There are many misconceptions about Italian food. These clichés irritate Italians: food is serious business. Set aside those spaghetti & meatballs and read up! Italian cuisine—whether professionally procured or home-cooked—is a complex expression of a rich and multifaceted regional tangle. Generalising and leaning on clichés ticks Italians off. Here are a few examples that personally drive me nuts; here’s hoping I can correct a few of these clichés and help you learn more about Italian food along the way!
Olive oil bread dip
After half a century of restaurants serving bread and butter at the table, now olive oil lands at restaurants place settings in a saucer with a puddle of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. But that’s what we Italians use as salad dressing, not dip. If on the other hand you’re ordering cazzimperio or pinzimonio—comical Italian words for crudité—you’ll be dipping fresh sliced vegetables in a small bowl of seasoned olive oil.
True, garlic is used with profuse abandon in Italy. But not in every dish. Roasting whole heads of garlic and pressing out the obtained caramel-coloured cream is a novel trend, one that’s not adopted in my family kitchen, or in any other that I know of in Italian soil.
Equally, smearing a blend of softened butter and the industrially packaged aberration called garlic powder over a halved loaf of bread is not an Italian custom. It may be served at dubious Italian-sounding restaurants and passed as a recipe of the Bel Paese, but garlic bread as it’s known abroad is not Italian.
Calling it “bru-sh-etta”
What is profoundly Italian is bruschetta––fettunta in Tuscany––a slice of toasted bread rubbed with a raw, peeled garlic clove, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. Period. More than nullifying the simplicity of bruschetta with elaborate toppings, what drives most Italians crazy is the way foreigners call it. The correct pronunciation is brew-sket-tah. Not bruschetta like, “brushing” or “brash”, rather bruschetta like, “brisket” or “brisk”. There are petitions to change the spelling abroad to ‘brusketta.’ The term itself lends context to the way the dish is pronounced: the term comes from the Italian term, bruscare, the action of toasting bread over a flame. The onomatopoeic homage to the sharp sound of teeth digging into a slice of toasted sourdough. Also––with the concession of chopped tomatoes and sometimes, cooked beans––bruschetta in Italy is never topped with a sauce.
Besides mangling the name, some foreigners use the word bruschetta incorrectly to refer to the topping instead of the actual slice of toasted bread: there are grocery stores (even favourite organic ones) that sell “bottled bruschetta,” which is a seasoned mix of tomatoes, garlic, onion and obscure herbs. Furthermore, when slices of bread are topped with tapenade, melted cheese, meats or spreads of various kinds and then warmed on the grill, they stop being bruschetta and become crostini instead.
At the risk of sounding pedantic, not all cheese wafers are frico. Frico is a traditional Italian recipe of the North Eastern Italian region of Fruli-Venezia Giulia. It’s a dish that’s only made with the aged version of a local Alpine cheese called Montasio. Frico can be made in two versions: soft frico, and brittle frico. Soft frico uses younger Montasio that’s cubed and added to sautéed onions, boiled potatoes and cooked in a pan much like frittata, and sometimes added with leeks and small bits of juniper-flavoured mountain ham called speck. Brittle frico on the other hand, is the very thin and crisp wafer made only with mature grated Montasio cheese. Being easily pliable, brittle frico is often shaped into baskets, and then filled with things like polenta, risotto or pasta. Despite frico’s current popularity abroad, it’s important to know that the original preparation was a peasant stratagem that utilized leftover cheese scraps.
Foreigners travelling to Italy and expecting thick multi-topping pizzas will meet sore disappointment. The size of Italian pizza, as well the texture of the crust and the amount of topping vary depending on region. Pies in Rome are generally crisp and have a thin crust, while the pizza in Naples has a thicker base, a chewy rim and a stretchy centre. ‘Spongy’ and ‘springy’ are descriptors particular to focaccia, which is not pizza.
The best pizzas are baked in forni a legna, a wood-stoked brick ovens, and topped with very few key ingredients. In Italy you will not find pepperoni pizza.
Throwing a bombshell here: the sliced salami that’s a common pizza topping in the United States doesn’t exist in Italy. Peperoni (spelled with one p) is plural for sweet peppers. Some spicy and aged sausages are made with ground pork and cubes of fat and then seasoned with hot peppers or peperoncino. Italian immigrants may have added this spicy sausage to their pizza in the early 20th century. But while the custom became widely accepted in the U.S., it never did in the Old World.
There is an Italian pizza that has slices of salame piccante as garnish, but this is not a mainstream topping. This cured meat is too aged and chewy for easy pizza enjoyment. Salame piccante doesn’t look anything like what’s served on American pepperoni pizzas and, ultimately, it’s never called pepperoni.
The word panino is Italian for “little bread roll,” diminutive of the word pane, for bread, and when sliced open and stuffed, panino means ‘sandwich.’ The plural form of panino is panini. Outside of Italy panini is misused as a singular noun. What most Americans know as “panini” is a single pressed and toasted sandwich made with ciabatta bread and varied fillings. Where’s the pet peeve? Ordering a single stuffed bread roll and calling it panini. It’s the equivalent of ordering one ham and cheese sandwiches. A minor technicality, we agree. But still, irritating.
