Six telltale signs of an inauthentic Italian restaurant

Although I am only half Italian, my stomach stirs with distress when I am met with what my Neapolitan father calls ‘fake Italian’ food at Restaurants.

This is most epitomised by the ‘Americano’ answer to pizza and pasta – dishes veiling themselves as something edible and most likely ordered with a side-dish of drunken shame. Yes, I am talking about the greasy and dense cheese-soaked assemblages that reflect Italian heritage about as well as a princess-saving plumber in red cap and blue overalls.

When visiting a restaurant, whether at home or on holiday, one is often met with the question to whether the food served is authentic or an affront to Italian cuisine. Banish the stuffed crust and bin the mac ‘n’ cheese, here are my 6 top signs when identifying real Italian food amidst the posers, from City to Coast.

 

1: Dried herbs are detrimental

Tasteless and dull shrapnel that adds as much flavour to an Italian dish as reconstituted saw dust, dried herbs are avoided by the purveyor of authentic Italian cuisine.

A hallmark of a proud Italian Restaurant are flavoursome freshly chopped herbs, receiving your order served with the cheap alternative is a sign that the Kitchen is  more interested in cutting corners than serving food to enliven the taste buds.  Fresh basil, parsley and oregano are easily identifiable, even when chopped they will retain a vestige of verdant colour, texture and taste. Dried herbs are usually left in a corner of a kitchen for months at a time and have the looks to suggest they have. If in a restaurant and subject to an order of dried herbs, be aware that the proprietors are probably more interested in delivering cheap produce to maximise profit. Don’t return if you’re looking for a trip to somewhere authentic.

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2: Soggy Pasta is a warning sign

‘Al dente’ is an Italian phrase meaning ‘to the tooth’. When this is used to describe pasta, it means ‘not overcooked’ or simply, it still has some bite to it.

Preparing pasta ‘al dente’ is a tradition that is ubiquitous throughout Italy; and provides a soft but firm texture which is more able to soak up the sauce. Many an Italian home have thrown a strand of Spaghetti to the wall as a test to see if it is ready; if it sticks, then it’s ‘al dente.’ You want to avoid soggy pasta as it means that the restaurant either does not have a chef who is familiar with Italian cuisine or they are pre-cooking the pasta and warm it up when serving. Both instances are ailing and should be avoided. If served with soggy pasta at a restaurant, then don’t recommend it or return, there are better places to dine on holiday or even locally.

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3: Pasta and sauce should not be served separately

You’ll see this one on several adverts for ready-meal pasta sauces. A dish of plain pasta served with a plonking of sauce on the top is an indication that the meal hasn’t been made by an authentic Italian. 

The whole aim of pasta is to serve as a vehicle for the flavour of the sauce. Granted, pasta isn’t a heavyweight hitter of the taste buds, but it’s not meant to be. Pasta should soak up its sauce and show it off. There are no plain pasta dishes for a reason. Pasta and sauces are like ballroom dancers, the man (pasta) brings attention to the spectacle of the woman (the sauce). It is for this reason that plain pasta with sauce on top isn’t authentic. They should be mixed together during preparation. If the pasta is prepared with the sauce, they have chance to intermingle and create a culinary concord. If separate, the pasta dries out and the sauce is ignored and this would be a sign the restaurant really does not know what they are doing. Check out reviews of a particular restaurant to prevent a holiday from being hampered.

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4: Seeing Red with Bolognese

Still on the topic of Sauce, it would be wise to heed my advice on Bolognese. Perhaps the most replicated Italian dish, Spaghetti Bolognese is also the most butchered.

What you should do is avoid a vibrant red, meaty tomato sauce. This is actually called ‘Ragù al Pomodoro’ and although delicious in its own right, is not authentic Bolognese and evidence the restaurant is pulling the wool over your eyes. Bolognese hails from the region of Bologna and is probably not what most people expect it to be.

