A few weeks ago, I asked my Facebook pals to tell me what they were surprised by, or unprepared for, on their first visit to Italy. It was a fun thread, and it helped me to remember some of my first impressions of my now home.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of food-related things came up, so I’ve decided to turn the info I gathered into a post about Italian food. Grazie mille to everyone who contributed!
Note: Since originally posting this article, I got some great feedback from readers, and I’ve updated it to include five more “Italian” foods that don’t exist in Italy!
One great point that a reader made is that it’s kind of difficult to talk about “Italian” food in some ways, because Italian cuisine varies widely from region to region. It’s good to keep that in mind when you’re here. For example, you’ll find cacio e pepe at just about every restaurant in Rome, but when I lived in Padua, I think I saw it twice on menus there.
It’s a great idea to research the cuisine of each region of Italy before you visit so you know what to expect. My friend Samantha has done a great job of outlining regional cuisine on her beautiful, thoroughly-researched website, Regions of Italy. Each detailed section features information on the food and wine of the region, as well as tips on what to eat and where to eat it.
What I’ve learned from
eating my face off researching for this post is that Italian food outside of Italy is sometimes a variation or adaptation of a traditional recipe, it sometimes doesn’t come close to anything that’s eaten here, and sometimes, it doesn’t exist at all.
Italians use the phrase “non esiste” both to describe things that don’t exist, as well as things that are unacceptable. In keeping with that expression, this post consists of a mix of things that properly do not exist (e.g. Italian dressing) or things that don’t exist in the more figurative sense of being unacceptable (e.g. cappuccino after breakfast). Where possible, I’ve suggested what to order instead!
Keep in mind that there are exceptions to every rule, for example, Seu Pizza Illuminati, a very popular pizzeria in Rome, had a pizza with chicken on it as part of their Summer 2020 menu, but chicken isn’t a common pizza topping, and probably won’t be available in most places.
Ready to find out about 15 “Italian” foods that don’t exist in Italy? Andiamo!
15 “Italian” foods that don’t exist in Italy
Combinations of chicken and pesto, chicken and pasta, or chicken and pizza
Despite the fact that chicken and pesto, chicken and pasta, and chicken and pizza taste good together, they’re not common combos in Italy (note: that doesn’t mean you won’t find them here and there!). At All’antico Vinaio in Florence, a famous sandwich shop, there is even a sign near the door that says “no pesto,” probably because of too many American tourists coming to Italy and trying to recreate their favorite sandwich from Panera.
If you want pesto, you’ll have to get a simple pasta with pesto, or a pizza with pesto.
Like I said above, Seu Pizza Illuminati had a pizza topped with chicken and peppers on their Summer 2020 menu, so you may find that modern restaurants and pizzerias play with the aforementioned combos, but they’re still not super common.
In other exceptions to the rules, my sweetheart was once in Genoa and texted me to tell me that he was at a place that served chicken and pesto (him texting me about food is my version of a love note) so it does exist, it’s just rare.
Bonus nope: Chicken Parmesan
Ok, so I did some Googling and saw a few recipes on Italian websites for chicken parmesan, but the ones I looked at credit it to Italian Americans. I’ve never seen it or heard anyone talking about it here, either. Maybe it’s for the more adventurous Italians, or for those who are trying to entice foreigners into their restaurants, but you probably won’t find chicken parmesan in Italy.
What you will find: parmigiana di melanzane
Fear not, because you can get parmigiana di melanzane, or simply parmigiana (eggplant parmesan). And you should get it, because yum.
Fettuccine Alfredo (well, sort of)
Fettuccine alfredo, which many of us know as pasta with a cheesy cream sauce, is not commonly found on menus here. Don’t even THINK of asking for fettuccine alfredo with chicken. You will just have to go to the Olive Garden when you get home for that stuff.
The original version of fettuccine alfredo has just two ingredients: butter and parmigiano. No cream, no chicken, no funny business.
The interesting part is that both restaurants claim the same origin story for the dish, stating that it was created to nourish a pregnant or postpartum female family member, and then became famous when two famous American actors, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, tasted the dish while honeymooning in Rome.
According to the website of Il Vero Alfredo, they gifted the chef with a gold spoon and fork, each inscribed: “To Alfredo, the king of the noodles.” I guess it’s a long-standing tradition for Americans to irk Italians by twisting up long pasta using a fork and spoon, and referring to it as “noodles.”
This article from Gambero Rosso (in Italian) indicates that the engraved gold fork and spoon prove that the recipe originated at Il Vero Alfredo, and that anyone who claims otherwise is a pretender. This article from GQ Italy (also in Italian) also states that Il Vero Alfredo is The Real Alfredo.
