The Hidden Secrets to Finding Ma & Pa Italian Restaurants

When deciding on a place to eat, I always go with my gut… Italian. However, sometimes it’s hard to find GOOD Italian food, especially in the States. There’s a time and place for a NY slice, but where can you find an authentic pizza Napoletana? Here are my top two secrets when searching for a culturally rich restaurant in the States…

My first secret is to read the menu. I don’t mean whether to order the bruschetta or the burrata, but I mean actually READ the menu. Check to see if the menu is written in Italian or English – always go for the Italian menu! If you need to Google something or ask the waiter a question, that’s okay! The description will usually be in English regardless. For example, never go for the “Sausage pasta,” it loses its class. Instead, look for (and order) the “Pappardelle alla Salsiccia” if you’re craving Tuscan cuisine. This same rule applies when dining in Italy. If the menu is translated in English, it’s most likely going to be a tourist attraction with higher prices and lower quality. The beauty of traveling is not only to see some of the most historical sights, but also experiencing the country’s pride and joy, their food.

If you do happen to come across an Italian restaurant with a menu in English, do a little more research. Some signs that it might be a good place to eat are if you hear others speaking the language or you recognize the dishes that others are eating. An authentic restaurant will never have burgers and fries, chicken tenders, etc on their menu. You also may want to consider the size of the restaurant. If it is a smaller restaurant with many customers dining in, that’s always a good sign. Try to avoid a large restaurant with many empty tables, despite the time of day. Some local restaurants have become so successful that they open a restaurant in another location. A growing company is a beautiful thing for the owner and is not something to be frowned upon! However, make sure the business is not too large. Olive Garden, for example, has a location in just about every city in the states. Try someplace new and support small!

Once you become familiar with a traditional Italian menu, recognizing the classic dishes will become natural. Appetizers such as garlic bread, flatbread, and caesar salad are far from traditional. Polpettine, arancini, or calamari are some examples of appetizers you should be seeking out, depending on the menu’s regional influence of course. This applies to the entire menu. Italians love fruit and chocolate for dessert. You will never find a key lime pie or anything red velvet on an Italian menu. Instead, look for something like cannoli, tiramisu, or a classic gelato.

My second secret is to search for La Carbonara, this dish usually reveals the restaurant’s true authenticity. If a Carbonara is featured on the menu and consists of anything but guanciale, grab your purse and run. Some restaurants may have a modern twist on a classic dish by adding a special element or unique flare, but it’s important to always stay true to tradition; not replacing any key ingredients. The type of pasta is just as important; Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Although there are many fun shapes of pasta, there is a specific purpose for each. Long pasta like spaghetti or bucatini pairs perfectly with a carbonara or cacio e pepe, whereas short pasta like penne or rigatoni pairs well with a ragu depending on the preparation. The type of pasta is important when pairing with a dish because of the texture of the pasta and how easily it will grip the flavor.

If America is truly a melting pot, we need to support the restaurants that fully respect Italian culture. Anything else gives a false representation of the heart of our culture, the food.

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