Italian Myths – 6 Italian Food Staples Unknown in Italy

italian myths

This article is about “Italian” dishes, products, and terms that don’t actually exist in Italy – true Italian myths like Spaghetti with Meatballs (an Italian-American creation), Caesar salad and Italian soda (successful inventions of Italian immigrants), Fettuccini Alfredo, Italian Wedding Soup and “Al fresco” dining (specific Italian items mistaken as traditional).

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Despite their Italian roots, these products don’t represent today’s Italian dining and, in that regard, they can’t be considered authentic. However, they are historically important and offer interesting clues on the North American interpretation of Italian food.

1. Spaghetti with (big) meatballs

Probably the biggest Italian myth, widely featured in many Italian restaurants in North America, spaghetti with (big) meatballs are practically absent in Italy. Meatballs on their own, instead, with their many variations, are found almost everywhere in the country under the name ‘polpette’ (from ‘polpa’, pulp).

How did meatballs end up on spaghetti, then? A similar dish with small meatballs on noodles still exists in parts of southern Italy. As a possible explanation, with their arrival in the big American cities, Italian immigrants found a wider availability of meat and quickly switched away from their vegetable-centered diet. Their deeply rooted craving for pasta, however, didn’t abandon them. As the Italians were being assimilated into the American culture, they also started to favor a large single course (as opposed to multiple smaller courses) and a more intense use of spices (especially garlic and oregano). This resulted in the combination of spaghetti and meatballs in a rich tomato sauce, which turned into the iconic dish known in North America.

2. Fettuccini Alfredo

Another big Italian myth is Alfredo sauce, along with its most famous use in Fettuccini Alfredo. The name “Alfredo sauce” is almost completely absent in Italy, although there are plenty of pasta sauces which are similarly based on the combination of butter and Parmigiano. For instance, egg noodles, gnocchi, and meatless ravioli (e.g.: with mushrooms, truffles, or ricotta and spinach) are often served with melted butter (sometimes infused with fresh sage) and grated Parmigiano. This type of finish simply goes under the name of “al burro”, with butter. In Rome, egg noodles with butter and Parmigiano are often called “alla Romana”, Roman-style.

Why is this sauce so famously called “Alfredo” in North America, then? The history behind it is well known, though parts of it are mixed with legend. In 1914, Alfredo di Lelio, a Roman restaurateur who was popular among American tourists, named his butter and cheese linguine after himself. According to the legend, the dish caught the attention of early Hollywood actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who were in Rome for their honeymoon. When they returned to the US, the actors introduced the dish to their Hollywood friends, making it famous. In 1943 Alfredo di Lelio sold his restaurant, but the new owner kept the menu and is still in business under the name “Alfredo alla Scrofa“. In 1950, Alfredo di Lelio and his son opened a new restaurant in a different location and called it “Il vero Alfredo“, the real Alfredo, which is now managed by Alfredo’s nephews. Both restaurants are popular with North American tourists that want to taste the original Alfredo recipe. Besides these two restaurants, in Italy, “Alfredo” is just a first-name (Alfred).

3. Italian soda and Italian cream soda

As one can easily imagine, there is nothing called “Italian soda” in Italy. And there is also nothing that tastes like it. Italy only has a handful of traditional sodas, the main ones are ‘aranciata’ (orange-based), ‘gassosa’ (clear, intensely sparkling and with a sweet lemon flavor), ‘cedrata’ (from the citron fruit), and ‘chinotto’ (based on the uniquely flavored chinotto citrus). North American “Italian sodas”, instead, come in a wide variety of flavors (e.g.: cherry, raspberry, pomegranate, grape, peach, strawberry), all of which tend to be sweeter and more intense than their Italian counterparts.

How did Italian sodas happen, then? Probably from the Sicilian tradition of making refreshing drinks by pouring small amounts of concentrated syrups in iced still or sparkling water, or on shaved ice (which is what the Italians call a ‘granita’). The most popular flavors are lemon, mint, tamarind, ‘orzata’ (almond flavored), and ‘amarena’ (from sour black cherries). It appears that the Torani Company, a famous syrup maker from Italy, introduced Italian sodas in 1925, in San Francisco, by adding their syrups to soda water. The drink that resulted was well received by the American palate, and more flavors were then added.

If Italian soda is not really Italian, then “Italian cream soda” is even less so! Industrially made cream soda is usually flavored with vanilla, a pastry-like aroma that would be strange to Italians in a drink. In some North American bars and cafes, cream soda is made by adding cream to carbonated water, which sounds even stranger if not utterly disgusting to any Italian.

