Italian Food Facts That Might Surprise You

Italian food is often discussed yet rarely understood. There are plenty of half-truths and myths surrounding Italian cooking and food. Let’s take a look at some Italian food facts you might not have known.

Pizza Facts

Pizza Is Not From Italy

The history of pizza can be traced back to the Ancient Greek, Roman, and Persian empires. Flatbreads were piled with toppings long before our favorite tomato and cheese toppings were added.

The First Pizzeria

Pizza, as we know it today, evolved in the 18th century when tomatoes were introduced to southern Italy. Antica Pizzeria Port’alba in Naples is thought to be the world’s first pizzeria. Its door opened in 1830 and it has been popular ever since.

Pizza Margherita Is the Queen of All Pizzas

Pizza Margherita is the Queen of all pizzas and not just because of its popularity, but because of its origins, too.

Humble Pizza Margherita owes its name to an actual queen, Margherita of Savoy, for whom this pizza was first prepared.

The story is that the Neapolitan chef Rafaele Esposito one day decided to create a dish fit for a queen and created a pizza that had the colors of the Italian flag: red (tomato sauce), white (mozzarella), and green (basil) – an edible tricolor.

You Don’t Find Pineapple on Pizza in Italy

Pizza with pineapple has gained in popularity in the United States, but you cannot get it in Italy and many will look at you in horror at the mere mention.

Italians are relaxed about many things, but food is not one of them. Pizza and pineapple, somehow, is completely unacceptable.

You will, however, find quite a variety of toppings for your pizza. Pizza napoli (with anchovies), pizza capricciosa (mozzarella, ham, artichokes, olives, tomato sauce), pizza funghi (mushrooms), are only three of the most popular and this is without including focaccias, the pizzas without tomato sauce!

Pepperoni Pizza

Pepperoni pizza cannot be ordered in Italy. Well, let us rephrase. You can order pepperoni pizza in Italy, but you won’t be brought a pie covered in salami circles (except possibly in heavy tourist areas). Instead, you’ll be served slices topped with bell peppers. Legend has it that when Italians immigrated to America, the word pepperoni got lost in the translation and started meaning “meat” instead of veggies.

Italians Do, However, Have Pizza With Nutella

The idea of pizza with nutella may sound awful, but actually the combination is delicious.

The type of pizza you use is, of course, without tomato sauce or cheese so basically the result is close to that of bread with nutella, with an extra touch of saltiness that makes it that much more delicious. Italian nutella has less sugar than the American version and complements the pizza crust.

Facts about Pasta

Marco Polo Did Not Introduce Pasta into Italy

Legend says that pasta was introduced in Italy in the 13th century by Marco Polo after his travels to China. However, according to most food historians, pasta was a thing in the Italian region even before Marco Polo started his journey to the East.

There Are Over 300 Shapes of Pasta in Italy (600 worldwide)

Over 300 shapes of pasta are produced in Italy, lots of them having their own particular name. But do you also know the literal meaning or translation of some of those well known pasta shapes? Here we go: 

  • spaghetti means “little twine”
  • orecchiette means “little ears”
  • vermicelli means “little worms”
  • capellini means “fine hairs”
  • farfalle means “butterfly”
  • linguine means “little tongues”
  • tortellini means “small pies”

Pasta Is Not a Main Meal by Itself in Italy

Unlike in most other countries where pasta is considered a main course, pasta in Italy is eaten as a primo piatto, or first course. It is followed by the segundo piatto, which will feature a protein-based ingredient. So when eating pasta in Italy, make sure not to eat too large a portion because the main protein-based course still needs to be served afterwards.

Italy Produces over 3,500,000 Tons of Pasta Each Year

Italians love pasta and also export vast amounts of it.

The Most Popular Types of Pasta in Italy Are…

The most popular long pasta shape is spaghetti, while the most popular short pasta are penne, rigatoni, fusilli, and farfalle.

