Why Italian Food in Europe (Outside of Italy) Really Sucks

Italian food, when served anywhere outside of Italy (and sometimes even in Italy) generally sucks. And here’s why.

As a native of New York City, I’m particular about my Italian food – not that I could tell the difference between “Northern” and “Southern” Italian cuisine as a kid – but because the Italian food I grew up with was delicious and filling, and can’t really be matched outside of New York.

Oh, and New York pizza dough is the best in the world. Period. (Hint: It’s the water.)

Despite the title of this post, Italian food in America also admittedly sucks the moment you’re away from an Italian neighborhood. Nobody really knows what Italian food is, so most people are happy being served dough soaked with Ragu or ketchup (so as long as there’s garlic sticks!). My first time eating pizza in the American South was a shock: square slices of dough with ketchup and Polly-O string cheese on it.

So why does Italian food in Europe (outside of Italy) generally suck? It’s Europe, right?

European Italian food is just bad. In fact, European pizza anywhere outside of Italy is only marginally better than the squares of dough mentioned above. It’s generally sucks for the same reason they serve square dough in Missouri and call it “pizza”. I guess there’s an added disappointment since we tend to put European cuisine because it’s Europe.

The Average Joe across the European continent gets his pizza from a family-owned take-out place. (And not from an Italian family either.) Usually the “Italian” menu will be alongside the ethnic food of the respective take-out owners (Chinese, Indonesian, Turkish, or whatever). In general, their “Italian food” is only good if you’re drunk, hung over, or starving. The Italian menu at any of these places normally goes as follows:

Pizza Margherita – a plain, 10-14″ diameter, thin crust pie

Pizza Salami – with salty, thin slices of salami

Pizza Quattro Formaggi – with four styles of really salty cheese

Pizza Funghi (or al Funghi) – with bits of mushrooms

Pizza Hawaii – bits of really salty ham and chunks of canned pineapple

Pizza Diavolo (or possibly Pizza Peperoni) – with bits of pepper that are supposed to be spicy (but never are)

Pizza Vegetarisch/Végétarienne/etc. – self-explanatory (name changes depending on which country the take-out place is located)

Generally, the further West you go (into France) the more oily these pizzas get, and the further East you go (Czech, Slovakia, etc.), the more likely you’ll encounter peas, corn, and carrot cubes on the soggy slice of Scheisse the indifferent staff tosses at you.

To give you an idea about how bad the crust can be, when I lived in Munich, Germany, all these take-out joints had giant sacks of “just add water” pizza dough mix, all delivered by the same delivery truck. With the exception of two (possibly three) restaurants, every single place in Munich used this same instant foot powder.

So having dared eat Italian food four times in Europe in the past 14 months, I can say two of them were consistent with my above description: a late night drunken pizza run in Clapham Junction just south of London and an ill-advised stop for Pizza “mit allem” near Düsseldorf, Germany. But, the other two were really very good – and both of them were in The Netherlands.

Now, most Italian food in the Netherlands normally fits right in with the above menu selection. (What’s worse, the “Chinese” food in the Netherlands is more awful – usually bland bami noodles with Ketchup or possibly rice with sweet soy sauce – if you’re lucky).

Dokkum, Friesland – Paisan on Board

I was up in Friesland for a weekend last Summer with my girlfriend and some friends taking part in some ridiculous Frisian past-time called waddenlopen. Now, Friesland is a very independent place, and the Frisians are the butt of a lot of jokes in the Netherlands (almost as much as the Belgians) – perhaps rightfully so. The first time I saw a bunch of Frisian farmers in the wild, I thought they were the cast of a gay porn movie: they all wore skin-tight jeans, blow dried mullets, and the worst porno balconies you’ve ever seen.

But that’s “masculine” in Friesland, apparently.

A further indication of Frisian wackiness is waddenlopen, a sport which involves hiking knee-deep through the muck of North Sea tidal flats. This is supposed to be fun. While it was interesting at times, cutting your feet up on broken mussel shells does not fit my traditional definition of “fun”. (We were promised that we would see seals, and I might have seen one, although it simply might have been a huge whale turd.)

The villages in Friesland are very charming, and Dokkum was among the most charming. When looking for a place to eat, we found a small Italian place in the village center. I didn’t want to go in at first, but it was the only place with unreserved seats on a Saturday night.

The menu was actually pretty promising, and more telling, they didn’t bat an eye when we ordered pizzas and pasta as appetizers, and meat and fish as main courses. A buddy in our group was half-Italian, and we nodded to each other in agreement as we tried the pizzas (not too salty, and decent crust), the pasta (nice red sauce, clearly home-made, and the veal (simply delicious). He declared outright “this is the best Italian meal I’ve had in the Netherlands, no in Europe outside of Italy”.

“Not that it’s up against any stiff competition,” I quipped.

“Seriously,” he replied. “I bet there’s a paisan working back there. I’d guarantee it.”

