Hello! This time I am back with a populist, stereotype-heavy article, following my most-read-ever post about my life in Prague.
Some people were asking “hey, why don’t you write about something you miss from Italy?” – their first obvious idea being food. The thing is, I don’t miss good Italian food. I can find a few very good restaurants and pizzerias in Prague, and when I have a more specific itch to scratch, I can buy the ingredients in any decent supermarket and cook it myself.
Instead, I decided to write this
hate rant satirical post to reflect on one detail that really irritates me when abroad or travelling: the way Italian food is misrepresented, or sometimes just done horribly wrong.
I will include some all-time classics, like the old COOKING PASTA IN COLD WATER SHOULD BE ILLEGAL thing, but I also hope to bring also some fresh air to the debate with new insights.
Disclaimer #1: as usual, dear reader, if you get offended it’s
solely your problem not my intention. Things here are intended to be read with a bit of a satirical tone, so if any detail gets you the wrong way, the invitation is to reflect on why – rather than dismiss it entirely. Or dismiss it, but don’t let me know.
Disclaimer #2: “oh, but this is the way I like it!” is not a valid argument. I imagine we could argue a lot, but it just isn’t. Art requires form, and cooking is a form of art. If – for some bizarre mix of reasons – you happen to like overcooked pasta with garlic, chicken, spinach and cheddar cheese sprinkles on top: good for you. Just don’t call it “Italian”. PLEASE.
Ok, with this out of the way, ready? Go!
1. If you can’t write it right, you probably can’t make it right.
I really have to start from this. In times of ubiquitous wi-fi internet and search engine precision, it really baffles me how the hell is it still possible to make spelling mistakes on a printed menu.
I go to a high-rating restaurant to open the menu, and find horrors such as “arabiatta” (arrabbiata) and “rissoto” (risotto). Would I buy a car advertised as “Merzedec” or a phone branded “Samsnug”? Same goes with food.
I don’t trust a place with a messed up menu, because I think the manager – and anybody else who had an eye on the paperwork, really – was just plain lazy, or didn’t care enough to dedicate those extra 5 minutes to spell check the dish names.
Plus, I can understand if mistakes happen in Bangkok or somewhere else in the far side of the world (not sure how many Chinese restaurants get the names right in the west, after all), but in the heart of Europe, really? Surely in Berlin, Zurich or Prague there must be some Italian tour guide, language teacher, food enthusiast – or just any person literate enough to give a half an hour look at the material and correct all the double “p” and “s”. The fact that a high-standard restaurant doesn’t even bother to check if the language is right before printing, completely defies my understanding.
Really, guys, it’s simple: don’t assume you are writing it right just because some people told you, or you heard it somewhere, or even because it sounds right in your language.
Ask an expert, or missing that, double check everything on the internet first. Little details make a lot of difference.
Search engines are there to help you:
And then, why not make a video to brag about how wrong you are? Ugh.
Not to mention that some mistakes are honestly hilarious.
“Pene” in Italian means “penis”. If a restaurant lists “pene arrabbiata” (or something similar) on the menu, chances are it is trying to sell you some angry male genitals. You should probably avoid those (you should probably just avoid eating genitals all together, but one step at the time).
“Cane” means “dog”. “Chili con cane” (instead of carne, which in Spanish AND Italian means “meat”) means you are going to eat a spicy dog.
Really, it is sad. Stop doing it. We take it personal.
1b. Bonus section: honest grammar mistakes.
Ok – you are not supposed to learn the grammar of a country, just because you want to open a restaurant. That’s why I will be a bit more merciful here, hoping to help.
“Salami” is plural in Italian (singular, “Salame“). Same for “Panini” (singular, “panino“). “Fettuccini” doesn’t even exist: the correct plural form is “Fettuccine“.
And “Pepperoni” is twice wrong: first, it means “bell peppers” and second, it’s spelled with single “p” (singular, peperone. Plural, peperoni).
