You are not eating Italian food in America!

I have been told twice in just the last month that Italian American food is not real Italian food.  !  So I decided to find out why and asked my best sources in Italy.   Monica Cesarato in Venice and Ylenia Sambati in Lecce, my Italian sources, are proficient  cooks who offer cooking classes in Venice and  Lecce. 

Where did Italian Americans learn to cook?

Photo courtesy  of Yltour.  Mamma Anna is their top cook.

If you were fortunate enough to have a nonna, you enjoyed days in her fragrant kitchen sampling everything she was spending hours cooking.   From the time you entered the kitchen, food was most likely offered with a simple mangia.

Some of us learned from mothers or aunts, watching and helping with the preparation.   I can remember all the women in the kitchen with aprons preparing meals.    I thought the lasagna, sausage and peppers and eggplant Parmesan was as common in all Italian households, as meatballs!  So I was surprised to hear………………

Nothing like the eggplant Parmesan we had.

That many Italian American foods are NOT found in Italy?
Spaghetti and meatballs:   According to Monica:  “Not an Italian recipe at all.  The origins of this recipe are very, very American.  It seems that this was the result of the creativity of  Italian women who have emigrated to the States in the early 1900’s and who came from very poor backgrounds.    It seems that the American tomatoes, which were needed to prepare the classic sauce, were quite watery.  The women were obliged to add tomato concentrate, exaggerating with herbs to flavor the sauce.  Meatballs were added since meat was abundant in America while in Italy at this time it was a luxury.”

Just need the large helping of grated cheese!

Do you remember the can of tomato paste added to the large  pot of sauce that simmered for hours?    
The bitter taste was cooked ‘out of the sauce’ over the 2 days it simmered on the stove.

I watched Yle prepare lunch one day at her home.  Fresh tomatoes were sauteed as the basis of a wonderfully ‘sauce’ seasoned with fresh herbs.   The sauce garnished the pasta, it did not drown it.    And who has tasted fresh pasta and noticed the incredible difference?

Eva Sandoval wrote a detailed story for Fodor’s Travel, listing a number of foods that you wont find in Italy:

Garlic bread:    most times bread is not part of your meal and if it is, never with butter

Italian Dressing:  salad is eaten after the main course and often only with a sprinkling of olive oil.  Of course Italian olive oil offers the perfect complement to many foods.   I sat down for pizza with the owner of a small hotel in Lake Garda and watched her pour oil over our hot from the oven pizza!

Pepperoni Pizza:  Pizza can be sold by the square slice to ‘take away’ or at the table as an individual round pizza for each person.  You will not see a ‘large pie’ shared by more than one person.  A wide assortment of toppings are used but in more than 20 years of returning to Italy each year, I have never found pepperoni.  Individual pizza is eaten with a knife and fork. 

Sorbillo Pizza in Naples:  DND took me for  the best pizza in Naples
Each person has their own pizza and it is massive, hot and crisp

Lobster Fra Diavolo and Shrimp Scampi:  Wonderful seafood, pasta dishes that are American.
Seafood is an ingredient for areas in Italy near the sea. 

Vanessa DellaPasqua,the founder and chief editor of Italy in SF , wrote a wonderful list of 100+ Things to Know If You’re Going to Italy.    Some of her items I found most surprising included:  you will not find ‘orders to go’,  no doggie bags for leftovers, meals do NOT start with a salad, chicken is not eaten with pasta, Alfredo sauce is NOT Italian.

Isabel, a friend in Rome, agreed there is ‘no pasta with cheese sauce in Rome, there are no meatball sandwiches here and baked pasta is a dish you eat at home, not really at restaurants”.   

