When it comes to the most popular cuisine in the world, Italian usually takes the top spot, and it’s easy to see why. However, it might surprise you that some of your favourite Italian dishes popular in North America are not quite the same or don’t even exist in their country of origin.
In this post, we’ll explore some beloved Italian dishes that have undergone unique transformations across the Atlantic, becoming North American favourites while remaining largely unknown in Italy. So, if you’re travelling to Italy for the first time, don’t expect to see them here.
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- The evolution of Italian food outside Italy
- Italian dishes you won't find in Italy
- Tips for enjoying Italian dishes in Italy
- In summary
The evolution of Italian food outside Italy
If you frequently eat Italian cuisine and live outside of Italy, chances are that the food you love and crave has undergone a few modifications. As with many other cultures, when immigrants come to a new country, they bring their culinary traditions. However, local ingredients and preferences often result in new dishes uniquely adapted to the local palate.
That’s precisely what happened to the dishes we know in Canada and the US (I’m looking at you, Olive Garden). Italians who settled in North America had to adapt their recipes to use locally available ingredients.
This led to the creation of new dishes that retained some Italian elements but were also influenced by the ingredients of the new land. Adapting dishes to customer palates and preferences also played a role in developing new Italian dishes that never existed in Italy.
Let’s not forget that Italian cuisine itself is highly regional. Dishes that are popular in one region of Italy might not be well-known in another. Similarly, Italian immigrants from different parts of the country created Italian dishes influenced by the food from their area.
Italian dishes you won’t find in Italy
So, now that we’ve covered the why let’s take a look at the familiar Italian dishes that are not a thing in Italy.
If Olive Garden and East Side Mario’s taught us anything, it is that bread sticks and garlic bread are a staple of Italian cuisine. However, you won’t find either in Italian restaurants. In traditional Italian cuisine, bread is a simple accompaniment to meals, often used to mop up sauces from dishes.
Similarly, breadsticks, or grissini are typically served plain or with herbs, offering a light and crisp texture. These examples highlight how Italian cuisine prioritizes fresh ingredients and simplicity over richness and heavy flavours.
Spaghetti and meatballs
A staple in many Italian-American households, spaghetti and meatballs is a classic dish found on numerous menus across North America. In Italy, however, meatballs (polpette) are typically served as a separate course or with other dishes like polenta. Combining spaghetti and meatballs as a single dish is more of an Italian-American invention that you won’t find on restaurant menus in Italy.
Bolognese sauce (from Bologna) is an authentic Italian sauce made with ground veal or beef, tomatoes (usually), garlic, and other ingredients. But no Italian would ever eat it with spaghetti. It needs flat noodles, like tagliatelli or fettuccine. Italians always use tagliatelle. Why? Because the sauce and the meat adhere better to a flatter pasta shape rather than thin spaghetti.
Penne alla vodka
Penne alla vodka is another Italian dish you’re probably familiar with but won’t find in Italy. It typically consists of penne pasta in a creamy vodka tomato sauce. Not only does it not align with traditional Italian cooking principles, vodka is not a staple ingredient in Italian kitchens and is rarely used in cooking. Hence, penne alla vodka remains a delightful result of the Italian diaspora’s culinary innovation rather than an authentic Italian dish.
While you might find chicken or veal parmesan a staple dish in many Italian restaurants in North America, it’s not something you’ll find on menus in Italy. You might even be familiar with the veggie version of eggplant parmigiana. However, it’s still not an Italian dish.
Melanzane alla parmigiana, the inspiration behind these culinary inventions, is a dish from Southern Italy. It consists of layered eggplant with tomato sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. It’s baked, not fried and never breaded.
While fettuccine alfredo is another dish commonly associated with Italian cuisine, it’s not something you’ll find in Italy. The origins of this dish can traced back to a specific restaurant in Rome. In the early 1900s, Alfredo di Lelio created a plate of fettuccine pasta tossed in butter and parmesan cheese to help his pregnant wife regain her appetite.
The dish became popular among American tourists and was eventually brought to the United States, where it evolved into a heavier cream-based sauce with garlic and other ingredients. Today, this dish is virtually unknown in Italy. Italian cuisine favours simpler sauces, so try the carbonara or cacio e pepe instead the next time you’re in Italy.
