If you ask me, Italian food is the best food in the world. Italian American food is right up, too. But, what’s the difference? We all have an idea of what to expect on an Italian menu in America, but you’d be surprised to learn that you won’t find your favorite chicken parmigiana (which I literally had for dinner last night) anywhere on a menu in Italy.
Wait, am I trying to say that your beloved Nonna’s Sunday gravy or the rainbow cookies from the pastry shop on the corner aren’t actually Italian food? Yes, and No.
Before you start trolling me in the comments below about insulting your grandmother’s cooking, let me explain. Our Italian grandparents and great-grandparents were most likely poor immigrants trying to make a life in America. While they brought their culture and recipes with them, they also used a new style of cooking: cucina povera. Using ingredients that were leftover, cheap or available, the first Italian Americans invented a new cuisine. While I would never argue that the Sunday gravy your grandmother made isn’t amazing, you might not find the same ragu, or sugo in Italy.
Here are some of my favorite Italians foods that you can only find in America:
1. Chicken (or veal) parmesan
Who doesn’t love a good chicken parm sandwich? But, don’t expect to order anything of the parmigiana variety in Italy except for eggplant. Eggplant parm originated in Sicily and Italian Americans modified it to include heartier ingredients like chicken, veal, and meatballs.
2. Garlic bread
Garlic bread as we know it in America is soooo good. But, it’s not a thing in Italy. Try ordering bruschetta (that’s with a hard ‘C’ sound).
3. Italian dressing
Your salads in Italy will come after the meal and are served with olive oil and vinegar.
4. Rainbow Cookies
Rainbow cookies (or the layered cookies you’ll find at Italian pastry shops) are so good. You won’t find them alongside cannoli or biscotti in Italy, though. They were invented in the early 1900’s in America to pay tribute to their homeland.
5. Fettuccine Alfredo
This still remains one of my favorite foods from childhood, but the sauce that we all adore is actually American. In Italy, ‘Alfredo; is just a first name, but you can find a better and similar version of the dish there called fettuccine al burro.
6. Marinara Sauce
The red sauce we all make on a regular basis can be considered American ‘marinara sauce’, consisting of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and herbs. In Italy, though, marinara usually means a shellfish sauce. Try ordering pasta al pomodoro or penne all’arrabbiata for a similar taste of American marinara in Italy.
7. Shrimp Scampi
If you swap the shrimp with langoustines (a small crustacean, the Italian name of which is actually scampi) then you have the original dish. Still a staple of my diet, though!
8. Caesar salad
This salad was invented in Mexico by someone named Caesar. I love this salad and if I’m feeling the effects of a long night of drinking, I order it with chicken fingers on top! Alas, it’s not Italian. Or even American!
9. Pepperoni pizza
Pizza, in its earliest form, came from Naples. Today pizza in Italy and pizza in America look very different. Pizza in Italy is less cheesy and has fewer ingredients—often only one or two just for flavor. Common ingredients on pizza in Italy include anchovies, sausage, corn, prosciutto, olives etc.
Pepperoni pizza as we know it in America doesn’t really exist in Italy—at least not by that name. Peperoni, with one ‘p’, actually refers to peppers. While you can get some kind of salami on your pizza, you can’t really find the bright red, dried, thinly sliced meat there. My recommendation? Order prosciutto!
10. Spaghetti and meatballs
This is probably one of the most famous examples of Italian American food, and I don’t feel an ounce of guilt for loving it. The famous dish is a perfect example of the effect povera cucina had on Italian cuisine in America. There’s a great scene in one of my favorite movies about the clash of Italian and Italian American food featuring spaghetti and meatballs. Definitely check out Big Night on Amazon if you love a good laugh and love movies about food.
The title of this post is misleading. You can probably find all of these dishes in Italy somewhere or other, but they came to Italy from America. Restaurants that serve these items are catering to tourists and spotting these dishes on the menu is a sure indication that you should find somewhere else to eat!