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Four myths about ‘traditional’ Italian food you can stop believing

As controversial claims about "true" Italian food traditions make the headlines and spark debate across Italy and beyond, here are a few widely-held beliefs about the national cuisine that can definitely be discarded.

Four myths about ‘traditional’ Italian food you can stop believing
What is 'Italian food' really? Some food experts say it's not what we might think. Photo by Ben Neale on Unsplash

British newspaper The Financial Times caused outrage in Italy over the weekend with a widely-shared article containing claims that certain Italian dishes were not really traditional but were in fact “invented” in the middle of the 20th century.

The article centred on an interview with Italian food historian, author, and professor at the University of Parma Alberto Grandi, who “has dedicated his career to debunking the myths around Italian food”.

Grandi’s controversial claims included the assertion that panettone and tiramisù were postwar inventions which relied on industrial processes or ingredients, and that pizza was unknown in most parts of Italy before the 1970s.

READ ALSO: Why claims Italian cuisine is a ‘modern invention’ have angered Italy

Whatever you think of the article’s argument that the popular idea of Italian cuisine today is based chiefly on postwar “lies” in the form of advertising and political propaganda, there’s one thing everyone can probably agree on: there are an awful lot of misconceptions out there about what constitutes traditional or authentic Italian cuisine.

As anyone who has spent much time in Italy knows, a lot of things we’re told about this much-loved cuisine abroad are soon revealed to be inaccurate after we arrive in the country.

Here’s a look at some of the most common myths you’ve probably encountered about Italian food.

Spaghetti bolognese is an Italian classic

Let’s talk about ‘spag bol’. Or maybe not. Especially not if you’re in Bologna, where we’d recommend not mentioning it at all.

It’s the world’s favourite Italian dish – except it doesn’t actually exist in Italy, as first-time visitors are frequently disappointed to learn.

In Bologna, where many people outside of Italy believe the dish to be from, you’re much more likely to find tagliatelle con ragù alla bolognese on a restaurant menu: thicker, flatter strands of pasta in a thinner meat and tomato-based sauce, which you can find the officially-sanctioned recipe for here.

Spaghetti bolognese (or ‘bolognaise’)? Not in Italy. Photo by Homescreenify on Unsplash

Many other supposedly classic Italian dishes don’t exist in the country either: including Fettuccine Alfredo, marinara sauce, and even garlic bread.

Often, such recipes are reinterpretations of Italian cuisine created elsewhere in the world, and in Italy you’ll only find them in restaurants catering to tourists. But if you were looking forward to trying these dishes in Italy, don’t despair – there will no doubt be something even better on the menu at any good ristorante or trattoria.

Italians eat lasagne and parmigiana all the time

Rich dishes such as eggplant parmigiana, lasagne, baked ziti, meatballs in tomato sauce, and fried arancini are widely seen as typically Italian and are among the most popular items in Italian-American cuisine.

But while menus at the average Italian restaurant abroad may feature these cheesy baked pasta and heavy meat-based dishes, these are of course not very representative of the typical, everyday Italian diet today, and many of them would have only been seen on special occasions in the past.

OPINION: Why do Italians get so angry if you mess with classic recipes?

Aside from the fact that such recipes are time-consuming to prepare, they feature ingredients which were not commonly available or affordable for most Italians in Italy in the first half of the 20th century.

Today, people in Italy don’t eat this sort of food all the time for the same reasons British people don’t eat roast beef and Yorkshire puddings every day of the week; though you’ll probably find that the average Italian diet overall is markedly healthier than the British equivalent, which brings us to our next point.

Italian food is unhealthy

It’s a question that has puzzled many a visitor to Italy: why are people generally so slim and healthy-looking in the land of pizza, pasta, and gelato?