Bolognese is predominately a meat sauce, a variety lean ground meats and pancetta are the primary ingredients and primary flavors to expect. A supplementary flavor is soffritto, a medley of diced onion, carrots and celery, lightly fried in olive oil and seasoned with salt and ground black pepper. Soffritto is actually the basis of many authentic Italian Sauces and a sign that the restaurant is passionate about their produce. What comprises the liquid element of the sauce is certainly not the abundant tomato that gives such a red colour, a small amount of tomato may be added but not to the extent we often see. Rather, broth or even milk is used and is crucial in giving an authentic Bolognese its distinctive terracotta colouring.

A lot of Supermarket brands of Italian food (more so than restaurants) exploit this misconception and serve their sauces with lots of red artificial coloring to create the illusion of Bolognese. Please do not buy these, they are not a true reflection of Bologna or anyone proud of Italian food.

What’s also important is perhaps the most shocking, ‘Spaghetti’ Bolognese doesn’t actually exist. Bolognese sauce is not traditionally served with Spaghetti as the pasta is too slippery and ineffective in absorbing the sauce. An authentic Italian Restaurant is going to serve you an orange-brown sauce with a wide and flat Tagliatelle.

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5: Doughy pizza base is a DON’T

The thick and doughy Pizza bases you see in many a Restaurant or take-away are inauthentic. The reason they are prepared this way is because it is cheaper to satisfy the customer’s appetite with cumbersome and stodgy carbohydrates than high-quality meat and vegetables.

It is fair to say that a New-York style stuffed-crust does not facilitate the seductive arrangement of toppings like an authentic thin crust pizza does, or mirror the quality of seasonal Italian ingredients.

Authentic pizza is a nineteenth-century Neapolitan creation; it is rustic and simple. An authentic pizza is light, has a golden-brown base and topped with minimal number of flavours; no pineapple but tomato, olives, capers, fresh herbs and generous drizzles of Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The cheese toppings are frugal, no legions of cheap and processed mozzarella but freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano and Ricotta or buffalo-mozzarella.

Legend dictates that the most popular pizza, the ‘Margherita’, was invented in 1889, when the Royal Palace of Capodimonte commissioned the Neapolitan, Raffaele Esposito to produce a pizza in honour of the Queen, also called Margherita. Her favourite was supposedly the one that reflected the Italian tricolore with tomato for the red, basil for the green and mozzarella for the white.

As Pizza accounts for more than 10 percent of all food service sales, you have the means to choose well. Frequent restaurants that deliver great service and authentic grub. Honest, Italian pizza became the most popular food in the World, it’s the duty of the food-lover not to let the cheap excuse for cuisine take over!

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6: Perhaps Italian pick-up lines are cheesy, but the food is usually not

A corruption of authentic Italian cuisine is seen with the lashes of cheese sauce drowning innocent pizza and pasta, whether this be macaroni or lasagne.

Béchamel Sauce is a French invention, death by Monterey Jack an American. Granted, Italy has a trove of tempting cheeses from Dolce latté to Mascarpone, however none of them are melted down into a dairy magma that solidifies over unsuspecting dishes beneath. An authentic Italian Restaurant will not serve fondue-style cheese sauces with their meals and if they do, it will be a way to sell out, providing no longer a reflection of the Mediterranean. A sign you are in an authentic establishment during your travels is the presence of freshly grated cheese dressing your pizza and pasta. Italian food attempts to unify its flavors in an act of euphoric mastication; this is impossible with a sea of cheese bashing against the shore of seasonal fish, meat and fauna.

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Fun fact

If you’ve ever asked to eat ‘al fresco’, you’re actually inviting yourself to prison, not quite the trip you were expecting. The literal translation means ‘in the cool’ and it is understandable how that has come to be understood as eating outside. However, bear in mind that ‘outside’ is often warmer than indoors in Italy, especially with the fact that many houses come equipped with air-con. ‘Al fresco’ is thought to mean ‘in jail’ due to the fact that many Italian prisons had very thick walls, keeping a chilly temperature throughout. To impress a native Italian speaker during your holiday, ask to eat ‘fuori’ (outside) or “all’aperto” (in the open air).

Sophia Loren