Why Your Favorite Italian Foods Don’t Exist in Italy

by Chris Atwood

When you go to Italy, how will you know you’re noshing on actual authentic Italian food?  It shocks many Americans that what they think of as Italian food doesn’t at all exist in Italy.

The pizza? Yes.

The pasta? Yes. 

The chicken parm? Well, no.

In Rome, you won’t find spaghetti and meatballs. You will find pasta alla carbonara in Trastevere. In Firenze, you won’t find pepperoni pizza. You will find fiorentina steak in FlorenceTuscan t-bone. In Venice, you won’t find fettuccine alfredo. You will find squid-ink risotto in Venice, Italy.

What’s the Difference between Food in Italy and Italian Food in America?

It turns out that authentic Italians food is not the same as Italian-American cooking. Italy is more like a federation of different countries than a uniform place. In fact, Italy is made up of 20 regions – each with their own histories, dialects and foods. The food you’ll find in Naples has nothing to do with the food you’ll try in Milan.

Understanding Real Italian Food vs. American Italian Dishes

To help you make sense of the difference between American “Italian” and the food in Italy, below you’ll find our travel experts’ primer to authentic Italian food. 

Here’s an introduction to authentic Italian food vs. Italian-American food:

What Are Authentic Italian Meatballs Like?

When Americans think of Italian restaurants, spaghetti and meatballs spring to mind. Italians find this very funny, since in Italy you won’t find meatballs on a pile of pasta. Italians serve polpette on their own – either with or without tomato sauce. Depending where you are in Italy, you can find “meatballs” made from eggplant, zucchini or even seafood. 

Does Parmesan Cheese Come from Italy?

There is no “Parmesan” cheese in Italy – at least not the stuff in the green can. In Italy, you’ll find parmigiano reggiano. Called the king of cheeses, parmigiano is produced near Parma. The cheese is aged for at least 10 months. In Italy, fresh parmigiano gets grated on pasta or is an ingredient in savory dishes. Despite being a staple of Italian-American cuisine, “chicken parmesan” is nowhere to be found in Italy. Instead, Italians nosh o n parmigiana – eggplant layered with tomato sauce and cheese.

How Do Italians Make Lasagna?

Lasagna – layered with red sauce and ricotta – is common in American and Italian-American kitchens. Many Italian immigrants came to the U.S. from Italy’s South. Not coincidentally, Southern Italian lasagna is often made with tomatoes and ricotta. 

American lasagna is actually a Southern Italian offshoot. For most Italians, lasagne comes from the northern city of Bologna. Bolognese lasagne noodles are made with spinach pasta, a rich meat sauce, and grated parmigiano cheese. So, if you order lasagna” in Italy, don’t be surprised when green pasta with no ricotta lands on your plate.

What’s Pizza Like in Italy?

Italy is synonymous with pizza. Chewy crust. Zesty tomatoes. Regional varieties of pizza abound in Italy. In Naples, you’ll find the world-famous margherita – a marriage of mozzarella, tomato and basil. In Sicily, you’ll nibble on sfincione, a thick “pizza” with no tomatoes. And, in Rome, you’ll encounter thin-crust, crispy pizzas. 

Traditionally, Italians do not serve pizza by the slice. You get a whole pizza to yourself. Fair warning: “pepperoni” in Italian means bell peppers. If you want spicy salami on your pizza, you’ll need to ask for a pizza alla diavola.

Ultimate Pizza Guide to Rome

There is no one Italy. There are many flavors to Italy. Click the image below to watch our video, Your Ultimate Pizza Guide to Rome, Italy:

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