Some sophomores have just applied to go study abroad in Italy next fall. Some freshmen are already thinking about it and they have already started learning the language. Yet you can’t wine and dine in the streets of Bologna with your American ways of conceiving of and referring to Italian food. Unless you know the actual Italian vocabulary, your server won’t know what you’re talking about. Fear not—I’m here to help you out with some essential rules for eating in Italy. The linguistics of food is as important as learning how to say hello and find a bathroom.
1. Alfredo who?
I was once asked if I frequently eat pasta with alfredo sauce. I answered that I didn’t know who this guy Alfredo was. I was 21 at the time and had never heard of Alfredo sauce before. Do not expect to eat tons of fettuccine alfredo in Italy because, as a matter of fact, this dish is not part of our culinary tradition. This is hands down the biggest American blooper about Italian food. Alfredo sauce was indeed invented in the 1920’s by an Italian restaurateur from Rome but the dish gained its notoriety thanks to two American silent film stars who fell in love with it and spread the word. Soon after, Chef Alfredo exported his creation to New York and it’s been famous in America ever since. Go check Wikipedia—it has a whole page in English dedicated to fettuccine Alfredo. The Italian Wikipedia version does not exist.
2. Italian what?
Maybe because Italian food is so renowned, various sorts of food are arbitrarily given the label “Italian.” It’s abuse rather than flattery. There’s no such thing as Italian Wedding soup (the reference to this alleged “wedding” always cracks me up), no Italian soda, and absolutely no Italian dressing. Our salads are exclusively dressed up in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
3. One panino, two panini.
For some reason, English butchered the original Italian word to refer to a sandwich and use the plural form instead of the singular one. When you say “a panini” we understand “one sandwiches,” which makes no sense. So if you want to order just one piece of bread stuffed with prosciutto, salame, etc., use the word un panino in the singular form. If you want two, say due panini.
4. Le lasagne
English also features an Italian-food-related word that’s supposed to be plural but has entered the vocabulary in a singular fashion (pun intended). Lasagne are one of the most famous Bologna-invented dishes and they go by the plural because they comprise five or six “stories” of pasta rectangles. They simply cannot be conceived as one because each “pasta story” (another pun intended) contributes to the making of an amazing food experience. Fun fact: the authentic Bologna recipe has it that the pasta has to be green in color (lasagne verdi, which means green, alla bolognese). Most importantly, authentic lasagne contain meat, unlike the Italian-American interpretation served in the Caf.
5. A stromboli? You want to eat a volcano?
Finally, Italian-American food is not 100 percent Italian food. It draws from it but with dramatic variations that deprive it of all its authenticity. Miseno’s doesn’t serve you straight Italian food, even though it is owned by a truly Neapolitan man. Italian-American food is such a deeply-rooted culinary tradition in the United States that most Italian restaurateurs don’t even dare offer “non hyphenated” Italian food for fear of deceiving their customers’ expectations and cravings for baked ziti. However, just so you know, Italian restaurants do not usually display red and white checkered tablecloths. The only kinds of meat that go on pizza are sausage and thin sliced salame, no exceptions. Chicken and pesto do not live together happily ever after. Spaghetti and meatballs, for Italian kids, are linked only to “Lady and the Tramp” and not to lunchtime meals. Stromboli is a volcano in the south of Italy and it doesn’t stir up anybody’s appetite.
You’ve now completed Italian Food Vocabulary 101. Buon appetito!