Sunday, January 21, 2007

Italian Food Myths

Everyone loves Italian cuisine, right? It’s the age-old classic, the restaurant stand-by for untold Americans, the cuisine everyone can agree on when dining out with a group. Trouble is, most Italian food as it is known in America isn’t really la vera cucina Italiana. Let’s debunk a few myths.

Spaghetti and Meatballs, the real classic dish
Actually, no. Sure, you find spaghetti all over the peninsula. It can be topped with the well-known tomato sauce (called a ragu) or with a plentitude of other tasty options. But with a helping of meatballs nestled on top? Never. You might find meatballs on a menu if you are in a rural, down-home kind of place, or dining a casa with a friend. But never the twain shall meet when it come to serving up the duo insieme.

Fettucine Alfredo
Never seen it in these parts. The fat-laden, creamy sauce globbed on so many plates across America is not to be found here. When I tried to explain this sauce to chef friend, Giorgio, he was very confused. “But, why? It's troppo grasso (too fatty). And who is Alfredo?” he kept asking. Nobody, Gio. There is no one named Alfredo. It’s a made-up dish marketed around the country. “But why?” If you figure out the answer, let me know.

Caesar Salad
This one really confuses us, because it is ubiquitous in so-called Italian restaurants, even those claiming true Italian roots. But the origins of this salad come from a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. Go figure. Again, unless you are in a tourist trap in Florence, you won’t find this among the offerings in Italy. In fact, you won’t find any other dressing option except olive oil and vinegar.

Espresso wires you for days
While it’s thick and concentrated-tasting, espresso actually contains less caffeine that a cup of drip-brewed coffee, according to an article in National Geographic (January, 2005). It tastes better, too. The only downside is you down it in about three seconds, so there is no lingering over a cup of joe around here.

Pass the butter
Bread is put on the table as a tool…to soak up sauces and to help you push things onto your fork. Butter or dipping bowls of oil are not provided. And the bread is almost always at room temperature. No warmed bread as a prelude to the meal; no garlic toast either. Sorry to disappoint you.

Grate on the cheese
In the fancy (and mid-range) American Italian restaurants, the waiters come out with the wheely cheese graters to offer you a heaping helping of “parmesan”. Here you don’t get such service but they do bring a dish of pre-grated Parmigiano (or Pecorino, depending on what region you’re in). Unless of course you order a primo dish with seafood in it. You’re not allowed to have cheese on top of spaghetti with clam sauce or shrimp risotto. I think they say it masks the flavors of the delicate fish though I’m not positive on this one; I only know that it is against the rules.

Forget everything you think you know about pizza. It should never come with an inch (or more) thick crust. And while we’re at it, the crust should never be stuffed with anything. And it absolutely ought to be cooked in a wood-fired oven. Peperoni is not a meat; they’re sweet bell peppers. Roman pizza is very thin and crispy-crusted with minimal toppings…only enough to taste every flavor. It’s true that Napolitana pizza boasts a bit thicker and chewier crust, but not at all like most American pizza. They are usually served on a plate uncut, leaving you with the likes of a butter knife to tear through the pie and get it to your mouth. But once it’s reached the lips, its oh-so-good. (Yep, a butter knife but no butter provided for the bread. It's a mystery.)

So there you have it. The truth about some of America’s popular notions regarding Italian food. I hope you’re not disappointed. Believe me, the real deal is far better than you could expect based on your experiences at home. We’ve never seen a disappointed face when they’ve tasted their first bite of true cooking here.
copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider


Anonymous said...

Perfect introduction to real Italian food for Americans!
I recently held an orientation for a group of Italian Fulbright students off to California for six months. Over lunch I told them about "doggy-bags" and you should have seen their faces! Re "Italian food rules" see my entries Dec 19 and 20. I'll have to add "no cheese on fish dishes".

Judith in Umbria said...

This is at least the legend: there was a restaurant (and supposedly still is) in Rome called da Alfredo and tagliatelle Alfredo was a spur of the moment tableside creation in the mid-1900s -- maybe the 30s? Not sure.
I've heard that in parts of Campania and/or Sicily meatballs were served with the sugo together in simpler homes. Here in Umbria they are served as a secondo, and oftenm breadcrumbed and deep fied, which I find deeply disappointing compared to those simmered in sugo.

Anonymous said...

Judith is correct. a Roman restaurateur named Alfredo di Lellio created Fettucine Alfredo for his sick wife. It so pleased the famous couple, Fairbanks and Pickford (the "Brangelina" of their day) that they gave him an engraved gold fork and spoon in gratitude. (American chefs added heavy cream to the recipie) His grandson runs the restaurant today and they still bring out the golden spoon and fork for special guests to use.

P.S. I enjoy your blog!

J.Doe said...

I've met Americans and Canadians who hated the Italian food in Italy because it wasn't the Italian food they like and visa versa. I prefer on a whole Italian Italian food but sometimes I eat thing (like shicken parmesan) that grosses my Italian husband out.

Valerie said...

Thanks for the comments! I'd heard about Alfredo's in Rome, but the dish is made with butter and parmigiano, called Alfredo after the restaurant, versus a "universal" dish called Fettucine Alfredo. In other words, it's at that one restaurant in Rome, not across the country like in America, and not at all the same dish as we serve in America with that thick, heavy sauce. Where the American dish came from remains a mystery.

I also prefer the meatballs simmered in the sauce, it just makes them moister, but I still serve them as the secondo rather than in unison with the spaghetti. I'm all about adapting ;) I also found that simmering the meatballs in broth not only makes them tender and tasty, even Italians approve of them!
Keep reading, ragazzi!

something... said...

Long live Italian food though I prefer my homemade thicker crusted pizza than the one served in a Pizzeria. So much nicer with a crusty base.

Anonymous said...
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Geek girl said...

Oh I would love to have a real Italian pizza right about now.

Valerie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Valerie said...

It was brought to my attention that Shelley over at Really Rome had previously written about food myths. Sorry, Shelley...I'm not sure how I missed that previous posting since I am a fan of her blog. Check out her site and her apartment rentals in Rome.