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"Authentic Italian" - What would you expect?

v
velochic Oct 16, 2011 06:21 AM

Just wondering what your expectation would be if an independent Italian restaurant touted itself as "Authentic Italian". By that, I mean what would you expect the dishes to be offered and what would you expect as far as quality of ingredients (i.e. canned clams vs. freshly shucked or frozen cooked chicken vs. freshly grilled chicken)? The prices range in the double digits up to about $20 for pasta and $30 for "secondi" meat dishes.

  1. p
    Puffin3 Feb 4, 2012 05:48 AM

    "Authentic" Italian food can only be found in Italy. No amount of skill and so-called 'authentic' ingredients bought in American or anywhere else but Italy can ever duplicate real Italian food. The soil in which the produce grows is chemically different. The climate is unique to every region as it is everywhere else on the planet. The influence of the sea air on coastal regions is unique (the salinity of the Mediterranean Sea is different than say the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.) The clay used to make the oven tiles in the wood fired pizza ovens is unique. The wood burned in these ovens is unique. The wood from the olive trees burned in the ovens is unique. The olives and wines are unique and on and on and on I could go. So when I used to go to restaurants in N. America I never expected to be served 'real' Italian dishes any more than I expected to be served 'real' Pho in Kelowna. If I wanted real Pho I would have gone to Saigon

    1. s
      smartie Oct 18, 2011 11:15 AM

      here's one you won't see in Italy ...

      Fettucine Alfredo add shrimp $5
      add chicken $5

      ditto Caesar Salad or any other salad or pasta.

      12 Replies
      1. re: smartie
        f
        freia Oct 18, 2011 11:36 AM

        Word! No Caesar Salads, with or without chicken or shrimp! And generally, if a major monument is in visual sight of the restaurant in Italy, you probably are eating at a place with a tourist menu...(ok I'm bracing myself for a flame war!)...

        Geography has little to do IMHO with "Authentic" and I really don't confuse "historic" with "authentic". There are many historic recipes that one can't stomach and aren't served in Italy or anywheres else for that matter. Food styles are fluid throughout history. In England and North America, Aspic dishes are very "historic" and indicative of a certain era and style of dining, but are generally out of favor and unpalatable this day and age. Towering gelatin desserts are a thing of the past. Historic doesn't mean "authentic". However, there are a number of long-standing techniques and dishes which are generally considered by a region to be "traditional", and when prepared as is usual for that region, I personally consider them to be "authentic". And there are many touristic restaurants in Italy that serve foods for a North American palate which wouldn't be served in restaurants away from a tourist strip making them less than "authentic" IMHO with respect to utilization of long standing preparation techniques and ingredients.

        For me, bottom line for Authentic is this: would I find a very similar dish with similar ingredients served in the same manner in Italy (regardless of the region). It has to do with the quality of ingredients but also the ingredients themselves. For example, the freshest parmesan cheese made artisinally from our local cheesemakers is not Parmiggiano Reggiano. And if I went to a restaurant and an "authentic' cheese plate was offered and it had local parmesan cheese on it of the freshest and best quality, I still wouldn't consider it "authentic". It might be very, very nice and delicious, but it wouldn't in my mind be "authentic". If a sauce was made with Passata, well, that would be "authentic", more so in my mind that a similar sauce made with ground tomatoes IF the usual method of preparation in Italy called for Passata, even if the Passata used wasn't freshly made. So in my mind it really is a combination of freshness and the ingredients actually used.

        As for a menu, well, to me Lampredetto is unpalatable for me but if I found it in a restaurant I would think that this is an "authentic" restaurant. If I found Caesar Salad with chicken in a restaurant overlooking the Coliseum in Rome, I would think this is a touristic restaurant, not an "authentic' restaurant regardless of the geography. Insalata Caprese with grated processed mozzarella on a bed of lettuce at a restaurant in view of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence is not "Authentic": Insalata Caprese at a restaurant in NYC made with fresh Mozzarella Buffala, Roma/plum tomatoes and fresh basil is in my mind "Authentic". Fettucine Alfredo with sauce reheated from a restaurant supplier?: "Not Authentic". Fettucine Alfredo made with fresh cream and fresh parsley? "Authentic". Arancina Siciliano in Boston? Authentic (IF made the way it would be made in Sicily, with the same type of ingredients and served in the same manner). Caesar salad served in Florence? Not authentic. I guess its just a judgement call LOL...

        Such a great discussion all around!

        :)

        1. re: freia
          e
          escondido123 Oct 18, 2011 01:07 PM

          We've had many discussions here, and the consensus seems to be that "traditional" and "authentic" Fettucini Alfredo contains neither cream nor parsley, but just a sauce made of butter and Parmigiano Reggiano.

          1. re: escondido123
            f
            freia Oct 18, 2011 01:11 PM

            meh...pasta al burro con formaggio....otten lighted with a dash of cream, garnished with parsley...certainly not the thickened cream sauces found at Eastside Mario's...LOL. Interestingly this dish is also known as pasta in bianco in many restaurants in the Old Country (bianco referring to the dash of cream), but .never really known there as Fettucine Alfredo in any event.. Of course the amount of cream is important, but again perhaps we are dealing with "historic" vs "authentic", and we're back to the same old discussion. Historically made without cream, often lighted with a dash of cream in the Old Country and has been for years (hence the name pasta in bianco)...which is "authentic", which is "historic"? Please pass the Beef Tongue in Aspic! :)

          2. re: freia
            w
            Wawsanham Oct 18, 2011 01:55 PM

            Still lots of aspic in Poland--at least in the 90s. Too bad it's gone out of fashion. It's not bad from time to time.

            1. re: Wawsanham
              f
              freia Oct 18, 2011 02:17 PM

              :) mmmm ASPIC!!!!

              1. re: Wawsanham
                l
                LeoLioness Oct 18, 2011 06:30 PM

                I was in Poland recently and saw it on a few menus....

              2. re: freia
                huiray Oct 18, 2011 05:11 PM

                "Aspic dishes are very "historic" and indicative of a certain era and style of dining, but are generally out of favor and unpalatable this day and age."
                ----------
                Hey!!! I like meats in aspic!!

