Food, Wine and other Beverages

5 Things that aren’t true about Italian Food

About the author

I’m a writer, editor and educator who is now based in the Boston area after spending several years living abroad in Ireland, Spain and Italy. While I spend most of my time writing and editing for the web (these days you’ll find on, I still love the feeling of holding a newspaper or magazine in my hands. If you’d like to know what I’m up to right now, you can find me at and on Twitter @brianapalma.

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The “traditions” behind some of our favorite traditional Italian food favorites aren’t what you think.

Over the years, Italy’s world-famous cuisine has seamlessly entered into U.S. culinary culture thanks to immigration, globalization and Giada De Laurentiis. Still, that stuff you eat at your neighborhood joint or local Little Italy is likely more American than Italian, so before arriving in the boot-shaped country, prepare yourself for a slightly different dining experience.


1. Caesar Salad

With Parmesan cheese and croutons, this salad gives off an air of authenticity, but you won’t find it anywhere in Italy. The popular dish doesn’t pay tribute to the great Roman emperor, but rather immigrant-turned-restaurateur Caesar Cardini, who first tossed it in his Tijuana, Mexico establishment in the 1920s. Instead, a typical side salad in Italy features lettuce, tomato, carrots and sometimes beans, radish or olives, dressed only in oil and vinegar.

2. Spaghetti and Meatballs

Most Italian chefs know how to cook up delicious polpette, meatballs, but they never serve them over spaghetti or under tomato sauce, which is an American invention. In Italy, people separate their pasta and meat courses, with the flavorful and well-seasoned balls often serving as an option for the latter. You can also spot miniature versions in certain soups, such as one made with thistle in the Abruzzo region.

Spaghetti and meatballs

Blame it on Chef Boyardee

3.  Bread and Condiments

Bread undoubtedly plays an important role in Mediterranean mealtime, but one that differs from its American counterpart. While dining in Italy, don’t expect this traditional Italian food favorite to be served with dipping oil or butter. Use the slices or rolls to perform la scarpetta, or wipe up any remaining crumbs and juices to indulge your taste buds one last time. And when ordering a sandwich, ask for a panino rather than a panini, which is an anglicized term made from the Italian plural.

4. Coffee


You will not find Cappuccino sold at all hours at gas stations – or alongside chewing tobacco – in Italy


These beans hold a special place in the hearts of Italians, who consume more than 1 billion pounds of them each year and do so mostly at the bar, foregoing take-out options. Order a caffè, though, and you’ll face a shot of strong, dark brown espresso, the country’s standard in caffeinated beverages. Prefer the lighter, foamy Cappuccino? Beware. Sipping on the warm drink after lunchtime goes against Italy’s unwritten social code.

5. Timing

Italian culture is deeply rooted in enjoying delicious Italian food and friends at the table. Traditional mealtimes come later and last longer. Head to lunch at about 1 p.m., have dinner around 8 p.m., and abandon that American habit of eating in a hurry. One of the true pleasures of visiting Italy is allowing  yourself to leisurely work your way through a traditional italian meal (even if you are a vegetarian) : appetizer, first and second courses, side dish, and – if you haven’t burst yet – dessert!

Photo credits:  WordRidden and Wikipedia Commons

This article has 22 comments

  1. Eurotrip Tips

    Well that’s informative!

    I didn’t know many of these things, and I do feel kind of foolish for thinking that our authentic Italian food in North America isn’t so authentic after all. I don’t know, I just thought that with such a strong background in Italian immigration, we had some sort of authenticity there. Nope! 😛

  2. Karen Regn

    Great, great, Briana! What a fun and informative article! Pointing out the changes of food and terminology through cultural adoption is endlessly entertaining. Thanks for posting!

  3. Briana Palma

    Thanks, Karen! I’m glad you enjoyed reading the post.

  4. Briana Palma

    Thanks! I’m happy you found the post helpful. And hey, many of us think Italian-American food is authentic. I only found out the truth when I moved there.

