Many tourists who travel around Italy, and more generally many foreigners, have misconceptions about authentic Italian food. They are often surprised to find that common American “Italian” dishes such as penne alfredo, garlic bread, spaghetti with meatballs and pepperoni pizza are nowhere to be found on a restaurant menù in Italy. Those tourists, or foreigners, quickly discover that America’s favorite Italian foods are not actually authentic Italian.
These misconceptions on authentic Italian food are often the result of Italian emigration. Over one hundred years ago, Italians came to America and became poverty-stricken farmers. They practiced a style of cooking called “cucina povera”, which translates to “poor kitchen”.
Italian immigrants were forced to cook with only readily available ingredients and leftovers. They could not afford many of the ingredients used in authentic Italian meals, and this led to changes in the original recipes. In this way, the new Italian-Americans altered, and forever americanized, some of the most famous Italian dishes.
An article recently published in The Local, the largest English-language news network in Europe, shows how and why some of the very popular American-Italian dishes were created.
And so we discover that penne alfredo originated in America in the 1920’s and does not exist in Italy. It was created when an Italian, easy to guess by the name of Alfredo, served a pasta dish with butter and sage. Due to the lack of ingredients, he eventually created ‘penne alfredo’, a dish which uses cream and parsley instead of butter and sage.
Similarly, America’s go-to Italian dish of spaghetti with meatballs is not authentic Italian at all. This dish was likely created by Italian immigrants unable to find quality tomatoes and thus forced to add meat to their sauce to make it thicker as meat was more readily available. Italians do eat, and do love meatballs, but never in their pasta. Meatballs, here in Italy, are traditionally served as a main course or starter dish, and are accompanied by vegetables, beans or potatoes.
Another popular American-Italian dish, and in many cases just ‘American’, is pizza. In America, strange pizza toppings such as ham and pineapples are frequent. That’s fine. But it is a common misconception by Americans that this kind of pizza, or pizzas, are authentic Italian: Such toppings would probably stimulate the irony of an Italian pizza maker.
Then we should also consider that Italian regions differ in culinary specialties. Americans often assume that a popular Italian dish in their country is also popular amongst all of Italy. In reality, a popular American-Italian dish could stem from a small Italian village and may not be popular, at all, in the rest of Italy.
As you travel across Italy, do not be shocked if you do not find your favorite ‘Italian’ dish on the menù. It may be that that dish is typical of another region or another place, or more likely that, in Italy, one of your favorite ‘Italian’ dishes simply does not exist.