Lasagna:  I questioned several travel friends from Italy to research this Italian American staple.  Tina, a member of Discover Naples Destinations, described two classic types of lasagna.  “ Lasagna alla bolognese, which is lasagna baked with a meat sauce and bechamel * sauce, parmesan cheese and sometimes, a little mozzarella.  Then there is the lasagna Napoletana, which is much more complex, with tomato sauce, lots of mozzarella, little tiny meatballs, ricotta, and pieces of link sausage. The Neapolitan is usually  eaten during the Carnival period “.
According to Monica “what really upsets Italians is the way American-Italians change our food

(Americans in general) think that using oil means pouring bottles of it on (food)!  The same for butter and sauces!   Italians believe:  poco è meglio, less is better .”  

 “It’s like you (Americans) do not want to taste the real flavor of things.  So many times we (Italians) eat things as they are,  no sauce, oil or no seasoning, just as it is.   Just  an example:  if you fry real fresh fish, really good, fresh, fish, there is no need for salt or lemon.    Steak:  we simply grill it on a dry grill (no oil based) then a couple of drops of olive oil, a pinch of salt and pepper, that’s all”.  

Italians have a philosophy on food that may not have immigrated with our ancestors.    Italians enjoy eating and it is the feature part of the day.  Meals are taken with family or friends.  I am not sure Italians understand eating alone and certainly don’t accept eating in their cars.   At my first lunch in an Italian home in Lecce, I noticed Yle put a table cloth on the table.  She told me “she could not think of lunch, sitting at the table without a table cloth”.      

As the CEO Yltour in Puglia, Yle has developed a number of travel itineraries to learn about Mediterranean cooking, the use of olive oil and the enjoyment of wines to improve health.     On her recent NYC visit she found the food ‘heavy’, rich and sometimes  flavorless.  “Cuisine, especially for a Pugliese, should always be fresh, in season and not heavy”.  “We find that the simpler the more delicious.  .. Freschezza and sapore.”            


As you sit down to Sunday dinner this week identify all the foods on the table that are really Italian!

You can learn Italian, stay with an Italian family and a cooking class with Monica Cesarato.  An energetic tour guide with an endless knowledge of Venice:
Yle has an endless list of events you can experience in Puglia.  What I found best was her ability to create an event based on your interests:  cooking, wine tasting, photography or a visit with a nonna.
Tina is a partner in Discover Naples Destinations.  Even if you have been to Naples, you have NOT seen the places Tina can show you.  Based on your interests DND will create a special event for you and can offer countless an independent traveler may not find.
Olga Stinga with SantaAnna Institute in Sorrento, can offer lessons and cultural experience in and around Sorrento.  A single class or an extended visit will enrich your experience in Italy.

Isabel Salesny is an estate agent in Rome.  She can help you find your ‘next home in Itlay’



*béchamel, or balsamella as it is called in Italian.  It is used in many Italian baked dishes and gratinées, and is a necessity in meat lasgane. – See more at: 

















Published by Lee Laurino

A traveler not a tourist, searching for experiences not in travel books. Solo traveler who travels as long and far as possible sharing photos of the people and places I discover

2 thoughts on “You are not eating Italian food in America!

  1. You're not eating Italian food in the US! Well of course you're not. It's Americanized. Those smart, creative Italian immigrants in the States came up with some great new ideas and creations using different primary ingredients (the tomatoes are different, the water, the cheese…not to mention the cultural influences…). I don't think of an Italian beef sandwich as Italian. It's a Chicago thing. And of course the food here in Italy is different…they have a different attitude toward tradition and change. Please stop with these static notions of what is Italian and what is American. It is so tired. THINK ANTHROPOLOGY. Cultures change. Things change. They are in flux. For better and for worse. Of course the food from other cultures changes through the process of immigration. These cuisines are like second or third cousins. Stop insisting they be exact replicas. It's irritating and exhausting.


  2. I am so glad you shared your opinion with all my readers… I was amazed how many 'cooks' are out there. It is more difficult to prepare wonderful food without the best ingredients and if you have never been able to go Home to Italy you have nothing to compare it to. And often the work day here is more than 10 or 12 hrs (with the commute and work at home) so time to cook is limited. You should share other opinions with us, you seem to have a strong opinion on how to correct our mistakes….share.


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