The short answer: The dish either isn’t Roman — or it’s not Italian.
Food culture in Italy is extraordinarily regional. So, particularly at local, non-touristy restaurants, you won’t find the same cuisine in Rome that you would in Bologna, Florence, or Venice. In Rome — or at least at Roman restaurants — you won’t find risotto (Milan and the north) or thick-crust pizza (Naples and the south), for example. (Yes, that means that pizza as good as the one in the picture above won’t exist just anywhere in Italy!)
While that has downsides, I, for one, tend to think that’s pretty cool. It makes the experience of traveling around Italy even richer and more rewarding. It also helps provide that the food you eat is made in a way that’s been time-tested by the same locals serving it up to you. And it helps ensure that those recipes use fresh, local ingredients.
On top of that, though, though, there are some foods that you could comb all of Italy for and still not find. Except, of course, in the kinds of restaurants that dish up mediocre, microwaved food at inflated prices… to tourists and tourists alone.
Why? Because these foods aren’t Italian. They’re Italian-American.
What dishes do I mean? Here’s a list of five Italian dishes that people expect, but will find much more easily in Chicago or New York than Italy.
1. Lobster fra’ diavolo. This was served for the first time in New York City in 1908 — and using Maine lobsters! Don’t expect to find the dish, which features lobster in a red sauce (sometimes spicy, sometimes not), while you’re in Italy.
Instead try: pasta all’arrabbiata, pasta with a Roman sauce of tomatoes and red chili peppers that make it “angry” (hence the name arrabbiata). 2. Chicken or veal parmesan. Nope, not Italian. What is Italian, or at least southern Italian, is melanzane alla parmigiana, or what we know (roughly) as “eggplant parm” — eggplant fried and layered with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and parmesan, then baked. Using meat instead, and throwing it on top of pasta, was an invention of Italian immigrants in the United States and Canada.
As with most Italian-American cuisine, chicken and veal parm probably came about as a way to show how much more Italian immigrants could suddenly afford in the New Country. Back home, most subsisted on cheap foods like polenta and black bread in brine. (Have you seen that at your local Olive Garden? Didn’t think so.) After all, meat and pasta were expensive. But now, with their newfound American wealth, these same peasants and laborers could write back home and say Hey, guess what we cooked, parmigiana made with veal! And served with pasta!
Thus, chicken and veal “parmesan” — and lots of other meat-and-pasta dishes besides — were born.
Instead try: If you’re in Sicily or the south, melanzane alla parmigiana.
3. Spaghetti and meatballs. This, of course, is the Big Daddy of all Italian-American dishes. It comes from the same idea you saw with chicken parm: two symbols of prosperity, together in one dish. This was also a dish that, as early as the 1920s, was specifically — and erroneously — marketed to Americans as Italian. (So if you thought it was authentic Italian, you’re in good company!)
Instead try: Hitting your meat and pasta notes separately, such as by ordering a pasta all’amatriciana (a Roman pasta with a red sauce of tomatoes and guanciale) and, if you can find them, separate polpettine di carne (meatballs).
Bent on combining lots of meat with lots of pasta? Your best bet will be a Tuscan or Umbrian ragù — but, with very little or no tomato and lots of minced-up meat, onion, celery, and carrot, it’s not the sauce you’re probably thinking of! If you’re in Bologna, definitely try pasta alla bolognese, but steel yourself here, too: It may be redder than an Umbrian ragù, but still uses lots of meat and only a little bit of tomato paste. (In other words, it ain’t like the bolognese back home).
4. Garlic bread. The whole idea of smothering bread in either olive oil or butter with lots of garlic was invented in the U.S. in the 1940s, if not before. A similar version is known in Europe, too… in Romania.
Instead try: bruschetta al pomodoro, toasted bread, often rubbed with a bit of garlic (but not nearly what you see with garlic bread!), then piled with tomatoes and some extra virgin olive oil.
5. Olive oil to dip your bread into. It’s just not done in Italy, partly for the reasons I once wrote about in “Eleven Etiquette Mistakes (Not) to Make at an Italian Meal.” In short, you’re supposed to use your bread while you’re eating to mop up the sauce, not eat it before the food arrives. And, secondly, the flavor of olive oil is broken down by light and heat — the two things it’ll be exposed to if it’s just sitting on your table.
Instead try: mopping up your sauce with the bread, and enjoying olive oil as it appears on the other dishes.
If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.