I am Italian, but I have lived in Birmingham for two years, so I sometimes crave a good pizza. I will not write reviews of the various places I found, but I want to help you understand what you will not find in an Italian restaurant unless it is just to make customers happy.
You won’t be surprised that we don’t have pizza with pineapples, but there are other ingredients we don’t have on pizzas. But pizza with pepperoni is not what you think. Peperoni (with a single p) in Italian means “bell peppers”, not sausages, and what you call pepperoni pizza is just “pizza con salsiccia” (pizza with sausages).
We don’t put chicken or sweetcorn on a pizza with no brown sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise or garlic sauce. The list can go on and on, but you are not going to find a pizza with 10 kinds of meat or vegetables. Keep it simple! I almost forgot: it is possible to have a seafood pizza. One of my favourite pizzas is with buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and basil – it’s simple but delicious, especially if cooked in a wood-fired oven.
Let’s pass to pasta – here, there are tons of non-written rules and considerations.
Pasta with meatballs doesn’t exist in Italy: it’s an Italo-American recipe.
Pasta Alfredo needs an introduction: at first, I thought that it was another Italo-American recipe, but then I checked the ingredients – butter and parmesan. It’s our “I don’t want to cook because I’m tired” kind of pasta. It is something that every Italian had, but not in a restaurant. To give you the idea, it would be like you go to the restaurant to order Spam. Even pasta aglio, olio, and peperoncino (garlic, oil and chilli) is something you don’t ask for in a restaurant. If you see it on the menu, it’s usually really overpriced, as the ingredients cost maybe £0.30 and require around 20 minutes to be ready.
The recipe is easy: put the water for your pasta to boil, and when it does, add salt and your pasta, and simmer until it’s cooked. Heat enough olive oil in a pan, and when it’s a bit hot, add a clove of garlic, cut in half and fry it and some flaked chilli. Pay attention the garlic doesn’t burn, or your pasta will not be good. Drain the pasta (but take away some of the cooking water in case you need some because it’s too dry), put it in the pan and stir for 30 seconds. Put it in your dish and add cheese on the top.
The ingredients we don’t put in the pasta are the same as in the pizza, but there is something else not to do: no cheese on a fish condiment. Some do it even in Italy, but I strongly suspect they don’t like fish and want to cover its taste with cheese. Bolognese sauce doesn’t include any kind of mushrooms in the original recipe, and we never put the sauces just on top of the pasta: we mix it before bringing it to the table.
When I arrived in the UK, I was puzzled in the supermarket when I saw “Italian garlic bread” as I had never heard about it. There is bread with garlic, but it is entirely different: it’s a bruschetta (pronunciation brusˈketta).
If you want to try it, put slices of sourdough bread in the oven at 150 degrees celsius for something like 20 minutes and, when it’s crunchy, rub a clove of garlic on the bread, drizzle with oil and add the condiments. Just to give you some ideas, one can be with diced mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, salt and oregano, or roasted aubergines and feta cheese, or with pesto and tomatoes. There is an extensive variety of combinations, and you can think about your personal one.
Last thing: risotto. I wanted to include it just because once I went to a restaurant that was supposed to be Italian. Still, I was really disappointed – the risotto was supposed to be with artichokes and something else that at the moment I don’t remember. It was just boiled rice mixed with the condiment, and the artichokes were not fresh but from a tin (believe me, it’s not the same).
For those who don’t know, the secret to a creamy risotto is starch. The rice is not washed, but it is not just that. Put the oil (and/or butter) in the pan, do the soffritto, add the ingredients for the kind of risotto you want to make and before it’s thoroughly cooked, add the rice and slightly toast it. Then slowly add a bit of vegetable, chicken or fish stock (depending on what you want to do) and stir, stir and stir, continuing to add the stock little by little. The stirring is the other secret for a creamy risotto. The butter can make it even smoother, but it is mainly about the starch of the rice.
Last, a little suggestion: everybody thinks that we mainly use Parmigiano as grated cheese, but I am sure we use more Grana Padano. It has a slightly different taste, but I don’t notice much difference, and it costs less!
It is not a bad thing if you have garlic bread or spaghetti with meatballs. Still, if you go to a traditional Italian restaurant in Italy, you won’t find these unless it is a very touristic place where the owners adapt their menus. Here in the UK, it is more common to see those adaptations to appeal to British palates.
Thank you for reading, and may the appetite be with you!