We Italians semantically divide pasta into two basic groups, pasta corta, short pasta, and pasta lunga, its long counterpart. The short pasta class includes ribbed tubes such as penne and rigatoni, but also gnocchi, farfalle bowties, spiral fusilli, mezze maniche, paccheri, and so on. Some shapes, that don’t qualify for either category are large enough to be stuffed and baked (cannelloni, manicotti, lasagne), others, like egg dough ravioli or tortellini, agnolotti, tortelli and cappelletti, come already stuffed with a variety of regional fillings. Stubby pasta corta can furthermore be dressed with an equally infinite number of sauces.
But it’s the long-strand pasta category––such as spaghetti, tagliolini, linguine, fettuccine, tagliatelle, pappardelle, bucatini and other foot-long noodles––that iconically represents Italian pasta. The peak of the Italian food pyramid is meant to stay “long” and never be cut. Pasta-twirling, we agree, is not easy, but Italians practice from a very young age, learning the fork acrobatics before being potty trained. There’s the spoon, which to a certain extent is condoned in some households. Cutting spaghetti and fettuccine with a knife is not.
Another abhorring practice is breaking long pasta strands before cooking. A grave no-no. Instead of breaking the spaghetti (and breaking an Italian’s heart when you do), simply use a bigger pot, filled with more water. Don’t forget to salt the water as it starts to boil!
Flinging spaghetti on the wall to prove it’s cooked may be urban legend, hyperbole or a dated cliché, but at the same time there are still authoritative food experts who omit the al dente factor in their pasta cooking instructions. Packaged pasta usually provides a standard cooking time expressed in minutes, usually circled or highlighted in the packaging. Some cooks rely more on their teeth. Minutes before the package suggests, Italians fish out a piece and bite it open. At the core is a chalky, under-cooked area that snaps lightly when bitten, and is poetically known as l’anima, the soul of the pasta.
The pasta continues to cook until the soul is barely faded. Fundamentalists of al dente adjust their calculations based on empirical factors such as water hardness, elevation and even lunar cycles. Hard durum wheat flour—which is what’s used for packaged dry pasta—normally requires a longer cooking process than fresh, stuffed or homemade pasta or gnocchi, which are ready thirty seconds after they surface in the boiling water. A good trick is dropping spaghetti into a large pot of boiling, salted water the way you would shanghai sticks, and using a fork to coax the strands down as they soften and slide down the sides of the pot. Cooking time for dried pasta may range from 7 to 15 minutes, according to shape, section thickness and size. Bow ties, for example, take the longest time; spaghetti and its thinner forms—spaghettini, vermicelli, bavette, or angel hair—the shortest.
Olive oil in the pasta cooking water
Italian cooks will omit this from their ingredients list and cooking method because it is a given, but starchy pasta cooking water is actually a very important element for a proper plate of pasta. The starch that the dried pasta gives off during cooking will help bind or loosen sauces and condiments, creating a creamy mantecatura which will allow the sauce to stick to the pasta and coat it perfectly. Adding oil to the cooking water before draining will not help untangle the strands, or avoid the pasta from sticking to the bottom of the pot––that’s simply avoided by using lots of water in a large pot, and stirring often––it will instead make the pasta slippery and refractory to whatever sauce is intended to dress it. The same can be said for rinsing pasta under running water in the sink before dressing it, please don’t do that. Unless you’re making pasta salad, you’re effectively washing off any helpful starch from the pasta surface.
Italians season their pasta with a staggering number of sauces. Among tomato-based pasta sauces, marinara is just one of many options. Think amatriciana, puttanesca, arrabbiata, crudaiola, pomodoro e basilico, ragù alla bolognese, ragù napoletano… the list doesn’t end here. Also, marinara is rarely industrially bottled. It is instead homemade using few simple, seasonal ingredients, and in some cases preserved, exclusively for the home larder.
Mozzarella in a log
With the popularity of kitchen countertop time-lapse cooking videos, Italians realised that abroad mozzarella was actually considered a solid cheese produced in yellowish bricks or logs. Far from reality! Pearl white freshly hand-severed balls of mozzarella di bufala made from the milk of the water buffalo (not bison) are soft and springy and weep milky white whey when squeezed. Mozzarella made with cow’s milk is called fior di latte, which is commonly used to top pizzas, as it doesn’t render the same amount of moisture while cooking as bufala does, which would, the horror, make your pizza soggy. Mozzarella is soft and malleable, kept hydrated in a pool of briny whey, not a solid cheese that can be grated! Logs masquerading as mozzarella are cheap industrial products that belong to the realm of string cheese. Furthermore, mozzarella is consumed as soon as possible after making and should never be refrigerated.
Oregano on everything
Italians limit oregano to very few special dishes such as, for example, a common cheese-less pizza topping, pizzaiola steak and fresh tomato salad. In Sicily oregano is sold fresh in bunches at markets and street-side kiosks, remaining fragrant and heady until it loses its punch. It then slowly dries, losing flavour and eventually just becomes decorative. Dried oregano is not a signature that punctuates all of Italian cuisine. It’s one of the many representative herbs used in the Italian kitchen along side thyme, parsley, rosemary, sage and basil, to mention a few.
Ordering a cappuccino at the end of the meal
This is not Italian dining snobbery. The no-cappuccino-after-a-meal thing is just common sense. A cup of hot milk after meals is bad for digestion. Enjoy foamy cappuccinos in the morning, and instead end your lunch with un caffè. If you really must cut the beverage with a dash of dairy, you can order a macchiato. But eyebrows could be raised.
Now, don’t get me started on the misconceptions about Italian wine! I’ll have to save that for a future blog post…