Why You Won’t Find Spaghetti & Meatballs in Rome

Spaghetti with meatballs is a staple dish in America made with spaghetti dressed with tomato sauce and meatballs. It is very popular in many other regions of the world as and commonly associated with Italian cuisine. For many people it is a real and authentic symbol of the Italian culture at the table, but that is actually a myth.

Spaghetti with meatballs dish doesn’t exist in Italy and if you go to an Italian restaurant in Italy and order a dish of spaghetti with meatballs, the waiter won’t understand you or he will laugh. So where does this dish come from? And why does the entire world think that this course is an Italian specialty?

The history of the Italian culture in the world helps us to understand the reason of this great misunderstanding. Spaghetti with meatballs was invented by Italian-Americans emigrated from Italy to the United States at the end of nineteen century. Most of these immigrants came from Southern Italy, in particular from Sicily, Calabria, Campania, Abruzzo and Molise, and they actually escaped from a situation of poorness and despair. Even though it seems absurd to most FlightsToRome.org readers nowadays, many people of Southern Italy once suffered from hunger pains. Many of them were obliged to move abroad to build a new life and live better. Because of their poorness and their suffering, they left Italy with “the dream of food”, because they longed to get something (in particular food) that they could not have in that period. The “dream of food” is an eloquent expression used by Massimo Montanari professor, in his “The meatball rest”, an essay about the Italian culture at the table and the history of food in the world.

After moving to the United States, the Italian immigrants started working as manufacturers in the large factories of the United States and many of them created new businesses. Most of these new businesses were dedicated to food. Many Italian immigrants – immigrated to the United States and Canada from 1780 to 1920 – opened pasta factories and workshops and they could nurture their “dream of food”.

Americans started cooking pasta dressed with red sauce (real symbol of the Mediterranean diet and of the Italian cuisine as well) and meatballs (because meat is the real symbol of the prosperity worldwide). In this way, they invented Spaghetti with meatballs at the end of nineteen century to achieve their dream of food. After many years of lesser fortune and suffering, they finally could eat what they had been longing for a long time. Though these immigrants were eating more meat than they had ever before, they were not buying luxury fillets. Meatballs were comforting and they were the perfect solution.

The immigrants transformed meatballs from golf ball size to baseball size and made them with more meat and less bread. But there is another reason why the Italian-Americans invented and continued making spaghetti with meatballs. When the Italian immigrants started selling canned tomato sauce (in the last years of nineteen century) they had a great success, but when they introduced canned meat sauce (also know as Bolognese sauce) made with minced meat, many American housewives could not understand the difference between the Italian traditional tomato sauce and the meat sauce (because meat was not evident in the red sauce), so they changed the real Italian tradition to adjust to the local perception and taste. The Bolognese sauce became meatballs.

So, you can still find Spaghetti with meatball dish in the Italian restaurants of the United States, but that is not a real Italian course. On the contrary, almost all FlightsToRome.org viewers who visit Italy report they cannot find this dish. You can eat the real Pasta with ragù sauce and learn something precious about the local culture, history and art, habits and cooking traditions however. Attending an Italian culinary school (that organizes culture and cooking classes as well) you can go beyond the common misconception and understand the real essence of the Italian culture.