We all know now that spaghetti with meatballs is not an Italian dish. Spaghetti is Italian and meatballs are Italian. But spaghetti with enormous meatballs is an Italian-American dish, which is a different cuisine.
The 7.5 million Italians who emigrated to America between 1876 and the first world war were, in general, poor and hungry. In Italy, they survived thanks to food like polenta and brined black bread. Meat, cheese, and even pasta were consumed only in more bountiful times and on special occasions. In the United States, however, the immigrants tended to earn more money and therefore could afford richer foods. But it was difficult to find certain products, like olive oil, and they had to had to modify their recipes and create new ones.
There was another important factor. Italian food, even today, is very regional. At the turn of the century, the Italians in the United States, who came from diverse regions in Italy, ate and cooked together in neighborhoods like “Little Italy.” They exchanged recipes, using products that they could find, and became creative…and a new cuisine was born. Most of the new recipes were based on traditions of Southern Italy, where most of the immigrants came from.
Here are 15 Italian-American dishes that you will not find in Italy (except in tourist places that cater to the American palate). These dishes have never seen the light of day in Italy, the land that inspired them.
- Spaghetti with meatballs: I have already discussed this one here and in previous posts.
- Garlic bread: First, Italian dishes don’t have much garlic (the same for onions). And, then, in the country of olive oil, it is considered very strange to put butter on bread. It is believed that garlic bread was invented in the states in the ‘40s.
- Fettucine Alfredo: This dish was created in 1920 in a restaurant in Rome by the chef, Alfredo, for American clients. But there is nothing in this dish that Italians like. To put cream on pasta is almost never done. In Rome, the city of pasta alla carbonara, the recipe does not have a drop of cream. And, once again, there is the problem of butter.
- Pepperoni pizza: In Italy, the classic pizza is the margherita, but other pizzas have many different toppings like anchovy, sausage, potatoes, mushrooms, and even peppers…but not pepperoni. Perhaps this salami was inspired by the spicy salami of southern Italy—for example, the soppressata from Calabria.
- Chicken on pasta: Italians say, “how disgusting.” Pasta is a first course; chicken is a second. End of story
- “Italian” salad dressing: With too much vinegar and many herbs, “Italian dressing” is the salad dressing preferred in many American restaurants. It doesn’t exist in Italy. There, salads have olive oil and vinegar, o olive oil and lemon (in the south), or simply, olive oil.
- Cioppino: Italians like fish on pasta. Among the most delectable dishes are those from Sicily where they use local, fresh fish, like swordfish and sardines. Cioppino was invented by Italian-American fishermen in San Francisco. It is more like a soup and is generally not served with pasta.
- Chicken or veal parmesan: You will not see these dishes in restaurants that Italians frequent. Like putting chicken on pasta, the idea of putting cheese on meat makes Italians a little sick. Instead, try eggplant parmesan.
- Lobster fra diavolo: This dish, which is rich and spicy, was probably served for the first time in New York, or perhaps on Long Island, at the beginning of the 20th A pasta with a heavy tomato sauce, chile flakes, and seafood, is not Italian cuisine. The dish depends on American lobster, which is almost impossible to find in Italy.
- Marinara sauce: Marinara sauce does exist in Italy, but is usually prepared with seafood or olives or both. In the United States, “marinara” refers to a simple tomato sauce, which is common in Italian-American cooking and which is poured on everything, from pasta to meat.
- Penne alla vodka: It is difficult to understand how or when or where this dish originated. Obviously, vodka is not a traditional alcoholic drink in Italy. And, again, a pasta with cream (together with tomatoes, onions, and the vodka) is difficult to find in the old country. Vodka doesn’t have much taste. It’s better to try grappa or limoncello…after the meal.
- Shrimp scampi: In this dish, large shrimps are sautéed with garlic, wine, butter, herbs, and chile flakes, and then served on pasta or rice. It is a staple in Italian-American restaurants and probably a descendent of an Italian recipe that uses langostini that are sautéed wine, olive oil, some onion, and some garlic. Langostini are a a type of tiny lobster that are called “scampi” in Italian. Italian-American cooks adapted the recipe but saved the old name.
- Sunday gravy: In Italian-American communities, to eat a red sauce—or gravy—together with different meats and sausage is a sacred Sunday tradition. The recipe comes from a Neapolitan ragù. But you will not find “Sunday gravy” in Naples…or anything else with the word “gravy.”
- For the kids: Mozzarella sticks come directly from “Little Italy.” The only place in Italy that you can find this is at McDonald’s. “Mac ‘n cheese” is usually made with cheddar in the United States (although there are many variations). In Italy there is pasta with cheeses, but not with cheddar. There are sandwiches in Italy with sliced meats. But in America, we make the “Italian” hero sandwich on which meats, cheeses, pickles, and vegies are piled on. In Italy, the meat likes to be eaten alone.
- Desserts: Rainbow cookies were popular in “Little Italy” and during events like the Festival of San Gennaro…but not in Italy. They were invented in New York by immigrants who produced them to invoke the flag of the mother country. In the same way, cheesecake is not found on menus in Italy. Sweet mixtures of ricotto cheese fill sfogliatelle, cannoli, and other sweets, especially in Naples and Sicily, but they are not as sweet and heavy as cheesecake.