Signs of fake Italian food

Part II: Learning to Tell Real Italian Food from Fake

In reference by Frank30 Comments

In Part I of this series, we explored the varieties of cooking styles that call themselves Italian, some rightly, some wrongly. As you will have realized from reading that post, there is a lot of fake Italian food out there, nowhere more so than right here on the internet.

Since so many recipes call themselves ‘Italian’ when they really are not, how do you tell if a dish is truly authentic? Well, of course, growing up in Italy is by far the best way to appreciate that hard to define but unmistakable essential aesthetic that lies at the core of genuine Italian cooking. Living in Italy is second best: the experience of living in the country, walking through the ubiquitous food markets, experiencing the cooking in its proper context, trying a classic dish over and over again in different variations, hearing and joining in the endless debates about the dishes you are eating—Italians, as you probably know, love to talk about food—these are the best ways of truly understanding the aesthetic.

Learning About Authentic Italian Food

Of course, most of us are not going to have that opportunity. But it is possible, I believe, to learn to recognize the Italian culinary aesthetic through study—if you are willing to dedicate a little time and effort. If you’re like most people and your only exposure to Italian food has been outside its native turf, the first thing to do is to forget about all your preconceived notions of what Italian food is. There are just too many bad versions of Italian food circulating around to make most of what people think they know about it very reliable. Then start over and learn the basics.

The good news is that, along with the dreck, there is a lot of good material available as well. We have the writings of wonderful authors like Elizabeth David and Waverly Root, who (with some inevitable inaccuracies) first described for English-speaking readers, in loving detail, the wonders of real Italian cuisine.  And let’s not forget the great early ambassadors of authentic Italian cooking in English, people like Marcella Hazan, whose Essentials of Italian Cooking is still the best single Italian cookbook written in English, in my humble opinion, and the lesser known Giuliano Bugialli. (Bugialli deserves to be much better known than he is, by the way. His serious, scholarly approach to Italian cooking can be intimidating to some, I imagine, but he is an excellent teacher.)

On Authenticity (Part II): Learning to Tell Real Italian Food from Fake

Today, the intense interest in Italian cooking has brought an ever richer range of sources. Many of the classic Italian cookbooks, for example Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and Ada Boni’s Talisman Cookbook, have been translated into English. The official cookbook of the Italian Academy of Cuisine, entitled in English La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy, has been recently published in English, as has the Silver Spoon cookbook, another encyclopedic stand by in Italian kitchens. And you can even find books that specialize in the cooking of particular regions, like the wonderful series called “Italy’s Food Culture” edited by Marco Guaraneschelli Gotti for Oronzo Editions. (This development shows how far we’ve come. When Hazan and Bugialli were first writing, their  books purported to be about ‘Italian’ food, even if Hazan’s cooking was heavily influenced by her romagnolo roots and Bugialli’s was Tuscan. It is said that Bugialli actually wanted to call his first book The Fine Art of Tuscan Cooking, but his publishers rejected the title, fearing that the title would be too esoteric for the American market.)

And if you really want to get behind the recipes and learn about the historical and cultural aspects of Italian cuisine, there are several books available today, such as Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History by Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari. And you can now buy such recondite historical works from Mastro Martino, Bartolomeo Scappi if you want.

The internet can be a great friend if you want to learn about authentic Italian food—but often a false one, so be wary. There are a number of wonderful Italian food bloggers who publish in English or in both English and Italian, as well as ‘bi-national’ bloggers who have lived here and there, straddling the cultural borders. For this foray, I might humbly suggest you check out the Links tab on the upper right hand corner of Memorie di Angelina. I have tried to be very careful in presenting you with some of the best and most authentic Italian food bloggers out there. You will also find  “Useful Links”, which include sites like Kyle Phillip’s About Italian Food and Anna Maria Volpi’s A Passion for Cooking. Kyle Phillips is an American who have been living in Tuscany for many years and translated Artusi into English, while Anna Maria Volpi was an Italian cooking teacher living in California. Both are wonderful and reliable sources for authentic recipes. (NB: Kyle recently passed away, much too young, but his legacy still lives online.)