                1. re: huiray
                  f
                  freia Oct 18, 2011 06:23 PM

                  Surprisingly they are making a tiny bit of a comeback in the molecular gastronomy world (experimental cuisine for the most part), but the Edwardians had the corner on aspics, especially since these towering creations took forEVER to make and thus signified a degree of wealth. Personally, the sight of a wobbling 3 tiered boiled egg and rabbit concoction surrounded by niblet corn and diced carrots just doesn't float my boat! I suppose, though, it IS "authentic" British cuisine LOLLOLLOL (let the flame war begin!)
                  :)

                  1. re: freia
                    huiray Oct 18, 2011 07:02 PM

                    Nah, I doubt flames will be curling upwards.

                    Don't forget varieties of head cheese are eaten around the world everyday, including in Italy (to keep on topic), where one finds testa in cassetta/coppa di testa/coppa/formaggio di testa. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head_cheese

                    Sometimes when I have leftover Hainanese chicken I shred the leftover chicken meat and set it with sliced hard boiled eggs & chopped scallions & cilantro into an spic formed using the gingered and salted chicken stock (created during the poaching of the chicken) plus unflavored gelatin. A nice slice of it with crisp dill pickles, marinated mushrooms & artichoke hearts... YUM!

                    1. re: freia
                      sunshine842 Oct 18, 2011 10:55 PM

                      a trip past any French traiteur would show you a wide variety of aspic-based appetizers -- small and usually very pretty.

                      1. re: sunshine842
                        w
                        Wawsanham Oct 19, 2011 09:54 AM

                        We should probably start an aspic thread. OK, back to the topic of Italian--where aspic also exists.

                        1. re: Wawsanham
                          f
                          freia Oct 19, 2011 07:18 PM

                          LOLLOLLOL! True...going back to authentic/historic/traditional/whatmynonnausedtomakeinUmbria thread...LOL

              3. n
                Novelli Oct 18, 2011 07:16 AM

                Wait! Hold On! No one say anything! I'm out of popcorn! Be right back! LOL
                This is quite an interesting thread to see everyone's different takes on what is "Authentic" Italian cooking...when even in Italy they argue about what's right and wrong...and they're living across the street from each other!

                The South: "No one North of Rome knows how to cook."
                The North: "No one South of Rome are really Italian"

                LOL!

                1 Reply
                1. re: Novelli
                  hotoynoodle Oct 19, 2011 09:17 AM

                  reminds me of the "cheese on seafood" thread that got about a million replies, lol.

                2. v
                  velochic Oct 18, 2011 04:27 AM

                  Wow, this thread exploded.

                  It's interesting that so much of the discussion is centered on WHAT is offered and I was thinking a lot more about the QUALITY of ingredients and of the preparation of the dish. That is one thing that seems consistent no matter where you eat in Italy. Locally sourced food and if for some reason the ingredients they get in that day are not up to their standards, they just won't serve that dish. I once ordered a mussels dish and the waiter promptly told me, "The mussels are not as good as we would like, choose something else." This local restaurant here seems to care more about making a buck than serving quality food, but their advertising is ALL about being "authentic" Italian. I get tired of hearing them say that because it's just not true.

                  This is a small restaurant, in a smaller midwestern town that over the years has been absorbed into a larger metropolis (that is NOTknown for its food) as a "commuter town" (about 20 miles from city center). We don't have many local restaurants... mostly chains... and this is the only Italian restaurant in the area. (We don't have Olive Garden.) It's been around a long time and, from what I'm told, the owner IS Italian. They are known mostly for their wood-fire pizzas, but make claims to be "authentic" with their other dishes. They are just a few blocks from us and it would make a REALLY convenient place to eat (we have to drive to any other restaurant) but the half dozen times we tried it, we've been repeatedly disappointed.

                  What is most disappointing is that for the price, the quality really stinks and the foods are not prepared well, or what I would consider "traditionally". For example, they have a bolognese, but it is just marinara with ground beef in it. I would expect, if they are "authentic", that it would be true bolognese that is slow cooked with just that scant tablespoon of tomato product in there. They have clam sauce, but it's made with canned clams and tastes more the the chemicals from the can and not at all of clams. They DO have chicken... in their fettuccine alfredo (and the chicken is pre-cooked and frozen... I know because my mother has had this and the chicken has been frozen still in the middle when she was served her dish. The pastas are served so overcooked that, for example, in my lasagne, the sheets had become layers of pasty wet dough (very unappetizing to have the noodles squish on your tongue).

                  What is most aggravating about the situation is that we WANT to love this place. It would be a great little neighborhood restaurant we would frequent. People in our area RAVE about the place and it's very noticeably sub-par quality. I just don't get why people are leaving favorable reviews about this place. Are they just not aware that Italian food can and should be better for the prices they are paying? The restaurant uses mostly canned food from the Sysco truck and nothing is made in-house except for the dough for their pizza. There is a distinctly chemical taste to their food. Their bruschetta is made with FETA on top! Their mozzarella is the part-skim processed shredded. They have calamari, but it is very obviously the commercially pre-made, processed, pre-frozen, stuff (every single piece is a perfect O, all the same size). They have a linguine al pesto, which is linguine, chicken and pesto sauce. I asked once if they could make that a creamy pesto and leave out the chicken and they were not able to do either of those things. According to the waitress, "that is how the sauce comes to us". So they are buying pre-made pesto sauce that already has the chicken in it? WTF?

                  They recently renovated and the new building is pretty and spacious. I know their prices are in an effort to recoup their construction costs, however I wish there were something I could do as a customer (other than avoiding the place, which we already do) to get this place to offer better quality food. It just makes me frustrated that they claim to be "authentic" and not a single item on their menu even vaguely reminds me of my times in Italy. A friend said that I was expecting too much. My reply was, "Well, then, they need to lower their prices." It also makes me wonder if using these kinds of terms aren't a little bit of false advertising. If as a pp said, you can't get authentic other than the very place of origin. I would actually argue that that isn't true because we have a favorite Turkish restaurant and the cooking tastes just like my SIL's back in Istanbul. I'm willing to pay for that... not for the "authentic Italian" of this neighborhood restaurant.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: velochic
                    hotoynoodle Oct 19, 2011 09:23 AM

                    so it sounds like regardless of what we might consider "authentic" the place is serving garbage and, sadly, preying on locals who grew up eating stouffer's frozen lasagne and simply don't know any better.

                    speak with your feet and just stop going.

                    living in boston, i am spoiled by the lack of chains, and an abundance of fine independently owned joints staffed with cutting edge chefs who truly care about where your food comes and what's on your plate. at many price points.

                    just because the owner of your local clip joint is italian means nothing. not all frenchmen are wine experts, ya know?

