Olive Garden lied to us. I was never under the impression that the land of endless soup, salad and breadsticks was truly authentic, but I also didn’t think they would be making things up. After just a few days in Rome, however, one thing has become clear: the cuisine in Italy is nothing like “Italian” food in America.
First things first, I was informed that spaghetti isn’t native to Italy. I know, inconceivable. It was supposedly brought to Italy from China by Marco Polo.
So, the quintessential Italian dish is probably just a variation of Chinese food. I found this bit of information even more disorienting than the language barrier that has crippled my communication with the locals. If the most famous dish of a country so ancient and rich with history was actually just a souvenir brought back by a man who liked long walks on the beach, then what does that say for the rest of the world?
It’s lies. All lies. Ready for another shock? Italians have no clue what chicken parmesan is.
My group sat taking notes with one of our Italian guides as she told us the best places for pizza, pasta and gelato throughout Rome. She fielded question after question — “Where’s the best place for pizza?” and, “Is there anywhere I can get a burger?”— with ease, before bringing the conversation to a standstill when someone asked, “Who has the best chicken parm?”
“Non capisco, I’m sorry, I do not understand.” We proceeded to yell out the dish again, acting upon the naive notion that a person who speaks a different language is also deaf. Finally, we got a response, “Oh, parmesan, you mean with eggplant, yes?”
“Just like that, only with chicken or maybe veal instead.”
“No, you must be mistaken, parmesan is a dish that is only done with vegetables.”
Mind. Blown. Not only is chicken parmesan not typical in Italy, but its existence is inconceivable to your average Roman. In the U.S., we haven’t just adopted Italian food, we have mutilated it beyond recognition.
Other foods I associate with my favorite hometown Italian restaurant seemed to have disappeared as well. There is rarely bread on tables, and if it does appear, it’s never used for dipping in oil. Another major faux pas is serving salad before pasta. A true Roman would gawk at the gargantuan salads that come out before the mounds of pasta in the U.S.
Even the overall experience of eating is entirely different in Italy. The meals take longer, the portions are smaller and everyone takes their time to enjoy the wine and each other’s company.
And the food is made fresh-to-order, so much so that a waiter asked our group of 20 to limit our orders to only a few types of pasta if we hoped to eat at any point in the near future. It’s nothing like chain restaurants in the states, where any — supposedly — Italian dish imaginable can be ordered and ready within 15 minutes.
The food in Italy is like nothing I’ve had before. I expected it to be better than its American counterpart, but not so entirely new. I’ve come to a realization: Italian food and its American adaptation are two completely separate cuisines. Just as the noodles Marco Polo most likely brought back from China were molded over time into the spaghetti that Italians now know and love, a dish whose roots are almost unrecognizable, so too has Italian-American food developed into a cuisine with its own unique flavors and dishes.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every meal I’ve had thus far in Rome. The ingredients, recipes and chefs guarantee that the food is some of the best I’ll ever eat. I am simply arguing that perhaps we should stop considering the food we have as a cheap imitation of the old country, and instead appreciate our food for what it is: an example of the American melting pot at its finest. And I don’t care what Carolina says, I’m not giving up my chicken parmesan.
Caitlin Morath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.