Some tips to help you from possibly offending Italian restaurant owners when traveling to Italy
For many travelers, myself included, the highlight of a trip to Italy is often the cuisine. We daydream of the food we will eat. Each season bringing it’s own bounty of delectable dishes. Travelers, particularly first time visitors, should note that Italian cuisine is very regional and seasonal, so depending on the time of year of your trip and the region visiting, you’re likely to find very different dishes on the menus of restaurants and trattorias. The August heat is soothed by a creamy and delicious gelato. Autumn brings forth mushroom dishes, and fresh fava beans and peas in the spring are just some of my favorites. As a native of Italy, I have had the pleasure of eating it’s cuisine throughout the year and can attest that each season brings it’s own deliciousness.
However, there are many, many dishes in which over the years have somehow been labeled Italian but it’s originality is more of one that is very much Italian-American at best. There is nothing essentially wrong with these dishes, in fact, I cook a few of them at home myself as well as teach them in my cooking classes and are enjoyed by many. The concern comes when these dishes are believed to be authentically Italian or when one travels to Italy and expects to find these on a restaurant menu. The dishes below will not have a place on any menu in Rome or Florence, or anywhere else in Italy for that matter. And if you do happen to find them, you should know that it’s probably a restaurant trying to cater to its American clientele. Since you’re in Italy, my advice is to immerse yourself as much as possible and one way, possibly the best way, to do that, is with food.
Fettuccini Alfredo: In the mood to use your fork twirling skills so you’re looking for a nice dish of Fettuccini Alfredo? Well, good luck with that as any waiter in Italy is not going to know what you’re talking about. While the origin of this dish is very much Italian, believed to have been created by restaurateur, Alfredo Lelio for his wife who was suffering from pregnancy malaise – the original dish was just plain pasta noodles with butter, which is the Italian equivalent of chicken soup, frequently eaten when someone does not feel well and can’t tolerate eating much else. Alfredo added this to his menu at the restaurant and that’s how “Fettuccini Alfredo” was born. No one calls it this in Italy now, it’s simply pasta al burro. It was Americans that played on this dish by fatting it up with cream and other questionable ingredients.
Chicken or veal parm: If you’re looking for “parm” anything while in Italy, you will be served a delicious dish of eggplant parmigiana (photo below). A favorite of Southern Italy, eggplant parmigiana is prepared similarly to the Americanized chicken or veal version and prepared by cutting thin slices of eggplant, breading and frying them, then layered in tomato sauce and mozzarella. A delicious dish not to be missed.
Garlic Bread: Garlic bread found in the US is the bad replica of Italian bruschetta. Italians frequently toast fresh homemade bread by the fire and rub a garlic glove and add a drizzle of olive oil. What you have here in the states is French bread cut in half and loaded with butter and dehydrated garlic bits. It’s just wrong.
Italian Dressing: Recently, I was on the phone with my aunt, who lives in Italy but has spent a good amount of time in the US. I was preparing to visit her so I asked her if she wanted me to bring her anything in particular, things she cannot find in Italy. She lowered her voice, almost in shame, making sure no one in the room she was in could hear her and she said: “Can you bring me a bottle or two of that stuff you know I like?” “That stuff?” – She couldn’t even bring herself to say it. What she was referring to was Italian dressing. She had a taste of it here and fell for it. In Italy, salad dressing is EVOO and wine vinegar, if you’re feeling adventures, you can add a few squirts of lemon, that’s it. And yes, I did travel from Boston to Italy carrying Italian dressing. I’m not proud of it.
Caesar Salad: So you’ve overdone it on the gelato and pasta dishes that now you’re craving a nice, reasonably light and healthy salad, so you go looking for a Caesar salad. You’ll have to wait until you head back to the States for this one, as you will not find one on the menus of restaurants in Italy. Created by Caesar Cardini, an Italian American living in Mexico, this was just a creation of using what he had on hand at the time. Opt instead for a Caprese salad and you will not be disappointed. In fact, you might never have one dressed in stale bread chunks soaked in bad oil again.
Shrimp Scampi: The Italian word for shrimp is scampi, so if you ask for shrimp scampi in Italy, you’re asking for “shrimp shrimp”. This dish is likely derivative of a Sicilian shellfish recipe that Italian Americans adapted over the years. While shrimp is served in Italy with lemon, garlic and olive oil, the version found in US restaurants has little resemblance to shrimp served in Italy.
Marinara Sauce: If you’ve overeaten and are looking for something on the lighter side and ask for a dish of pasta with marinara sauce and think you will be served some pasta with red sauce, you might be disappointed to see seafood on your plate. Marinara by definition means “from the sea”, so instead opt for some “spaghetti al sugo di pomodoro” essentially the same thing as marinara. This is just a translational issue more than the actual dish.
Latte: Head to the café in the morning and ask for a latte and you will be served a nice, tall glass of cold milk. Much like the marinara sauce above, this is just a problem with translation more so than the ordered item, as latte is the Italian work for milk. Ask for a cappuccino instead and you will likely be served the best one you’ve ever had in your life. It’s practically impossible to get a bad cappuccino in Italy. Just be sure you don’t ask for one past breakfast time, drinking one past morning hours is shunned upon Italy, practically a sin punishable by stares and a sure giveaway that you’re not a local.
As you can see, many so-called Italian restaurants in the US, particularly the chains, have ill-prepared travelers of what to expect from authentic Italian restaurants. The best advice I can give any traveler is go to Italy without any pre-conceived ideas of what you should or should not eat once there. Go off the menu and seek daily specials, as they will be in season, regional and surely delicious.
Francesca Montillo is a native Italian currently living in Boston and the founder of Lazy Italian Culinary Adventures, which provides small group culinary adventures to Italy, as well as private trip planning and organizing. She is also a culinary instructor in the Boston area. She maintains strong ties to her native land and is very excited to be able to bring folks to Italy on her adventures.
You can learn more about her at www.thelazyitalian.com