But the richest single online source of information on Italian food and Italian food culture has to be the website of the Accademia Barilla, sponsored by the pasta manufacturing giant. It has lots of recipes, searchable by keyword and browsable by region of origin, but my personally favorite section is the Gastronomic Library, which contains 8,500 virtual cookbooks dating back to the 16th century! I was even able to locate cookbooks by Ippolito Cavalcanti and Vincenzo Corrado, two giants of Neapolitan cookery but whose works I’ve been unable to locate Stateside for love or money.

On the other hand, avoid like the plague the so-called Italian recipes on sites like allrecipes.com—these sites are hot beds of ‘Italian-style’ or just plain fake Italian food, even if some authentic recipes can be found like diamonds cast in the mud.

Other sources are generally less reliable, even when they come in Italian packaging. Be wary, in particular, of TV personalities. While they surely know better, they often adapt their recipes to appeal to a mass audience, sometimes in highly inauthentic ways. One exception is the genial David Rocco, whose Dolce Vita TV series is a breath of fresh air for TV viewers looking for an authentic experience. When I first saw the show, I was amazed to see, for the first time on US television that I know of, Italian food as it is actually cooked at home in Italy. Of course, it helps that he is living and broadcasting from Italy. Still, TV shows these days are basically entertainment rather than a learning tool. The fast pacing that contemporary TV imposes doesn’t allow the host to teach or the view to absorb anything much. Gone are the days of Julia Child’s French Chef. At best, TV can only be a complement that helps illustrate for you what you will learn through other media.

And of course, for those who can read Italian, or just know how to navigate Google Translate, even broader vistas open up. In this virtual age, you can read countless Italian language food blogs, subscribe to the original language version of La cucina italiana and other food journals and e-cookbooks, as well as recipe sites such as Cucinare Meglio. But for those who want to take the plunge into Italian language sources, do bear in mind two things: First, you will need to have mastered the basics of Italian cooking techniques; Italian language recipes assume the reader is Italian who learned the basics at their mother’s knee, so they are often lack detailed instructions or measurements. And, second, when looking at the blogs, do remember that Italian food bloggers are like foodies everywhere; they do like to innovate culinarily with new and foreign cooking techniques, and present their own inventions, so make sure you read their posts carefully. They will usually tell you if the dish they are presenting is a traditional one or one of their own invention. And food magazines like La cucina italiana are also apt to present new dishes meant to make life interesting for their Italian readers who already know the classics by heart.

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate!
Some of the Tell-tale Signs of Fake Italian Food

For those who will not have the opportunity to live in Italy, and those who don’t have the time or inclination to study Italian cuisine extensively, there are still some rules of thumb that can help you to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff when choosing recipes or ordering out in restaurants or purchasing Italian food products:

