What Italian Food Is (& Is Not)

One of the things I used to tell my Italian language students during the first class (when they were nervous about being able to learn enough in time for their upcoming trip) was that even if they didn’t learn more than a few words of Italian, they would not starve. Thanks to the popularity of Italian cuisine around the world, we are familiar with quite a number of Italian food terms and dishes.

That always comforted my students a bit, until I then said:

“Of course, there’s really no such thing as ‘Italian food.'”

Blank stares.

(Which is maybe what you’re giving me right now through the screen.)

But it’s true. This thing those of us outside Italy call “Italian food” doesn’t exist. It never has. This is due, in part, to the relative new-ness that is the country of Italy itself – unified only in the late 19th century, Italy is younger than the United States (which is a fun little factoid to pull out at your next cocktail party). If there wasn’t a country of Italy, but instead several regions with their own governments and traditions, how could there be “Italian food?”

Pasta fresca || creative commons photo by Tommasi Family

Pasta fresca || creative commons photo by Tommasi Family

Though it’s been well over a century since Italy became the country we know today, Italians still tend to identify more with the region from which they come than with the idea of “Italy” as a whole. Not only that, Italians aren’t traditionally as mobile as residents of some countries (particularly the United States) – generations of a family living in the same town (and, in some cases, the same house handed down) is incredibly common.

Knowing all of that, it makes perfect sense the one’s home region would probably be more meaningful in one’s life than the Italian nation. And there are fewer better examples of how important regional identity is to modern Italians than food.

Of course, there are some dishes that have been exported not just from Italy to other countries but from one region in Italy to the others. Pizza, for example, can now be had in basically every part of the country – but it originated in Naples, so it would be understandable if you thought a pizza in Venice was only so-so.

With 20 regions in Italy, and more provinces within those regions than I care to count, a gastronomic map of the country quickly turns into an intricate patchwork of culinary specialties and ingredients. That kind of perspective on Italy can help inform a traveler’s dining itinerary in some really delicious ways.

What is Italian food?

Carciofi in Rome || creative commons photo by Tim Sackton

Carciofi in Rome || creative commons photo by Tim Sackton

(I know, I know – I just spent all this time telling you Italian food doesn’t exist, and now this? Bear with me, I promise this is going somewhere.)

While there isn’t a comprehensive menu of dishes you can rightly label as “Italian food,” there are three common themes to all good food in Italy regardless of where you eat it:

  1. Simple – Some of you may have visited France and been wowed by the artfully-prepared meals there. French food is notoriously complex, with fussy sauces that are just about impossible to get right without attending culinary school. Italian food is the polar opposite. The best dishes in Italy usually involve fewer than five ingredients and can absolutely be duplicated at home. In fact, many cooks in Italy will tell you their recipes. The techniques may be harder to master, but the simplicity of a dish is often a point of pride in Italy.
  2. Fresh – When you’re only using a few ingredients, those ingredients must be absolutely top quality. Good Italian cooks use what’s in season, period. They go to the market every day, buying what they’ll cook that night, so that they know it’s at its freshest. If you’ve ever had tomatoes from the supermarket in the middle of winter and compared that with the tomatoes you pull from your garden in summer, you know that freshness is a difference you can taste.
  3. Local – Part of using only the freshest ingredients means using local ingredients whenever possible, so that’s the third pillar of good Italian cooking. Getting your ingredients at the local market means you’re buying things that haven’t traveled far from where they were picked or produced. And in many restaurants, even small places that seem to have kitchens the size of closets, they’re making their own pasta and bread and anything else they can on-site. You can’t get much more local than that.

The only other thing that I think can authoritatively be said about all Italian food is that it’s regional – which is kind of an oxymoron, no?

When you have an itinerary for your Italy trip all worked out, do yourself a favor and find out what ingredients and dishes for which each region or city is known. Take the seasons into account, too. You’ll end up with a list of things to look for on menus that’s likely to be much more diverse than you’d expect – and far more delicious than you can imagine.

What is Italian food not?

Spaghetti and meatballs || creative commons photo by Taz

Spaghetti and meatballs || creative commons photo by Taz

There are some so-called Italian restaurants outside Italy that don’t really help with the misconceptions foreigners have about “Italian food.”

(I’m lookin’ at you, Olive Garden.)

Spaghetti and meatballs isn’t a thing in Italy. Oh, Italians eat meatballs, but they’re served as part of the meat course and not on top of pasta. Meatballs in Italy are called “polpette,” and they’re usually large enough that a few of them is a main course (served with some of the delicious sauce in which they’ve been cooking). There are meat sauces that go with certain pastas, too, such as ragù alla bolognese, but if you’re searching for a big plate of “authentic Italian” spaghetti and meatballs in Italy you will not find it.

