Five Italian Foods You Won’t Find in Italy


By Christine Cutler


Chris Cutler discusses Italian Cuisine. Listen to or download the interview on,,, or hear the whole show on


A couple of years ago, a few American friends met me in Bologna so that I could show them around the city. In the late afternoon, we stopped to have a glass of wine and aperitivi, and I asked them how they were enjoying the trip. “Italy is wonderful,” they gushed, “and the food is delicious even if it’s not like what we get in Italian restaurants at home.”

The truth is that most Italian restaurants in the US cook an Americanized version of Italian food, and you will not get their over-sized, over-cooked, over-spiced, over-sauced plates in Italy. Moreover, you won’t find the same dishes on menus from one side of the country to the next.

The 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. Consider that the Italian peninsula was a conglomeration of independent cities and states until 1871, and the invaders of the peninsula influenced the cuisine of the particular area they occupied. Depending on the region (or state) that you visit, you might find dishes influenced by the Arabs and Africans in Sicily, the Austro-Hungarians in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the French and Greeks in Calabria, and more.

That said, the Arabs, Greeks, Turks, Spaniards, Etruscans and Syrians, all ate some form of pasta—the mixture of flour and water (or eggs). History shows that the Chinese were making strings from flour and water from 1100 BC and that the Arabs brought noodles to Sicily in the 12th century. Pasta is the great unifier.

Keep in mind 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. Here are a few foods that Americans consider Italian but that you probably won’t find on the menu of a restaurant in Italy.

Consider these five dishes that you will not find on menus in Italy.

  • Pepperoni

Spaghetti Bolognese
If you want to eat spaghetti in Italy, you’ll be able to order spaghetti al pomodoro (with the tomato sauce), spaghetti al tonno (with the tuna sauce), spaghetti aglio e olio (with garlic and oil), and spaghetti al guanciale (with pork cheek), but you will not be able to order spaghetti bolognese because, quite simply, it does not exist in Italy.

Tagliatelle Bolognese or al Ragu originated in Bologna, and the sauce is a mix of finely diced carrots and finely 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, a pasta that is about .25-.33 inches wide.

Spaghetti and Meatballs
Spaghetti and meatballs, while delicious, is not an Italian dish. Yes, Italians eat spaghetti, and they 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 afterward. Many don’t even cook the meatballs in the sauce; they bake the meatballs and serve them after the pasta with a side dish of spinach or another green vegetable. Polpette con piselli (meatballs with peas in sauce) is a popular second course in the northern regions.

Meatballs—polpette in Italian—did not originally contain meat. The first polpette were a mix of bread crumbs, grated cheese, and egg formed into small balls and served with sauce. That dish just 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, and they made them larger and larger, almost a sign of status. 

Chicken and Veal Parmigiana
Chicken and veal parmigiana is another American-Italian dish that evolved from the original Italian dish after Italian immigrants got to the U.S. Originating in southern Italy, eggplant parmigiana was popular because the vegetable was cheap and easy to grow. 

As I noted above, once Italians came to the U.S., they were able to buy meat, so they adapted the recipe and used chicken or veal in place of the eggplant.

Garlic Everything
Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan attributed the overuse of garlic as “the single greatest cause of failure in would-be Italian cooking.” Yes, Italians do use garlic in their cooking, but they use it in moderation to add flavor to the dish and not overpower it. Many Italians cook it as my grandmother did: They add a garlic clove to olive oil and warm it to release the subtle flavor. They then remove the clove and continue cooking. 

Speaking of garlic, garlic bread is an American invention, probably thought of by someone who wanted something “fancy” to sop up the sauce left on plates after dinner. In Italy, you will get a basket of bread, 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.

Pepperoni Pizza
You won’t find pepperoni pizza anywhere in Italy, but you will find peperoni pizza. Order a pepperoni pizza in Italy and you’ll get pizza topped with bell peppers—peperoni. (Note that peperoni the vegetable has one “p” while pepperoni, the sausage, has two.) Pepperoni, is yet another American-Italian invention. In Italy, you can find dry, spicy sausages that are comparable to pepperoni, and you can order that on pizza in some places. Italians crown pizza with prosciutto (cotto or crudo), sausages, anchovies, or vegetables.

These are just five dishes you won’t find in Italy; there are so many others. If you are lucky enough to travel to Italy in the future, be sure to enjoy the authentic cuisine. I’m sure you’ll find it better.

Christine Cutler is a writer, photographer, editor, guide, teacher, traveler, Ohio native, Florida resident, and world citizen. She lives in Downtown St. Petersburg with her husband and crazy Welsh Terrier, but she can’t sit still very long. In addition to maintaining her websites Cold Pasta and Red Wine and Christine Cutler, she is executive editor of Food, Wine, Travel Magazine; a travel, non-fiction, and memoir writer; a photographer; and an editor whose work has appeared in various publications. In addition, she has taught Spanish, English, and memoir, grammar, and business writing. A dual Italian-American citizen, she spends as much time as she can exploring Italy.



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About the Author:

Christine Cutler is a writer, photographer, editor, guide, teacher, traveler, Ohio native, Florida resident, and world citizen.

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