  • Name of the Dish or Ingredient. One of the surest ways of telling a fake is by the name. It may sound funny, but if a dish or an ingredient calls itself ‘Italian’, or ‘Italian’-style’ then you can be almost 100% certain that it’s actually not. The so-called Italian salad dressing that comes in a bottle, for example, is about as un-Italian a product  as one can imagine. The same goes for ‘Italian-style’ stewed tomatoes and countless other travesties you will find on supermarket shelves. And recipes that call themselves ‘Italian’ immediately give themselves away as fakes, since traditional Italian dishes are regional, not national. And the word ‘authentic’, by the way, is not guarantee of anything. Unfortunately, people seem to have no compunction about using it.
  • Number of ingredients: As a general rule, the fewer ingredients in a recipe, the more likely it is to be authentic. If a recipe contains more than, say six or seven ingredients (including salt and pepper) then start to doubt its authenticity; if it has more than ten, then turn the page. Italian food is about bringing out the best of the natural flavor of its main ingredient or ingredients. Normally, that means not piling on different ingredients on top of the other. One of the most common signs that a dish may be faux Italian, for example, is the tendency (very common in Italian-American cooking) to strafare, or over-do, at least in the eyes of Italians. Take, by way of illustration, the dish called Utica Greens from the Italian immigrant communities of upstate New York. This dish is probably a descendant of the ubiquitous southern Italian simply sautéed vegetable dishes like cicoria in padella. While the original is simply boiled greens sautéed in garlic and olive oil, and perhaps with a bit of peperoncino thrown in for heat, its New World cousin adds romano (aka pecorino) cheese, breadcrumbs, prosciutto, cherry peppers and chicken broth… A very American combination of flavors that, while it has its own kitch charms, most native Italians would find sort of gross.
  • Use of non-Italian ingredients: There are any number of ingredients in common use in the US and elsewhere that are simply not part of the Italian culinary tradition—and yet you will see them pop up in supposedly ‘Italian’ recipes. Italians, too, are increasingly turning to convenience foods, but, perhaps more than in any other advanced country, they continue to rely heavily on ‘whole foods’ to cook with. If a recipe calls for ingredients like garlic powder or onion powder, you can be sure it’s not authentic. If it calls for any kind of dried herb (except for oregano), I would begin to have serious doubts; dried basil or parsley, for example, is a tell-tale sign of fake Italian cooking, as is so-called ‘Italian seasoning’… whatever that is! And, of course, a recipe that calls for non-Italian foodstuffs like cheddar cheese, jalapeños or cayenne pepper are obviously not Italian, either—even though I’ve seen any number of so-called ‘Italian’ recipes including all these ingredients. (One caveat here: Italians today are experimenting with ‘exotic’ ingredients, just like folks in other countries. But, of course, these are indeed experiments, not traditional cooking.) And, as mentioned above, distrust any recipe that calls for any ‘Italian-style’ canned or prepared product.
  • Over-use of ‘trendy’ ingredients: Finally, a bit harder to spot but still important: many fake Italian recipes are characterized by the over-use of certain ‘trendy’ or popular Italian ingredients. No, Italians do not put dried tomatoes in or balsamic vinegar on everything, nor does tomato paste show up in every sauce, nor is every baked savory dish topped with mozzarella.
  • Obsession with Chicken and Shrimp. For some reason, there is a surfeit of pseudo-Italian dishes using chicken breasts and shrimp. Don’t ask me why, but it seems to be so. Obviously, Italians do eat chicken breasts, but not as often as Americans seem to think they do. And chicken breast is not a typical substitution for veal. If an Italian wants scallopine but doesn’t want to spend a bundle on veal, s/he will usually use pork loin or turkey instead, not chicken. And I can tell you that I managed to live in Italy for ten years without a bowl of spaghetti and shrimp passing my lips.
  • Simplicity and discretion: In general, Italian culinary tradition prizes simple, straight-forward cooking techniques. Long, complex, multi-stepped recipes are very much the exception, although they do exist. Similarly, although Italian food is often known for bold flavors, that is something of a misnomer. Yes, Italian food is tasty, but more often than not, its use of herbs and spices is discrete—and it never overpowers. If a dish calls for multiple cloves of garlic, or spoonfuls of dried oregano or a whole bunch of chopped parsley, beware! Ditto for dishes that call for multiple herbs, especially multiple dried herbs, like dried oregano and dried basil and thyme… (NB: Thyme is rarely used in Italian cooking anyway.)
  • Violations of Basic ‘Food Rules’. Italians are notorious rule-breakers, but when it comes to food, they are as filled with civic virtue as any German or Swede. Check out my post on Italian Food Culture and note the various customs mentioned there. If a dish violates one or more of them (if, for example, it calls for mixing cheese with fish, or it pairs a meat or fish dish with pasta as a ‘side dish’) then you can be almost certain it is fake Italian. Of course, there will always be exceptions to every rule, so be open-minded…
  • Technique: Italian cooking is grounded in a number of basic techniques that carry over from dish to dish. The preparation of a soffritto, for example, is the starting point for countless sauces, sautés and stews—very few, in fact, don’t start off that way—followed by browning of the main ingredient in the soffritto to take on the flavor of the aromatics, then typically, a splash of wine, which is allowed to evaporate. These techniques lend to Italian cooking it’s characteristic flavors and textures. Learn to execute them correctly and you will learn a lot about the essence of authentic Italian cooking.

