Because I’m Italian, most of my friends assume I want to go to Italian restaurants when we go out for lunch or dinner. Truth be told, I don’t. Most Italian restaurants in the US cook an Americanized version of Italian food, and few Italians would recognize the over-sized, over-cooked, over-spiced, over-sauced plates served in American restaurants.
Still, Ameritalian food is popular in the States. More than 85 percent of Americans list Italian cuisine as their favorite, and they consume an average of 26 pounds of pasta per capita annually. (That’s bush league when you consider that Italians average between 50 and 60 pounds per person per year.) What most Americans do not realize is that there is no real Italian cuisine.
If you are still reading this, you might be thinking, What does she mean there is no real Italian cuisine? What about spaghetti and meatballs? Nope. Garlic bread? Sorry.. Fettuccine Alfredo? No way. Spaghetti bolognese? Heaven’s no. PEPPERONI PIZZA? I hate to burst your bubble, but no.
A Little History
What it comes down to is that some Americans, even some of Italian descent, don’t understand how the history of the country—and later the role of immigrants—affected the evolution of Italian cuisine. I don’t want to bore you, but consider that until 1871, the Italian peninsula was a conglomeration of independent city states. Invaders of the various areas on the peninsula influenced the cuisine of the particular area they occupied. The food the Italians residing in Italy’s 20 regions (states, for lack of a better word) cook today is still a result of those ancient influences.
Add in the fact that when Italian immigrants came to America, they shared cooking with paesani from other regions, and in this country—and others—the lines started to blur. Italians visiting an Italian restaurant in America or any other country would have a hard time equating what is on the menu with the food they cook and eat at home.
The Macaroni, the Myth, the Legend
In the end, pasta unifies the cuisine from one region to another in Italy because the ancient invaders, be they Arab or Greek, Turkish or Spanish, Etruscan or Syrian, ate some form of the mixture of flour and water (or eggs). Historical records show that Chinese were making strings from flour and water from 1100 BC and that the Arabs brought them to Sicily in the 12th century, long before Marco Polo—the man many wrongly credit to have brought the noodles to Italy—was even born.
My grandparents were from the Abruzzo region of Italy, so it follows that the food I ate growing up was Abruzzese. We had a lot of vegetables, fruits, and pasta, and the meat we had with pasta was usually pork or a mix of pork and beef. My mother and grandmother taught me to marry eggs and flour to make the magical “past’” and to combine mashed potatoes with the flour to make “cavatell’” (roughly, our region’s version of gnocchi). I didn’t have a lasagna or carbonara until I was an adult because they were not Abruzzese dishes.
Chef Luca Giovanni Pappalardo of Trattoria Pane e Panelle in Bologna told me that, except for ragu (the real bolognese sauce) and a few other regional specialties (carbonara, caccio e pepe), most Italians eat pasta with tomato sauce. Period.
So, is it Italian?
Spaghetti and Meatballs
Italians eat spaghetti, and Italians eat meatballs. They just don’t eat them together. Pasta is not a main dish in Italy, so Italians eat it first and serve the meatballs or other meat afterwards. Many don’t even cook the meatballs in the sauce; they bake the meatballs and serve them plain after the pasta with a side dish.
Meatballs—polpette in Italian—were originally a mix of bread crumbs, grated cheese, and egg formed into small balls. That dish still exists in some parts of Italy. When the Italians came to this country and meat was more affordable, they started making the balls out of meat. Almost a sign of status, they made them larger and larger.
Spaghetti Bolognese does not exist in Italy, and ordering it may award you a scornful look from the waiter. Tagliatelle Bolognese or al Ragu originated in Bologna, and the sauce is a mix of finally diced carrots finally diced celery, finely diced onions, pancetta (Italian bacon), and ground veal or beef. There’s very little tomato in the dish, maybe a tablespoon or so of tomato paste just for flavor. This heavy sauce needs a pasta that is wide enough to hold it, so Italians serve it over tagliatelle.
The first time my mother had what Americans call Fettuccine Alfredo, she was in her 60s. It does not exist in Italy. The original Italian version, pasta al burro e parmigiana, is a simple mix of butter and cheese. When the cook adds hot pasta to the mix, they blend together. Note: Italians don’t cook with cream. Americans started adding cream to the sauce. As the dish’s popularity grew, American cooks started adding proteins like chicken or shrimp.
I never ate garlic bread until I was in my 20s, and that was at the home of a friend of Irish descent. Garlic bread is an American invention, again probably thought of by someone who wanted something “fancy” to sop up the sauce left on our plates. Italians put a basket of bread down, no butter, no oil. The thought is the bread is good enough by itself. At times, people drizzle a little olive oil and salt on the bread, but that’s usually when they’re eating it as a snack.
If you’re in Italy and order pepperoni pizza, what you’ll end up getting is pizza with little peppers on top of it. Peperoni—notice the one P—translates as peppers in Italian. Pepperoni, with two Ps, is an American-Italian invention. In Italy, you can find a dry, spicy sausage that is comparable to pepperoni. In some restaurants, you can order that on pizza. Italians crown pizza with prosciutto (cotto or crudo), sausages, anchovies, or vegetables.