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The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

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The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing
Photo: Dmitrypoch/depositphotos
17:15 CET+01:00
There are a few Italian food myths we need to put right.

Italian food is loved all over the world, for very obvious reasons, and every visitor to Italy wants to try it. But there are a lot of misconceptions about this much-loved cuisine.

You might already know these things, or you might not - when I first arrived in Italy I had no idea. But after living here for a while, here are a few things I know are just not true. 

Myth no.1: Spaghetti Bolognese is Italian

Lots of people are disappointed to learn that this dish doesn’t actually exist in Italy. The same goes for Fettucine Alfredo, marinara sauce, and - sorry - even garlic bread.

Personally I think American-Italian food is delicious, but you’re not going to find much of it over here. And whenever I offer to cook spaghetti with meatballs, my Italian husband’s face turns a peculiar colour. To him, that’s a primo (first course) and secondo (second course) on the same plate and it’s completely wrong.

Portion sizes are often smaller, and pasta dishes and pizzas don’t come piled high with cheese or meat. Dishes are often much simpler and lighter than you might expect, since Italian cooks like to let a few high-quality ingredients speak for themselves.

So don’t be surprised if you arrive in Italy and they don't have the things you expected to find on the menu. Just try it anyway, because you’ll probably end up liking it even more.

Typical Bolognese ragu served with pappardelle. Photo: milla74/Depositphoto

Myth no.2: Italians eat multiple-course meals

Anywhere in Italy, restaurant menus will dazzle you with their many courses: antipasto, primo, secondo, contorni, dolce (starter, first course, main course, sides, and dessert).

Wanting to do the local things, most people will order the lot. And then come to regret it as the food coma sets in before the secondo has even arrived. The worst part? Taking food (except for pizza) home is not a thing here, so anything uneaten just gets wasted.

I’m not saying Italians don’t eat all those courses. They eat all that and more - on Sundays and special occasions.

But the rest of the time, most people who go out to eat stick to two or three courses. In our case, that’s normally some antipasti, a first or second course and a shared dessert. And at home, one simple dish with some fruit afterwards is pretty standard.

READ ALSO: The words and phrases you need to know to decipher Italy's restaurant menus

Myth no.3: Italian food is unhealthy

Being a complete glutton, I moved to Italy with the grim certainty that I was going to pile on loads of weight, and that no amount of exercise would help me in the land of pizza, pasta and gelato. But I was still going to eat as much delicious Italian food as possible.

And I did. I do. We eat pizza at least once a week, and some form of pasta almost every day. We pour olive oil on everything. My mother in law gives me tiramisu for breakfast, and bakes biscotti on an industrial scale. My husband’s hometown is famous for mozzarella, and if we don’t visit often enough, his parents post it to us. I’m not joking – they mail us cheese.

And do you know what? I’ve lost weight, and I feel better. Visiting friends and family too have told me how weight dropped off them while staying with us, despite the fact we did nothing but eat. How can that be?

A lot of pasta dishes contain plenty of vegetables. Photo: zkruger/depositphoto

Because when we’re not eating pizza and tiramisu, we eat piles of vegetables fresh from the garden or market. It’s very common here to eat lots of soups and salads, and lentils and chickpeas by the truckload (the ‘food of gladiators’, my husband says.) I eat more fruit and fish than ever, and very little processed anything. I’ve swapped huge cups of frothy, sugary coffee for black espresso. You get the picture. It looks like all that stuff about the Mediterranean diet was true.

I’m not trying to become a diet guru here, as I have a biscuit in one hand while I type. But the idea that Italian food is all unhealthy is a big, fat myth.

Myth no.4: Italians dip bread in olive oil

At an Italian restaurant in London recently the waiter, from Milan, started pouring olive oil and balsamic vinegar into a small dish at our table, before awkwardly pausing.

“Um, do you want me to do this?” he glanced nervously from me to my husband, with whom he’d just been swapping life stories for about an hour (as always seems to happen when two Italians meet abroad, even in the most predictable of situations) “It’s just… people like it here. Is it ok?”

He was talking about us Brits and our inexplicable love of pouring oil and vinegar onto a tiny plate, then dipping chunks of bread into it, probably thinking we’re being terribly continental. We do it in every Italian or Spanish restaurant we’ve got.

READ ALSO: Ten 'Italian' dishes that don't actually exist in Italy

But wherever this idea came from, it wasn’t Italy. Italians just dive into the antipasti platter instead: with plain bread.

My husband’s verdict is that this dipping your bread in oil thing is “fine, if you’re starving and there’s nothing else” – just as long as you don’t do it with focaccia, since that’s about 90% olive oil already (this fact has not stopped me from doing it yet. Sorry, not sorry.)

Myth no.5: You have to eat the Italian way

Friends who come to visit often ask me if they’re doing things correctly. As in, ‘is it ok if I eat this with my hands?” or “do Italians use a fork and spoon for spaghetti?” I remember once being worried about this stuff, too.

You can’t blame us foreigners for being nervous about accidentally committing some horrific food faux-pas and being booted out of the restaurant – after all, Italians aren’t known for being finicky about their food for nothing.

But here’s the thing: they’re finicky about cooking the food, but how you eat it is your own business. Unless you’re in the fanciest of restaurants – like the Michelin-starred places where they tell you which order to eat the canapes in – no one really cares.

Now, I know the only way I could possibly offend anyone around here is by not eating my food.

Myth no.6: There’s no international food in Italy

Lots of expats, used to having a colourful variety of takeaway menus to choose from back home, complain about the lack of different cuisines available in Italy. And Italians have a not-totally-undeserved reputation for being unadventurous eaters (As one Italian friend put it, ‘why eat that, when we could have pizza?’)

But that’s not to say Indian, Thai, Chinese or Japanese food can’t be found. In fact, my town (like many in Italy) has a disproportionately huge number of sushi restaurants – many of them good – and hosts a big international food market every year.

I’ve found good Thai food in Rome, and Indian curries in Florence. I am however still searching for pho, and I’d sell a kidney for good tacos. But my point is, it’s not as bad as people make out.

Myth no.7: Italians drink a lot of wine

Some people imagine Italy as this wine-drenched paradise. And it is, if you’re on holiday. This one obviously comes down to perspective but, personally, as a 30-something British woman, I think Italians could drink more.

I’m not saying Italians don’t love wine. But most people here enjoy it in tiny, sophisticated amounts, with meals.

In my experience, a lot of Italians hardly seem to drink at all. When I go out with a group of Italian friends, I'm often the only woman drinking. And you don't see drunk Italians much. I mean, staggering around is hardly good for la bella figura, is it?

This varies by region, and, like I say, your perspective. But if you’d usually go to a bar after dinner, don’t be surprised if your Italian date would rather get gelato.

READ ALSO: The must-try foods from every region of Italy

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