We all think we know Italian food. After all, there are plenty of Italian restaurants right down the road, right? Many of our big cities have got a ‘Little Italy’ and an Italian deli to die for. Travelling will tell us that Italian restaurants are the same the world over—except, that is, in Italy. Many first-time visitors to the homeland are surprised by the lack of familiarity of restaurants there. Menus are different. Ingredients are different. And many of the dishes we are familiar with are missing. Despite there being almost fifty different kinds of pasta available in our local supermarkets, the pasta on the ground has names you’ve never even heard of. So what’s going on?
The reality is, that like for many other cuisines, Italian restaurants outside Italy have adapted over the years to meet foreign tastes and expectations. Here are five points that will help you to make sense of what you meet on your trip to Italy.
1. Italian food is very regional
There isn’t really such a thing as Italian food. The country is divided into twenty regions, and each of these has their own local cuisine of which they are usually fiercely proud and protective. So there’s Tuscan cuisine, and Umbrian cuisine, Venetian cuisine, and Puglian cuisine but not really an Italian cuisine. And even if sometimes dishes in different towns look similar, the locals will tell you that they are actually extremely different. In Italy it’s often very difficult to find a restaurant that doesn’t only serve that region’s food. In fact Italians will travel round the country specifically to try a particular speciality.
2. Italians don’t eat spaghetti bolognese
Probably the most famous Italian dish apart from pizza isn’t really Italian. The practice of marrying meat sauce or ragù bolognese with spaghetti probably originated outside Italy due to a lack of availability of tagliatelle, the traditional accompaniment for the sauce. Another traditional use of ragù bolognese is in lasagne al forno. Whilst the sauce, and indeed many other famous Italian foodstuffs, originated in the central northern city of Bologna, spaghetti has its origins in the south of Italy so there really is no connection. You are beginning to find spaghetti alla bolognese in Italy now, but it’s viewed as an anglo-saxon import.
3. Pasta is not a main course … necessarily
Who doesn’t enjoy a big bowl of pasta for dinner? Well, traditionalist Italians for starters: because that’s exactly what pasta traditionally is—a starter. On a restaurant menu you’ll find the pasta in the Primi (first course) section where it’s an introduction to the main event or Secondo, usually meat or fish. It’s not to say that Italians won’t eat pasta as a main course, particularly at home, but also out. My Italian grandfather was known to order two pasta dishes in restaurants, one for the starter and one for the main course as he loved it so much. But it’s not the way it works in the traditional meal.
4. You don’t drink wine with pizza
Although we are used to knocking back a couple of glasses of Chianti or Nero d’Avola with a margherita, for many Italians, the beverage of choice with a pizza is beer. Although it’s possible to eat it most days of the week, the traditional time for pizza is Sunday evening, when Mamma has a night off from cooking and the whole family go out for a meal. So next time you are partaking, try it with a Nastro Azzuro or Moretti. On a summer weekend, it’s a real taste of la dolce vita.
5. Call a salad a salad
The Italian word for salad, insalata, literally translates as lettuce. And if you order it in Italian that’s pretty much what you’ll get. A ‘proper’ salad is insalata mista—mixed salad, i.e. lettuce mixed with other things, like cucumber, onion, and tomato. I’ve heard people complain about getting ripped off in Italy because they ordered a salad and just got a bowl of leaves, but it wasn’t really anyone’s fault just a misunderstanding.
Italy is changing, and indeed many restaurants, particularly in the big tourist centres, have adapted to foreign demand, but for many people the differences in Italian food in and outside the peninsula are just one of the many pleasant surprises the country has to offer.