Having gone over how to tell fake Italian food when you come across it, in the next and final post in this series, I will cover how to make authentic Italian food at home, even if you don’t live in Italy…

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  1. Pingback: Cinghiale in agrodolce (Sweet and Sour Wild Boar) | Memorie di Angelina

  2. Pingback: A Beginner's Guide to Authentic Italian Food

  3. Pingback: Part III: How to Cook Authentic Italian Food At Home

  4. Italians love discovering new foods and new way of preparing familiar dishes. Every year there’s more and more interest in the traditional cuisine of the various regions and in biological, environment friendly foods. Italian food for Italians is a reason of pride. You can recognize Italians abroad for their longing of typical dishes, pasta over every other. And you can see how dishearten they are when they try pasta outside Italy. Some upper class foreign restaurants have managed to master almost all the typical Italian dishes, but pasta still eludes them.

    1. One suggestion for wonderful information on Italian cooking is to watch YouTube videos, by Italians in Italy. It is easy to find these by searching for the name of the dish, in Italian of course, and to add “comé fare” or some other “how to cook” phrase in Italian. I’ve found it’s usually not too much of a problem not to understand the talking, unless it’s a very talking as opposed to doing video. Ingredients are usually easy to guess at and quantities can be estimated. This is a very rewarding way to spend some time researching spaghetti carbonara, for example.

      1. Author

        Great idea, Doug. And you’re absolutely right—I should add a paragraph on the Italian cooking YouTube channels I regularly watch, and there are quite a few!

  5. And you know – I like both. The Italian American foods my grandmother devised – and although she frequented Arthur Ave in Bronx NYC, I know there were just so many ingredients she couldn’t get here. Especially in the mid 1900s! And I love the recipes from La Cucina and marvel at their simplicity. I wondered about taking cooking classes in Italy and then wondered – if they would cater to American tastes (especially since my Italian is limited to menus). I love the time and care you take to speak honestly about the cooking you love.

    1. Many thanks, Claudia! You know, nonna Angelina lived in the Arthur Avenue section. It was truly a “little Italy” in her day and, to a great extent, still is.

  6. Interesting and informative. I would like to recommend the book “Honey From a Weed” by Patience Grey to add to your list. In it she chronicles living, cooking, and eating in Sardinia and the Adriatic islands (If I remember correctly). It was the first book that taught me about real Italian culture and cuisine.

  7. Very interesting blog and excellent writing! I agree with you on all points and felt incredible frustration for years when I moved to the US and would hear people (even culinary pros) talk about “italian food” and present stuff that had nothing to do with Italian food! like disgusting lasagne that was just a thick porridge of processed cheese and canned sauces. Growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, you could find lasagne verde at sidewalk cafés that was way more italian than this stuff! Well, I am glad things have changed since then and with Marcella Hazan and others, folks now know what lasagne is supposed to taste like.

  8. @Paolo, @Adriana–Thanks for stopping by and thanks for your kind words! We should all try to get the word out there.

    And, Paolo, I checked out your blog and really enjoyed it. A great source for debunking all the disinformation out there—I'm going to add it to my useful links!

  9. Great post and great blog, I will be back for more! Finally someone who said it loud and clear There is no chicken with pasta!!!! Or with pizza (yuk…even worse)….it's the nightmare of every Italian living abroad…Adriana

  10. Frank, I just discovered your blog, I quickly made my way to this article and I LOVED it – couldn't agree more, and most definitely couldn't say it any better!