  5. Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista

    Our preconceived ides of what makes “italian” food will definitely get us in trouble! I knew about Caesar salad and would have guessed about spagetti and meatballs but I did find the article very informative and interesting.

  6. Eleonora

    Ciao Briana,
    you must mention also Fettuccine Alfredo, Garlic Bread and Chicken Parm, which are all American inventions based on non-existent Italian origin.
    I wrote about my “favorite fallacies” HERE

    Margo, the new site looks stunning!

  7. Briana Palma


    I love your ideas, too! The BruSHetta one is the best, I hear it all the time at Italian restaurants in the States. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Donna Hull

    Experiencing the food in Italy was certainly the highlight of my trip there. Although I had heard that they frown upon serving cappuccinos after lunch, I never had a problem ordering one. Although the staff probably said, “oh that clueless Americano” behind my back. :-).

  9. Michael Hodson

    the big two differences that I have totally bought into the Italian side are (1) very few ingredients on your pizza and (2) much less sauce on all kinds of pasta. I am a Italian believer now.

  10. Margo Millure

    Italian is my favorite kind of cooking because of its simplicity. “Less is more” doesn’t seem to jive with the American food mentality… It is our way to add more! Love this article, Briana!

  11. Melinda Brasher

    Great article. Love that “authentic” Caesar salad, though. When I teach English abroad, and people ask what American food is like, I usually tell our best food is American Mexican food, American Italian food, and American Chinese food, none of which resemble the authentic cuisine very closely, but all of which are delicious.

  12. Briana Palma

    Thanks, Margo! I had so much fun writing it and sharing the lessons I’ve been trying to explain to family and friends ever since I returned from Italy.

  13. Abby

    Yum — loved this, and anything else on Italian food! I remember being crushed when I learned that Italians don’t soak their amazing bread in their tasty olive oil.

  14. Lori

    Great article, as Italian living in Italy I can say that you are 100% right. And I could add other “fallacies”.
    What hurts me more is that Americans change a lot of our recipes and then say our food is not good when dieting. The problem is in those modifications… Italian cousine, if properly made, is perfect to be fit..infact it has been declared Human heritage few years ago as the best way to stay healthy (and happy since it tastes good) 😉

  15. Lori

    Well we do not soak but we like bread, olive oil, salt and fresh tomatoes. I used to eat it when I was a kid.

    And we also prepare bruschette: we roast few minutes a slice of bread on the barbeque, scratch the bread with onions, then pour olive oil and serve it warm.

  16. Lori

    You may also be surprise that traditionally, in Napoli, there are only 2 or 3 kind of pizza… All the others are just copies…

  17. Bobbi Lerman

    Hi Briana,

    I love this and it made me laugh. The first time I took my husband to Italy, he couldn’t figure out why none of the restaurants’ we went to had anything resembling what he considered Italian food.

  18. Vera Marie Badertscher

    We were delighted to learn that the “rules” we had been taught were mostly wrong, particularly the one about eating all the courses on the menu. Antipasto, pasta, meat, salad, dessert. We happily skipped a couple of courses, and asked for many pasta and meat courses “per due (doo-ee)”–for two. No extra charge. No frowns form the waiter, and two happy people who didn’t go away stuffed.

  19. Kelly McLendon

    Excellent article! Thinking about eating meals “leisurely,” takes me back to some evenings spent in Italy this year.

  20. judith works

    You could add that Italians don’t put grated cheese on top of a pasta dish made with seafood.

  21. Bill Plutnick

    In response to Eleonora’s comment. Actually I believe that Fettuccine Alfredo was invented in Rome in 1914 at Alfredo Di lelio’s restaurant as a variation of the popular pasta with butter, Fettuccine al Burro.

  22. Mario Romano

    Great fun reading about it! If you want to try the real Italian recipes and find out more about food go to!

    You’ll enjoy it!

    Ciao from Mario

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