Going out for an Italian feast is a real treat: endless bowls of yummy pasta, cozy ambiance, and bountiful baskets of garlic bread. It’s no wonder Italian remains the most popular cuisine in America, according to a survey by the National Restaurant Association.
But even though your local Italian eatery might have an authentic look and feel, chances are many of the menu items bear little resemblance to the type of food you’d actually order in Italy. Just like with some other popular cuisine, many dishes have been Americanized beyond recognition to appeal to the broadest customer base. And some are a complete waste of money and time. We’ll break down what you should order from your local Italian joint — and what’s a total waste of time.
1. Garlic bread
One of the best things about going out for Italian is the moment your server brings over the basket of garlic bread (bonus points if it’s still warm from the oven). But did you know this isn’t how Italians really eat? According to Business Insider, this carb-loaded appetizer is really a version of the traditional Italian bruschetta, a crispy piece of bread heaped high with olive oil, fresh diced tomatoes, onions, and spices.
2. Shrimp scampi
Go ahead. Order shrimp scampi in Italy, and see what you get. It won’t be a bowl of buttery pasta with some shrimp on top, that’s for sure.
The New York Times reports traditional Italian menus do have scampi available to order. But they are really small lobster-like crustaceans (also called langoustines) that are sautéed with olive oil, garlic, onion, and white wine. U.S.-based Italian cooks swapped in cheaper, more readily available shrimp and added a bunch of pasta to fill you up. But in truth the original is a lot less calorie packed.
3. Marinara sauce
The marinara sauce you’re used to originated with Italian-American immigrants who learned to cook with the ingredients they could get their hands on, according to Business Insider. But it wasn’t necessarily authentic to the old country.
Americanized marinara is usually made with tomatoes, garlic, onions, and other herbs. And it is similar to traditional pomodoro sauce, which has an olive oil base. For a more traditional dish, try the pomodoro or puttanesca sauce with your pasta instead.
4. Italian wedding soup
This soup is really Italian, but contrary to popular belief it’s not served at weddings, Food Republic reports. Hailing from Campania in the south of Italy, the name of this popular menu item can be attributed to a bad translation. What was once called “minestra maritata” turned into Italian wedding in English. But more accurately it should be called “wedded broths” instead.
The name refers to the way the ingredients go so well together — and not to when you should serve it. And though this is an authentic soup, it’s typically less hearty and filling than its Italian counterpart.
5. Italian dressing
Despite the misleading name, Italian dressing is a far cry from how Italians top their salads, according to Eat This, Not That. The vinaigrettes you’re used to pouring all over your lettuce are usually oil-based and might even come packed with sugar and other additives, especially when they aren’t homemade. If you want to be more authentic, all you need is a little bit of olive oil and vinegar for your salad course. It’ll save you a whole bunch of calories, too.
6. Fettuccine Alfredo
This indulgent dish is a riff on the Italian fettucine al burro — which also happens to be a lot more time-consuming to make (and as rumor has it, a lot more delicious).
Saveur reports legend holds that Roman chef Alfredo di Lelio invented the dish back in the beginning of the 20th century. He combined cheese, butter, and pasta in just the right amounts to produce a creamy, tantalizing dish his customers couldn’t resist.
As his restaurant and the dish’s popularity grew, other chefs were quick to copy him. But soon they found achieving the perfect consistency was a real challenge. They began adding cream to the sauce to mimic the creamy texture, but doing so diluted the delicate nature of the creation and led to a bland interpretation that still exists today.
Looking to add some authenticity to your dinner? Try fettucine al burro, which is lighter, more flavorful, and a lot closer to the original.
7. Pepperoni pizza
A classic pepperoni pizza might be tasty — but it’s not true Italian. In fact, if you order this dish in Italy, you’re likely to be served something very different from what you’re expecting, Business Insider reports. For one thing, true Italian pizzas usually have a thinner crust and less cheese than pizza in the United States.
Toppings vary, but some popular options include fresh veggies, anchovies, or even potatoes, not processed discs of meat. If you are craving a meat-topped slice, try ordering your pizza with prosciutto, a traditional Italian meat.
8. Spaghetti and meatballs
It doesn’t get much more popular than good old spaghetti and meatballs, except this is another dish you’re not likely to find in Italy proper. This mainstay of stateside Italian dining was actually contrived in America, according to Eat This, Not That. And though Italians partake in tasty homemade meatballs, they are rarely, if ever, on top of pasta. They’re usually the main course.
Next time you’re dining out at your local Italian place, try ordering the meatballs as an entrée. You’ll get more for the money (because pasta is cheap), and you’ll enjoy your dish in a more authentic spirit.
9. Chicken Parmigiana
A bit of bad news: Your beloved chicken Parm is not technically Italian at all, even though it’s on most typical Italian restaurant menus, according to Eat This, Not That. In Italy, it’s a lot more common to feast on baked eggplant topped with Parmigiana cheese. It’s much healthier and less calorie-packed than breaded chicken over pasta.
10. Mozzarella sticks
It should come as no surprise at this point that fried sticks of cheese are not a traditional Italian dish, Eat This, Not That reports. Again, though mozzarella sticks have roots in Italy — mainly in the use of this kind of cheese — deep frying and serving them with marinara is distinctly American.
For a healthier, more authentic appetizer, go for a simple caprese salad topped with balsamic and fresh basil.
11. Neapolitan cookies
They go by many names — rainbow cookies, seven-layer cookies, Venetian cookies, Italian flag cookies, or tricolor cookies — but in Italy, they don’t even exist, except maybe in tourist towns. According to Business Insider, Italian immigrants created rainbow cookies as a tribute to their homeland. But in reality, they are as American as apple pie.
For an authentic Italian dessert, have your après-dinner coffee with a nice biscotti or pignoli. Or even try some cavallucci (a pastry delicacy).
12. Baked ziti
While baked pasta dishes are a staple in Italy, you’re unlikely to find this particular combination of pasta, ricotta, and tomato sauce, according to the Food Network. For a more realistic Italian dining experience, opt for the lasagna instead.
13. Penne vodka
The origin of this popular pasta dish is up for debate, the Food Network reports. It might have come from Italy, but no one’s exactly sure (probably because they were really enjoying that vodka). One thing that’s not a question: It’s not likely to be an option on a menu in Italy, unless you’re dining at a tourist trap.
14. Sunday gravy
American-Italians are likely to faint if you mistakenly call their beloved gravy “sauce.” Made with tomatoes, spices, and sometimes meat, slow simmered for many hours, this important part of family feasts is actually an American tradition, according to the Food Network. Although meat with tomato sauce is common in Italy, the Italians don’t usually add the meat to the sauce, and they serve it as a separate course.
This fish-filled stew isn’t from Italy at all, according to the Food Network. It’s from San Francisco and was invented by Italian immigrant fisherman as a way to enjoy their daily catch. In fact, it likely was a practical way to eat up their day’s work before refrigeration was a common convenience.