Ten ‘Italian’ dishes that don’t actually exist in Italy

Wherever you travel in the world, the chances are you’ll never be too far from a restaurant offering Italian food. But is it really Italian? Here, The Local speaks to an Italian food blogger and culinary tour guide - and dispels a few persistent food myths.

Ten 'Italian' dishes that don't actually exist in Italy
Spaghetti bolognese may be a classic 'Italian' dish abroad but you won't find it anywhere in Italy. Spaghetti bolognese: Shutterstock

Spaghetti bolognese, pepperoni pizza and penne alfredo. Easy to pronounce, delicious to eat. If you order them in Italy, however, you’re likely to be in for a shock.

“I didn’t order this!” you may cry – while the waiter stands over you with a raised eyebrow.

As the owner of a food-tour company and cookery course in Venice, Monica Cesarato is wearily familiar with the kind of misconceptions that foreigners have about Italian food.

Although many of the people on her tours are well-travelled and open-minded, even they sometimes have the wrong idea about Italian cuisine. Often, they expect one thing – and they’re puzzled or even outraged when they get another.

“Once, a woman on my course even insisted that I was mispronouncing bruschetta,” Cesarato says with a chortle (in Italian, it’s pronounced ‘Brusketta’ not ‘Brushetta’.)

Thankfully, though, things are slowly changing – largely thanks to the popularity of TV shows about travel and cooking.

GALLERY: Ten 'Italian' dishes that don't exist in Italy

As a former UK resident, Cesarato, who is married to a British man, says she was constantly finding herself eating 'Italian' food that was nothing of the kind.

“The first time I went to Britain, people were always telling me: ‘You Italians cook this and you cook that’ – and I had to tell them: ‘No, we would never eat that!’”

Often, these skewed ideas about what constitutes genuine Italian food are the result of emigration one hundred years ago.

“People don’t realize that the Italians who emigrated to the States and the UK were mostly impoverished farmers who couldn’t afford certain ingredients,” she explains.

Their style of cooking – known as ‘cucina povera’ (literally 'poor kitchen’) involved using readily available ingredients and leftovers.

“Sometimes, 50 percent of an entire village would emigrate as a community and then carry on cooking like they did back at home,” says Cesarato. “But that wasn’t necessarily what everyone else was cooking back in Italy.”

Bear in mind, too, that dishes can differ wildly from one Italian region to another – so that what may be considered as generically Italian in America may in fact originate from some remote village in Sicily.

In Cesarato’s home region of Veneto, food is often very different from the rest of Italy, and therefore often undervalued or misunderstood abroad, she says.

As a port and a major centre for commerce and trade, Venice has been exposed over the centuries to many different cultures. This has left an indelible mark on the city’s cuisine.

But what about pizza? From the number of tourists who order it in restaurants in Venice, you’d think it was a traditional Venetian speciality. Wrong.

“Pizza came from Naples in the south of Italy,” says Cesarato. “But what people fail to realize is that it spread first to America and then to the rest of Italy.”

“We never really had pizza until people from the south of Italy started moving to the north for work in the 60s and 70s. Now, you see the locals making pizza too – but back in the 80s all the pizzaioli (pizza chefs) were from Naples.”

As you might expect, pizza has been experimented with abroad a great deal more than in Italy. In America, particularly, some of the weird and wonderful toppings (eg: pineapple and ham) would be anathema to most traditional Italian pizza chefs.

As Cesarato says, Brits and Americans have a tendency to “complicate” food in a way that native Italians would never dream of doing. The truth is that they have relatively simple tastes.

Finally, to help the unsuspecting visitor to Italy or recently-arrived expat, Cesarato pinpoints the ten dishes which are not actually Italian.

GALLERY: Ten 'Italian' dishes that aren't Italian

Monica Cesarato is a food blogger, culinary tour guide and teaches cookery courses in Venice. She is currently co-writing a book with about Cicchetti (Venice version of tapas). To find out more about her food tours and cookery classes go to her Cook in Venice website.

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RANKED: The 11 worst food crimes you can commit according to Italians

From fruity pizza toppings to spaghetti bolognese, an international study has revealed which of the most common 'crimes' against Italian cuisine are seen as most and least offensive.

Pasta with sauce on top and vegetables on the side.
The Italian food police are on their way. Photo: logan jeffrey on Unsplash

It turns out that putting cream in carbonara is not actually the worst thing you could do when holding a dinner party for Italian friends.

And, while not ideal, neither is snapping your spaghetti before cooking it, or even serving it as a side dish.

The many unwritten rules around eating and drinking in Italy are often baffling to foreigners, while Italians themselves are famous for raging against what they see as “disgusting” interpretations of classic dishes.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

But in Italy, some of these food-related faux pas are viewed as far more upsetting than others, according to the results of a international study published by YouGov.

At the end of last year, researchers compiled a list of 19 ways in which foreigners are often accused of abusing Italian cuisine and asked people in 17 countries, including Italy, whether each was acceptable or unacceptable.

