Skip to main content
Updated date:

The Shocking Truths About Italian Food Explained by an Italian

A dish of Italian tortelli with butter & sage

A dish of Italian tortelli with butter & sage

Think about Italy and one thing will surely come to your mind: food. Italian food always fascinates people from every part of the world. Pasta & pizza are among the most popular dishes one think about when talking about Italy, even if, of course, these represent only a small percentage of the vast food scenery in the country. Every Italian region has their own specialties and diversity is the word that best represents food in Italy: it’s the same for China, and in fact Italy may be considered the ‘China of Europe’, as both countries share the same love for food and the same variety among different regions. The fact that Italian food is so famous everywhere is surely good for our country, but also represents a risk, as many people end up eating dishes that they believe to be Italian, without knowing they don’t even exist in Italy. In alternative, they may be paying very much for the real value of what they are eating, just because some people are willing to pay a premium charged by some restaurants, believing Italian food to be so expensive, while at the fact they are not eating expensive dishes. In general, when something becomes so valued and appreciated, there is always somebody ready to exploit this, that’s why this article is going to give you an advice for when you are planning to eat Italian food in your country or even on a trip to Italy (yes, Italy features many of the so called ‘tourist traps’ you should be aware of).

Italian Restaurants Abroad Feature Many ‘Fake’ Dishes

This is not uncommon if you travel around the world: food from other countries always tends to be readapted to local tastes, sometimes ending with inventing completely new dishes that don’t even exist in the home country. We see this with Chinese food, as many people who go out for a Chinese dinner don’t even realize they are mostly eating Westernized dishes that have nothing to do with the real dishes you can find if you travel to China, otherwise, they may eat real Chinese dishes, but still made in a different way so that they are adapted to Western taste (for example, restaurants in China generally propose spicier dishes than those proposed in the Western countries).

Italian food is nothing different and share another destiny with Chinese food: it is completely adapted to other countries tastes. We see this with pizza, as pizza proposed by American chains of pizzerias are so different than Italian pizzas that we commonly refers to them by calling them ‘American pizzas’ and not simply ‘pizzas’. We see this with pasta, as you won’t find dishes like ‘Fettuccine Alfredo’ or ‘spaghetti with meatballs’, or - again - ‘pasta with chicken’ in a restaurant in Italy. We see this also with some cheeses that are sold in Italy and that are totally different in other countries (for example ‘mozzarella’, which is a fresh, white and soft cheese sold in ‘balls’ and that also features liquid, until you discover that in most supermarkets of the USA, ‘mozzarella‘ is a name used for a kind of dried cheese that has nothing to do with the Italian mozzarella). The reality is that, if you have ever eaten Italian food outside Italy, in most cases you would have eaten at least once in your life a dish that has nothing to do with Italy. That is not necessarily negative, as maybe that dish was good for the taste of the specific country in which you have eaten Italian food (and maybe for your taste too): it’s just a matter of being aware of this.

Small mozzarella balls served with tomatoes

Small mozzarella balls served with tomatoes

Mozzarella slices served with tomatoes

Mozzarella slices served with tomatoes

Italian Food Is Overpriced

This is a truth even some locals here in Italy refuse to accept. Italian food is, sometimes, overpriced. In the USA it is overpriced because of costs of importation. A buffalo milk mozzarella cheese in Italy would cost more or less $3.5, while in the USA the same mozzarella ball would cost $12 or more. Still, when the general opinion values something too much, that is an excuse to rise the prices. To make it more simple: if people are willing to pay a premium for Italian food, Italian food will be sold at a high price. As written before, this happens in the same Italy.

Let’s take in example a common restaurant you would be likely to find in a city centre of any Italian town. Here you would generally be charged just for sitting at the table: a tax known as ‘coperto’, which we could refer to as ‘cover charge’. If the restaurant in question is using tablecloth, the ‘coperto’ is justified in order to cover the costs of the laundry. Still, many restaurants apply this fee (that is hated also by most Italians), even if they use simple paper placemats, like those used in fast food restaurants. When you are charged with a ‘coperto’ and you are not given a tablecloth, some bread and maybe a welcome dish, you are simply paying a premium that will mostly end in a pure profit for the restaurant. In any case, a reasonable ‘coperto’ should not exceed €1.5/€2.