I’m not sure what’s what in this situation, or who is telling the truth, but what I am sure of is that I’m going to go to these places to do a taste test (and a lie detector test).
Anyway, if you’re eating at any restaurant besides these two in Rome and want something creamy and delicious, try a carbonara, or a cacio e pepe. Just don’t ask for chicken in either of them. Play it safe and don’t talk about chicken at all, guys.
The thought of pineapple on pizza is a thing that traumatizes many, many Italians. If I may draw a conclusion based on pop culture, the number of memes about how foreigners have ruined pizza by putting pineapple on it shows that this concept really weighs heavily on their collective consciousness. Please, don’t stress them further by bringing it up.
If you’re desperate for pineapple, it’s often served here as a seasonal dessert, so you can get it for your dolce.
If you’re craving a salty-sweet/meat-fruit combo, get prosciutto e melone (prosciutto with cantaloupe), which is commonly on menus in the warm weather.
Note: Since originally writing this post, I have encountered pineapple on pizza in Rome at an aperitivo at a fancy hotel, and it was disgusting.
Ok, this is a tricky one, because pepperoni pizza sort of exists, but if you order a “pepperoni pizza” you’re going to get something that surprises you. Peperoni in Italian are bell peppers (or capsicum, for my friends Down Under), not pepperoni as in spicy little circles of processed meat.
What you will find: pizza alla diavola
If you want a pepperoni pizza, you should order una pizza alla diavola, or, a pizza of the devil, (spicy food here is usually “of the devil,” or sometimes arrabbiata, “angry”) which comes with salame piccante on it (spicy salami).
Bonus note: Italian pizza
While on the topic of pizza, it’s important to point out that here, it usually doesn’t have a whole mess of toppings, and it’s not really customary to make adjustments. At home, you might be used to ordering a large pizza, half barbecued chicken, half tomato sauce with olives, peppers, mushrooms, sausage, ham, and jalapeños, but that’s not going to happen here.
The crust of pizza in Rome is thin and crispy, whereas Neapolitan pizza is famed for having a thicker crust. The toppings will be more sparse than pizzas outside of Italy, including the cheese.
The joy of Italian pizza is that the ingredients used are usually fresh and delicious, and, because the crust in Rome is so thin and it’s not overloaded with toppings, you can eat the whole thing, baby.
Oil and vinegar for dipping bread before dinner
Many people are surprised to find out that bread is just served plain in Italy, with no herbs and oil or oil and vinegar for dipping. Of course, you can ask for some, but they might not get what you want to do, and therefore not bring you a plate.
You should resist the urge to fill up on bread, anyway. Save it for the end of your meal so you can “fare la scarpetta,” aka use the bread to swipe up all the leftover sauce from your pasta.
Cappuccino after a meal
I’m grateful to another reader to pointed out that what I had originally written here – that it’s unacceptable to have a cappuccino after breakfast time – actually isn’t true. Despite what you might have seen on TikTok, it’s cappuccino after a meal that’s the uncommon thing.
It might be common outside of Italy to get a cappuccino after lunch or dinner, but in Italy, people have an espresso, or a macchiato (which is an espresso with a drop of milk).
My reader kindly pointed out that cappuccino or caffè latte in the afternoon is something that people might have as a merenda, or snack. So, it’s not the time of day that matters, it’s the proximity to meal time.
I believe it has to do with the amount of milk in a cappuccino or caffè latte on a full stomach that people find off-putting. It’s true – I can’t imagine having a cappuccino after eating a carbonara.
Italians like to tease foreigners about drinking milky coffees after meals (and other food-related things), and the topic even comes up on restaurant menus every now and then…
Toast (Well, sort of)
In Italian, “un toast” is a hot ham and cheese sandwich. Some places specialize in “toast” and offer many different variations.
If you’re desperate for what you know as toast, you could ask for pane tostato, but it’s not really a thing here, unless you’re at a place that serves Anglo-American style brunches. There are, however, fette biscottate, which are like small, crunchy toast crackers that are highly problematic because they crumble to dust when you bite into them, but in a pinch aren’t bad with a little jam or nutella.
I know, I know. Garlic bread is very good, but it is not very Italian.
What you will find: bruschetta or crostini all’aglio
Again, fear not, because you can get a bruschetta with aglio (garlic), and you’ll probably never want to eat garlic bread again, because the bruschetta will be delicious!
The garlic bruschetta at Emma Pizzeria in Rome is ambrosia. I don’t understand how something so simple can be so good.
A reader also told me that in his home town of Mirandola in Emilia, you can get stria con aglio, which is, as he said “a thin pizza-like bread topped with chopped garlic.” (*books trip to Mirandola for garlic bread*).
