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What is Italian Food?


Spaghetti alle vongole

What is Italian Food?

To answer that question, let me start with a story.  An American was visiting Rome recently and  ordered a plate of spaghetti alle vongole, a dish he thought he was familiar with. It’s spaghetti in clam sauce, right?.  His food arrived and he started to dig in, but he felt like something was missing, so he called the waitress back and asked for some parmesan cheese.  Her face fell and she snapped “no” at the bewildered American and she headed back towards the kitchen.

What happened here?  This American, one that had grown up with an with an Italian grandmother even, had broken a very important Italian food rule. No cheese with fish.

So what is Italian food?  Chicken Parm?  Spaghetti & Meatballs?

The answer starts with that there really isn’t something called “Italian Food.” Italy did not become a unified country until 1861. What you will find in Italy instead is, Roman food, Tuscan food, Umbrian food, you get the idea.  Italian cuisine is extremely localized and regional.  tremendous diversity


Because Italy is such a young country and one with quite a volatile history,people tend to identify first with the town where they are from. From where their bell tower – campanilio – is.  Then the region of the country and only then as Italian. This means that you will be hard pressed to find polenta in Rome or a plate of carbonara  or amatriciana in Venice

When you think of Italian food, you might think of Chicken Parmesan, Spaghetti and Meatballs and Pasta Alfredo.  All of those items are Italian-American inventions.  You will not find any of these on a menu in Italy. If you do, we advise moving on, you are not someplace that is serving authentic cuisine.

Pasta Alfredo is a kind of hybrid. It was iinvented by Afredo Di Lelio, the owner of a restaurant in Rome, but is not a traditional dish.

What you see (on the menu) is what you get

At the pizzeria in Italy, there is are no stuffed crusts or pineapple toppings and if you order pepperoni you will find bell peppers atop your pie.  The combinations you see on the pizza menu are the combinations that are available.  There is no mixing and matching and making your own combination.

The pasta shape and sauce is also long bound by tradition, with certain types and shapes of pasta known for complementing each other.  There are over 450 pasta shapes in Italy and almost as many types of sauce. Take note that marinara sauce in Italy usually means it contains seafood.  If you would like a plain tomato sauce, ask for pasta rosso.

Oil and Vinegar

On many American restaurant tables you find olive oil and balsamic vinegar for mixing and bread dipping.

The only place that you will find olive and vinegar together in Italy is on your salad.  (and yes, that is pretty much the only salad dressing choice) While we are talking about salad, it comes after the meal and not before.

Authentic Balsamic vinegar is a rare and expensive thing that is produced in the northern part of the country, the regions of Reggio-Emilia, namely in the town of Modena.  A spoonful of a rare vintage can be worth hundreds of dollars.

If you are visiting Italy in the Autumn, during the olive oil harvest, you may be lucky and get to taste the new oil on toasted bread that has been drizzled with the sharp, green oil and a little bit of salt.

If you would like some type of a bread appetizer ask for bruschetta – pronounced

bru-SKETT-a – and you will get toasted bread with chopped tomatoes or pate or truffles depending on the region you are visiting.

Al Dente

Your pasta is not undercooked. It was cooked that way on purpose.  Italians cook their pasta to a perfect consistency, called al dente – to the tooth.  It has a bit of a bite, it should not have a crunch, just a slight firmness.  Recent research has shown that pasta cooked this way has a dramatically lower GI rating than mushy, overcooked pasta. Cooked al dente, pasta contains less starch than rice! This is one of the many secrets to how Italians eat pasta almost every day and still stay slim.

Have your Cake

For breakfast.  You will not find bacon, eggs and pancakes on the Italian breakfast table.  In your hotel and at the local cafe you will usually find slices of pound cake, called plum cake, that is a perfectly acceptable breakfast choice with your cafe latte or cappuccino.

Food is Seasonal

We have talked about the regionality of food, it is also important know what is is season.  Walk through a local vegetable market and take note of what you see for sale.  Only those items are what should be on your restaurant menu.  That means no juicy strawberries in November or tart clementines in August.  Italians enjoy the bounty that each season brings.

Want to know more about food in Italy?  Read our posts about gelato, how to order food in Italy or book a market tour or cooking class.



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By Priscila Siano (266 Posts)

Priscila Siano is the Marketing Director of Tour Italy Now, an online tour operator specializing in Italy travel. She's a respected expert on making dream Italy vacations a reality for clients.

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  1. angela
    Posted November 18, 2015 at 9:27 AM | Permalink

    I’m Italian miss my mama’s baking

  2. Alida @My Little Italian Kitchen
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 10:18 AM | Permalink

    Great article and spot on!
    I love anything to do with Italian food. You have a useful and interesting website.

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