As mentioned above, the most famous Italian dishes (like lasagna or tagliatelle with ragù) are typically the sort of thing you’d eat at nonna’s house on Sunday – so most people will stick to a lighter diet the rest of the time. Portion sizes also often tend to be on the smaller side and less oil, meat and cheese is used than you might expect if you’re used to Italian-American cooking.

Pasta is commonly eaten for lunch on weekdays, though not often for dinner, and generally as part of a simple dish that doesn’t feature any rich, creamy sauces. Fresh vegetables, fruit, seafood, legumes and other staples of the Mediterranean diet feature heavily, and many dishes based on the traditional cucina povera – which is still popular in Italy – are vegetarian by default.

Shopping for fresh fruit and veg is a serious business in Italy. Photo by Eugene Zhyvchik on Unsplash

Given the relatively widespread interest in traditional cooking and food production techniques in Italy, you may also notice that people here really do tend to eat less processed and junk food in general – at least compared to the average diet in more industrialised northern European countries like the UK and Germany. This is often said to be because industrial food production methods reached Italy a little later than some other countries, and haven’t replaced smaller-scale production in the same way.

READ ALSO: 17 ways your eating and drinking habits change when you live in Italy

Obviously, not every Italian family has a kitchen garden or an olive grove at their disposal, but you’ll still easily find rural areas where it’s not unusual to grow your own vegetables, press your own olive oil, or even grind your own flour at the local mill.

Many more people still choose to prepare simple dishes, part of a family tradition passed down from grandparents who lived off the land, even if they can easily afford to buy richer ingredients or ready meals (which do exist in Italy, even if there’s not a vast selection).

That said, Italians have their share of unhealthy habits and, like all Western countries, Italy does have a problem with obesity – around one in 10 people is obese in Italy, though this is significantly below the OECD average of one in six. As many non-Italians are shocked to learn, McDonalds is very popular in Italy and Starbucks is thriving.

Clearly not everyone sticks to the Mediterranean diet, then, and things are far from black and white.

There’s just one type of Italian cuisine

What is Italian food, anyway? Once you start digging into this somewhat philosophical question you may find the answer isn’t as straightforward as most Italian restaurant menus abroad would make it seem.

Beyond spaghetti, tiramisù, and those other emblematic dishes featured in the Financial Times article, culinary tradition across Italy varies so widely that many cooks and food historians will argue it’s hard to define one single Italian national food culture.

In a country that was unified in 1861 and was previously several different states with diverse geography and cultural ties, it’s not surprising that enormous regional variations persist today in food as well as language and other aspects of culture.

You’ll find pizzerias all over Italy today, but for a real Neapolitan pizza you’ll need to go to Naples. Photo by Nik Owens on Unsplash

For example, the traditional cuisine of the north-eastern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia on the border of Austria and Slovenia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century, seems very distant from that of the island of Sicily, which has an entirely different history and was under French and Spanish rule at that time.

Food experts also often point out that most Italian dishes beloved abroad were once only popular in some areas of the country, usually the south, because our ideas about what constitutes Italian food are often the result of large-scale emigration from impoverished areas of Italy over one hundred years ago.

READ ALSO: From fried brains to ‘sexy’ cakes: The regional foods you might not expect in Italy

As dishes can differ so widely from one Italian region to another, what many people abroad think of as a generically Italian dish may in fact have originated in one remote village in Sicily.

But there’s plenty that unites Italians from all regions, too: not least a widespread interest in quality and provenance and a tendency to include plenty of fruit, vegetables, and legumes along with the famous, indulgent dishes that we all know and love.

And, while the regional variations keep things interesting, visitors will be glad to find that today pasta, pizza, cured meats and cheeses are found in abundance everywhere you go in Italy; you’ll just have to try every region’s specialties to find out which version of Italian cuisine you like best.

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Italian pastries: Is it a cornetto, croissant or brioche?

The classic Italian breakfast is loved across the country - but what should you call the pastry you order with your cappuccino? Here's why the name seems to change depending on where you are, and what the difference actually is.