Another thing you should pay attention to when eating in a restaurant in Italy is the so called ‘distorted perception of value’ that is mostly applied to pasta dishes, for example. In Italy pasta is a primary asset and it is very cheap: you should be wondered and a little shocked when you see some pasta dishes in a restaurant menu sold at prices that can even touch $13-$15 for even small portions. This ‘premium price’ is accepted even in Italy and not only for special pasta recipes that involve the use of expensive ingredients, but also for apparently simple pasta recipes you could even easily make at home. How is this possible? The trick is very simple: just give the pasta dish a long name by remarking all the ingredients employed in a way that makes the customer believe these are expensive ingredients. So it is easy to propose a ‘pasta with vegetables’, that in any small eatery near universities or workplaces (eateries that are generally the best deal if you want to eat good food at a fair price) would be sold at a third the price you would pay in a premium restaurant, at a high price by simply calling it ‘pasta 100% Italian whole grain salted with biological zucchini - special selection of the garden‘. This is just an example of the way many premium restaurants make you believe you are eating something special and exclusive, while at the fact you are eating something very easy to make at home and with not much expensive ingredients.

A delicious pasta with tomatoes and eggplants served in an Italo-Chinese restaurant

A delicious pasta with tomatoes and eggplants served in an Italo-Chinese restaurant

If we add other well known psychological tricks premium restaurants apply in order to make you spend more, like using dim lighting everywhere (dim lighting leading to more food ordering because of the particular relaxed mood you are trying to replicate is not much different to putting high volume music in a shop in order to increase sales) or avoiding to write the currency symbol near the price on the menu (this may lighten the attention on the real price we are paying for a dish), here we come to the real reason why in many Italian restaurants you are overpaying for the food and silently accepting this with no problem (as written before, this happens with Italian people too). Of course pandemic doesn’t help and the high taxes we have in Italy contribute even more to the awareness that restaurants are paying a lot in order to run the business: still, the inflation of price it happens to see in some Italian restaurants is something to be aware of, especially if a pasta dish sold in an eatery near the university or a workplace, or again, in many Italian restaurants run by foreigners (in Italy it is not uncommon to even find Italo-Chinese restaurants, making two menus and with excellent Italian food too), costs much less than the same dish sold in a premium high level restaurant. If Italian restaurants used to cost less, also the profit the restaurant makes on the single customer would be lower (even if still more than enough to run the business): at the opposite, more people would eat more often at the restaurant and stop seeing this as an ‘expensive activity to do only in special occasions‘. In addition, some restaurants that decide to make excessive expenses in marketing and customized packages (it costs more than you may believe) in order to ’look cool at any cost’ may choose to cut these expenses and exploit this opportunity in order to lower prices of the dishes: at the end, if the same dish costs more in the restaurant that pretends to be cool and less in a restaurant that doesn’t bend itself to the logics of the modern excessive research of the appearance, why should I pay a premium in the first restaurant, when in the second I get quality food for a much lower price? It’s the same for products we buy at the supermarket: why should I pay a premium for the highly advertised product if the alternative product costs less and is maybe of better quality?

Pay Attention to Tourist Traps When Traveling to Italy

Even if my point of view is a little critic towards some Italian restaurants that make you pay a premium for what you eat, that point of view changes from ‘critic’ to ‘totally disgusted‘ if we come to restaurants that literally fool tourists by making them pay exaggerated prices, sometimes by even serving them frozen dishes. You should be especially aware if you decide to stop in a cafe or a restaurant located in a touristic area like the city center of a famous Italian city. If you enter a cafe, always pay attention to the written menu (if there’s not a written menu go away, as it is mandatory for public places in Italy to expose prices): does the cappuccino cost €1.4? If yes, that’s is the price you have to pay. So why some tourists end up being charged even €5 for a coffee or cappuccino? Because they are not aware they are being fooled. A good way to avoid these scams is surely to read Google Maps reviews before entering a place. With restaurants, this is even worse, as it may happen to pay €12-€18 for a frozen pizza in some city centers (while a good genuine - and not frozen - pizza in Italy can be generally eaten for €4 - €6) . Again, reading the reviews before entering will save you from being literally robbed by unlawful business owners that make profit on tourists that only want to enjoy their trip to a country they believe to be 100% beautiful and happy, only to find that we have also our problems and - first of all - people who dishonor Italian hospitality by robbing tourists or - even worse - insulting them in Italian language if they are even racists. Luckily, in the era of internet, reviews may save a tourist from a bad experience, still, not many are used to read them, that’s why unfair business owners are still robbing tourists every day.

© 2021 Alessio Ganci

Related Articles