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 www.italyinsf.com , 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”.
“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!
Isabel Salesny is an estate agent in Rome. She can help you find your ‘next home in Itlay’