Sure enough, we looked past the bar to the kitchen just as the doors swung open. For a fraction of a second, we saw the portly, dusky fellow with a bushy black mustache so huge you could hide in it. When the 5’11” blonde waitress came back, we asked her if the chef was Italian. She nodded happily, yes, her dad was Italian.

Her dad?

Yes, she nodded again happily. Her Mom, the hostess came out. She was easily 6’2″, with that even, brown sunbed tan and subsequent dried-out skin typical of many middle-aged Dutch women. Her hostess attire was capped off with pink lip gloss and the perennial bottle-blond locks piled up on top of her giant noggin.

After we finished dinner, her hubby the chef came out to receive our kudos – he was a full foot-and-a-half shorter than his ball-and-chain. The story was one I’d heard a gazillion times before:

Northern European girl goes to Mediterranean with family on vacation, and has Summer romance with smooth talking, sawed-off local boy. The story usually ends when the girl suffers heart break after her Summer crush chooses for his local sweetheart with the ample hips and a mustache of her own. This guy chose otherwise, and hit the lottery by banishing himself to the backwater of Friesland to run a real Italian restaurant.

And they lived happily every after.

Amsterdam – Get Your Black On

The place was called Mappa. Mappa is right across the street (alley, whatever) from the Nes Theater where last week we went to see Lewis Black.

Now, I did not have high expectations of this place. It was definitely “trendy”: any man over 35 was shaved bald and wore funky eyeglasses, or had long hair (thick with gel) and had girlfriend half his age.

And there were loads of people dressed in black. Loads of them.

We took my girlfriend’s parents there. Her folks were all set to order a pizza, so imagine their surprise when there was not one pizza on the menu. They were so disoriented, I almost felt bad for them. Forced to expand their horizons, they took the chef’s special, which included decent cuts of beef cooked rare and juicy, served with grilled white asparagus and roasted potatoes garnished with fried garlic and other herbs. My girlfriend had outstanding veggie lasagna, and I had pasta shells stuffed with scampi and garlic.

In a word: awesome. I’ll never be able to beat that in Amsterdam unless I order a pizza al funghi speziali at a coffee shop.



Filed under Amsterdam, Cuisine, Europe, Food, humor, Italy, Netherlands, New York, Travel, Writing

12 responses to “Why Italian Food in Europe (Outside of Italy) Really Sucks

  1. rita

    Is “pizza” the only thing you eat? you should have eaten the “rijs tafel” or a pannen koek, or poffertjes. There is a lot of different food besides the same old same old. It sounds like a Mc donald story to me.

  2. LOL! What’s wrong with a giant Coke from Mickey D’s? I’m no fan, the golden arches is pretty much the only place in Europe you can get served more than two table spoons of soda (with ICE) for less than 5 Euro within 90 minutes. But what kills me is the only notable Dutch food you could come up as a retort was poffertjes? LMAO. Mini-freaking pancakes? What about those other Dutch culinary delights like frikandel (aka, “dried mule penis”), stamppot (“pea soup gruel”), and HEMA Worst (“big hot dogs”). If you read my previous post (“Travelling 3,000 Miles from Asia for Asian Food…”) you’d know that I’ve had rijsttafel numerous times, and I love it. Face it, those immigrants that you’re unwilling/unable to integrate are the only reason food in NL is tolerable at all. (Okay, krokets rock, but how’s that fried stuff any different from McDonald’s?)

  3. Pingback: Border Crossing Stats » Why Italian Food in Europe (Outside of Italy) Really Sucks The …

  4. nunya

    thats funny because If I went to germany,I would probably eat german food.It’s ok to be angry about pizza,we all have to stand for something, but asking for true italian food outside of italy is like asking a jap to make good swedish meatballs.

  5. Jake

    Maybe Italian food used to be good many years ago, but i have lived in Italy for 2 years, and I am very disappointed. It lacks any real flavor, and I feel that they are very lazy and take short cuts, and use cheap ingredients. Plus the service in most restaurants is horrific. They act like you should be privedled to eat their food, they try to take advantage of anyone who is not italian. But even when I go out with Italians they get food that is horrible.. What’s worse is they think it tastes good. I just don’t get it. I had much better food in London which is known for having bad food.

  6. Anonymous

    I am living and working in Italy for 2 years as a foreigner and my experience with Italian food has been ranging from terrible to mediocre. Honestly I have not experienced an outstanding or spectacular cuisine that Italians claim their cuisine to be. In addition, I am trying to eat in stylish, good looking above average expensive restaurants to make sure at least I am getting some decent service. But I must confess, the service quality is really terrible, the restaurants have extremely limited choices of food. The entire cuisine is very monotone, basically a variation of pasta each time and Italians in fact think that when the shape of the past a changes you eat an entirely different thing. The pizza experience is primarily a hit and miss. I ended up getting soggy dough with way too much tomato sauce, uncooked crust several times in different cities like Milan, Florence, Venice, Bologna and even in Naples, which should be the capital of Italian pizza.

