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.
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.
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.