    A little over a year ago I started a blog specifically on the subject of authenticity of Italian food. This project started out of sheer exasperation – after living in Vancouver for 10 years I decided that I had enough of Tuscan Chicken Pasta, when there is no chicken on any pasta *anywhere* in Italy.

    As I kept blogging, I started to dissect more deeply the origins of the differences and learned a lot more of both cultures, Italian and North American, as well as uncovered an entire world of differences between the ingredients. Through this path I formed a much more informed opinion as to *why* Italian cuisine is often misrepresented.

    It's obviously a process of cross-contamination and adaptation to the local taste, but it's also fueled by ignorance. I'm very grateful for blogs like yours – I think we now have a chance to reverse the drift that has occurred in the past and bring back the essence of the authentic cuisines of the world. Then, when desired, cross-contamination will be deliberate!

  11. @Cellar Tours: Thanks for the kind words! An educated public really is the key. Otherwise, restauranteurs are just “preaching in the desert”.

    @renaccio: Don't mix Lady Gaga with Verdi… love it! Enjoy your time in Tuscany, sounds magical!

  12. I'm and American living in eastern Tuscany and I cook for my Fiorentino. I've got Kyle's Artusi translation and right next to it is my sig oth's beat up Artusi held together with a rubber band. Marcella, Bugialli, Ada Boni, are all up there too with the Silver Spoon.
    I follow the rules in Tuscan cooking. I WANT to prepare the classics the right way and Tuscans expect those classics prepared correctly. Don't mix Lady Gaga with Verdi.
    I was in the USA recently and was genuinely surprised with the David Rocco show.
    I'm convinced that Americans think the more on the plate, the more flavors packed into a recipe the better. Bigger is always better.It discouraged me a great deal. An American would laugh at an elegant panino. (Where's the BEEF?) They are quite surprised and maybe even disappointed when they come to Italy and experience the simplicity (and sophistication as W. Root notes)of the regional cuisines.

  13. Hi Frank,
    I think the problem with Italian restaurant in US is what people expect when they order Italian food (in US and sometimes in Italy, too!).

    There is plenty of Big Nights sequence style customers (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtmOTYmVNII)and I am afraid to say that sometimes it seems like a David and Goliath fight!

    We had a restaurant staff on tour last year; the owner of the restaurant treated them to a culinary trip to Italy to learn better Italian food and cuisine. They visited Emilia Romagna, Veneto and Lombardy, attended cooking classes, met many chefs who explained them what real Italian food is and that some dishes are not at all Italian (fettucine Alfredo, garlic bread, mac&cheese, to name a few), enjoyed top notch wine and food producers visits … and what do you find on their menu today? A Carbonara made with linguini pasta tossed with mushrooms, onions and pancetta in a cream sauce garnished with tomatoes and pecorino Romano!!!!!

    I don't think they are not able to prepare a decent and real carbonara, but probably their customers wouldn't order it.

    So education and culture is very important and I am very happy there are people like you who spread the “true” word.

    It will make easier our job too 🙂

    ciao
    Simona

  14. Ah, I totally see where you're coming from – I think we agree that bad cooking is bad cooking no matter what it is called!! As someone who grew up with no culinary tradition who is really trying to learn techniques other traditions, I understand about the frustration you feel with laziness. And as a professional writer, I think I feel a similar annoyance with bad, lazy writing … but I could go on and on about that. Sigh.

  15. @Trix: You make a lot of good and valid points. As I've said, I do think that good Italian-American cooking deserves respect on its own merits. It has produced a good number of dishes–think of San Francisco's cioppino, or the muffaletta sandwich from New Orleans, or Lobster Fra Diavolo or even a well-made veal parmesan–that actually make for excellent eating. As far as Sunday gravy/sauce goes, when properly made, it is a culinary masterpiece and one of my Ur culinary memories. (Check out my post for my thoughts on that dish and the sauce vs. gravy controversy.) It is also one of the Italian-American dishes that is still very close to the Italian original: ragù alla napoletana. I have thought, from time to time, that I should feature more Italian-American dishes on this blog, in fact.