Of these, eight culinary practices were judged as being either fairly acceptable or divisive by Italian survey respondents.

Eating pizza at lunchtime instead of in the evening was deemed wrong by only a minority of Italians; while many also reserved judgement on people combining Bolognese sauce or ragù with spaghetti – which is famously not the done thing in Bologna.

Putting sauce on top of pasta, as opposed to serving the pasta coated in the sauce, meanwhile, was seen as mildly controversial.

However, the majority deemed 11 of the listed transgressions to be completely out of order, issuing a clear warning against certain habits which are widespread outside the country – and which, for the most part, were not seen as problematic by the majority of respondents in other countries surveyed.

Here’s the list of the very worst crimes against Italian food according to the study – ranked from the offences seen as deeply disturbing to those deemed slightly less terrible.

1. Putting ketchup on pasta – this was by far the most distressing item on the list according to Italians, scoring -82. It was one of only two food crimes on the list that Americans also deemed unacceptable (-48), with Spaniards similarly against (-46). However, in 11 countries people said this was perfectly fine, with Indonesians (+76) and Hong Kongers (+79) the most enthusiastic. People in Sweden also seem to enjoy pasta with ketchup, the survey found (+46).

2. Putting pasta in cold water and then boiling it – the results are clear with a score of -71: don’t do this in front of an Italian unless you want them to run screaming from the kitchen. Of course, you’re supposed to add the pasta to water that’s already gently boiling. Adding pasta to cold water was the most disdained practice around the world overall, including by Americans, with only Chinese (+16) and Hong Konger (+31) respondents more likely to be ok with it. 

3. Putting pineapple on pizza – there’s a reason you won’t see a Hawaiian listed on the menu in many pizzerias in Italy – it’s seen as the third-worst thing you could do to the national cuisine with a score of -63 .France isn’t keen either (-15) though Australia appears to have plenty of fans of fruity pizza toppings (+50).

4. Serving pasta as a side dish – think a mound of spaghetti would be a nice accompaniment to your grilled meat or fish? Think again if you’re in Italy, where the idea of having pasta as a contorno ranked as one of the worst possible food crimes with a score of -63. As all Italians know, pasta is served before the meat, fish or other main course, as a primo. No other country surveyed had a problem with this, though, and the French were especially big fans of pasta as a plat d’accompagnement.

5. Cutting long pasta with a knife while eating – the message is clear: don’t snap it, don’t cut it; you’ll need to learn how to twirl your spaghetti elegantly around your fork if you want to be invited back to an Italian home for dinner. This habit is another one people in the country apparently find disturbing, with a score of -46.

6. Putting cream in carbonara sauce – perhaps surprisingly, this famous crime against Italian cuisine – which regularly provokes furious online outbursts and stern warnings from Italian chefs – came in at only 6th place with a score of -45. As any Italian will tell you, there’s no need for cream in the authentic recipe.

7. Topping seafood pasta with cheese – this rule may not seem obvious to non-Italians, but we don’t recommend asking for the grated parmesan after being served a steaming plate of spaghetti alle vongole. It’s a major faux pas in Italy, where it scored -39, while Americans gave a far more positive rating of +38.

8. Rinsing cooked pasta in cold water – while many people abroad may think they need to rinse boiled pasta, Italians wouldn’t do this. Instead, many recipes call for the starchy pasta water to be conserved and used to finish the sauce. While perhaps seen as more senseless than revolting, this practice scored -23 in Italy.

9. Drinking cappuccino after lunch – Long, milky coffees are for breakfast in Italy, and while the barista probably won’t refuse to make you a cappuccino at 3pm, be aware that this might cause confusion and could turn other customers’ stomachs, as Italians gave this habit a score of -23. That’s despite the rest of Europe being fine with the concept; it scored +65 in Spain, +62 in Germany and +53 in France.

10. Boiling pasta without salt – Italians will tell you that a pinch of salt is essential in the cooking water for pasta, and leaving it out is highly controversial, with a score -17. Meanwhile, the British don’t see a problem (+15).

11. Eating garlic bread with pasta – While the rest of the world may ask what could possibly be wrong with this, the concept of filling a baguette with garlic butter and baking it just doesn’t really exist in Italy – even if it does seem to exist in every Italian restaurant on the planet outside of the country itself. Americans are particularly enthusiastic about this combination (+83), as are Brits (+80) but Italians gave it the thumbs down with -14.

The results also showed that attitudes to some of the established food rules are shifting among young Italians.

The biggest difference comes with drinking cappuccino after a meal, something which 18-24 year-old Italians tend to think is fine (+24), but which older age groups – and especially the over 55s (-36) – say is unacceptable. 

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

Young Italians are also substantially more likely than their older peers to say that eating garlic bread with pasta or having risotto as a side dish is ok.

However, younger Italians seem to have turned against the practice of adding oil to the water when cooking pasta. Those aged 18-24 and 25-34 tend to consider this unacceptable, whereas their elders tend to see it as fine, the survey found.