When considering your dream destination, Italy is sure to make the top of the list, or at least close to it.
The romantic atmosphere, the iconic historical sites, and the food (oh, the glorious food) are all so beckoning.
But when you finally get to the “boot country” and sit down in that coveted seat at Club del Doge Restaurant along the Grand Canal in Venice, you don’t recognize any of the dishes on the menu.
You may chalk it up to the language barrier at first, but even after the patient waiter gives you an eloquent description in English, you’re still falling down Alice’s rabbit hole.
This is because the dishes famously known as Italian fare in America aren’t really from Italy at all.
Between 1876 and World War I, about 7.5 million Italians made the hard journey to America.
In their native country, Italian food was not as decadent and rich as it is now and meals consisted primary of polenta and stale bread. But the Italian immigrants used their new American resources to their advantage.
The American economy gave emigrated Italians more lucrative earnings which were flaunted in their hybrid recipes.
Back in the Old Country, dishes were generally known by region, like Bucatini all’Amatriciana from Rome, Ribollita from Tuscany, and the deliciously simple Cicchetti from Venice.
But in America, Italians from all over Italy were now next door neighbors and new versions of traditional favorites were born.
So let’s take a look at some of the most famous “Italian” dishes that are actually totally American.
Buttery, soft and chewy with a punch of garlic, it’s something every American serves with their eager attempt at an Italian dish.
It will invariably be placed at your table in Italian restaurants all over America.
But lo and behold, garlic bread is not a staple in Italy. In fact, Italy is not big on butter in general.
Known for their beautiful olive groves that stretch for miles, Italians prefer to brush fresh olive oil on a slice of bread, then top it with fresh tomatoes—known as Bruschetta al Pomodoro.
Spaghetti and meatballs
Putting meatballs on top of a bed of pasta is a delectable combination to the American palette, but to the true Italian, it’s as foreign as Kung Pao Chicken.
The Cut states:
“In his memoirs, a Sicilian named Niccolo’ de Quattrociocchi wrote that,
while eating at an Italian restaurant in New York in the early 20th century, he
encountered two “very fine, traditional American specialties” for the first
time. One of these? Spaghetti and meatballs.”
Having meatballs by themselves is a recipe hailing from Rome, but the size of the meatball is also an area of discussion.
In America, we have adopted a bigger-is-better philosophy, especially seen with our portion sizes.
So while true Italian meatballs won’t be the ginormous balls of beef our country is accustomed to, it will surely satisfy you just the same.
The name of this dish certainly sounds like it should come straight from Italy, but it’s just a cleverly crafted title meant to deceive you.
Turns out, you will not find this creamy ribbon pasta served at any of the authentic restaurants throughout the boot peninsula.
Italian cuisine generally doesn’t call for cream as a base in a recipe.
Carbonara is probably the closest true Italian dish that somewhat resembles fettuccini alfredo, but is made with egg, guanciale (cured pork), hard cheese and pepper.
I know what you are thinking. No way! This one has to be Italian.
But it isn’t. In fact, Italian chefs laugh at the idea of putting chicken on top of pasta. There are pasta dishes. And there are chicken dishes. There are no chicken on top of pasta dishes.
And the worst offense with this dish is the chicken is served smothered with melted cheese.
If we are honest with ourselves, we should’ve known anything covered in cheese is likely an American innovation.
A Bloomberg report from last year highlighted the obsession we have in this country with cheese—the average American eats 35 lbs. a year!
After stuffing ourselves with an exorbitant amount of carbohydrates at our local “Italian” restaurant, we still have to order the cheesecake.
I mean come on, you always get the best cheesecake at an Italian restaurant… right??
Well, not in Italy. This super-rich dessert screams “standard American diet.”
The closest dessert to cheesecake Italiano-style would be the cannoli, a pastry shell filled with lightly sweetened cream cheese. And just to clarify, a cannoli is truly an Italian delight.
Another authentic dessert that mimics cheesecake in flavor is the cassata siciliana, a sponge cake soaked in liquor, layered with sweet ricotta cheese, then carefully covered in almond paste and topped with icing.
Italian food is undoubtedly still one of the world’s most influential and desired cuisines. The country is a holy grail of culinary excellence.
So even if you don’t recognize most of the dishes on the menu, you are sure to enjoy true Italian cuisine while you sip vino on the Via della Conciliazione in Rome.
And after a few meals along the mesmerizing Mediterranean coastline, you will come home speaking like a true Italian connoisseur.
(h/t Proud American Traveler)