local Italian chef.