                    1. re: hotoynoodle
                      v
                      velochic Oct 19, 2011 10:00 AM

                      Well put!

                  2. emglow101 Oct 17, 2011 08:00 PM

                    I would say It's not authentic. Most of are food does not come from the area where we live and is under the thumb of the FDA. Not the same attitude, and is completely different in Italy. If it's made in the U.S. it's not authentic.

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: emglow101
                      e
                      escondido123 Oct 17, 2011 08:29 PM

                      So no one outside of Italy can cook or eat authentic Italian cooking?

                      1. re: escondido123
                        emglow101 Oct 17, 2011 08:54 PM

                        It'cooked in the same recipie or style , but it's just different because of the ingedients. There are great chefs and home cooks don't get me wrong. It's great food but its just different. The cheese is different, meat , vegtables, seafood and how it is prepared very simple.

                        1. re: emglow101
                          e
                          escondido123 Oct 17, 2011 09:04 PM

                          So if someone takes the exact recipe for roasted pork and potatoes and makes it outside of Italy it is not authentic Italian? How about if American ingredients go to Italy, is that authentic Italian if it is cooked there? How about if Italian ingredients are brought to the US and prepared? Why are you the one to make this determination about what is authentic?

                          1. re: escondido123
                            emglow101 Oct 17, 2011 09:35 PM

                            I am not. Sorry , it's my own opinion. I just got back from there two weeks ago. I was there for a month, not neccasarily to sight see but to eat,mostly at small trattoria's, and this was not even their home cooking.Maybe I am ruined now. I have cooked through many books.Shop everyday and love the cooking of close Italian freinds with nonna's recipies it's all fantastic. Just go there and see for yourself .

                            1. re: emglow101
                              e
                              escondido123 Oct 18, 2011 10:34 AM

                              I've been to Italy many times and my husband's mother is Italian. That's why we shop every day and cook with almost all fresh ingredients. Maybe that cooking is so different for you that you can imagine it being possible here, but I can assure you there's "authentic" Italian cooking going on all over the US.

                              1. re: escondido123
                                e
                                escondido123 Oct 18, 2011 01:10 PM

                                That should be "can't imagine"--sorry.

                        2. re: escondido123
                          s
                          Steve Oct 18, 2011 05:56 AM

                          I would say that all restaurants in the U.S. are American restaurants, no matter what food is served. The experience will never be the same. Ultimately I believe it is because of the clientele and 'pride of place', not the availability of ingredients or the chef. The food can be authentic, in part. Not likely an entire menu, but certainly some dishes.

                      2. Chinon00 Oct 17, 2011 07:44 PM

                        I got into a "discussion" with proud Italo-American friend of mine about "traditional" versus "modern" Italian cooking after I told him about a Sicilian restaurant near me that served dishes featuring saffron, dates, almonds, raisins, cinnamon, sesame, apricots, chicken livers, escargot, etc. He said it sounded great but that it wasn't "traditional" Italian cooking. Had to tell em none of those ingredients would be considered "modern" in Sicily.

                        15 Replies
                        1. re: Chinon00
                          r
                          Roland Parker Oct 17, 2011 10:14 PM

                          That's a very good observation. An old college friend of mine is the granddaughter of minor Italian nobility from Northern Italy. I met the grandmother on a few occasions and she would grandly proclaim that as a child in pre-war Italy the family cooks never made pasta. It wasn't part of their diet. When I asked her about the meals they ate, she described quite a few molded dishes, both sweet and savory, and with lots of different kinds of filling.

                          I've also glanced through a few older Italian cookbooks translated into English and while there's certainly overlaps with modern Italian cuisines, there were plenty of dishes that were not recognizable. Our diets have changed in the modern world compared to fifty or a hundred years ago and there's no reason to assume that the diets and tastes of modern Italians haven't changed compared to their grandparents or great grandparents, especially given that Italy today is a much richer country than in the past. In one of Marcella Hazan's cookbooks she includes a pasta sauce recipe that features both broccoli and butter, making the observation that butter was a new ingredient in the Italian diet and she was exploring using it. So, while spaghetti with broccoli could be claimed to be "Italian style" it certainly isn't "traditional." Penne al Arribiata is now a classic Roman standby, but spicy pasta sauces wasn't part of "traditional" Italian cooking.

                          1. re: Roland Parker
                            h
                            hyperbowler Oct 18, 2011 12:19 AM

                            Wow, even just before WWII? Was she completely unfamiliar with pasta until the war, or was it something her family just didn't hand make at home?

                            This is believable for northern Italy, which uses polenta, rice, and grains other than wheat. The industrial revolution and refined flour made pasta cheap and easier to work with. What was once a luxury has now become pretty common.

                            In general, you make a very good point. Several items that would be viewed as "traditional Italian dishes" are fairly recent:

                            Mozzarella, basil, and tomato on pizza is only about 120 years old.
                            Puttanesca, Carbonara, Tiramisu, ciabatta--- all post-war inventions, some more recent than others.

                            Any others surprisingly recent?

                            1. re: hyperbowler
                              s
                              Steve Oct 18, 2011 05:47 AM

                              Your use of the pejorative 'only' before 120 years old is an interesting choice. It wouldn't be mine.

                              1. re: Steve
                                sunshine842 Oct 18, 2011 06:08 AM

                                that's 6 generations, by my count....

                                1. re: Steve
                                  h
                                  hyperbowler Oct 18, 2011 09:01 AM

                                  No pejorativity intended :-) I probably shouldn't have listed pizza under that heading. I guess it's just fascinating that, relative to the thousands of years people have been putting food on bread, that combination only recently took off.

