The Fake Italian

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As a typical Italian, I need a fix of my childhood food on a regular basis. Even better if it comes with a proper setting, proper accents and proper faces.  That’s why every Wednesday  I meet with a fellow Italian-expat-who-married-out-of-the-tribe and we treat our pale, half-blooded children to a real pizzeria for lunch.

Everything looks right there: the staff speak with a southern Italian accent, they run around with more plates than any human being could keep on two arms and affectionately scold the kids when they become too loud. The pizza is the right balance of crisp and fluffy, the tomato sauce yummy and they happen to have very-close-to-the-real-thing cannoli, filled with sweet ricotta and topped with a tear of chocolate fudge.

I look forward to going there every week with the same enthusiasm and it’s become for the kids too a special moment of Italianness. “You know, papa – they tell their father – we go to this restaurant with mummy where everybody speaks Italian. You can’t come, though. It’s only for Italians like us”. 

Last Wednesday, unfortunately, they didn’t have a table for us, a merry little crowd needing buggy space close to the table. We waited a little bit, hoping for someone to ask the check and go but no one was moving. So we decided to take the offspring to the pizzeria next door, where we had never been before.

We had just closed the door behind us when something looked, sounded and smelled clearly wrong. We were welcomed by a woman with a Snow White-meets-Sophia-Loren look (chalk white skin, ultra-black hair and red lipstick) who at the sight of the three boys and the baby girl in the pushchair shrilled: “OOOOOOOH, ‘a famiiiiya” with an accent and intonation that reminded me more of a background actor in a third-class American movie than of an authentic southern mamma.

A look at the tables confirmed my worst doubts: little roses as centerpieces, fake-chic setting, even faker pictures of famous Italian places all around and not a single Italian among the patrons.

I looked at my friend hoping for her to read my mind, which was shouting: “RUN! I am not having fake pizzas!”. Luckily they didn’t have a highchair for the baby and we had the perfect excuse to get away. The counterfeited Sophia Loren proposed us even take away pizzas but no, no, we forgot something and have to go.

And then I thought of all the times I have been naively eating at a fake Japanese restaurant, run by smart Chinese who understood quickly that Europeans weren’t so keen anymore on greasy Peking duck.

How do you spot a fake Italian restaurant?

1. There are no Italians inside

2. If it looks too authentic to be true it probably is. (beware especially of too many Godfather’s references in the decor or on the walls)

3. If the owner greets you speaking Italian, he probably isn’t. (He would do so only to a known patron)

4. If the menu contains too many variations to the “spaghetti with meatballs” theme, run away.

5. If the decor looks more French than Italian (brocade tablecloths, stiff chairs, elaborated centerpieces) it’s never a good sign.

What are your tips to spot “fake” restaurants all over the world?

16 comments

  1. Tons of fake ‘Japanese’ restaurants all over the place. Staff speaking Chinese to each other, and most Europeans can’t tell the difference, though the two languages sound NOTHING like each other, they are about as similar as Swedish and French.

  2. Checkered tablecloths, pictures of La Dolce Vita or the Amalfi Coast on the walls, fake flowers on the tables and spaghetti with meatballs on the menu (or tons of spelling mistakes). That is all New Jersey Italian food. Mercifully, real Italian food has finally made its way all the way to the West Coast. And what is up with the garlic? Why do Italian restaurants abroad think grated garlic needs to be on everything?

  3. Dear Ms Ottominuti; I’m not so good at spotting a fake ethnic restaurant, but as at home I’m the cook ( very barracks style: “Good and plenty, sir”:-) ) I’m good enough at spotting a bad restaurant in itself. First, smell and trust your nose. If you smell a rat, probably there is. Second, stay clear from venues with the photoes of the plates on display. It seems strange, but it works. Last, if it is lunch time and there is a workshop in sight, follow the workers. Tried in Paris, with complete success. Enjoy!

  4. dear ottominuti, I agree 100% with the comment just above. as you know, in italy, if there are a lot of trucks parked outside a restaurant it means the food is good. tried in many places in europe too and it’s a “complete success”, as he/she just said.
    I’m a chef, so… trust your smell and sight when you visit a place. the first impression you get in, almost, never wrong.
    be sure you book your table next time you visit your favorite pizzeria as you don’t want to go wrong again, do you? as you’re a regular customer, they should be happy to reserve a nice spot for you.
    hope to see you soon in shanghai, to taste the real beijing duck – a real delicacy – made here in china and to see where the real fake (which doesn’t look like it) is.
    take care.

