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CULTURE

The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

There are a few Italian food myths we need to put right.

The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing
Photo: Dmitrypoch/depositphotos

Italian food is loved all over the world, for very obvious reasons. Almost every visitor to Italy wants to try the authentic delights they’ve heard so much about.

But there are a lot of misconceptions about this much-loved cuisine, meaning it can be easy to end up eating something that’s far from authentic – even in Italy-

Here are a few of the most common myths.

Myth no.1: Spaghetti Bolognese is Italian

Lots of people are disappointed to learn that this famous 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. At least, not outside of the tourist-oriented restaurants with no Italian clientele in sight.

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

At most restaurants in Italy portion sizes are often smaller than visiors expect, and pasta dishes and pizzas don’t come piled high with cheese or meat. Dishes are often quite simple and light, 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 what they do have, because you’ll probably end up liking it even more.

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

Myth no.2: Italians always eat huge, 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 thing, some 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 really a thing here, so anything uneaten just gets wasted.

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

I’m not saying Italians don’t eat all those courses. They eat all that and more – on Sundays and special occasions. Or at my mother-in-law’s house.

But the rest of the time, most people stick to two or three courses. In our case, that’s normally some antipasti, a first or second course and maybe a dessert.

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 weight. No amount of exercise could help me in the land of pizza, pasta and gelato, I thought.

But of course, there’s so much more to Italian food than that.

My preconceived idea wasn’t completely incorrect. We usually eat pizza at least once a week, and pasta in some form finds its way onto the menu most days. I also follow my italian family members’ lead, pouring olive oil on everything and then topping it with a heap of grated cheese (they even do this with soup, to my initial disgust. Of course, I now throw cheese into my soup as well without a second thought).

Overall, there aren’t many people following fat-free, carb-free diets around here. So what happened to that healthy Mediterranean diet?

The thing is that, as well as all that pizza and tiramisu, I now also eat piles of vegetables fresh from the market, fruit from the trees in the garden, and lentils and chickpeas by the truckload. I can’t say I was doing that regularly before moving here.

Dishes are frequently vegetarian or even vegan by default, as vegetables are often the star of the show in Italian cuisine – particularly in our region, Puglia, where many families have their own orto or vegetable garden and traditional “slow” preparation and cooking methods are still the norm.

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

So, unsurprisingly, I’ve swapped huge cups of frothy, sugary coffee for black espresso. Butter for extra-virgin olive oil. Meat for fish or vegetables. You get the picture. It looks like all that stuff we’ve read about the Mediterranean diet is true.

If you eat like the Italians do, you’ll soon find out the idea that Italian food is unhealthy is a big, fat myth.

Myth no.4: Italians dip bread in olive oil

This is a specific one but it never fails to surprise me on visits to the UK. For example, 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, who is Italian and with whom he’d just been swapping life stories.

“It’s just, British people like it… Right?” he looked at me. “Is it ok?” he looked at my husband. We all looked at each other. Was it ok? I nodded, they shrugged.

He wasn’t wrong about us Brits and our inexplicable love of pouring oil and vinegar onto a tiny plate, then dipping chunks of bread into it, thinking we’re being terribly continental. We do it in every Italian or Spanish restaurant we’ve got.

But wherever this idea came from, it wasn’t Italy. Italians just dive into the antipasti platter, with plain bread. Perhaps some new olive oil if you’ve just pressed it – but it has to be as fresh as can be. 

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. (However, this has not yet stopped me from doing it. Sorry, not sorry.)

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

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

You can’t blame us foreigners for being anxious 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 food for nothing.

But here’s the thing: they’re mainly finicky about cooking the food, but how you eat it is usually 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. Especially not my husband’s family, who pile the table so high with food that you can barely see each other anyway.

You’ll soon discover that only way you could really offend anyone around here is by turning food down or not eating enough. Now, that will require an explanation.

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

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

It’s common to hear Italy’s foreign residents, 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, and hosts an international food market every year.

There’s good Thai food in Rome, and great Indian restaurants 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 quite as bad as some people make out.

Myth no.7: Italians drink a lot of wine

A lot of people imagine Italy as this wine-drenched paradise. And it is – if you’re on holiday. This one obviously comes down to your own perspective, but as a 30-something British woman I often feel like most Italians barely drink at all.

I’m not saying Italians don’t love wine. But most people here enjoy it in tiny, sophisticated amounts, with meals. A lot of women my own age where I live don’t drink at all, and “going out for a drink” is barely a thing, unless it’s at the prescribed aperitivo hour. This is one major cultural difference that took some getting used to.

And you definitely don’t see many drunk Italians. Staggering around is hardly la bella figura, after all. So if you’re used to wild nights out in your home country, let’s just say things are about to get a lot more civilised.

Habits do vary greatly 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.