The most interesting story I found is “Baloney“. It probably comes from the American transliteration of “Bologna”. It became synonym of “cold meat”, probably because of the delicious mortadella produced in Emilia. And also (for reasons that escape me completely) it is now used as a generic term for “nonsense”. So, to recap: mortadella is this:
and if you say “Baloney“, you are this:
A lot of people seem to be under the assumption that every Italian word ends with “i” or “ini”. Short tip: stop embarassing yourself. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Not Czech-type of complicated, but enough.
So at least try to imagine that there must be some structure in the language, hidden somewhere, and that you cannot just get it right by throwing random words around and improvising it all. Gesticulating wildly will not help, either.
In conclusion the same advice goes here too: do your spellcheck and when in doubt, check the same recipe on some original Italian website. If you can’t find your recipe in any Italian website… uhmmm maybe
you shouldn’t be doing that stuff there is a subtle message hidden there?
I also found this very good article here on “Disgraces on the Menu”, about the most common spelling mistakes you can find online, ranked by popularity. Very good job, read it.
2. Recipes presented as Italian, except they aren’t.
“Fettuccine Alfredo” don’t even exist in Italy. The story goes that an Italian guy started selling in New York a variation of “pasta with butter and cheese”, a simple dish that every Italian mom cooks when their children are sick. Instead of butter, he found cream.
Nowadays, some Italian restaurants include it in the menu to please the American taste (which is a disgrace, really), but don’t expect to come to Italy looking for the real thing because… there is no such thing.
“Mac and Cheese” – the name (and looks) should speak for themselves, but this all-popular insta food has nothing to do with the traditional Italian cuisine. “Maccaroni” is a dialect form for “maccheroni” (the pipe shaped pasta), and that’s about all the Italian influence in the dish.
Wikipedia warns us that it has been invented in Britain. A country that was once famous for its Empire, financial power and strong and stable governments. Now that all those things are gone, I wouldn’t recommend starting to take example from its food, really.
“Pasta with meatballs“, yeah, thanks a lot, Disney. So this is what happened: a lot of people watched two dogs eating in a movie, and desperately wanted to have the same thing. It makes perfectly sense. Strange it didn’t happen with Planet of the Apes, too.
The “Caesar Salad” was apparently invented in the U.S. by an Italian (named Caesar) emigrated there after World War I. The story is not clear, and its first original name may have been “Aviator’s Salad”, because it was a favourite of the US Air Force who went on license during the prohibition. One thing is for sure, the recipe was certainly not inspired by Julius Caesar, mainly because Caesar had no way of communicating with the Americas. Plus, he couldn’t speak English (mainly because English – and England – hadn’t been invented yet).
You can find it in many touristic places in Italy, but that means you will be eating Italian food trying to imitate American food trying to imitate Italian. I think it’s enough.
“Pasta bolognese” has an even more obscure origin. “Ragu alla Bolognese” is a thing, but “Spaghetti bolognese” or simply “pasta bolognese” are not existing concepts in Italian food.
One struggles to find this appealing
but what is left to say about this, then?
The photo is taken – together with the fantastic cover picture – with permission from “Spaghetti Bolognese“: a hilarious facebook page where Italians collect food horrors from all over the world.
It’s basically a very sick version of food porn. It brings some form of twisted pleasure, but the real thing is still much better.
3. Stop putting chicken everywhere!
To the Italian taste, chicken is either too dry, or not noble enough, to be a proper pasta or pizza complement. With a few less known regional exceptions, you wouldn’t find any variation of “Pasta with chicken” in a self respecting restaurant in Italy.
I was recently in Prague in a place where (I counted them) 7 out of 10 main pasta dishes included chicken, in a way or another. Simply put: you are doing it wrong.
And the “but people really like it!” argument is invalid, sorry. We have already cleared that in the disclaimer section. In the restaurant business, your task is to educate the masses, not to please them passively. They want chicken, they can go to KFC.
Which leads us to the following point.
4. Pizza is not your take-all garbage bin.
One would say that the old DON’T PUT PINEAPPLE ON PIZZA was well understood by now, but no. It’s still one of the most popular recipes found in pizzerias all over the world. Oh well.
