Postcards from Italy

“Italian” Foods That You Won’t Find in Italy

We know, we know…you can’t wait to get to Italy and tuck into your favorite Italian dishes! The steaming plates of fettuccine alfredo and spaghetti bolognese, the buttery garlic bread and creamy carbonara, the slices of pepperoni pizza and towering sub sandwiches to go…

Ok, we’re going to have to stop you right there. Though these may be staples of Italian-American cuisine, which is deliciously satisfying and has its own unique history and evolution, you won’t find any of these classics on an Italian menu, or at least not in the form you’re used to. Italian cuisine and Italian-American cuisine are distant cousins, sharing some common roots but diverging dramatically after centuries of being separated by the Atlantic and at least three hardiness zones.


(Photo by CIUTravel via Flickr)

This is not to say you won’t eat well in Italy. On the contrary, with the minimum of luck and serendipity, you may even have some of the most memorable meals of your life. But leave your notions of what you will be feasting on behind and be prepared to be pleasantly surprised to sample authentic Italian favorites. Here are some of the most common dishes you won’t find on menus in Italy, and some alternatives to try!

The Meaty Pastas

Spaghetti Bolognese

This is one of the most famous examples of the genealogical link between a favorite dish in the US and its culinary ancestor. What you may know as Bolognese sauce is a descendant of the hearty ragù alla bolognese meat sauce for which Bologna is famous, though there are some distinct (and, to locals, fundamental) differences. Like most Italian dishes, ragù alla bolognese rests on the quality of very few ingredients cooked for a long period of time. Made with nothing more than a soffritto (minced onion, celery and carrot sweat over a medium flame until soft), minced or ground beef and pork, white wine, and a bit of tomato paste or sauce, traditional ragù is both hearty and mild. Bolognese sauce, on the hand, generally includes a myriad of extra herbs and seasonings and ingredients like mushrooms to lend a bit more punch to the rather underwhelming tomatoes and bland meat that were historically available in much of the US. In addition, ragù alla bolognese is tossed with wide, porous egg noodles like tagliatelle or pappardelle to better soak up the flavor of the sauce. Bolognese is almost always served with dried spaghetti, and often presented as a dollop of sauce in the center of undressed pasta…a heresy in Italy.


(Photo by CIUTravel via Flickr)

Try instead: tagliatelle con ragù, which can be found in local iterations from the Dolomites to Naples.

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Hand in hand with spaghetti bolognese is spaghetti and meatballs, a rather vintage classic but one that still tops the charts of Italian-American favorites. Though Italy has spaghetti, and Italy has meatballs, you will never find these two dishes tossed together. Spaghetti is a primo, or first course, and meatballs are a secondo, or second course. Though Italians often make a meal of just a primo (lunching on a plate of pasta, let’s say) or just a secondo (dining on meat and a side vegetable for dinner), never the twain shall meet on a single plate.

Try instead: polpette, Italian meatballs generally made with a blend of beef, pork and other ground meat and stewed in a light tomato sauce to be served alone as a second course.

The Creamy Pastas

Fettuccine Alfredo

In Italy, the simple yet delectable dish made by tossing hot egg noodles with softened butter and copious amounts of parmigiano until it is creamy and smooth has its roots as far back as the Renaissance, though it was popularized by Alfredo Di Lelio in his Roman restaurant at the beginning of the 20th century. One of the fundamental comfort foods of Italian cuisine, “pasta in bianco” can also be made with olive oil and is often served to finicky eaters, young and old. Fettuccine Alfredo as you may know it in the US is a much heavier and more elaborate offspring of this humble dish, made with heavy cream, garlic, and extra ingredients like chicken.


