10 ‘Italian’ Foods You Can Only Find in America

italian american food

If you ask me, Italian food is the best food in the world. Italian American food is right up, too. But, what’s the difference? We all have an idea of what to expect on an Italian menu in America, but you’d be surprised to learn that you won’t find your favorite chicken parmigiana (which I literally had for dinner last night) anywhere on a menu in Italy.

Wait, am I trying to say that your beloved nonna‘s Sunday gravy or the rainbow cookies from the pastry shop on the corner aren’t actually Italian food? Yes, and No.

Before you start trolling me in the comments below about insulting your grandmother’s cooking, let me explain. Our Italian grandparents and great-grandparents were most likely poor immigrants trying to make a life in America. While they brought their culture and recipes with them, they also used a new style of cooking: cucina povera. Using ingredients that were leftover, cheap or available, the first Italian Americans invented a new cuisine. While I would never argue that the Sunday gravy your grandmother made isn’t amazing, you might not find the same ragu, or sugo in Italy.

Here are some of my favorite Italians foods that you can only find in America:

1. Chicken (or veal) parmesan

Who doesn’t love a good chicken parm sandwich? But, don’t expect to order anything of the parmigiana variety in Italy except for eggplant. Eggplant parm originated in Sicily and Italian Americans modified it to include heartier ingredients like chicken, veal, and meatballs.

2. Garlic bread

italian american food

Garlic bread as we know it in America is soooo good. But, it’s not a thing in Italy. Try ordering bruschetta (that’s with a hard ‘C’ sound).

Related: 5 Free Ways to Practice Italian Online for Free

3. Italian dressing

Your salads in Italy will come after the meal and are served with olive oil and vinegar.

4. Rainbow Cookies

Rainbow cookies (or the layered cookies you’ll find at Italian pastry shops) are so good. You won’t find them alongside cannoli or biscotti in Italy, though. They were invented in the early 1900’s in America to pay tribute to their homeland.

5. Fettuccine Alfredo

This still remains one of my favorite foods from childhood, but the sauce that we all adore is actually  American. In Italy, ‘Alfredo; is just a first name, but you can find a better and similar version of the dish there called fettuccine al burro.

6. Marinara Sauce

The red sauce we all make on a regular basis can be considered American ‘marinara sauce’, consisting of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and herbs. In Italy, though, marinara usually means a shellfish sauce. Try ordering pasta al pomodoro or penne all’arrabbiata for a similar taste of American marinara in Italy.

7. Shrimp Scampi

Italian Amerian Food

If you swap the shrimp with langoustines (a small crustacean, the Italian name of which is actually scampi) then you have the original dish. Still a staple of my diet, though!

8. Caesar salad

This salad was invented in Mexico by someone named Caesar. I love this salad and if I’m feeling the effects of a long night of drinking, I order it with chicken fingers on top! Alas, it’s not Italian. Or even American!

9. Pepperoni pizza

Pizza, in it’s earliest form, came from Naples. Today pizza in Italy and pizza in America look very different. Pizza in Italy is less cheesy and has fewer ingredients—often only one or two just for flavor. Common ingredients on pizza in Italy include anchovies, sausage, corn, prosciutto, olives etc.

Pepperoni pizza as we know it in America doesn’t really exist in Italy—at least not by that name. Peperoni, with one ‘p’, actually refers to peppers. While you can get some kind of salami on your pizza, you can’t really find the bright red, dried, thinly sliced meat there. My recommendation? Order prosciutto!

10. Spaghetti and meatballs

italian american food

This is probably one of the most famous examples of Italian American food, and I don’t feel an ounce of guilt for loving it. The famous dish is a perfect example of the effect povera cucina had on Italian cuisine in America. There’s a great scene in one of my favorite movies about the clash of Italian and Italian American food featuring spaghetti and meatballs. Definitely check out Big Night on Amazon if you love a good laugh and love movies about food.

The title of this post is misleading. You can probably find all of these dishes in Italy somewhere or other, but they came to Italy from America. Restaurants that serve these items are catering to tourists and spotting these dishes on the menu is a sure indication that you should find somewhere else to eat!


So, what other ‘Italian’ foods did you grow up with that you later learned aren’t Italian at all? Let me know in the comments below! 

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  1. HAH I love this! This is so true. Also, I think this is part of the reason why people think of Italian food as heavy. Italian American food you find in restaurants here tend to be over salted and over seasoned – it’s actually fresh and light when you’re having the real thing!

    1. Adina, you’re so right! I’ve never had a real italian meal and felt bloated or tired after eating it, but one visit to my local “Papa Franks” and I can’t even move. Italian food isn’t heavy!

  2. It is always interesting and fun to see how the perception of Italian food plays out in the States.
    I frequently recall with some amusement the mortified face of my American friends/acquaintances, about to travel to Italy, when I disclose the devastating information that Alfredo sauce is not Italian!!

    If you want to have some more fun about “comparative cuisine” analysis, do not miss this hilarious, quite-to the-point blog http://www.disgracesonthemenu.com/# , from an Italian engineer long based in Vancouver, Canada.
    Some of the examples there really are exhilarating.

  3. Dario, thanks for sharing that link. it’s too funny! Love both Italian and Italian American food, but definitely wish the ‘Italian food’ in America wasn’t so heavy.

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