Some pasta types come in two formats: “rigato” (with small grooves) and “liscio” (smooth). Rigato absorbs the sauce better, liscio is usually better for soups or other chunky dishes. 

There Are Rules about Pairing Pasta Shapes and Sauces

In Italian restaurants you cannot pick and choose the shape of pasta you prefer and match it with a sauce you fancy. Rather, it is the chef who decides what pasta format is best for the sauce they are using.

That is why you find one menu trofie al pesto and not pasta al pesto or fettuccine al ragu instead of pasta al ragu.

While there is more freedom for home cooking, many Italians keep the rules when preparing pasta for themselves, too.

Always Cook Pasta Al Dente

Pasta in Italy is cooked “al dente” which literally means “cooked to the tooth.” Al dente pasta is cooked, but still has a bit of firm bite to it. Pasta should certainly not be cooked to mash, it should still hold its shape.

Forget about the Oil

Italians do not add oil to the pasta.

Mix the Pasta with the Sauce before Serving

The pasta should be mixed into the sauce before serving it to the table. Often, in America, we have separate bowls for the pasta and the sauce, and only then mixed on the plate. Next time, do it like the Italians and mix it in the pot. In the end, they know best.

Italian Food for Special Occasions

On New Years Eve You Simply Must Eat Lentils

Lentils are a very popular food in Italy, and they are eaten all year round, but there is one time of the year when having them is almost a must: New Years Eve and Day!

Lentils symbolize money in Italy, so the tradition says that the more lentils you eat at the start of the year, the more money you will have. So when in doubt….trust the Italians!

Pandoro and Panettone Are for Christmas Only

Italy has delicious Christmas food that is available during the festivities only.

The most famous Christmas foods in Italy are Pandora (sweet bread) and Panettone (sweet bread studded with candied fruits and raisins) which you only find in shops between the end of November and early January.

Chiacchiere Are for Carnival Only

Carnival is a big festivity in Italy and, like big festivities, it is marked by its own seasonal food.

Carnival foods are usually fried and sweet and the most popular are Chiacchiere di Carnevale.

Carnival in Italy, like Mardi Gras, is the final hurrah before the restrictions of Lent. The celebrations can last from a day to a month depending on the city.

Colombia is for Easter Only

Easter has its own special foods as well, and the quintessential Easter sweet is called Colombia. This is a type of store-bought sweet, not entirely dissimilar from panettone, but with almonds and shaped like a dove.

Italian Cheese Facts

The History of Italian Cheese Dates Back to Roman Times

The wealthier Romans had a separate kitchen to make cheese, which was called a caseale. Roman soldiers used to take cheese with them while campaigning since it was easy to carry and could be preserved for a long time.

Italy Has Many Different Varieties of Cheese

Italy has over 2500 different varieties of cheese, the highest in the world, and 500 of these are commercially recognized. Lots of Italian cheeses are made very locally. The most famous Italian cheeses are without a doubt Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, Mozzarella, Pecorino, Ricotta, and Gogonzola.

Parmigiano Reggiano Dates Back to the Middle Ages

Parmigiano Reggiano, another made-in-Italy food now known around the world, has been around for over 9 centuries. The story goes that it was first created by Benedictine monks in Emilia, the region still famous for its production.

Italian Coffee Culture

Coffee Was Introduced in Italy in the 16th Century

Having originated in Ethiopia, coffee was introduced into Italy in the 16th century by Venetian merchants. Over the years, Italy brought the consumption of coffee to a different level. Who hasn’t heard of cappuccino, latte macchiato, espresso, caffe latte? These are the Italian coffee names used globally and known by practically everyone on the planet.

The World’s Oldest Coffee House Is Located in Venice

Coffee Florian is the oldest coffee house in the world. Located on St. Mark’s square, Caffe Florian has been continuously operating since 1720.