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CULTURE

Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Spooky traditions haven’t really caught on in Italy where strong Catholic beliefs mean the country has its own way of honoring the dead, says Silvia Marchetti.

Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Many Italians gathered last night to celebrate Halloween dressed as ghosts, witches, skeletons and zombies. Hotels, restaurants and pubs organised Halloween-themed events with spooky decor and music.

Each year I’m shocked by how Halloween penetrates Italian culture even though it’s a foreign import from Anglo-Saxon countries.

The real Italian festivities this week are All Saints’ Day (Ognissanti) celebrated on November 1st to remember all saints and martyrs during Christian history, and Il Giorno dei Morti o dei Defunti on November 2nd (the Day of the Dead, known elsewhere as All Souls’ Day) to commemorate the beloved deceased ones, mainly family members but also close friends.

While November 1st is a public holiday (and many Italians exploit it as an excuse for a ponte, a long weekend), November 2nd is a working day.

The entire week preceding All Saints’ Day sees cars queuing up to go to the cemetery, people rush to bring flowers and a few prayers to the tombs of deceased loved ones, and streets are often jammed.

For many Catholic Italians, it’s actually the only time of the year they remember to honor their dead, as if ‘imposed’ by their religion. A bit like going to mass on Sundays; if they fail to do so, they might feel guilty or even fear punishment from above. 

After spending an hour or so at the graveyards – places Italians usually tend to avoid – on All Saints Day, after the spiritual duties are accomplished, they might gather for lunch, bringing cakes and pastries.

People in Italy bring flowers to their loved ones’ graves on All Saints’ Day. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO / AFP

In some southern regions so-called ossa di morto (bones of the dead) pumpkin-filled biscuits and raisin pan dei morti (bread of the dead) are bought, while in the north chestnut pies are baked. 

Ognissanti is a very private event that usually involves little or restricted get-togethers, brothers and close relatives share the graveyard trip but then each goes back home, with little feasting on fine food. 

Catholics don’t have any macabre ritual involving leaving an empty place at the table for a spirit to join us. It is a moment of sadness but also of joy because our dead loved ones have ascended to heaven and are all there waiting for us. It’s the celebration of love, rebirth over doom, and the promise of a future reunion with them in heaven. 

That is why November 1st and November 2nd in Italy really have nothing to do with Halloween, which I call the ‘culture of the grave’ and the celebration of ‘scary death as an end to itself’. 

Even though they may partake in Halloween as a mere consumeristic party, Italians are mainly Catholic and believers do not believe in the darkness of the night, in the damnation of the grave, in being haunted by wicked spirits who long to take vengeance on us, in witches flying on broomsticks and terrifying zombies coming out of tombs. 

Pumpkin is something we occasionally eat as a pasta filling; it’s certainly not a decorative spooky element.

Halloween, which in my view is imbued with paganism and the Protestant belief in an evil superior being and naughty spirits ready to strike down on sinners instead of forgiving them, is celebrated in Italy but lacks a religious or spiritual nature. It’s like the Chinese celebrating Christmas for the sake of buying gifts and acting western. 

Halloween deeply affected my childhood. I’m Roman Catholic and I attended Anglo-American schools abroad where Catholics were a minority and each year I drove my mom crazy by forcing her to sew me a ghost or witch dress. She’d take a bed blanket and cut open three holes for the eyes and nose, annoyed that I should be influenced by a celebration that was not part of my tradition. 

In elementary and middle school my foreign teachers would make us decorate classrooms with spooky drawings, bake skeleton-themed biscuits for trick-or-treating, and tell us ghost stories in the dark to create an eerie vibe. 

Once we were also taken to visit a cemetery and when I told my dad about it he got annoyed and did all sorts of superstitious gestures to ward off evil. 

Halloween has always freaked me out but I did not want to miss out on the ‘fun’ for fear of being looked down upon by other kids. And so I too started believing in vampires, zombies, and ghosts, particularly at night when I was alone in my bed and had to turn on the light. Still today, and I am much, much older, I have a recurring nightmare of an ugly evil witch who torments me and chases me up the staircase.

I soon learned that if for Anglo-Saxons a trip to the graveyard is a jolly event, like a stroll in the park, and ‘graveyard tourism’ is on the rise, for Catholic Italians it is a place accessible only during funerals, moments of prayer, or during the week of All Saints and All Souls days. 

Last time I visited Ireland the guide took us to a monumental graveyard with tombs as high as cars, and lavishly decorated. A few of my Italian male friends refused to enter and spent the whole day scratching their genitals to ward off jinx.

Halloween night is said to be when the barrier between the worlds of ghosts and humans comes down. But Italians don’t usually like to ‘party’ and mingle with the dead or other spirits. We instead honor the deceased with our prayers but the boundary remains firm in place: in fact, this is why our graveyards are placed outside of city centres. 

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