4. Caesar salad

With absolutely nothing to do with the well known Roman emperor, numerous sources trace the creation of Caesar dressing back to the 1920s and attribute it to Cesare Cardini, an Italian immigrant who owned restaurants in California and in Mexico. According to the legend, chef Cardini came up with his famous dressing by combining leftovers that he found in his kitchen: romaine lettuce, olive oil, garlic, raw egg, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce (which is lightly flavored with anchovies), and Parmesan. The dressing quickly became popular with visiting Hollywood’s celebrities and Cardini expanded his business into a large-scale production. In 1948 Cardini trademarked his recipe, but he couldn’t patent the “Caesar Salad” name because it was already entrenched in the popular culture. When he died, his daughter Rosa took on the business and worked on expanding the Cardini brand, which she then sold to a third party.

Despite the fact that the flavors in Caesar salad meet the Italian palate, this dish is unknown in Italy except for a few restaurants that cater to a North American clientele.

5. Italian wedding soup

Italian wedding soup is a completely misrepresented dish, not as much for the “Italian” adjective, but for the “wedding” one. There is no wedding soup in Italy – soups are generally humble dishes that lack any festive connotations. The name, in fact, likely comes from a mistranslation of ‘minestra maritata’, married soup, in which vegetables (escarole, cabbage, endive) and meat (sausage or meatballs) symbolically marry in one single dish.

6. “Al fresco” dining

Although the Italian words “al fresco” are a common way to say in the freshness of the outdoors, the association between “al fresco” and outdoor dining is not particularly strong in Italy. In the hot Italian summers, dining outdoors is a treat for many. As a result, restaurants often feature patios and gardens or obtain authorization to set up tables on the sidewalks. Despite this, the phrase “mangiare all’aperto”, eating outside, is far more common than “mangiare al fresco”, possibly because “al fresco” also carries the negative connotation of meaning in jail.

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30 thoughts on “Italian Myths – 6 Italian Food Staples Unknown in Italy”

  1. Yet another GREAT post!!!
    I have never heard of Italian sodas (or cream sodas…)! And I loved the part about the wedding soup… it actually sounded funny! 😉

  2. Speaking of beverages, my favorite as a kid was gazzosa, which seems to have been completely ignored outside of Italy: what a pity! I must admit I had not heard of wedding soup. A strange concept. Thanks!

  3. Thanks all for your comments 🙂

    ItalianCookChicago, please do share this post (or any other posts)!

    Simona, I also called it gazzosa (instead of gassosa) – it was a common drink at my grandma's. It probably tasted similar to Sprite or 7 Up, but I can't quite remember…

  4. Nice post, quite perfect. Just one little objection.
    Italian soda exists, even with other names. In Sicily the most typical one is is "seltz, limone e sale" (soda water, lemon juice and salt), and we also drink fruit syrup+ soda water. Very typical fresh drink in summer, it can't be found in supermarkets. You can buy and taste the original one only at a "cioscu" (kiosque).
    And be careful, GRANITA is definitely something else. Just the world's best breakfast 🙂

  5. [edited] Thanks for your comments!

    Anonymous, In my part of Italy (near Milan), we call tagliatelle al ragu` also "tagliatelle alla bolognese", so I think it's a valid name. Sometimes, near Milan, I could even find ‘spaghetti alla bolognese’ even though bolognese sauce is not traditionally served on spaghetti.

    lucha, thanks so much for your correction – I do strive for my articles to be as accurate as possible! I'm from the north, and I wasn't aware of the Sicilian soda water and fruit syrups – I will publish a correction. I agree – yours is a way closer match than 'granita', which is definitely something else.

    1. I live in Milan and I’ve never heard of spaghetti alla bolognese. Tagliatelle alla bolognese are common, but spaghetti is not a type of pasta suitable for ragù and I’ve never seen a single restaurant in Milan serving spaghetti al ragù.

  6. JasmyneTea, thanks for your contribution! I focus on North America, but I'm very interested in knowing how Italian food is represented in the rest of the world.

  7. For me, alla bolognese is completely valid and not necessarily the same as a ragu', which can be a sauce cooked with pieces of pork ribs, etc. The meat sauce that my grandmother from Basilicata made was a ragu'. What my grandmother in Rome made, was alla bolognese–it's a very specific recipe (which every family in Emilia Romagna probably has a variation on!). I also grew up with gassosa, especially refreshing after a day at the beach! And as for "wedding soup", I have only heard that name in the U.S. and only recently. My mother often made escarole soup, which she learned from her mother–escarole, small meatballs and rice (or pastina) in chicken broth.