    1. Hi cris, what do you mean truck parked outside? What sort of trucks? What kind of chef are you in Shanghai? I’d love to have an authentic Peking duck one day, I might come by 🙂

      1. Dear Ms. Ottominuti, as an Italian, I believe I can answer your question. In ancient times, more or less till the Eighties, it was easy to spot a good family restaurant if in the parking lot you saw tir, Italian word for the big lorries that carry every sort of goods everywhere. There was also a guide named “Le trattorie del camionista”. Now is different,
        because truck drivers mostly use highways, with the relative not-so-good Autogrill, and have less time and less money to stop and eat. The trick is valid yet within the cities, where white or blue collars stillicidio enjoy lunch pause: you follow them and usually find a good venue. Nothing special, just a trattoria or a snack bar, but in mostly cases good bang for your buck.

  5. Love this! The key to me is always – is it good? A packed restaurant is always a good sign no matter the cuisine. 😉 Often the cheaper, the busier and the more modest the décor, the better!

    Sometimes I find it isn’t so much ‘fake’ as a new ‘avatar’ that takes a bit of both like Indian Chinese that is so clearly NOT really ‘Chinese’ (which is not one but many cuisines!) that I understand began in Kolkata and now can be found in China!

    I’m most amused by big chain fast food restaurants that quickly discover that Pizza Hut should be providing rice lunch boxes and Kentucky Fried Chicken must offer pork noodles!

    ‘Authentic’ to their original incarnation? Nope! Worthy of checking out? I leave that to you… The scariest thing for me in China was discovering that you could actually get a decent cheap wholesome meal at a 7-Eleven!?!

  6. I also follow the “no picture of the dishes on the menu” rule. And its comma: no multi-language menus on display.
    Of course it is not easy (just returned from Austria and I don’t speak any German), but surely rewarding!
    I disagree with the “cheap” suggestion. But this might be because in Holland there is no way you can find good food for a cheap price. That’s just the way the market is.

    About Italian restaurants, it is not always entirely true that Italian owner/staff is a sign of authentic food. I know of too many Italian-owned restaurants which serve terrible fake-Italian food/ “What Dutch expects Italian food to be”. I am afraid those owners simply integrated too much in the local culture and they care more about satisfying the local customers than serving good authentic food.
    Tricks which worked for me are to check if there is cream in the pasta alla carbonara and amaretto in the tiramisu’. If yes: run as fast as you can.

    1. Alas, Ms Lili, tiramisu is a sensitive topic also in Italy. Too often it comes out as a nightmare of stale savoiardi (should be authentic pan di Spagna) and cheap watery Nescafe. In my opinion, best version is the de-structurated version: big Martini glass with the cream and topping of dry biscuits like home made lingue di gatto. But perhaps things are getting better: Veneto civil governor wants it to become some sort of DOP in UE… Just live to see!
      And about cream (in Italian it is marketed as “panna da cucina”)… real cooks have a point in NEVER using it. By the way, pasta alla carbonara is quite simple and quick to prepare: in Italy is popularly called “cheating woman’s dish”, because it looks complicated, but a cheating woman, who is supposed to spend plenty of time elsewhere, can still prepare it in a few minutes and please hubby as she spent all the morning in the kitchen. So Italians are…

      1. I know how asking for the “original” tiramisu’ recipe can start never-ending discussions. Apparently not only there are regional variations, but you should always consider the countless versions of “my mum-grandma secret recipe”.

        I mentioned the Amaretto because, in my experience abroad, it is the liquer strongly associated with Italy and Italian cuisine. Foreign people have some wrong equation in their minds: Italian liquer goes in Italian recipe. I mean, I have been asked it is okay to add limoncello to tiramisu’ (because Limoncello is Italian liquer, so it should be used in Italian cuisine)! (which perhaps is perfectly fine if you do a fruity version of a tiramisu’, but then no Italian would really call that dessert a tiramisu’-am i wrong with that? 😀 )

        For sake of completeness, I use cognac or brandy (depending on what bottle is open at the moment).

  7. Dear Ms Lili, you have a talent for touching the most sensitive topics of Italian way of eating! In my personal opinion, the limoncello at the end does nothing to turn better a bad meal and a great deal to turn bad a good one, as mostly you are given – and charged for- cheap supermarket products. Worst is only, always in my personal opinion, the awful sgroppino. Let it down, and ask for a good espresso instead. Hi!

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