    When I talk about 'fake' Italian food, my point is not to trash Italian-American cooking. My real gripe is twofold: First, it's about honesty. Don't call something Italian when it isn't, especially if you're selling a product to make a buck. That is a kind of thievery. You are stealing–and sullying–the good name that Italians have rightly earned for their cuisine. I can't tell you how much bad food is passed off as Italian or even 'traditional Italian' that has nothing to do with real Italian cooking by food manufacturers, recipes sites… and bloggers.

    My other complaint is about the direction that Italian-American cooking seems to be taking as the generations pass. All too often, the younger generations forget or never learn their culinary traditions. They try to reproduce the cooking of their parents or grandparents, but without the grounding they need to do it right. And laziness or something leads too many of today's generation to use short cuts like garlic powder (which has its own uses but not in authentic Italian cooking). The result is a lot of awful cooking. That may be a value judgment, but as an Italian-American myself, I have no hesitation about making it. Bad Italian-American cooking is simply bad cooking, even on its own terms.

  16. I think that the topic of authenticity is a fascinating one, whatever cuisine is being discussed. I agree with so much of the philosophy you describe – and of course Olive Garden and bottled “Italian dressing” and all that is disgusting!!! Despite incredibly different flavors and dishes, I think that there's a truth to the idea that old-world, so-called “peasant” cooking – whether it's European or Asian or African or Mexican etc. – depends so much more on whole foods and the integrity of the ingredients and not over complicating things. And that's something I would love to see more people return to and appreciate.

    And then the issue of what is “Italian American” cuisine really intrigues me. I don't think that it's “fake” necessarily- it's just not European Italian. Unlike Chef Dennis, I don't shudder when Philly people call red sauce “gravy” – I am actually curious to know the origins of that term … And I have a feeling that “gravy” in this context is a totally different thing unto itself! And weird ingredient combinations and dishes that would cause European Italians to shudder are interesting to me in that they are foods of a diaspora, and as such, inherently valuable and historically/anthropologically important and “real.” Is this making sense?

    I totally get why it would drive you crazy when people mis-categorize things and spread misinformation (like calling the stuff in the green canister Parmesan … I am not Italian, but that kinda drives me crazy too!) – but I do hesitate to put a value judgment on things and say that regional Italian cuisine is more “real” than Italian American cuisine; it is rather a different animal … even though my personal preference is more often than not going to lean towards those more simple and harmonious dishes that you're talking about. (Though I haven't lived in Italy.) That being said – I have enjoyed a really red-saucy pasta dish at Bamonte's in Brooklyn knowing full well that NO ONE in Italy would recognize the saucy mess on my plate! Should I even admit that here? lol

  17. Thanks folks! Your readership is much appreciated. Now pass the word around… 🙂

    @Cookin' Canuck: Dana, so true. It's well worth the effort!

    @Jacoba: Much appreciated! It's true there's so much disinformation out there. Trying in my own small way to correct it…

    @Chef Dennis: I'm afraid it's true. And true of Little Italys all over. Of course, Italian-American food deserves appreciation and respect on its own terms—but we just shouldn't try to pass it off as 'Italian'.

  18. Great post Frank! for years I have been telling people that some their beloved south Philly Italian food is not at all Italian..lol….and I cringe every time I hear someone call tomato sauce, gravy!!!!!
    Thanks for all the wonderful information as always very informative!
    Cheers
    Dennis

  19. At last! This is probably one of the best posts/articles that I've read in a long time.
    I've long been irritated by food writers and food critics who vainly pass judgement on Italian food without actually ever having been there or even lived there! (A six week visit to Italy cannot possibly teach anyone anything about Italian food – the subject's just too vast.)
    Love the book suggestions, have many of them but not all which means I'll just have to go shopping!

  20. Really informative Frank. Appreciate your time and expertise here. Very helpful, and although I didn't know everything you wrote about per se, it all rings true.
    LL

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