As an Italian expat and frequent international traveller, I often find myself having the food conversation with a non-Italian friend. Such conversation usually ends with my friend eagerly suggesting we eat at their favourite Italian place in town, “so you can tell me if it’s really authentic“. This is where I start to get nervous of hurting my friend’s feelings, because nine times out of ten, we will not end up eating in an authentic Italian restaurant. And I do know we Italians tend to be excessively particular about food and about our own cuisine: I am not saying international variations on our traditional recipes can never taste good (to someone else). But if you actually ask an Italian person whether the random Bella Napoli Pizza & Kebab place round the corner is a bona fide, authentic Italian restaurant, then I’m sorry, but the answer is probably no. It may still serve you a delicious meal, but it will be an American meal, an English meal, a German meal, an Egyptian meal or a meal from whatever the chef’s Country of origin happens to be. Here are 6 fool-proof ways of telling when your favourite authentic Italian restaurant is a fake.
1. There’s no such thing as an authentic Italian restaurant
Italian cuisine, much like Chinese cuisine, is not a thing. It is, in fact a wide range of different things. Italy is an extremely diverse Country and each region – and, more often than not, each town – has its own culinary tradition. There are, of course, a few dishes that are internationally famous and that most accomplished chefs manage to get right. Therefore, in an averagely good “Italian restaurant”, you might eat a decent Amatriciana or a not entirely criminal lasagna, but that doesn’t make it an authentic Italian restaurant any more than printing the word diet on a fizzy drink makes it healthy. If, on the other hand, you should come across a restaurant claiming to follow a specific regional tradition, it is much more likely that you might be in for an authentic Italian meal, cooked by an actual Italian chef.
2. Spaghetti & Maccheroni are not synonyms for pasta
… and they don’t fit all condiments. Pasta is an art, more than a science, and that’s why we have hundreds of types of it. Real pasta is made with durum wheat flour, unless it’s pasta all’uovo, meaning that it contains eggs and it is exclusively suited for certain shapes and preparations. Calling everything spaghetti or maccheroni and offering to prepare any type of pasta with any condiment, it’s a clear sign of the chef not even having been near an authentic Italian restaurant. Generally speaking, not all condiments go with all types of pasta. Spaghetti, for instance, are not to be eaten with pesto – unless you are a skint student that literally can’t find anything else with which to fight the hangover. They are perfect, on the other hand, for Carbonara, cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) and aglio, olio e peperoncino (garlic, oil and chilis). Spaghetti bolognese, on the other hand, do not exist, have never existed and are just inherently wrong. A bolognese sauce requires a thickly textured pasta, such as tagliatelle. Maccheroni are slightly more versatile and harder to get wrong, but you should still be suspicious if they are the only type of pasta listed on the menu.
3. Garlic bread
I am not saying it does not taste good: it does, particularly if you don’t plan of having a life in the immediate future. But it is most definitely not an Italian tradition. We do spread garlic on roasted bread, on occasion, but then we add olive oil and fresh tomato and call it a bruschetta, which is either a restaurant starter or your average barbecue food. If an Italian restaurant has garlic bread on the menu, it’s about as authentic as a Hawaiian pizza. The general idea being that, if they are trying to sell you an authentic Italian dish that is not authentically Italian, you should probably not trust the rest of the menu either.
4. Hawaiian pizza
Since I just casually mentioned Hawaiian pizza, le me make one thing absolutely clear, once and for all. Pineapple does not belong on pizza. It just doesn’t. End of story. The Icelandic president is right. Fruit, in general, does not belong on your pizza. It belongs in a bowl, from which you will take it and eat it at the end of your Italian meal. Don’t get me wrong, other cuisines have created sweet-and-sour wonders using fruit mixed in with savoury food, but we didn’t. Of course you can put anything that is edible on top of anything else that is edible and make a meal out of that, but if the things you stack on top of each other happen to be pizza and pineapple, in whatever order, you will not be enjoying an Italian meal. It’a as simple as that. Another dead giveaway for Hawaiian pizza not being authentically Italian is that… it is Hawaiian. By all means, carry on eating it, just be aware that any restaurant willing to serve it is as traditionally Italian as a burger and fries.
4. There’s no cream in Carbonara
Don’t listen to Jamie Oliver (even though he usually gets Italian recipes right): there’s no cream in an authentic pasta alla carbonara. This is an extremely simple dish, so simple in fact that it requires no cooking skills whatsoever. It involves sizzling bacon, pecorino cheese and raw egg yolks dumped straight on your spaghetti, as soon as you have taken them out of the water. The eggs will be only slightly cooked by the heat of the pasta and they will mix with the cheese, creating the creamy texture we all know and love. There’s enough fried fat in this recipe without adding cream to the mixture. If cream is listed among the ingredients for Carbonara on the menu, you are most definitely not sitting in an authentic Italian restaurant. Run.
5. Chicken does not go on pasta. Or pizza. Ever
Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. There are several types of meat that work well with pasta and pizza (sausages, bacon and salame spring to mind) and chicken is not one of them. No Italian chef in their right mind would suggest such a combination, because it simply feels wrong to the Italian palate. It’s like cheese on lobster or yogurt on a steak. Yes, precisely. Chicken can be prepared in a variety of ways, but the particular texture of its meat just doesn’t blend well with pasta. Its flavour is also too bland to be a good match, since pasta in itself does not have a particularly distinctive taste. A good condiment needs to have character. The same goes for pizza. Again, feel free to mix whatever ingredients give you pleasure, but if you invite your Italian friends for dinner and serve them pasta or pizza with chicken on it, expect them to find themselves suddenly indisposed and unable to eat.
6. Spaghetti and meatballs?
I know for a fact that many Italian kids demanded them after watching Lady and the tramp, but, as far as I know, no Italian parent has ever given in. While adding meatballs to your spaghetti might not be an entirely terrible idea, this recipe is simply not a thing in Italy and never has been, which means that any restaurant serving it is catering to non-Italians with a vague idea of what Italian food should look like. Pasta and meatballs is not an uncommon occurrence, particularly in Southern Italy, but it usually involves short pasta, such as maccheroni or penne. Meatballs are usually small and either fried or covered in tomato sauce. This is an arbitrary rule and there is, in fact, no real reason for meatballs not to be as large as French boulettes and not to be added to a plate of steaming spaghetti: it’s simply not part of the Italian tradition.