                            2. re: Chinon00
                              roxlet Oct 18, 2011 09:38 AM

                              Sicilian cooking was heavily influenced by North Africa, and ingredients like saffron, dates, almonds, raisins, etc, would be extremely traditional in Sicilian food. My mother would put raisins in meatballs for my father, whose Sicilian mother cooked that way. In fact, many Italians are very snobby about Sicilians, and wouldn't strictly consider Sicilian cooking Italian food.

                              1. re: roxlet
                                Chinon00 Oct 18, 2011 09:53 AM

                                Yeah I've found that many who are quite vocal about their ethnic heritage are actually passionate about the American interpretation of it instead. These are the people who will go to Vegas a bunch of times and never even consider taking a trip to their "ethnic homeland".

                                1. re: roxlet
                                  n
                                  Novelli Oct 18, 2011 11:10 AM

                                  "In fact, many Italians are very snobby about Sicilians, and wouldn't strictly consider Sicilian cooking Italian food."

                                  Very true, and the other way around as well. When I was a child, I remember asking what part of Italy we were from. My grandmother would say, "Non Italiano, Siciliano". Then my grandfather's side would chime in...and it would begin a whole argument! LOL

                                  But that also mattered who in the family you asked, since so many were from a few different regions...Molisse, Calabria, Sicilia...

                                  1. re: Novelli
                                    f
                                    freia Oct 18, 2011 11:33 AM

                                    LOLLOLLOL same goes for Florentines in particular. It was interesting to see the general lack of Italian interest in the Torino Olympics when I was there --- the general thought was that the Olympics were in Torino and we were in Tuscany/Florence and were completely irrevelant. The further south one went, the less general interest there was in them because it wasn't happening in "italy" it was happening in Torino...
                                    Given the history of city/states and relative newness of the concept of "Italy" its no wonder than regional issues are of greater priority/concern than national ones!

                                    1. re: freia
                                      n
                                      Novelli Oct 18, 2011 12:12 PM

                                      Agreed!

                                      And just to end the regional argument they would just look at me and say, "Ok, meta Italiano, meta Siciliano" (you're half Italian, half Sicilian).

                                      It's funny to read these kinds of threads. What's damned in one region, is welcomed in another.

                                      No cheese with seafood?...some cardinal sin?
                                      Most would be surprised at what they'd find over there! LOL

                                      1. re: Novelli
                                        roxlet Oct 18, 2011 02:18 PM

                                        Hmmm. I say "Mezzo Napolitano e mezzo Siciliano." But maybe Naples isn't considered Italy either :)

                                        1. re: roxlet
                                          n
                                          Novelli Oct 18, 2011 03:25 PM

                                          Well, Napoli IS south of Roma, soooo.......

                                          oh, don't get me started on the various dialects! LOL
                                          Each dish has 10 different names depending on who makes it and where! hahahaha

                                          1. re: Novelli
                                            roxlet Oct 18, 2011 03:35 PM

                                            And it could be a big local speciality, and 5 minutes down the road, no one has ever heard of it! So forget authentic!

                                            1. re: roxlet
                                              n
                                              Novelli Oct 18, 2011 05:03 PM

                                              Exactly. To take it a step further, recipes can even vary within the same families.

                                              I found it amusing in the cookbook 'My Calabria' by Rosetta Costantino, the author lists 3 recipes for the spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino.
                                              One is her way, one her parent's way, and another her cousin's way. Each one varying in the amount of garlic used, how it's used (sliced vs whole), the type of peperoncino (dried whole vs fresh vs dried ground). It's so true, it's funny.

                                              1. re: Novelli
                                                roxlet Oct 18, 2011 06:32 PM

                                                My grandmother, who emigrated from Italy in the early 20th century, made something called casateddi, which someone described as a fried cannoli ravioli. I found some cousins in Sicily whose grandmother was my grandmother's sister, and they never heard of cassateddi! How does that happen?

                              2. m
                                MrBook Oct 17, 2011 10:25 AM

                                I'll be interested to see how the report from this place compares to some of the projections in this thread.

                                My prediction: Olive Garden. If I'm wrong, well, cool.

                                1. c
                                  cleobeach Oct 17, 2011 09:20 AM

                                  A while back, I listened to an interview with someone on NPR. This person (an American of direct Italian decent) lives and works in Italy.

                                  This gentleman runs one of those farm/cooking school type of vacation spots and he mentioned that no amount of advance warning/education works, that 99% of his American guest show up expecting to learn "American" Italian cooking. The guests simply don't understand that what they know as Italian food bears almost no resemblance to his regional cuisine.

                                  It was a rather amusing interview. I will try to Google it and post a link.

                                  I don't know what I would expect from an Authentic Italian restaurant. The ones in my area, with real, born in Italy owers, put out a variety of dishes. They are also smart operators that may be offering what they know will sell at a good profit versus the dishes they grew up eating and cook in their own homes.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: cleobeach
                                    l
                                    laliz Oct 17, 2011 10:38 AM

                                    I had an authentic (as in born and learned to cook in Sicily) Sicilian MIL. Her food was authentic; even her baked chicken and her taco meat (what she called it). Thats what I know about "authentic" so I would agree, the freshest and best available in-season ingredients (no compromise -- make something else if you have to), made with love.
                                    this was a woman who sometimes would tell me she "ached" for a good cookie, and made apple pie every day when her children were growing. Apple pie is authentic I guess, because then they lived in Michigan.

                                    I would not have any expectations but I also would be dubious as others have mentioned.

                                  2. b
                                    beevod Oct 17, 2011 07:44 AM

                                    No matzo balls in the zuppa del giorno

                                    1. s
                                      smartie Oct 16, 2011 06:33 PM

                                      no pineapple on pizza!

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: smartie
                                        r
                                        Rheta Oct 17, 2011 06:44 AM

                                        Here, here! Or canadian bacon!!

                                        1. re: smartie
                                          mbfant Oct 17, 2011 07:04 AM

                                          Actually I saw a hand-lettered blackboard outside a very low-end eatery in the heart of tourist Rome offering pineapple as a pizza topping. Obviously it was aimed at the very least discriminating sort of tourist, and it stands as proof that geographic coordinates do not guarantee authenticity.