(Photo by CIUTravel via Flickr)

Try instead: cacio e pepe. Though you can stop by the rather touristy Alfredo alla Scrofa or Alfredo all’Augusteo in Rome to sample what both restaurants claim is the “original” fettuccine alfredo, your better bet is to try one of Rome’s classic dishes that is similarly prepared (hot pasta vigorously tossed with grated cheese and enough pasta water to make it creamy), but made instead with pecorino romano and ground black pepper and found in any authentic Roman trattoria worth its salt.


Another simple Italian dish made richer in the US by adding cream, carbonara in Italy is simply pasta tossed with raw eggs, pancetta or guanciale (pork belly or cheek that is cured but not smoked), pecorino romano, and ground pepper. Done with the right technique, the final product is silky as the strands of hot pasta become coated with egg and melted cheese; less able cooks turn out a dish that resembles scrambled eggs sticking to spaghetti, but even this less photogenic is beloved. In no case, however, is heavy cream or smoked bacon added, as is common in the US.

Try instead: carbonara. Go ahead and order this dish in Italy to appreciate the alchemy of its few high-quality ingredients.


(Photo by CIUTravel via Flickr)

Carbs on the Go

Garlic Bread

Garlic bread, and its many offshoots like garlic bread sticks and garlic pizza crust, is a drippy, buttery, garlicky indulgence that you won’t find anywhere in Italy. It unites a number of faux-Italian culinary tropes: garlic (most regional Italian food uses garlic sparingly, if at all); “Italian bread”, a flaky-crusted, chewy crumbed loaf that is an amalgamation of a number of different types of regional breads, possibly most similar to that made in and around Naples; and butter, used much less common than olive oil in Italy, especially on bread.

Try instead: bruschetta. If there is anything that can loosely be compared to garlic bread, it’s bruschetta. This toasted pane comune (unsalted bread) is drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil (best if freshly pressed), sprinkled with salt, and, in some cases, lightly rubbed with a clove of raw garlic just to give it some kick.

Pepperoni pizza

You may dream of grabbing a slice to eat while wandering the streets of Rome or Florence, but you should keep in mind two things. The first is that eating on the go is not common in Italy, aside from gelato. Even pizza-by-the-slice storefronts usually have a crowd standing directly outside to finish their snack before heading off again. Though you will come across the odd person munching on a square of focaccia or a porchetta sandwich, it is generally considered rather uncouth to eat while walking around. The second is simply this: peperoni in Italian means sweet bell peppers, so if you order a peperoni pizza, you’ll be in for a vegetarian surprise. The equivalent in Italy is salamino piccante or diavola, and is not as common in Italy as it is in the US. You may find it only in a sit-down pizzeria where you order an entire pie more often than in a pizza-by-the-slice eatery.

Pompeii 044

(Photo by CIUTravel via Flickr)

Try instead: pizza margherita. This is Italy’s flagship pizza, against which all others are measured.

Italian Sub Sandwiches

Italians do many things well, but we have to be honest and say that the US has cornered the market on the sub sandwich. It may be called Italian because of the Italian-ish cold cuts and cheeses, but there is nothing even close to an Italian sub in Italy. Sandwiches in Italy tend to have a maximum of two ingredients (one meat and/or one cheese), perhaps a slice of tomato or lettuce, and maybe a dollop of mayo; more often, it’s a few slices of prosciutto tucked between two naked slices of pane comune or, if you’re lucky, a crusty rosetta bun. It works because the cured meats and local cheeses shine in Italy, but it’s not the tower of flavors you may be expecting. Also, a panino (the singular; panini is plural) in Italy just means a generic sandwich. Toasted sandwiches known as panini in the US are called toast.

Try instead: porchetta (roasted pork), lampredotto (tripe), pane e panelle (chickpea fritters), pani co meusa (spleen), and caprese (buffalo mozzarella, tomato, and basil). These are often traditional street food snacks, heavy on the offal, found in outdoor markets in the center and south of Italy

Pani ca meusa - spleen sandwich palermo

(Photo by CIUTravel via Flickr)

Travel Specialists

Maria Landers

Brian Dore