    Surprisingly for example, there is no soup choices in the menus. I could only see that in restaurants in Naples, which was very surprising. Italians are known to have good soups but all I could find was faggioli bean soup, broth with tortellini in the menus, occasionally minestrone. This is I think really the weakness.

    Only thing I found tobe wort eating is the seafood dishes, frutti di mare pasta or risotto, anti pastis made of sea food.

    The meat dishes I think were way too greasy especially when combined with melted cheese in lasagna type dishes. They use too much prosciutto or pork, not much variety with lamb, beef or even chicken. The way they cook vegetables was also not very creative. They only grill them or steam them. However if you compare other Mediterranean cuisines like Turkish, greek, lebanese, there are so many different ways basic vegetables are cooked with variety of spices. I found Italian vegetable dishes were also very dull and lack the spices.

    However I have thumbs up for their deserts such as gelato, cakes. The cookies however all tasted the same, despite their attractive shapes.

    Overall, I would give 6 at best 7 out of 10 for Italian cuisine. I would give 4 out of 10 for service quality. The restaurants are really expensive, portions are very small and the staff is not very accommodative to customer needs. Their operating hours are extremely inconvenient. All restaurants refuse to serve between 3-7:30.

  7. roque iacovino

    you should try argentinian food. The food from buenos aires, is basically italian food. Argentinian are sons and grandsons of (DONT!! LOL) italian people. thats why our names are like mine.

  8. Ben

    As an American who grew up in New York (and who loves pizza), I’m kind of surprised that there’s this preconception that Italian food is supposed to be good.

    Is that an American preconception (like Dutch people and wooden shoes)?

    Quite a few people I know have traveled and/or lived in Europe (and Italy in particular), and I’ve heard a couple things about the food:

    * London and most of Ireland have almost inedible food. Stick to a strict beer diet and you’ll be fine.
    * Italian food is “nothing” like American food – it’s more “vegetarian”, with sparse meat or cheese. (I can only presume that’s because they went to the wrong part of Italy?)
    * If you go to Germany, you MUST have the sausage!
    * French pastries are “to die for”.

    I suspect the reason most Italian food is “meh” is because the American Italian food is, well, American. The good Italians left Italy, and many of the ones who brought their cuisine were Sicilian. Being as Sicilian cuisine has more foods in it which can be produced in northern North America and already had a large number of Germans, Englishmen, Irishmen, etc. (who like meat, cheese, and bread heavy dishes, naturally), it was a natural fit.

    Otherwise: I can’t see why you’d expect to find good Italian food outside where you’re supposed to find it. You wouldn’t go to Burger King and order a Big Mac anymore than you should expect good (or even authentic) Italian food outside Italia.

    Unless, of course, it’s in New York or a New Yorker’s restaurant. 🙂

    As for New York pizza being the best? Yes; yes, it is. But it’s not the water – it’s the cheese and marinara. 😀

  9. Connaisseur

    Pizza? Europe? Food? An American’s view on international cuisine. What a joke. As far as pizza goes, you obviously have no clue where to look for “close to Napoli quality” pizza in Europe. In particular the more cosmopolitan areas of Europe, where the choices of qualitatively prepared authentic cuisines from all around the world are represented 5-1 compared to the United States of Cholesterol.

    I know at least 10 (real: 1st generation who came to NL in the 60’ies) Italian family run pizza restaurants in Amsterdam serving superb thin traditional dough classic wood oven pizza’s with imported buffalo mozzarella, parmezan, fresh romano tomato, that taste twice as good than most top X “Zagat” ranked NY “wannabe orginal Italian” pizza’s. Bleecker St comes close but 1 place in 17 million population city? Come on…

    Anyway, you talk about Pizza representing the face of Italian food… That’s perhaps the reality in the US and in American-Italian families but these people mostly have no clue what Italy is about. “Get your double portion of Lanza’s Meatballs with great Marinara Sauce and fresh (?) grated Parmazeano cheese…… LOL

  10. Connaisseur

    Friesland and fashion? Even been to Alabama? Idiot.

  11. Connaisseur

    Sounds like NYC is the perfect place for you. Europe is an awful place. Just forget it and let us worry about 5 to10 weeks vacation per year, weekend trips to Barcelona, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris, Porto, Switzerland, Sicily, Madeira, Ibiza, Munich, Milan and all the other crappy places with horrible food, fashion, farmers and middle-aged Dutch women.

  12. finally someone with some brain, in this conversation of american ignorance and nonsense… American complaining about proper food outside they close minded country… the reason is that all the junk food (not only talking about Mc DOnalds and fast food here..) they had through their whole life, brainwashed them… therefore they cannot eat proper food anymore… Bad food in italy… lool… heresy… if u one of those stupid retard tourist going in shitty rip-off restaurants, its not our fault… Italo american food plainly sucks (even from the so called best restaurants…) tomato sauce that is pure oil and grease… chewy pizza doughs that will turn u constipated in a bite… lol… guys start opening ur minds, and closing ur ignorance hole 4 a while… just keep on eating ur junk pls.. u dont deserve better food…

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