                                        2. The Professor Oct 16, 2011 06:25 PM

                                          Simplicity.
                                          Lightly sauced pasta, simple stews/braises, and fresh/local ingredients.

                                          And AMEN to the requirement of reasonable and not supersized portions.

                                          1. s
                                            Steve Oct 16, 2011 05:41 PM

                                            No chicken on the menu.

                                            No all-in-one-dishes like pieces of meat or fish tossed with pasta with vegetables.

                                            1. f
                                              freia Oct 16, 2011 04:21 PM

                                              It seems to me that "authentic" anything should reflect the traditions and recipes of the region/area/country of origin. It really doesn't have anything to do with the nationality of the chef, and it has very little to do with the geographical origin of some of the ingredients (not all, but some). To suggest "Authentic Italian cuisine" is a pretty broad claim, due to the specific cuisine from various Italian regions. However, it can be claimed I think if the menu offerings can be traced and identified with the various regions of Italy and reflect that region's traditions and recipes. For example, deep fried raviolis are NOT reflective of Italian cuisine. Garlic bread served with a pasta dish is NOT reflective of Italian dining custom (they don't serve 2 carbs at the same point in the meal). Making a dish topped with parmesan cheese instead of reggiano or romano is NOT reflective of Italian cuisine. And if one really wants to discuss the use of imported ingredients as automatically "authentic", any dish made with dried purchased pasta is NOT because the dried pasta made in Italy for the export market is different than the dried pasta one can actually buy in Italy (the ingredients and preservatives used are mandated by law to meet import standards of other countries). There is a distinctive difference in taste. So, if you think about it, a hand made pasta in NYC (using the correct flour and so on) may be more "authentic" than a pasta dish made from imported dried Italian pasta flavorwise. Hence the thought that the country of origin of the product doesn't make nor break an "authentic" claim, it may be more a reflection of the sum of cooking ingredients, technique, product availability and intent.
                                              If you go to a restaurant and see dishes on the menu that are prepared mostly in the same manner with the same ingredients to the same standard as they are in "the old country" then I think a claim of authenticity can be made. Now, the culinary result might not be as appealing to a North American palate--the bulk of Chinese food in North America certainly isn't "authentic", as it is clearly developed to be palatable to North American palates. The average North American would find the bulk of food in China to be, well, not what they would expect.
                                              Maybe the best indicator of "authentic" is to see how many diners of the home nation are actually there -- if the place is packed with peoples of its home community, it's probably "authentic". I would in your case probably try to figure out who owns the place and who does the cooking because although not completely reliable, if Nonna is from Umbria and is using her family recipes, it will give some credence to the "authentic" claim. Although I DID go to an Authentic Italian place once, where Nonna ran the kitchen but the Fettucine Alfredo sauce came from a huge bucket provided by Sysko foods (the largest provider of food products to institutions, hospitals, and restaurants). "Authentic" only in name....bottom line is this: does it really matter? If you like the food and think its worth the money, then enjoy! But do so knowing that the term "authentic" may be hard to validate unless you have a good knowledge of the dishes on the menu and know that they are very very similar to that which you could have in Italy. :)

                                              15 Replies
                                              1. re: freia
                                                h
                                                hyperbowler Oct 16, 2011 06:23 PM

                                                Good point about local items sometimes being more "authentic" than imports from Italy. The production is more important than the location.

                                                You're right that two carbs aren't typically served as separate parts of the same course. As part of the same dish, they can be. Breadcrumbs are sometimes tossed with pasta instead of cheese. I've read a few cookbook authors speculate that the practice utilized breadcrumbs as a cheaper alternative to cheese. Breadcrumbs can also be used to form the basis of a pasta stuffing, and some pastas in northern Italy have sauces that use potatoes.

                                                1. re: hyperbowler
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                                                  freia Oct 17, 2011 05:30 AM

                                                  Absolutely, but I was speaking about serving methods vice recipe construction. Many recipes call for breadcrumb use -- the ripieni for pasta for example often calls for breadcrumbs to be included. What I was getting at was that you don't see pasta served with a side order of garlic bread or cheesy garlic bread.. You don't see pizza served with a side of essentially pizza crusts and tomato dipping sauce. But as an ingredient, breadcrumbs are fairly ubiquitous in Italian cuisine. Potatoes are also very common both as an ingredient (gnocci for example) or as a contorno (side dish served with meats). But you wouldn't see bread served alongside the gnocci or along side the secondo...:)

                                                  1. re: freia
                                                    mbfant Oct 17, 2011 07:00 AM

                                                    Actually you would see bread served alongside gnocchi and definitely with the secondo. How else are you going to sop up the extra sauce? Romans get seriously anxious and can't start eating until they see a full bread basket. And the champion of double carbs has to be Roman pizza al taglio with potatoes, with pasta e patate a close second.

                                                    And you don't see garlic bread, in the Italian-American sense at all, much less alongside the pasta. (Bruschetta is very different, with or without tomatoes.) Nor do you see bowls of olive oil for dipping bread into -- except where it is expected that American clients expect it. You do sometimes get small bottles or cruets of very good oil in expectation you will pour a few drops out on your butter plate or directly on your bread.

                                                    1. re: mbfant
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                                                      freia Oct 17, 2011 11:13 AM

                                                      lol I have been completely chastized my Italian friends whilst dining in Italy with my Italian friends concerning bread during the meal. I know at some restaurants there is bread served with a meal in the manner listed above however these were restaurants that catered to a tourist market! At the very local restaurants that we frequented there may have been bread on the table on occasion but not specifically served as a side order to pasta dishes or primis in particular and never as a side to pizza! (can you imagine a side order of bread to go with your rebollito? Kind of...redundant? LOL) And you have to consider the role of bread (or lack thereof) in Italy in general. Italy is definitely not known for its breads. In fact if you talk with any foreign resident about the "most disappointing" food item it is always the bread that is mentioned. In any event, I recall pasta as a primi only and the small amount served rarely had such an abundance of sauce that bread was required to mop it up. As for secondos, generally the potatoes served as a means to mop up any sauce. And again, I'm not addressing the issue of foods that combine carbs, such as pizza with potatoes on it. That's a recipe, not a side of bread served alongside such a pizza. :) I guess what I meant and didn't verbalize properly is when you go to an Authentic Italian Restaurant in North America and order a side order of cheesy garlic bread with your Fettucine Alfredo. This isn't done in Italy...there may be a bread basket occasionally on a table, but not served as a side order and definitely is missing from most non-tourist family restaurants that I've been to...just my experience, :)

                                                      1. re: freia
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                                                        escondido123 Oct 17, 2011 12:03 PM

                                                        We found most of the bread in Italy to be pretty good--better than most of the baguettes in France--except we were disappointed in the Tuscan breads that were made without salt, they lacked flavor to our tastebuds.

