I'm going to be honest with you: this is one of the main reasons why I decided to write a book about life in Italy (I seriously wrote a whole section on it). In America, Italian food was my all-time favorite! Fettuccine Alfredo, Chicken Parmesan, spaghetti and meatballs... it's all amazing.
When I came to Italy for the first time, though, I found out that there was just one problem:
None of these foods are actually Italian.
They are "Italian-inspired," sure, but they are not genuine Italian fare, and some of them (I'm looking at you, Olive Garden's deep-fried gnocchi with cheese sauce and shrimp) make Italian natives want to barf and/or throw a tantrum.
Italians are very serious about their food, and while they are glad that we Americans like it, they don't like that we made up our own version of Italian food and convinced everyone that it is the real thing.
So, to help combat this misinformation, I will start by helping you weed out the fake dishes so you don't ask for them in Italy and get dirty looks!
5 Dishes Italians Never Cook
The fluffy, buttery kind from Fazzolis, the nice, crispy, seasoned ones from Pizza Hut, the famous ones from Olive Garden -- all of these breadsticks are delicious, but they aren't Italian. Italians don't make breadsticks. They have bread, obviously, and they use said bread to clean the sauce leftover on their pasta plates sometimes, but it isn't shaped like a stick and it isn't the side dish/add-on/pizza accompaniment that we know and love.
There are things here called "grissini" that Italians consider to be the closest thing they have to "breadsticks," but they are completely different. They are crunchy, thin pieces of bread that actually kind of resemble the sticks you would find on the ground under a tree (to put it another way, think pretzel rods, but not made of pretzel). They aren't soft and fluffy and they aren't really much good for sopping up sauce with, although they are great wrapped in ham as an appetizer!
2. Fettuccine Alfredo
Fettuccine Alfredo is one of my all-time favorite "Italian" dishes. Just the thought of the buttery, creamy, cheesy sauce makes me drool. But when I suggested to my husband that we make fettuccine Alfredo for lunch one day, he responded with a question that completely blew my mind: "What's fettuccine Alfredo?"
He's Italian! He should have known more about this quintessential Italian dish than I did, right? Only, it turns out that fettuccine Alfredo isn't actually Italian. It is loosely based off of a dish from Rome that is made with a butter sauce and some Parmigiano, but it isn't the same.
3. Pasta with Chicken
Since I probably just turned your world upside down, I'll just keep going. You know all those recipes from food blogs and Pinterest and cookbooks that involve mixing chicken with pasta to make various beautiful, scrumptious dishes? You know Chicken Parmigiana/Chicken Parmesan? Those things are forbidden here in Italy.
Italians absolutely never eat chicken in their pasta. It just isn't done. The chicken can be eaten as second course, but never shredded or cut up and put in or placed on a bed of pasta, regardless of whether that pasta has red sauce or cheese sauce or pesto or whatever other kind of sauce you could think of.
This was a devastating blow for me... But maybe not as much as the next item on our list...
4. Spaghetti and Meatballs
I have been living in Italy on and off for five years now, and this is still the thing that shocks me the most. Ask any American to name an Italian food, and nine times out of ten, they will immediately answer "spaghetti and meatballs."
But spaghetti and meatballs aren't Italian.
Just like Italians don't eat pasta with chicken in it, they don't eat pasta with meatballs in it either. They do eat spaghetti and they do eat meatballs (although theirs are a bit different in some cases, but that's a story for another post at another time), and sometimes the meatballs are actually cooked in the same sauce the use on the spaghetti, but they don't eat them together. Typically, they serve pasta for the first course, then meatballs with or without sauce for the second.
Luckily, it turns out that if you are sad enough about it, your Italian husband will put these courses together for you into one dish, but this is a special, off-menu item that isn't always available!
5. Carbonara with Cream Sauce
Lately there have been at least two items in the Italian newspaper (the actual, national newspaper, I'm not kidding) where they have reported incidences of Americans making carbonara with cream like they were reporting a murder.
If you are a food enthusiast, you may know that spaghetti carbonara consists of spaghetti with a "sauce" made from pancetta or bacon and just-slightly-cooked eggs. Most people put grated cheese on it, but this is where the dairy has to stop. Some people like Martha Stewart (I won't link the recipe so I don't encourage it and get kicked out of Italy, but you can look it up) add heavy cream to their carbonara as well, which, for Italians, is not only repulsive, but may just be grounds for expulsion from the country altogether.
The Italians' reaction to this may seem a bit extreme to us (I'm not making this up: my husband fumed about it for a whole day... and then brought it up again last night when we were watching them butcher Italian cuisine on Hell's Kitchen), but the main problem is that Italians don't want Americans or people from other countries to eat something like "creamy carbonara" and find it weird or gross, and then assume that Italians don't know anything about cooking. If someone eats Italian food, they want it to be real Italian food, otherwise it should go by a different name. Which, in my opinion, is fair enough.
So, in short, the foods I described on this list are still good and it's fine to like them, just please don't call them Italian!
This will surely be the first post of a new series (because there are way more than five foods in this category...), so if you can think of any other foods were Americans think are Italian but really aren't, put it in the comments and I'll add it to the next post!