  8. Many of those dishes are new to me. I remember one disney cartoon with 2 dogs eating spaghetti and meatballs, I always wondered where they served that. I hadnt seen in in europe.

    Its interessting how history developed new dishes. lots of italian moved to the US and of course had to take with them their mamas food.

    thanks a lot for clearing and teaching me new foodie knowledge Paolo! =)

  9. HISTORY OF ALFREDO DI LELIO CREATOR OF “FETTUCCINE ALL’ALFREDO”
    We have the pleasure to tell you the history of our grandfather Alfredo Di Lelio, creator of this recipe in the world known.
    Alfredo di Lelio opened the restaurant "Alfredo" in Rome in 1914, after leaving his first restaurant run by his mother Angelina in Rose Square (Piazza disappeared in 1910 following the construction of the Galleria Colonna / Sordi). In this local spread the fame, first to Rome and then in the world, of "fettuccine all’Alfredo". In 1943, during the war, Di Lelio gave the local to his collaborators.
    In 1950 Alfredo Di Lelio decided to reopen with his son Armando (Alfredo II) his restaurant in Piazza Augusto Imperatore n.30 "Il Vero Alfredo", which is now managed by his nephews Alfredo (same name of grandfather) and Ines (the same name of his grandmother, wife of Alfredo Di Lelio, who were dedicated to the noodles).
    In conclusion, the restaurant of Piazza Augusto Imperatore is following the family tradition of Alfredo Di Lelio and of his notes noodles (see also the site of “Il Vero Alfredo” http://www.alfredo-roma.it/).
    We must clarify that other restaurants "Alfredo" in Rome and in Italy do not belong to the family tradition of "Il Vero Alfredo" of Piazza Augusto Imperatore in Rome.

    Best regards Alfredo e Ines Di Lelio

    1. Hi Ines, it's such an honor to have you! Thanks for your specification – it's fantastic to hear it directly from you.

      I will visit your restaurant for sure the next time I'm in Rome.

  10. sorry but my family comes from salento, and for sunday dinners and and celebrations we used to have spaghetti with meatballs, some of them boiled in the tomato sauce, some of them fried.
    in my family around 100 year ago we used to have a soda drink company, but i don't know if they were flavoured or not, probably you should search more about the origin of the "italian" soda
    i also often tell my foreign friends that we don't have spaghetti bolognese, but we call it ragù, even if in the north of italy they call it bolognese, i don't think it's so significant, in milano people call mortadella "bologna"!
    in other countries they even call bolognese some kind of tomato sauce with cubes of crap ham in it.
    i was talking with a danish friend some days ago so proud of his ragù spiced wit oregano!
    Nice post anyway!

    1. Thanks Stefano, I was waiting for this – thanks for your correction. I will definitely put a note on the fact that spaghetti with meatballs still exist in parts of southern Italy as a dish for Sunday dinners and celebrations.

      I never claimed that Italy doesn't have sodas! However, I am certain that Italy doesn't have anything that resembles what North America calls Italian soda 🙂

      You are right about "Bolognese" sauce being a northern thing.

  11. Name Alfredo is not absent in Italy!!!! Are you serious??? I'm italian, Alfredo name is tipical of south of Italy ………..amd my father's name is Alfredo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. You are absolutely correct – I expressed myself poorly: the first-name "Alfredo" exists, but -generally- there is no pasta sauce named "Alfredo". I will explain better in the article.

  12. As a native-born Italian who recently returned to the mother country after almost a whole life in exile, I can symphathize with everything you say here. In fact, I wrote a similar, but much more modest, post on my blog a while back. I just stumbled across your blog from a comment you made on a friend’s blog and I am so glad I did. I’m passionate about presenting the real Italy and its food to those abroad and am looking forward to reading many more or your posts. Complimenti!!

  13. Paolo not to be “picky” but as you point out there IS authentic “spaghetti with meatballs” in Italy. In Abruzzo there is a long-standing tradition of pasta (e.g., chittara or tagliatelle, etc) con pallottine (or polpottine) di carne. You even admit it therefore how can it be a “true Italian myth”??? The myth is a “big” meatball, but the basic concept is Italian (Abruzzese). Next time do yourself a favor and take a trip to Teramo and enjoy a plate of authentic Italian spaghetti and meatballs and not just on Sunday. I would look for another myth to include as this so-called “myth” is true.

    1. Thanks Avvocato for your kind contribution! I have made the necessary corrections. What I love the most about blogging is that I’m constantly learning.

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