                                                        1. re: escondido123
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                                                          freia Oct 17, 2011 12:09 PM

                                                          Funny that...we can easily bring to mind a granary bread or crumpets or English muffins from Great Britain, croissants and baguettes from France, all sorts of whole grain and rye breads from Germany, but not a single bread from Italy.that easily comes to mind. Foccaccia may come to mind, but it can closely resemble the zweibelkuchen from Germany...I took a pane and foccaccia course at a Cordon Bleu school the last time I lived in Italy and we did bake breads from around Italy and none of them were particularly memorable (and the instructors noted this as well).. JMHO .:)

                                                          1. re: freia
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                                                            smartie Oct 17, 2011 05:09 PM

                                                            English muffins are not English! We never heard of them before coming to the USA.

                                                            1. re: smartie
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                                                              Harters Oct 18, 2011 05:32 AM

                                                              Agreed, smartie. First time I saw "English muffins" was in 1980 when I first visited America. They're now quite common in Britain (although, of course, they're just called "muffins"

                                                            2. re: freia
                                                              The Professor Oct 17, 2011 06:04 PM

                                                              The best "Italian" bread seems to come from Brooklyn, NY. Don't know how truly "authentic" it is, but it is hands down the best bread I've ever had from _anywhere_.
                                                              Especially the seeded twist loaf from Reliable Bakery.
                                                              It's authentic enough for me!
                                                              I wish Iived in Brooklyn, just to have daily access to that bread!

                                                              1. re: The Professor
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                                                                escondido123 Oct 17, 2011 06:05 PM

                                                                Italian bread from brick oven bakery on Federal Hill in Providence RI.

                                                              2. re: freia
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                                                                hyperbowler Oct 17, 2011 07:22 PM

                                                                Panettone and farinata come to mind, but they're certainly not as prevalent as the ones you mentioned.

                                                                There's pizza too, which is kind of a variation of focaccia, a bread that dates back at least as far back as ancient Rome.

                                                                BTW, I had to look up Zwiebelkuchen. It reminds me of Spanish coca and a French Pisaladiere (sp?). This pictures look great--- once I learn to pronounce it, I'll try to find one in the Bay Area!

                                                                1. re: hyperbowler
                                                                  linguafood Oct 18, 2011 09:21 AM

                                                                  Zwiebelkuchen = tsveeble koochen (try to pronounce the 'ch' as if you're clearing your throad).

                                                                  1. re: hyperbowler
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                                                                    freia Oct 18, 2011 10:24 AM

                                                                    Panettone is more of a cake that really very few people in Tuscan area admit to eating, usually available around Christmas and is considered their version of Christmas Cake. I had one instructor even tell me about panettone season...you have to have your Christmas party late enough to pass on the panettone you got as a present to the next party. If you had it too late, you were stuck with it! And as for pizza/foccaccia, well, that's a dish more often than considered a bread even if its sold in a bakery. :)

                                                          2. re: freia
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                                                            jaykayen Oct 17, 2011 12:48 PM

                                                            No, of course pizza crusts aren't served with pizza; grissini are served.

                                                            1. re: jaykayen
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                                                              freia Oct 18, 2011 10:25 AM

                                                              Grissini may be on the table, but you certainly don't order it off the menu! Never ever seen someone order a Pizza Margurita and a side order of Grissini. Ever! I've never seen Grissini on a menu at all! Grissini or bread sticks are usually considered decorative items on a table. .:)

                                                      2. h
                                                        hetook Oct 16, 2011 04:00 PM

                                                        If Nona used canned clams at her tratattoria,wood sthat make her a fake Sicilian?

                                                        1. hotoynoodle Oct 16, 2011 03:30 PM

                                                          "authentic" means about as much as "natural". and if it's the marketing direction of the place i doubtt i'd be banging down the door to get in.

                                                          8 Replies
                                                          1. re: hotoynoodle
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                                                            escondido123 Oct 16, 2011 03:42 PM

                                                            This is a friendly question. What do you think would be a good term to use so people know the foods are from a certain place. If authentic is out, would "real" work or that too says nothing. Tough to decide what would say it and be believed as more than just "marketing."

                                                            1. re: escondido123
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                                                              hyperbowler Oct 16, 2011 10:22 PM

                                                              I think you're looking for the word "traditional."

                                                              1. re: hyperbowler
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                                                                escondido123 Oct 17, 2011 09:59 AM

                                                                To me, the word "traditional" means dishes that have been made for many, many generations. I could imagine there being restaurants in Italy that say "traditional" when they mean the things their grandmothers made. But what about Italian chefs that create new recipes that are not their grandmothers but rather the sort of dishes made by a new generation of chefs--not everything you eat in Italy is "traditional." For example--and I'm not saying this is an actual dish--but what if the "traditional" dish used cabbage and the "new" dish used radiccio--but they were otherwise the same--and mind you they are both being made in Italy right now. Wouldn't the cabbage one be "traditional" and the radiccio one "authentic?"

                                                                1. re: escondido123
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                                                                  hyperbowler Oct 17, 2011 11:40 AM

                                                                  Right. Traditional would imply that, since it was invented, a dish has been cooked by different people, and potentially tweaked and refined until it reaches a stable state. Traditional implies that it has undergone a cultural peer-review process but that the dish's essence has been preserved in its modern incarnations. So both the cabbage and radicchio dishes could be considered traditional.

                                                                  Traditional is a subset of authentic. Authentic would describe any dish made by Italians from Italy, or enriched by Italian techniques. Authentic doesn't imply anything about quality or prevalence, so it's not a very useful term, either at the descriptive level, or the practical level.