Italian pastries: Is it a cornetto, croissant or brioche?

There are plenty of differences between Italy’s northern and southern regions, and one you might have noticed is that the daily breakfast pastry served (and quickly devoured) along with a frothy cappuccino at the local bar-pasticceria might have a different name depending on where you go.

READ ALSO: Where, when and how to drink coffee like an Italian

Most people will probably know it as a cornetto, which is something many visitors to Italy mistake for a croissant.

Google translates cornetto as croissant most of the time, which doesn’t help matters. And Italians themselves might even call it a croissant (pronounced ‘crassant’) if ordering at a fancier type of pasticceria, when they’re feeling a bit fancy themselves. 

Meanwhile, some bars and bakeries advertise a brioche. But can it be a brioche if it’s shaped like a cornetto? Is there always a difference, or just sometimes? And does it really matter what you call it?

Let’s have a look at what’s going on.

North vs south

Generally speaking, a cornetto is called a cornetto in the centre and south of Italy, while the exact same pastry is usually referred to as a brioche in northern regions.

In fact, some northern Italians may tell you they’ve never heard anyone order a cornetto.

According to popular Italian food blog Dissapore“In Italy it is called brioche in the north and cornetto in the centre-south: a cultural heritage that has little to do with the actual characteristics of these sweets.”

“Italy seems to be the undisputed homeland of the binomial ‘cappuccino and cornetto/brioche,’” it notes.

Alessandro Pirollo, a writer at Italy’s esteemed food magazine La Cucina Italiana, goes a step further by saying: “calling [a cornetto] a brioche is just an improper use of the term, widespread in northern Italy.”

“True brioche is different from a cornetto, but be warned: neither one is a croissant,” he writes.

Shape, texture and ingredients

Each pastry has a long and disputed history, and their ingredients differ.

Croissants are known for their buttery flavour, which comes through because of the absence of egg in the mixture, explains Pirollo. This also accounts for its “flakier, lighter” texture.

“The brioche and cornetto have more in common from this point of view,” says Dissapore.

“The same ingredients but different methods, as the brioche is leavened and the cornetto is layered with butter. They both contain flour, a lot of butter, a lot of sugar, yeast, eggs and milk.”

For the brioche, notes Dissapore, “lard may also be used instead of butter”.

To muddy the waters further, in many parts of the south cornetti are also made using lard (strutto) instead of butter. (In fact, quite a few southern Italian pastries are made using lard, including more traditional versions of the pasticciotto and sfogliatella.)

The texture and shape of the pastry is probably the easiest way to tell them apart.

The brioche is soft and airy with a rounded shape, often topped with a ball of dough. In Sicily this is called a brioche col tuppo and it’s often served either filled with or soaked in granita or gelato.

A cornetto and a croissant may be fairly similar in appearance, at least to the untrained eye, but the cornetto is usually straighter while a croissant is curled.

Cornetti are also crunchier, less sweet, and can be eaten plain, though you’ll often find them served already filled with chocolate, cream, or jam.

READ ALSO: French dilemmas: Is it a pain au chocolat or a chocolatine?

Usually, at least in France, croissants are not filled with cream or chocolate.

Cornetti for sale in Naples. Photo by Nicole Arango Lang on Unsplash

There are countless articles and blog posts written in Italian on the cornetto vs brioche vs croissant debate, which suggests that there’s widespread confusion about the differences even among Italians themselves.

The north-south debate over what to call the standard Italian breakfast pastry is also frequently the subject of jokes on Italian social media.

Whatever you call it, another important north-south difference is that in the south, hot cornetti, invariably made using lard, are not only eaten for breakfast but also served up to hungry customers as a late-night snack – meaning it’s not unusual to see long queues outside of bakeries at 1am on summer nights everywhere from Bari to Rome.

Meanwhile in the north of Italy, breakfast is the only time you’ll see anyone eating a cornetto. Or should that be brioche?