If You Order Coffee in Italy You Get an Espresso

When you order “un caffe” in Italy (or “a coffee”) you get what abroad is known as espresso, a shot of coffee in a small cup.

You can say “espresso” in Italy, too, but really the way to order it is “un caffe per favore” (one coffee please).

Ordering a Latte in Italy Will Get You a Glass of Milk

It is worth knowing that if you order a latte in Italy you will get a glass of milk (latte is Italian for milk).

If you want the equivalent of a foreign latte, you need to ask for “latte macchiato.

Coffee Is for after a Meal, Never to Accompany It

Coffee in Italy is drunk in the morning or after a meal and never as an accompaniment to a meal.

More Facts About Italian Food

Tomatoes Are Not Originally from Italy

Tomatoes, considered one of the staples of the Mediterranean diet, came to Italy from America!

They only became part of the cuisine in the mid-16th century. They took so well that they are now grown in several parts of the country and widely used in cooking.

Gelato Is Not Just Italian for “Ice Cream”

Gelato is not the Italian word for ice cream, but rather an Italian specialty dessert.

Gelato is less cold than ice cream, it has lower fat content than industrial ice cream, has many creamy flavors, and is usually made with eggs and milk.

No One Knows Where Tiramisu Was Born

It is not entirely clear where Tiramisu was born, but the story goes that it was born in Treviso which is the city with the strongest claim on its paternity. Nowadays, it is so widespread in Italy that you find it no matter where you are.

Breakfast Is the Least Important Meal of the Day

Italians generally only have a type of milky coffee, like cappuccino or latte macchiato, to start the day accompanied by some cookies or small biscuits.

Antipasti Has Nothing to Do with Pasta

Antipasto (antipasti in plural) is a type of appetizer that is served before the first course and can consist of cold meats, cheeses, bruschetta, olives, smoked fish, and various vegetables. Antipasto is not an everyday thing but is served during a formal meal or when eating out in a restaurant.

Digestif Is a Common Way to End a Big Dinner

At the end of a generous evening meal it is common practice in Italy to have a small shot of digestif. Amaro, sambuca, and grappa are all good examples of digestif drinks.

Italian Cuisine Is Very Regional

Italian food culture is very regional with each region having its own specialties. This is basically due to the diverse landscapes within the country, the climate, and the influences from neighboring countries. Since Italians cook with fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients, you will find very different Italian food dishes when visiting an area by the sea, the mountains, the hills, or regions bordering other countries like France and Austria.

Different Types of Italian Restaurants

Yes, there are different types of Italian restaurants. They are the following:

  • Trattoria – These are casual restaurants that are usually family owned. The restaurant revolves around the involvement of the entire family where the mother cooks, the father tends the bar, and the kids help with serving and upkeep.
  • Osteria – These types of restaurants are less expensive and even more informal compared to trattorias. They are common places where people gather for some wine and cheese or simply to relax over good food.
  • Pizzeria – Perfect to devour your favorite pizza.
  • Enoteca – This can be described as a local wine bar. In addition to a rich wine list, the enoteca will offer a selection of cheeses, meats, salads, etc.
  • Taverna – The taverna is an Italian version of an English pub, only wine is served instead of beer. Italy’s tavernas are only open in the evenings and are a great place for a cheap dinner.
  • Pasticceria – Pasticcerias are similar to American coffee shops, except all desserts and pastries that are offered are made on the spot.
  • Gelateria – Don’t go anywhere else but the Gelateria if you are craving the creamiest and most authentic Italian ice cream.
  • Caffe – Similar to what we have in the US, Italian caffes serve breakfast (breads, croissants, pastries) and coffee.
  • Italian Restaurant (full service) – Italian restaurants are stylish, elegant, high-class establishments. Here the service is at a very high level, the interior is thorough to the smallest detail, and the food is most often created by a world class chef.

“Italian” Foods No One Eats in Italy

Spaghetti with Meatballs

Hard to believe, isn’t it? The quintessential Italian meal we all grew up loving is in fact not Italian at all. But how can that be?