                                                                  1. re: hyperbowler
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                                                                    escondido123 Oct 17, 2011 12:01 PM

                                                                    But traditional doesn't have to mean good, does it? I've had "traditional" roast pork and potatoes numerous times in Italy--some was great, some was good, some was no better than my mother would have made and she wasn't Italian.

                                                                    1. re: escondido123
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                                                                      hyperbowler Oct 17, 2011 12:19 PM

                                                                      Heh, you're right, that's the thing about "traditional" cooking. It may have survived through generations in its native cuisine, but may be terrible from a non-native's standpoint. It may also have survived because the ingredients were easily available and cheap rather than because the food tasted especially good. "Traditional" can mean bland, boring, or culturally deluded!

                                                              2. re: escondido123
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                                                                Harters Oct 17, 2011 02:48 AM

                                                                I'd also be more taken with "traditional". But, for several national cuisines, I'd want to be seeing something on the menu by way of regional foods. For instance, there would be more appeal in somewhere that said they were "traditional Kashmiri", rather than"traditional Indian". Similarly, from my own part of the world, I would have a different expectation of dishes and ingredients from somewhere "traditional Scottish" than a more generic "traditional British".

                                                                That said, "real" does appear in British descriptions to suggest "traditional". Very much due to the success of the Campaign for Real Ale which has campaigned, with success, for pubs and breweries to retain traditional British beer, against the onslaught of the European style lagers.

                                                                1. re: Harters
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                                                                  smartie Oct 17, 2011 04:50 AM

                                                                  Across the pond we get Irish pubs serving English food such as Shepherd's Pie and Fish and Chips.

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                                                              LeoLioness Oct 16, 2011 03:17 PM

                                                              If it just presented itself as "authentic Italian and didn't specify a region, I might be dubious of its claims. At the very least I'd expect to not see classic Italian-American dishes on thr menu.

                                                              1. e
                                                                escondido123 Oct 16, 2011 12:02 PM

                                                                This made me wonder if every restaurant in Italy that serves Italian-specific dishes can call itself "authentic?" If someone is born, raised and trained as a chef in Italy and cooks in the US, is their Italian food automatically "authentic?" I have been to a number of restaurants that served food I considered "authentic Italian" and it didn't always come from just one region but rather offered a variety of dishes that they felt were most reflective of a region. For me "authentic" Italian could be spaghetti with little clams in the shell, roasted pork and potatoes, Porterhouse grilled with rosemary or gnocchi with pesto. I've had all of those in Italy.

                                                                1 Reply
                                                                1. re: escondido123
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                                                                  hyperbowler Oct 16, 2011 03:35 PM

                                                                  (woops, meant to be a response to the OP)

                                                                  Italy has a very regionalized food culture, so "authentic Italian" can be as vague a term as "authentic European." Also, authentic doesn't equal quality, either in the US or Italy. Do they have a menu listed online?

                                                                  In the Northeast US, "authentic Italian" is often applied to Italian-American mom and pop shops to distinguish themselves from chains like the Olive Garden. However, the food these "red sauce" places serve reflects the foods southern Italian immigrants developed given the restricted variety of ingredients in the US at the time.

                                                                  In general though, some things more common to Italian American than traditional Italian would be:
                                                                  - low-moisture mozzarella instead of fresh buffalo mozzarella
                                                                  - dishes mixing seafood and cheese
                                                                  - boneless grilled chicken
                                                                  - chicken on pasta (some pastas served with ground chicken sauces do exist in Italy though)
                                                                  - pastas all listed as main courses
                                                                  - oversauced pasta

                                                                  Fresh pastas are more common to northern than southern Italy, but if they use a dried pasta, it should be a good quality one. Likewise, at that price point, they should be using fresh and seasonal produce and imported cheeses.

                                                                2. mbfant Oct 16, 2011 09:45 AM

                                                                  Well, the clams would be in their shells on your plate and there probably wouldn’t be chicken on the menu at all. It certainly wouldn’t be anywhere near the pasta. While the posters who would require a regional orientation are technically correct, my limited experience of high-end Italian restaurants in the US suggests that many don't like to commit and I'll respect what I take to be a business decision (an exception is Maialino, in New York, which has some truly authentic Roman dishes on the menu and some very intelligent adaptation to local ingredients and requirements). And yes, "authentic" probably means high-end, even if the conceit is rustic, trattoria, or what-have-you. That's because of the cost of good ingredients. Authentic doesn’t mean "not fancy", but it definitely means not too many ingredients per dish and generally smaller portions than the US standard. Then, authenticity also depends on the eater's accepting more and smaller courses, not too much going on at one time, salad after not with the pasta, etc.

                                                                  11 Replies
                                                                  1. re: mbfant
                                                                    jmckee Oct 18, 2011 08:48 AM

                                                                    Curious: Why do you say "there probably wouldn’t be chicken on the menu at all"? My understanding is that chicken and Italian are not mutually exclusive.

                                                                    1. re: jmckee
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                                                                      Steve Oct 18, 2011 09:29 AM

                                                                      If you try, you can find chicken on a menu in Italy. But you really do have to try.... In the US it would be 'of course we have chicken!' What kind of question is that?

                                                                      Or to put it another way, if you had some kind of strange affliction like 'fear of chickens' which prevented you from eating at a restaurant with chicken on the menu, you would hardly be handicapped in Italy, but in the US every meal would be fraught with peril.

                                                                      And a seafood restaurant in Italy probably has no meat on the menu. As where in the US, all seafood restaurants have at least a couple of items for the non-seafood eaters.

                                                                    2. re: mbfant
                                                                      roxlet Oct 18, 2011 09:30 AM

                                                                      mbfant -- I am curious as to why you would say that about the chicken and the pasta. I might have thought that was a purely an Italian-American invention had it not been for a fabulous pasta dish that my husband and I had at a restaurant in the country between Parma and Bologna. We were on our way to Parma, and we saw signs for a restaurant that led up a hill to an enormous place that was clearly used for frequent weddings and such. There was a portion of the hall that was filled with locals having lunch. When we said that we would like to have pasta, the owner just nodded and brought out one pasta after another, pairing each with a different wine. We had everything from ravioli burro e salvia, to this very delicious and unusual chicken pasta in a tomato sauce. And what of the petto di pollo you frequently see on menus?

