Americans love their Italian food. According to a YouGovAmerica study about favorite national cuisines, Italian food ranked at a high 84% for popularity, beating out other cuisines. What is it about Italian food that makes it so popular? If you love it, then the answer is obvious — it’s delicious. Warm pasta is the ultimate comfort food.
Most Italian dishes are simple with few ingredients. Sometimes simplicity feels like home. Plus, in the 1900s, America saw a huge wave of Italian immigrants. Many Americans have Italian blood in them or know someone who does. Cities boast “Little Italy” areas where people get authentic Italian food like grandma used to make. The Italian culture is passionate, full of music, art, romance, and great food that is created to eat together and never hurried. If you aren’t making your own Italian food, you likely enjoy finding your favorite pasta at Italian restaurants. In this article, we will discuss some signs an Italian restaurant may not be authentic. After all, if you’re going out for Italian, you want true Italian.
The staff knows nothing about Italian food
People who aren’t Italian can certainly spend time in Italy and study the cuisine, then open a restaurant in America. However, if no one working at the restaurant seems interested in anything Italian, the food is likely not going to impress you.
Each culture has its own style of dining, and in an Italian restaurant, you should experience at least a small bit of how Italians enjoy mealtime. Curious Appetite Travel explains that when Italians eat, it is never a time of feeling rushed. Your service at an Italian restaurant should reflect that. Foods are served in a leisurely fashion so one can take their time to enjoy each course. The menu should offer antipasti (appetizers), primi (pasta), secondi (meat), contorni (sides), and dolce (desserts).
Menus that are “Americanized” with no Italian words are often a sign that the food is Americanized as well. Also, pay attention to the knowledge of the servers. Not only should they understand the importance of not rushing the customer, but they should also easily answer your questions about the Italian dishes on the menu. If you are wondering if something is truly Italian, a server must be ready to explain why it is or isn’t.
They offer other cuisines
An authentic Italian restaurant serves Italian food. If you see hamburgers and other American fares on the menu, you aren’t about to eat authentic Italian food. Italians are proud of their heritage and their incredible cuisine that is loved around the world. Serving food that isn’t Italian at an authentic Italian restaurant simply wouldn’t happen. It might, however, happen at a restaurant that feels they must share plenty of options because the Italian food doesn’t impress. You want to eat somewhere where people talk about homemade pasta and delicate sauces for days after they’ve been there. A good Italian restaurant is the place to be specifically for Italian food.
Restaurants with a large menu can’t focus on a few high-quality dishes. Instead, they must have a ridiculous amount of different foods on hand so they are prepared to make any number of dishes. Smaller menus usually mean higher-quality meals.
They are no seasonal dishes
There are a lot of delicious foods we can eat year-round; however, there are some that are best in season. Excellent Italian food boasts fresh tomatoes, herbs, and other veggies. It’s not always possible to cook with what is currently in season, especially if you live in a colder climate. Still, an authentic Italian restaurant strives to use the freshest ingredients when possible and avoid dishes that are out of season. If the restaurant menu never changes or claims fresh zucchini all year long, something isn’t right.
Seasonal foods simply taste better. If you’ve ever compared a garden-fresh tomato to one that was shipped to your grocery store out of season, then you understand. The other benefit of seasonal eating is that you get more variety in your diet. When you don’t eat seasonally, you get stuck in a rut with eating the same foods over and over. Variation helps you to get more nutrition in your life. It’s a good sign when a restaurant cares about that.
Pizza is far from Italian
There are many styles of pizza and Americans argue about which is best. However, when in an Italian restaurant, the pizza should be some of the best you’ve ever had. If it looks and tastes like it was pulled from the freezer, that’s bad news. So, how do you know if it’s authentic? It starts with taste.
An authentic Italian pizza is simple. It doesn’t need a lot of extra spices and toppings since the excellent dough and sauce speak for themselves. Italians are masters at allowing the basic ingredients to shine through. According to Sale Pepe, it all begins with the pizza crust. The dough is homemade and never a “pan-style” pizza. The Italians lovingly knead their pizza dough, let it rise for many hours, and then gently roll it into a lovely, thin crust.
Next, the sauce should smell like fresh tomatoes and not be bothered with too many spices. It’s usually just fresh tomatoes, basil, and olive oil, mixed together and not cooked. Last, your authentic Italian pizza should have the best cheese you’ve ever tasted on a pizza. Cheap cheese is certainly tempting in the restaurant biz, but it’s a mistake. Flavor is everything.
