Myth Busters

by Danilo Brunetti

Wondering why you can’t find chicken parm on the menu? Alexandra Bruzzese detangles Italian cuisine from
its ashier Italian-American cousin.

In Italy, Alfredo is a name, not a pasta dish. While many Americans arrive in the bel paese with a checklist of must try dishes they’ve indulged in at home, the startling truth is that the majority of these popular recipes aren’t authentically Italian, but rather Italian-American. The evolution of the latter can be chalked up to immigration in the late-19th to early-20th centuries. Italian newcomers to American cities suddenly found themselves purchasing food instead of growing it; meat also became far more available than it ever had been back home. Slowly, a shift towards a cheesier, meatier, saucier cuisine unfolded, a far cry from its ascendants. Read on to find out which dishes you won’t find here and what to eat instead.

Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe by Felice a Testaccio

A titan of Italian-American cuisine, Alfredo typically consists of fettuccine pasta drenched in a heavy cream sauce. In Italy, you’ll only find this version in tourist traps where it’s unceremoniously tossed into the microwave. INSTEAD, ORDER…
Roman trattoria Alfredo alla Scrofa (Via della Scrofa, 104a) proposes its own take on the international favorite, a buttery parmesan-laden triumph that’s prepared table- side. Or, if you’re all about the American recipe’s unapologetic, cheesy richness, opt for uber-Roman cacio e pepe: tonnarelli pasta slung with heaps of pecorino cheese and black pepper. Try it at Felice in the Testaccio neighborhood (Via Mastro Giorgio, 29) or at your nearest trattoria.

Well, you will, but it’s not the meat lover’s treat you’re expecting: in Italian, peperoni translates to bell peppers. Some theorize that the Italian word peperoncino (hot pepper) eventually became synonymous with the spicy sausage found in the US, maturing into the current term “pepperoni”. Bottomline: pepperoni pizza in the Eternal City will be a disappointing dinner if you’re jonesing for the carnivorous classic.
Pizza with salame piccante, or spicy sausage, sometimes billed as pizza alla diavola. Try it Roman-style, baked to a shattering crisp, at Da Remo (Piazza di Santa Maria Liberatrice, 44), Emma (Via Monte della Farina 28/29), or, if you’re willing to stray from the center, Pizzeria 180g in the Centocelle district ( Via Tor de’ Schiavi, 53).

Da Remo

Spaghetti topped with a tumble of meatballs reigns as the godfather of home-style Italian-American cuisine. In Rome, however, the two ingredients rarely cross paths, with spaghetti commonly ordered as a first course followed by a second course of polpette (meatballs) in tomato sauce. If Lady and the Tramp were Italians, they might never have gotten together.
For a dreamy combination of carne and carbs, seek out a classic of Italian repertoire such as baked lasagna in meat sauce at Roman institution Angelino ai Fori (Largo Corrado Ricci, 40). Another meaty option is rigatoni with braised oxtail (coda alla vaccinara), one of the hallowed dishes of Rome’s culinary pantheon. Checchino dal 1887 (Via di Monte Testaccio, 30) makes a mean one.

Rigatoni with braised oxtail

This cherished Italian-American icon, a breaded and fried chicken cutlet smothered in tomato sauce, mozzarella, and Parmesan cheese, occasionally served on a bed of spaghetti, is conspicuously absent from menus in Italy.
Eggplant parmesan, most likely the original ancestor of chicken parm. Hailing from the South, this dish cushions thin slices of mozzarella with piquant tomato sauce and oozy mozzarella, dusted with a generous layer of parmigiano. Try a delectable one at Il Falchetto near Via del Corso (Via di Montecatini, 12).