Pizza, as mentioned, is everywhere in Italy now, and perhaps the country’s most popular culinary export. Toppings on pizza in Italy are typically much more sparse than you might be accustomed to at home, though, and doing a quick Italian-to-English translation of a pizzeria menu can lead to a common ordering error. You might think of starting with something simple, something like the pizza you love at home to see how it’s different in its home nation, and the word on the menu looks an awful lot like “pepperoni.” But it’s missing a P – and “peperoni” in Italian is not a thinly-sliced spicy sausage. Instead, you’ll get a pizza covered in peppers. If you’re intent on the authentic Italian version of pepperoni, get the salame piccante.

Starbucks hasn’t done travelers any favors, either, giving people a false impression that they know some Italian coffee words. “Latte” is a legitimate Italian word. It means “milk.” It does not mean “espresso with milk,” so if you walk into a coffee bar in Italy and order a latte you might get an odd look – followed by a glass of milk. Or, if you’re lucky, the barista recognizes that you’re “not from around these parts” and asks some clarifying questions to get to what you actually want, which is a caffè con latte. The word “biscotti” is a genuine Italian word, too, which means “cookies” – plural. Asking for “un biscotti,” then, is asking for “one cookies.” The singular – the word you want – is biscotto.

And yes, the same goes for “panini,” too.

One of my favorite not-really-Italian-food misconceptions is “Alfredo sauce.” It’s based on a dish that most Italians have eaten at one time or another, but only at home, and probably only when they weren’t feeling well. Pasta with a bit of butter and parmigiano is the Italian version of Saltines and 7-Up, cinnamon toast, or rice – whatever your parents used to give you when you had an upset stomach. The translation of this very home-based comfort food becoming an American sensation stems from a pair of 1920s Hollywood stars visiting Rome. They dined in a restaurant operated by an Italian named – you guessed it – Alfredo, whose pregnant wife was eating that simple preparation of pasta, butter, and cheese to help with her morning sickness. The Americans wanted the same thing he was serving to his own wife, and loved the dish they ate so much they told everyone at home about it. When a bunch of Americans started showing up asking for Alfredo’s fettucine, of course he obliged – confusion aside, it was an easy dish to make and, hey, customers were paying him for it.

The restaurant that started it all still exists in Rome, and is now a tourist attraction.

The bottom line is that while you’re undoubtedly going to recognize many of the words you see on a menu in Italy, doing some pre-trip research (and bringing a menu translator) is a very good idea. Too many travelers end up in Italy’s restaurants with a false sense of security, end up disappointed by something, and then only go to places with menus in multiple languages – which is a really good way to get bad food.

Handy Dining Resources

I have long been a fan of a book that’s out of print, so if you happen to find a copy of Pat Mozersky’s “Italy: The Hungry Traveler” online or at your local bookstore, do yourself (and your stomach) a favor and grab it.

Failing that, the Italy Marling Menu Master at least gives you translations of Italian words (with no regional information).

There are other Italian menu translators out there, too – books, ebooks, and apps – and some helpful information is included in most good guidebooks. Just don’t forget to do a little research about regional specialties to go along with that, if the translator you get doesn’t include that already.

11 responses to “What Italian Food Is (& Is Not)”

  1. Jessica, This so rings true, especially the “simple” part! I do like to branch out and eat other cuisines (hard as that is in Rome), so the other night I made Chicken Tikka Masala. Mamma Mia! So many ingredients! I had to go to Castroni and buy like 5 spices we did not have on hand. It was fresh and great, though.

  2. Excellent summing up of the basics!

  3. Davide Canale says:

    Very good article,

    I’m a Italian guy and it always interesting reading how the foreign peoples look to yours country.
    I travelled a lot and i saw how the other countries see the Italy; you took the right points for basic guide for on the “Italian food” tour.

    • Jessica says:

      Thank you so much for the comment, Davide! I am always happy to hear from Italians that I’m getting Italy information right. 🙂

  4. Zachary Tomlinson says:

    I like that you pointed out that there are many cultural regions in Italy that foods can come from. I would like to find an Italian restaurant that offers truly Italian cuisine. I wonder what kind of places like that there are.

    • Jessica says:

      Well, I don’t think a truly authentic restaurant (outside Italy) would offer “Italian” cuisine, since it varies so widely around the country.

  5. Tori says:

    Yeah, that is true! italians do hate mixing flavors and putting lots of ingredients!
    The simpler, the better.
    I am glad you are correcting the common mistakes as caffé latte or biscotto (as the singular of biscotti). What impressed me the most? that people never drink lots of coffee! they like it short, so when I asked for something bigger I was asked if I wanted a bottle of coffee lol

    • Jessica says:

      It’s true, Italians drink coffee in very small quantities… But they take lots of coffee breaks throughout the day!

  6. Taylor Bishop says:

    Thanks for the interesting read about Italian food. It’s good to know that many Italian cooks only use what’s in season. I’m kind of interested to learn more about the market and how the cooks can know what ingredients are in season.

    • Jessica says:

      Anyone involved with food in Italy (and, really, anywhere) has a good idea of what’s in season when. It comes with the territory. 🙂

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