No homemade pasta options
Homemade pasta is a rare treat and unless you make it at home, an excellent Italian restaurant is a place to experience it. Julia Helton, a chef and restaurant consultant tells Insider, “Nicer Italian restaurants have a person on staff who only makes pasta. There is nothing like freshly made pasta; it makes going back to the dried stuff really difficult.” You likely know how to boil dried pasta. Going out to eat is an opportunity to experience authentic food you don’t make regularly at home.
An authentic Italian restaurant is passionate about pasta and has at least some if not all of their pasta, homemade. When in a good Italian restaurant, if you’re deciding between two dishes and only one points out that it involves homemade, pasta, go with the homemade one.
They serve bread before the meal
The Italians make wonderful bread and are known for about 350 different styles of it across Italy (via Bella Cosa). Some of the most popular are Focaccia, Ciabatta, and Grissino. As delicious as Italian bread is, in Italy, bread is enjoyed with the meal, not as an appetizer. That’s the opposite of what many Americanized Italian restaurants offer. Often, a bread basket is placed on the table of a restaurant to comfort rumbling stomachs as customers wait for food. Authentic Italian restaurants bring bread with the meal, so you don’t get filled up on carbs before the main course. In Italy, bread is usually saved until a plate is almost empty, and used to enjoy the leftover sauces.
If you’re seeking an authentic Italian restaurant, the fact that they bring bread at the right or wrong time could be an indicator of what the rest of the meal is like.
Powdered parmesan cheese
Who doesn’t love Parmesan sprinkled on their pasta? There’s certainly nothing wrong with cheese on pasta and the Italians love cheese as much as the Americans do. However, powdered Parmesan cheese is an American creation. It’s convenient and has a long shelf life, but that powdered Parmesan you’re using is seldom Parmesan at all.
Cucina by Eelena explains that in Italy, Parmigiano (Parmesan is the Americanized version) cheese is quite regulated. The crust of a block of real Parmigiano cheese has the words “Parmigiano Reggiano” dotted into it. The Italians take pride in their Parmigiano and don’t allow counterfeits. There is no regulating of “Parmesan” cheese in the US. Not to mention, wood pulp has been discovered in containers of the powdered stuff, as well as ingredients such as Swiss cheese and other additives. Excellent Italian restaurants serve real Parmigiano and it is grated at the table upon your request.
The sauce is poured on top of the pasta
Authentic Italian pasta dishes aren’t served with the sauce ladled on top of the pasta as many of us do at home. The ladling method is convenient at times, especially when there is someone in the family who doesn’t want the sauce mixed in. Still, authentic Italian pasta always has the sauce mixed in with the pasta rather than ladled on top.
When making Italian dishes, the sauce and pasta are made separately and then when the pasta is cooked and drained, it is poured into the pot of sauce. Finally, the pasta is tossed with the sauce and then served. This method allows even distribution of sauce and it coats each piece of pasta so the flavors are melded together in every bite.
A red flag that an Italian restaurant isn’t authentic is when they pour the sauce on top of the pasta and don’t mix it in or offer a pasta selection and a separate sauce section, then simply pour whichever sauce you want on top of whichever pasta you choose.
Too much chicken
Chicken with pasta does not exist in Italy. Sorry – that chicken alfredo you’ve been ordering at your favorite Italian restaurant is not legit. Italians don’t put any meat on top of their pasta. It’s always a separate course (secondi on the menu), except in a few sauces where crumbled meat is used.
An authentic Italian restaurant doesn’t cave to Americanized ideas of Italian food. Pasta is the first course after an appetizer and the meat is a course after the pasta. Chicken is eaten in Italy. It’s just not cut up and placed on top of pasta. That means your chicken Parmigiano that is often served on top of a plate of spaghetti is not authentic. Yummy, yes. But not authentic.
For a true Italian experience, seek out restaurants that create a menu exactly as they would in Italy. This is wisely planned so the flavors of each course are enjoyed. If a restaurant insists on mixing them all together, perhaps it’s because one course can’t stand on its own.
They offer “Italian style”
Italy has 20 different regions, per Rustico Cooking, and a good Italian restaurant cooks food from their favorite region. There is no such thing as one “Italian style” food. Have you ever been in the grocery store and read “Italina style” on a label? These are common on salad dressings or Italian bread. You might even have some in your kitchen right now. Just as there isn’t one American style of food, there isn’t one Italian style either. Be leery of Italian restaurants that advertise Italian style food or offer Italian style options on their menu. What does that mean? Certainly, the entire restaurant is some sort of Italian style.
Authentic Italian restaurants explain on their menu, website, or through their servers what region of Italy the food is from. Once that is clear you can expect the cuisine to be specific to that area. For example, a Northern Italian restaurant serves more rice and polenta than a southern style, and a southern style Italian restaurant is influenced by Mediterranean dishes.