Spaghetti and meatballs
You wouldn’t know it by my name, but I have Italian heritage. Growing up in the US, we ate spaghetti and meatballs a lot, and it’s one of my favorite comfort foods. I was pretty surprised when I moved here and found out that it’s mostly an Italian-American thing!
What you will find: chitarrine alla teramana (Abruzzo)
I say mostly because on a recent trip to Abruzzo, I nearly cried when I saw Chitarrine alla Teramana on the menu, which is basically spaghetti and meatballs.
The waiter brought out a large platter with a big fork and spoon for sharing – what we might call a “family-style” dish. I am not ashamed to admit that my family consisted of only me that night, and I ate the whole thing, except for a few twirls that I
grudgingly shared with my friends and sweetheart. (NB: I regret nothing.)
The meatballs were small and much more delicate than the ones my family and I make, but they were tender and perfectly bite-sized.
A reader also informed me that similar dishes are also made in the south, but they’re usually family recipes made by older generations at home rather than being served at restaurants. You may also find lasagne with mini-meatballs in the south, too.
Meatballs are common on menus in many cities, just not with pasta. In Veneto, they’re often served as a “cicheto,” which is a little snack one has with one’s evening spritz during aperitivo.
Meatball subs do not exist either. That doesn’t mean that I don’t make them at my house, though. Because again, they may not be authentic, but they are good!
There, of course, is a meat sauce called “ragù alla Bolognese”. The discrepancies between the Italian version and the version that’s made abroad are the pasta shape, and the addition of cream.
What you will find: tagliatelle alla bolognese or lasagne alla bolognese
What is known in some parts of the world as “Spag Bol” doesn’t exist in Italy, because here, it’s served with tagliatelle rather than spaghetti. The mayor of Bologna even started a campaign to dispel the myth of spaghetti Bolognese.
It’s also common for the sauce of the Spag Bol to be prepared with cream outside of Italy. Here, many recipes call for the addition of a small amount of milk instead.
There are a few versions of manicotti that I’ve had in the US. One type consists of tubes of pasta filled with a mix of cheese and herbs and baked in tomato sauce. The other type is also stuffed and baked, but the shell is more crepe-like than pasta like. A family friend in the States who migrated from Italy to the US as a girl used to make delicious manicotti this way.
What you will find: cannelloni
In Italy, cannelloni are generally served in the same way as manicotti are – stuffed and baked. If you’re craving manicotti, order cannelloni and you’ll be happy.
Mozzarella sticks with tomato sauce
Ahh, the mozzarella stick – a breaded, fried bite of stringy, melty, gooey cheese, dipped in tangy, sweet tomato sauce. A staple of fast food and chain restaurants in the US, you won’t find mozzarella sticks here in Italy.
What you will find: mozzarelline
Mozzarelline are little fried balls of mozzarella that are served as fritti, or fried appetizers, at pizzerias all over Italy. I’ve never had them served with any kind of sauce, but that doesn’t mean that some places don’t serve them that way.
Porto Fluviale in Rome, for example, serves all kinds of little fried things with sauces.
Italian salad dressing
Italian dressing is ubiquitous in the US, but salad dressings, in the sense of pre-mixed goops that come in bottles, aren’t really a thing here.
Instead, Italians generally dress salads with oil and vinegar, or maybe oil and lemon, and perhaps a bit of salt. Puntarelle, a type of chicory that’s served in Rome, is dressed with oil, garlic, lemon or vinegar, and anchovy.
This is another one that a friend pointed out to me, which I didn’t include in my original list. Invented in San Francisco in the 1800s by Italian immigrants, cioppino is a seafood stew made with garlic, herbs, wine, and tomato.
What you will find: Cacciucco (Tuscany/Liguria), Brodetto di pesce (Abruzzo), Cassola sarda (Sardinia)
There are plenty of fish stews/soups in Italy, just none that I can find that go by the name “cioppino”. As you can tell, the name will vary depending on where you are, so do some investigating if you’re on the hunt for cioppino. You might just find its cousin!
Shrimp scampi with pasta
This appears to be one of those recipes that varied because of the availability of certain ingredients. Italian immigrants could get shrimp much more easily than the langoustines that they were used to, so shrimp scampi was born.
What you will find: linguine agli scampi
If you order scampi here, you’ll get langoustines, which look like small, thin lobsters.
So, there are your 15 “Italian” foods that don’t exist in Italy. Thoughts? Questions? Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments, and buon appetito!
Want to take a food tour on your trip to Italy? Check these out!
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This very highly-rated food tour of Bologna looks like a foodie’s dream! It includes six local food items, red and white wine, and a surprise! 4.8/5 by 73 people.
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