Despite their Italian-sounding name, mozzarella sticks are not a traditional dish in Italy. You won’t find these deep-fried cheese wonders on menus in Italy. As Italian cuisine favours using mozzarella cheese in its natural state, you’ll find it served fresh and paired with tomatoes in a Caprese salad or simply melted atop a pizza.
Oil and vinegar with bread before dinner
In contrast to what you often see in Italian restaurants in North America, the tradition of serving bread with a side of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping before a meal is not an Italian custom. We have only seen it once in Naples, and it was, of course, a tourist. The waiter seemed confused when the dude asked for the oil and vinegar. Once he brought them over, everyone stared at the tourist who nonchalantly poured both on a plate and dipped his bread in the mix. Ouch.
Another popular Italian dish that you won’t find in Italy is the Caesar salad. Although it has become a staple in North American restaurants, the dish was created by an Italian-American chef, Caesar Cardini, in Mexico. So, the name actually comes from its creator, not the Roman ruler. We have tried to recreate it here in Italy, but we had to make our own breadcrumbs as we couldn’t find any in the store.
Italians are very particular about pizza, which doesn’t include adding pineapple or pepperoni to their pie. While you can have a pizza topped with meat, it will never be the same as what you can expect in North America. It’s also important to remember that in Italian, peperone means pepper, not sausage. It’s similar sounding, but it’s not the same thing. You might get a different pizza altogether if you don’t know the difference.
If you really want something similar to a pepperoni pizza, order pizza alla diavola which is made with salame piccante (spicy salami). Strangely enough, we’ve seen a lot of wurstel e patatine pizza, topped with French fries and sausage – more reminiscent of Germany, not something you’d find in Italy. Yet, Italians find pineapple on pizza weird? Go figure.
Tips for enjoying Italian dishes in Italy
Italy is a culinary mecca for foodies, so you won’t be disappointed when you arrive. The best way to enjoy the food is to take the cue from the locals. And we don’t mean just to avoid tourist traps. Look at what and how they eat, and go with it.
For example, while you might be used to covering your pasta with Parmesan cheese, it doesn’t go on every dish in Italy. When your plate arrives, and cheese is an acceptable addition, you will get it on the table. If cheese isn’t offered, assume your dish doesn’t need it. Usually, this applies to any dishes with fish.
Pizza is another great example. Unlike the pizza we know in North America, pizza in Italy won’t be cut into slices. While some Italians eat their pizza with cutlery, others happily use their hands. We’ve been to many pizza joints surrounded by Italians who do both, so do what feels good to you.
One of the best ways to immerse yourself in Italian dishes in the areas you’re visiting is to take a food tour. Not only will you get the local perspective, but you’ll also have a chance to try authentic dishes and learn about them. Your stomach will thank you later!
For some controversy about the Italian dishes that are such a huge part of Italian culture, check out this post Everything I, an Italian, thought I knew about Italian food is wrong.
Recommended food tours in Italy:
If you love Italian food, these tours will help you discover the local flavours and traditions.
- From Parma: Private tour of the world-famous Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto factories, followed by a mouthwatering tasting accompanied by a glass of Malvasia wine. Book your spot!
- Rome: Take a guided walking tour with a local and learn about culinary history in Rome’s famous Trastevere neighbourhood. Don’t miss out – check tour availability.
- Naples: Sample the best street food in Naples with a local guide. From pizza and sweet treats to authentic Italian coffee. Don’t miss out, book your spot today!
Get more hands-on experience with a culinary workshop:
- Venice: Treat yourself to a private home pasta and tiramisu-making class and learn the region’s most famous pasta dishes. Book your spot today!
- Florence: Indulge in an authentic Italian culinary experience with a pasta-making class. Sign up now and take your pasta-making skills with you to impress your friends.
- Pianillo: Top off your visit to the Amalfi Coast with a mozzarella, pasta and tiramisu-making class. Book your spot today!
In Italy, you’ll find a variety of dishes that you’ve probably never heard of or sampled before. That’s because Italian dishes vary from region to region, incorporating local flavours and ingredients. There is a whole world of pasta, soups, pizzas and other dishes that will make your mouth water when you come to Italy.
There is nothing wrong with loving Italian-American adaptations of foods that have become staples today. Keep an open mind when you visit, and you might find yourself surprised by the variety of food and flavours that await you. Buon appetito!