Time for a bit of history. Its inventor was a Greek Canadian (who died recently) who tried putting canned pineapple on pizza “for the fun of it”. The fact that so many people loved it is a celebration of how a mistake can have glorious consequences, but the fact remains: it was a mistake.
Same with chicken, and other horrors like this:
The “meat fest” pizza with meat, spicy sausages and… chicken wings. Because of course.
The secret of Italian cuisine is its simplicity. Traditional favourite pizza recipes are simple and classic matches like “prosciutto e funghi” (ham and mushrooms) or “salame e olive” (salame with olives). Potatoes and even fries can be found (I know, this comes as a shock to many of my friends), but again, only in simple combination with a few other, selected ingredients.
So, try to resist the urge to add this ingredient that you like, and then this other ingredient, and this other one… the result may surprise you. Less is more in this case.
And, surprise: pizza can be used as a dessert, too!
There is really nothing wrong with “pizza con nutella“, or try a “pizza con mascarpone e fragole” (pizza with mascarpone and strawberries). You won’t regret it.
So in conclusion: the idea to put everything you love AT THE SAME TIME on a pizza – is just heretic and deeply wrong. So love yourself and please don’t do it.
5. There are only so many ways to insult pasta.
Especially in summer, Italians love a “Pasta salad”. The idea there would be to cook pasta (and cook it well), then serve it cold with a mix of vegetables, cold cuts, herbs and dressing. But there is a difference from the picture above, and this:
Overcooked pasta used as a side dish would make a food lover cringe anywhere in the peninsula. That’s just such a waste of potential!
So let’s see a quick summary of what NOT TO DO when dealing with pasta:
don’t overcook it! Seriously, DON’T! I already went with a step by step description of how to boil pasta in a previous post on spaghetti alla carbonara but seriously, the things you need to remember are few. In short, you can’t just turn the fire on, and leave to attend other business. A well made pasta dish wants you to be there.
boil the water first, then add the raw pasta. Don’t forget the salt. And respect the cooking time (usually written on packages): half an hour is waaay too much. Taste one or two to make sure they are salty enough and still a but crunchy – and forget the nonsense of “throwing one spaghetti on the wall, to see if it sticks”. It’s silly, and you will have to clean the wall, after.
finish cooking it with the sauce: it blends all the flavours together, and pasta and the sauce will complement each other in one loving embrace. Just the idea of serving one spoonful of sauce on top of a plate of white, overboiled pasta is enough to make adults cry, over here.
ketchup instead of any actual sauce is just the essence of barbarism, it just means that you don’t love yourself (or your guests, or your children) enough. Stop it immediately, and tell everybody they should, too.
don’t serve pasta as a side dish because, short version, it is not a side dish. And don’t argue with that. Also, Italians usually don’t eat bread with pasta – one notable exception being to catch all the condiment remaining in the plate after a meal, which is perfectly fine (and expected, too) and it’s called “fare la scarpetta” (“to make a little shoe”. Don’t ask me why).
add cheese with generosity but not just “any cheese”. Parmigiano, Grana or Pecorino (sheep cheese) are the natural choices, and they are not just simple equivalents since the saltier Pecorino enhances some tastes better than Parmigiano. It’s a skills that can be acquired over time and a lot of trial and error. Just don’t add it on any fish sauce (possible exceptions, tuna and swordfish, but the debate is hot) and don’t even think about adding Emmenthal, Cheddar or the like if a “traditional recipe” is what you have in mind.
6. You guys use a lot of garlic – NO WE DON’T.
Simply put, it’s a false stereotype that the Italian cuisine is rich with garlic flavour.
In fact, my first encounter with a “garlic soup” happened in Central Europe. And I still remember it.
True, garlic is used heavily to flavour Bruschette (roasted bread flavoured with fresh tomato, and more)
or in some fish sauces, but that’s about it. In the traditional Italian cuisine some garlic (chopped or whole) is used to flavour the olive oil as a base for the sauce, but that’s all.
It is often separated from the rest before the finishing touches, because its strong taste is considered too dominant.