                                                                      I think that "authentic" when used in the US by Italian restaurants would lead me to think that it was Italian-American. "Authentic" was a word often bandied about by my father's sisters when arguing about whose cooking was closest to Mama's. "It's good, but it's not authentic," would be how they'd insult each other's attempts to replicate their mother's cooking. Mama had been born in Italy, and therefore was the arbiter of all things authentic. I doubt highly whether a high end restaurant would use that phrase. To me, it speaks to the immigrant's longing for home.

                                                                      1. re: roxlet
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                                                                        Steve Oct 18, 2011 09:47 AM

                                                                        I think mbfant is referring to all-in-one dishes with meat tossed together with pasta. Your anecdote aside, I think it is highly unusual to find in Italy.

                                                                        1. re: Steve
                                                                          roxlet Oct 18, 2011 10:14 AM

                                                                          Yes, I know she was referring to meat tossed together with pasta, and that is what I had. And in northern Italy too, not the rogue south!

                                                                          1. re: roxlet
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                                                                            Steve Oct 18, 2011 11:07 AM

                                                                            Still, it is not what I would expect. Expectations (the subject of this thread) are built upon typical examples. If your example was typical, then you would not have to cite an anecdote. It would be all over the place at many, many restaurants for everyone to see.

                                                                            1. re: Steve
                                                                              roxlet Oct 18, 2011 02:15 PM

                                                                              Whatever.

                                                                              1. re: roxlet
                                                                                mbfant Oct 18, 2011 11:28 PM

                                                                                Steve has pretty much said everything I would have. Chicken is certainly part of the Italian diet, but nowadays it rarely turns up in restaurants, unless you count the rotisserie chickens widely available in rosticcerie. Your chicken dish was exceptional. In fact, one of our favorite restaurants, deep in the Sabine country of northern Lazio, serves an unbelievable chicken-filled ravioli dish, but it's some kind of special chicken and everything about the dish is extraordinary. Those chicken breasts are now hard to find on menus, though they're still widely available in butcher shops and supermarkets. I'd expect to find chicken at an agriturismo where they are raised, but that's about it. What would be extremely unusual would be a sort of one-dish meal of large pieces of chicken tossed with pasta and vegetable, the sort of thing I'm always seeing recipes for in American magazines. When my Roman husband encounters such dishes in the US, which is rare, he thinks he's taken a wrong turn and landed on Mars, so alien a way of treating pasta does he find it.

                                                                                As for what is an authentic Italian restaurant, I think a good working definition for the purpose of discussion could be "with menu and practices much like those normally found in Italy today." And authenticity is a two-way street. Anyone who has seen "Big Night" knows that a restaurant aiming at authenticity needs patrons ready to accept that it may be very different from what they're used to.

                                                                        2. re: roxlet
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                                                                          Harters Oct 18, 2011 10:05 AM

                                                                          That's exactly the issue with "authentic", roxlet. Your family's "authentic" may well not be my family's "authentic" - even if they have been next door neighbours in the same village for years.

                                                                          1. re: Harters
                                                                            roxlet Oct 18, 2011 10:13 AM

                                                                            That's absolutely right. My father's sisters, being from the same family, couldn't even agree on what was authentic.

                                                                            1. re: roxlet
                                                                              jmckee Oct 19, 2011 08:57 AM

                                                                              In Lynne Rosetto Kasper's "The Italian Country Table", she records a discussion at a trattoria among people who lunch there every day regarding what a true Risotto Alla Milanese is. The disagreements and differing opinions kind of give the lie to the stark "absolutely no [fill in the blank]" statements in many of the previous comments in this thread.

                                                                      2. h
                                                                        Harters Oct 16, 2011 09:01 AM

                                                                        I have little interest in "authentic". Almost invariably it's a marketing term rather than any indication if the food is any good.

                                                                        I'd be dubious about any restaurant making such a claim. But, perhaps, more so with an Italian place - the cusine varies so much from region to region that saying they are "authentic Italian" is probably nonsense. If they were to say they were preparing, say, authentic Veneto cuisine then you could judge their menu against what were the standard dishes from the region.

                                                                        1. sunshine842 Oct 16, 2011 08:50 AM

                                                                          My first question would be authentic to what region? Italy's table varies widely from one end of the country to another, so it would depend on the region as to what I'd expect.

                                                                          1 Reply
                                                                          1. re: sunshine842
                                                                            linguafood Oct 16, 2011 08:58 AM

                                                                            Yes, that was my first thought. Authentic.... what? Ligurian? Puglian? Emilia Romagna? Tuscan?

                                                                            I'll tell ya what I *wouldn't* expect on an 'authentic' Italian menu: spaghetti w/meatballs, any mention of "red gravy", eggplant parmesan, caesar salad.

                                                                            Beyond that -- sky's the limit, really.

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                                                                            AdamD Oct 16, 2011 08:32 AM

                                                                            Simple preparations of high quality ingredients prepared well.
                                                                            High quality ITALIAN olive oil. High quality bread. Authentic Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegars and prosciutto.
                                                                            Canned clams? Frozen cooked chicken? Not at $20 and $30.

                                                                            1. g
                                                                              grant.cook Oct 16, 2011 07:02 AM

                                                                              Primi's are small and priced in the low teens; secondi are larger but not huge cuts - you can have both and not be massively full. They serve a course with parm reggiano and honey. At some point a dessert wine shows up at the table. They don't expect customers to show up until 8:30 or so..

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                                                                                fourunder Oct 16, 2011 06:59 AM

                                                                                Rustic food....no fancy pants presentation. Simple braising and grilling for meats, fish and sea food. Hearty soups, stews and ragu, Fresh vegetables and salad greens.

                                                                                1. m
                                                                                  Maximilien Oct 16, 2011 06:46 AM

                                                                                  Fresh and in season ingredients; pasta not drowning in sauce; simple fish preparation, simple meat preparation.

                                                                                  M.

                                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                                  1. re: Maximilien
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                                                                                    awm922 Oct 16, 2011 03:22 PM

                                                                                    Agree wholeheartedly.....and will add smaller portions than Americanized, ridiculously huge portions.

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