By Joseph T. Cannavo
This month rather than my usual serious comments about preserving our Italian heritage and showing our Italian pride, I thought that I might write about a dead giveaway that tells Italians that Italian Americans don’t know much about Italian food, even if they boast about their Italian pride. So my comments are meant to educate our readers about a part of our culture that is growing day by day among all Americans: Italian cuisine.
During the many years that I resided in Italy, I often bit my tongue when I would hear American tourists, including Italian Americans, ordering in a restaurant. If you grew up in America as I did, you probably aren’t aware that what we often refer to as an Italian dish is in fact either unknown in Italy or looked upon as odd.
Perhaps the most famous of the so-called Italian dishes that tourists order is spaghetti and meatballs. It’s not that Italians don’t eat spaghetti or meatballs; they just don’t prepare spaghetti and then serve it with meatballs on top of the spaghetti then covered in grated cheese.
That dish — large meatballs doused in marinara and grated cheese over spaghetti that resembles a summer snow-capped Alpine mountain — is 100 percent American. So how did spaghetti and meatballs become so Italian here? The answer is similar to every ethnic cuisine that traveled to this country. Immigrants from the same country, but different regions adopted each other’s dishes and created hybrid ethnic-American national cuisine. Add to that the fact that immigrants to this country had to make do with the ingredients they could find and afford wherever they settled upon arriving here.
As an example, who among us living between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware and Chesapeake bays hasn’t sat down to a big bowl of spaghetti and crabs? In fact, “spaghetti and crab night” is a favorite event held annually by many Italian-American social organizations. Great fundraiser, but not authentically Italian. There are no blue-claw crabs in the Mediterranean! Menus in some sea resort areas in Italy do offer granchi, Italian for crab. However, if you order spaghetti con granchi, expect a dish of spaghetti to be served with a white sauce and maybe even two dead Mediterranean crabs, looking more like crayfish, sitting on your spaghetti gazing at you. By the way, if you order any type of Italian seafood pasta, don’t request grated cheese. The waiter will either look at you like you were crazy or lecture you as to the many reasons you don’t put grated cheese on seafood pasta.
What really takes the cake is the American who just doesn’t want to leave American pizza back home. You should see the look on their faces when they order pizza topped with peperoni and out comes a pizza with roasted peppers. Pepperoni is not an Italian word, it’s Italian-American for what Italians refer to as salame piccante, hot salami. Italian, as indicated on menus there, peperoni, means peppers. If you actually want what in America is referred to as pepperoni, you need to ask for salame piccante or be ready to enjoy roasted pepper pizza.
So as you ponder taking a trip to Italy in the near future and are studying your Italian phrase book, take some time to “bone up” on eating in Italy. You may save yourself some embarrassing moments when you are out dining and at the same time take another step toward you effort to re-attach to your Italian heritage.