So, if your dish has a way too strong garlic flavour in it – don’t blame it on Italian food.
7. For coffee, Italy really is a world apart.
I wasn’t even sure whether to include a section on coffee, or not. Because it’s such a big topic, and one of the most stereotyped.
The story is complicated. Italians have very particular tastes when it comes to coffee, with so many variations as one can possibly imagine. Even I find some of them frankly too much. I found a good and exhaustive collection here.
“Coffee etiquette in Italy has more strictures than a Catholic wedding”
it states in the opening lines. How true.
So for this one, rather than criticising other countries’ coffee cultures – which is not my intention at all – I will just describe the basic elements of the Italian one.
At least, this is my objective: readers should be able to go to Italian bar and cafeterias and self confidently place their orders, attracting knowing nods and admired looks by bartenders and customers.
The basic elements are:
if you order a “latte”, you will get a glass of milk. It actually happened to an Irish friend of mine, who was visiting for the first time. Because “latte” in Italian means just that: “milk”.
In Italy there are several ways of getting “milk and coffee”.
A “caffè macchiato” will bring you a drink that is mainly coffee, with a shot of milk. A “latte macchiato” is the other way around. “Macchiato” means “stained”.
Then you can have a “macchiato caldo” or “macchiato freddo“, depending if you want the spot of milk warm, or cold. People have sophisticated coffee tastes, I told you.
“Cappuccino“ (please notice double “p” and “c”)
has nothing to do with anything you can find in a Starbucks is the frothy delicious beverage that brings pleasure to so many of us. It comes with a warning: people don’t drink it right after meals, because they consider it too heavy.
That’s right, eating 2 or 3 fresh cannoli or 200 grams of chocolate cake after a big lunch is seen as a perfectly fine way to end a meal, but a cappuccino is not. If you think it doesn’t make any sense – you are not alone. But still, that’s the way culture works. So be advised, unless you want to appear as the occasional, naive tourist. You have been warned.
With all of the above, soy milk is now considered a perfectly fine alternative, and you should be fine ordering it as a substitute for animal milk in your coffee anywhere but in the most remote, rural places.
A “Freddo” is served ice cold, usually for a small extra price (for reasons that I will never be able to understand. Some people say it’s because of the refrigeration (?), some other argue that it actually contains more coffee than the standard cup).
And finally, you don’t need to say “espresso“. Just order a regular coffee (caffè) and that’s what you will get, because any sensible bartender knows what is the natural choice. If you want a larger, much more watered down “mug coffee”, order an “Americano“. The reaction to this order may vary from cold indifference, to amusement, to open mistrust.
Also, and that’s strange in a culture not famous for strict time management, Italians drink their coffee in one shot, while standing at the bar. It’s usually a very quick business. “Let’s meet for a coffee” has very different implications than in the rest of Europe, as sometimes it literally just means “let’s quickly catch up”. In many coffee places, there is an extra price to pay if customers want to sit at the table for their order (because it means extra time and service). You have been warned, again!
So, that’s it!
I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I loved writing it. It’s only a way to make fun of the “expat nostalgia”, and it’s a semi serious topic. Nowadays there is not so much to boast about Italy – certainly not the political or economical power, and even football prowess is in decline – so people stick fiercely to what they have.
Food really is one of the most serious topics all over the country, and its rich and diverse historical tradition – combined with a wide variety of fresh ingredients easily available – probably made Italian food the deep and respected discipline that it is nowadays. We certainly love it! And I hope that, maybe after reading this post, some of you will know a little bit more about it.
Special thanks to all my group of expat friends, who supported me a lot with inspiration and suggestions: Andrea, Fabrizio, Matteo, Emilio, Tony (I hope I am not forgetting anybody). We sure love to eat!
And last but not least, another good general reference I found for inspiration and a lot of useful background information was this blogpost, which I recommend reading for further info.
If you like the post, share it with friends, enemies and everybody who has ever had some adventures related to Italian food. If you want, you can also follow the facebook page of the blog, right here.
That’s it for now. Ciao!