Anyone who lives in Italy, has travelled through it extensively or taken slight notice of menus from region to region can tell you, that for the most part, the cuisine has been bastardised the world over. (Which, mind you, to a certain extent, is ok! In most countries where Italian migrants landed, they made do with whatever local produce was available.)
Yes – things like pizza and pasta are fair staples in many regions, seafood along the coast and lots of meat in the mountains. But Italian cuisine as a homogenous term doesn’t authentically represent what the food of Italy and its regions is. For instance, pasta is less of a thing in Florence, polenta is on the menu in Venice and risotto is to Milan what carbonara is to Rome.
I’ve compiled this list based on dishes I’ve seen on menus for decades outside of Italy, served under the blanket banner of “Italian food”. You won’t find them anywhere in Italy except for in restaurants that cater only to tourists. But if you’re in Rome and habit has you looking for some of these items, I’ve included a suggestion for what you might want to choose instead.
I hope I don’t burst too many bubbles!
What many Italian restaurants outside of Italy serve up as a classic starter to a meal or pre-pizza does not – in any form – exist in Italy.
So instead choose: a plain or tomato bruschetta. Chicken (or veal) Parmigiana
In Australia, this popular dish which surprisingly has its origins in pub meals (counter meals as they were known when I was young!) landed on ‘Italian’ restaurant menus too. It’s basically crumbed chicken or veal fillet served with tomato sauce and grilled cheese on top. The concept is alien to menus in Italy.
So instead choose: Pollo ai Peperoni (chicken with a rich tomato based roast pepper sauce), Porchetta (spiced rolled pork), Saltimbocca alla Romana (pan seared veal with prosciutto and sage) or Parmigiana di Melanzane (eggplant parmigiana).Spaghetti Bolognese or Spaghetti and Meatballs
One of the major culprits! Foreigners loyal to the dish are often shocked when they hear it’s a myth. Yes of course Italians eat meat-based tomato sauce (ragu) but it’s often reserved for dishes like gnocchi or lasagne and in particular, bolognese sauce (as it would suggest) originates from Bologna (Emilia Romagna) and is not a staple everywhere in Italy.
So instead choose: To eat bolognese only in Bologna and surrounds and with tagliatelle, never spaghetti. Or choose gnocchi with ragu or lasagne. Or meatballs (polpette) with tomato sauce as a main dish – never served with pasta.Macaroni and Cheese
An old school American dish, this processed style of pasta wouldn’t be caught dead on a menu in Italy.
So instead choose: Cacio e Pepe (usually served with tonnarelli, long spaghetti type egg pasta. This seemingly simple Roman classic (its main and only ingredients are pecorino cheese and black pepper) is quite a delicacy.Pizza with a cheese-stuffed crust
The crust on Roman-style pizza is so thin that it wouldn’t even fit the slightest amount of cheese in it (in a Neapolitan style one, maybe – but forget about it!) Real pizza in Italy – anywhere in Italy – is served with cheese as a topping, not a stuffing!
So instead choose: A calzone stuffed with mozzarella or better yet, ricotta. Or Roman-style pizza. Paper thin and just about charred on the edges, you won’t find more than 3 toppings on pizza here.Bread and olive oil (sometimes with balsamic)
You’ll really stand out as a tourist if you ask you waiter for olive oil when bread is served. Worse, if you ask for a plate and create your own little olive oil and balsamic vinegar party mix.
So instead choose: plain or tomato bruschetta. And reserve dipping for home or when you’re not in Italy.Carbonara (with cream, onion and other strange things)
Romans take their carbonara seriously. Its origins remain debatable and everyone has their own idea of how to make it. Of late, the debate even took to the world stage with a French chef claiming a farfalle (butterfly shape pasta) version was plausible. In any case, one thing you can bet on in Italy and especially in Rome – is that you will not find cream anywhere near carbonara. It’s made with guanciale (pork cheek) or pancetta (pork belly), eggs, Parmigiano Reggiano and / or pecorino cheese. That’s. It.
So instead choose: real deal carbonara! And only in Rome. Pasta Alfredo & Penne alla Vodka (or any kind of pasta served with chicken)
These are two completely American dishes that get served under the guise of “Italian food” in the States. If you find them on the menu in Rome, you can guarantee you are not eating anywhere near where locals are. And when an Italian hears about pasta served with a creamy chicken sauce they look puzzled or disgusted.
So instead choose: Amatriciana (tomato based sauce with pecorino and guanciale) or La Gricia (white amatriciana in essence, just pecorino and guanciale).Happy eating while you’re in town!
Signing off from Trastevere,