The first time I went to Leicester Square in London, few years ago, I was naïve enough to believe the Pizza Hut sign “Try our new authentic Italian pizza”. I sat at the table, ordered a pizza with a smile on my face, totally unaware of what Pizza Hut was and of the huge disappointment that was waiting for me on that pizza dish. The pizza arrived, and at a first glance it looked a bit too cheesy and thick but I thought it was just me. Then I look more carefully: what’s that creamy stuff coming out from the crust? And smelled: does it smell like sweet butter? And the first bite…. Oh guys I will never forget the taste of ketchup mixed to the tomato sauce on top of that Pizza Margherita. I chewed that bite for one minute, until I forced myself to swallow, but that was it: my meal was over.
And that is only the first of the several international crimes against Italian cuisine I have been witnessing since then. There are several “Italian Restaurants” in London, in Europe and all around the world. But how to spot the ones that are authentic?
I have been perfecting my authentic-italian radar, so I decided to list and share some tips to spot the real italian restaurants from the fake ones, just glancing at the menu they offer.
1) GARLIC BREAD. Let me start with saying that, despite what you see on British TV shows of “Italian” inspired cowboy chefs, in Italy we don’t use as much garlic as you think. We do rub garlic on toasted bread and then soak the bread in extra virgin olive oil, and we call that Bruschetta aglio e olio (bruschetta with garlic and oil). Healthy and simple. But the butter? What’s all that butter mixed with a whole baguette even before it is placed in the oven for toasting? That is just a fat, unhealthy, greasy gross combination. No one in Italy would ever cook that and if it’s on a menu, the chef doesn’t cook Italian.
2) OLIVE OIL and BALSAMIC VINEGAR DIP. Does it taste good? Yes. Is it Italian? Absolutely NOT. I don’t know who invented it (I think some american) but you would never be served that in Italy, and no restaurant that offers an authentic italian menu would include this starter. Olive oil in Italy is an ingredient appreciate for its full rounded, sometimes spicy and sometimes sweet, juicy flavor: why would you ruin it with balsamic vinegar? There are so many starters and antipasti in the italian tradition that are as easy, as simple and as tasty, that the presence of this dip in a restaurant menu indicates a non-authenticity of that place.
3) BREAD slices as a dish/starter. Any Italian restaurateur would not charge for bread. If he does, that’s rare and the bread is really good. Italians tend to eat bread with pretty much everything but pasta, which is exactly the opposite of what brits do. So if you are in a restaurant and they serve you a meat dish, a basket with bread should be complementary and hopefully offered even without asking for it.
4) “PASTA FUNGHI” VS “PASTA AI FUNGHI”. Just from the grammar in the menu you can spot a non-italian writer. “Pasta funghi” is a poor and fake attempt to sound italian. What’s missing is the “with” in the middle. Pasta ai funghi, or pasta coi funghi… the particles in the middle can vary, but in italian “pasta funghi” is incorrect, and no italian would write it down just for the fun of being short. As well as pizza funghi, pizza salame and dozens of other combinations. If the dish comprises two ingredients (e.g. pasta and mushrooms) then a particle in the middle has to be there. If you are a proper english speaker and you open a british restaurant in Rome, would you change in your menu the name Yorkshire puddings in Puddings alla Yorkshire just to sound a bit italian? No, it would just sound weird; you would keep the original british name.
5) CARBONARA WITH CREAM. Jamie Oliver says in his website “Carbonara is a classic pasta sauce made with cream, bacon and Parmesan and is absolutely delicious”. WRONG! Pasta alla carbonara is a very simple dish, as most Italian dishes. You cook your pasta al dente, on a frying pan you stir fry pancetta (bacon) till crispy. You add the pancetta to the pasta and you pour on top raw eggs previously whisked with grated pecorino cheese, black pepper, salt. The raw egg will only partially cook and will give the dish the typical deliciously creamy texture. Then you go in a restaurant and you read “cream” in the ingredients. Jamie, why CREAM? Why would you add so much useless fat and ruin such a simple dish? Unless you are a bad chef and you are worried of overcooking your eggs and make them scrambled. If you read cream in the ingredient list for carbonara and you are still outside the restaurant, simply walk away. If you notice this detail when you are already sitting at the table before ordering, pretend you got a phone call and run away. If you notice this detail when you have already ordered…I am sorry. NB: no italian pasta is put straight on a dish without condiment and then the condiment poured on top, like in the picture above. That is NOT italian.
6) PIZZA with CHICKEN, PINEAPPLE or KETCHUP. I agree that pizza is a flat bread and in theory you eat bread with meat. But pizza comes from a long tested tradition and the ingredients italians put on top do not include roast-beef neither chicken breast, pineapple, chorizo (that’s Spanish! We put salame, which is better), cheddar cheese or any other exotic ingredient. And there is NO KETCHUP in any Italian pizza. If you give my mom a slice of pizza with ketchup on top, she would probably win the women pizza-throw medal at the next Olympics.
7) “PIZZA PEPPERONI”. As for the “pasta funghi” example, first of all there is a grammar mistake. But there is also a worse mistake that no italian restaurateur would do. “Pepperoni” means nothing in italian, no italian restaurant would ever list this ingredient; we have salame instead (not “salami”) that corresponds to “pepperoni”. On the other side, peperoni (one “p”) is an italian word, but means “peppers”. So if you order a pizza ai peperoni in a real italian restaurant, you should get a vegetarian pizza with peppers on top.
8) CESAR SALAD. The only Cesar salad has ever been prepared in Italy was the one roman Emperor Cesar asked for…two thousands years ago! All the rest is a mere American abomination from an Italian chap that must have lost his mind during the travel oversea. The origin of Cesar Salad is attributed to restaurateur Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who operated restaurants in Mexico and the United States. Should I add more?
9) BLACK PEPPER ON TOP OF EVERYTHING. Italian dishes are simple, made with very few, carefully selected ingredients. Black pepper is a strong flavor and only some dished would blend with it. It’s good for example on a beef steak, on pork ribs, on some pastas like Pasta cacio e pepe (Pasta with pecorino cheese and black pepper, typical of Rome area). In Italy, the waiter would never come to your table just after he has served your dish asking, independently from what you have ordered: “would you like some black pepper?”. That indicates a lack of care about the combination of the flavors of the dish you are eating. And any italian chef, even in a scruffy “trattoria”, would know if, in the dish he has prepared, black pepper is needed or not.
10) PESTO or TOMATO SAUCE ON BREAD. Pesto is a pasta condiment in Italy. Tomato sauce as well, for pasta, pizza or some meat stews. Nothing else. You don’t dress your salad with pesto, you don’t spread it on bread, you don’t put it on chicken, you don’t add it to vegetables. It’s a pasta condiment: fullstop. So, reading “flatbread with tomato sauce and basil pesto” on the menu of an “italian” chain restaurant in London one month ago, almost killed me. An authentic italian restaurant would offer instead a slice of bread with extra virgin olive oil, chopped fresh tomatoes and basil leaves: ahhhhh, this is the equivalent simple, not processed, fresh italian dish!
I have reached number 10 and I have so many other things to add to this list! So many dishes spotted in fake “italian” menus that have really been giving me hard times…. Well, it will be the subject of another post soon!
In the meantime, next time you want to pick an italian restaurant, check the online menu first. It could already give you a preliminary idea of how authentic that restaurant is.