They do eat meatballs in Italy, but they are not the large, tightly packed balls of meat we enjoy in America. Italian meatballs, or polpettes, can be made with any meat or fish, and are typically eaten alone, without a heavy sauce, or in soups.

When immigrants from Southern Italy made their lives in America, they found meat was no longer a luxury item (as in Italy) but one they would put on the table every night for dinner. Thus, larger meatballs packed with a higher ratio of meat became the norm

Pasta (like spaghetti) is certainly Italian but it’s typically served in smaller portions as an appetizer course and not as part of the main meal. There are two prevailing theories as to how the marriage of spaghetti and meatballs came to be. The first says that Italian restaurateurs, seeking to please the American appetite for starch with entrees, paired spaghetti with meatballs in lieu of the typical potatoes found on American dinner plates. The other theory is that Italian immigrants had few true Italian foods to choose from in American markets, and spaghetti enjoyed a promotion to entree status.

Caesar Salad

Most people assume Julius Caesar, or the Caesar family who ruled the Roman Empire, was the namesake of the Caesar salad. In fact, a man named Caesar Cardini, an Italian restaurant and hotel owner, invented the Caesar salad in Tijuana, Mexico.

Legend has it that Cardini was low on food, expecting a busy weekend, and had to come up with something quick to serve the expected rush of diners. As a result, he grabbed whatever ingredients he had on hand and improvised a table salad.

The original recipe included romaine lettuce, garlic, croutons, parmesan cheese, boiled eggs, olive oil, and Worcestershire sauce.

Garlic Bread

Garlic bread is a very good idea, but not an Italian one. Garlic bread is an American invention from the 1940s. The closest Italian thing to it is bruschetta al pomodoro, which means thin slices of toasted bread with heaps of fresh tomatoes.

Italian Dressing

This tangy, bell pepper and herb flecked salad dressing is a favorite in many American restaurants. But “dressing” as Americans know it doesn’t exist in Italy; their salads are exclusively dressed with oil and vinegar.

Chicken, Veal, and Meatball Parm

In Italy, the parmigiana treatment is given to eggplants, not chicken or other meats. Italian immigrants added deep fried meat cutlets or meatballs and doubled the mozzarella, thus these sandwiches and plates were born.

Marinara Sauce

Pasta alla marinara (“marinara style” pasta) does exist in Italy, but it’s usually prepared with shellfish or olives, sometimes both. In the United States, the term “marinara” refers to the tomato based “red” sauce that’s ubiquitous in Italian-American cooking, slathered on everything from pasta to meat.

Mozzarella Sticks

Fried? Overly cheesy? Close to no nutritional value? Ok, this one you probably saw coming. Mozzarella sticks are distinctly American. The only link they have to Italy is the use of mozzarella cheese.

Italian Wedding Soup

No one is quite sure where the “Italian” part of Italian Wedding soup originated. Though this soup (consisting of meats, vegetables, and stock) is quite delicious, it is an American invention and unavailable in the vast majority of restaurants in Italy.

Rainbow Cookies

These beautiful cookies, also known as Tricolor Cookies or Seven Layer Cakes, can easily be found in Little Italy and on occasions like the Feast of San Gennaro in New York City, but not in Italy. They were invented in New York by Italian immigrants who designed them to invoke the flag of their motherland.

Italian Subs

“Italian” submarines or hoagies are easily identifiable as American. These oversized sandwiches pack piles of meat, cheese, and veggies onto thick-cut-bread. 

Food is a huge part of Italian culture and Italians take it seriously. We hope you enjoyed our fun and interesting facts about Italian food and some of the traditions about it that can help you enjoy this wonderful cuisine even more.

And last but not least, every meal in Italy is started by wishing everyone around the table to enjoy the meal by saying bon appetit or grazie altrettanto (meaning thanks, same to you).

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