One of the first cultural lessons I learned in Italy was regarding the differences of "Italian" and "Italian American." Growing up as an Italian American, I always thought I knew everything there was to know about life in Italy thanks to firsthand accounts from my Nonna, mom (who lived in Marostica for two months), family friends with dual citizenship, and of course, high school Italian class!
Although I definitely had a better grasp of the culture than most American students studying in Italy, I was surprised to learn that "Italian" customs I was used to from home were not truly Italian. From food to restaurant etiquette, I compiled a list of "Italian" practices that are seen as "American."
"Italian" dishes that are not actually from Italy:
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- Fettuccine Alfredo - Alfredo sauce is an American concoction! When Italian immigrants first arrived in the United States, many of them needed an affordable way to incorporate more fat into daily meals, so they began to add cream to pasta. Have a craving for a creamier pasta meal while in Italy? Try gnocchi with four cheese sauce, also known as gnocchi ai quattro formaggi!
- Spaghetti and Meatballs - Shocking, right!? For many people, this is the quintessential Italian meal, complete with garlic bread and red wine. However, it is another American creation! Italian immigrants needed a way to quickly cook both meat and pasta, so they cooked meat on top of pasta. Want to incorporate more protein in your authentic Italian meal? Try a bolognese sauce or add a secondo piatto, which is traditionally a meat dish.
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- Olive oil and bread - At the beginning of most Italian American meals, olive oil and bread is served. However, that is not the case when out to eat in Italy! Native Italians view this practice as something reserved for the home - dipping bread in olive oil and cheese before your meal is not seen as "mature."
- Family style everything - While family style is definitely present when eating in an Italian home, one does not simply go out to eat and order a pizza for five people. Portion sizes abroad are smaller than in the United States, so each person orders their own dish. I did not think I would be able to finish my food while abroad, but most of the time I did! It is just that good. Plus, walking everywhere is great excercise!
Additionally, customs viewed as "Italian" in the United States are not necessarily exactly the current custom in Italy. For example, my family in America goes to church every Sunday. However, my family in Italy does not go every Sunday, however they do participate in church festivals celebrating different saints. Due to the fact that culture is dynamic, the Italy my Nonna grew up in is not the Italy I visited.
Although there are vast differences in many facets of "Italian" and "Italian American" lifestyles, there are obviously commonalities between the two as well. Going a little deeper than food, both groups of people cherish their family, heritage, and are just striving to live la dolce vita.