Mary Ann's Blog

Fake Italian Food

It is tough to know these days what is real and what isn’t. We are bombarded with messaging that may or may not be true and so it is with what is real when it comes to Italian food products that we use most frequently. At the top of the list is cheese; specifically what is called parmesan but what the Italians refer to Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Parmigiano-Reggiano:  it is sold to order cut into wedges and the pin dots on the rind spelling out the words Parmigiano-Reggiano tell you that you are purchasing the real thing; this cheese never comes in a shaker box.

Tomato Paste: Look for 100% tomato paste from Italy made from San Marzano tomatoes. So many imitation ones use leftover tomato skins and additives to make “tomato paste.”Mutti is a good brand to consider.

Olive Oil: A huge conundrum for most people because even if the bottle says product of Italy that could mean that the olives are a mix coming from other countries but processed into oil on Italian ships in Italian waters.  Look instead for small producer labels that tell you the oil is coming form a specific region of Italy.

San Marzano DOP Canned Tomatoes: These plum tomatoes can only be grown in and around San Marzano and carry the DOP designation  (denominazione origine protetta) meaning the product is guaranteed to come from a specific area and meets certain growing criteria. These tomatoes are low acid, pulpy and are never sold pureed, minced or diced but always whole. So if the can you are purchasing says San Marzano without the DOP designation and the seal of the EU, it is just a strain of plum tomatoes.

Pine Nuts from the stone pine tree of Italy are creamy, not dry like those coming from China often passed off as Italian pine nuts.

Dry Pasta brands are all over the place; look for those that are made in Italy with 100% semolina flour. Those made with enriched flour are not the same. The best dry pastas are extruded through bronze dies, leaving the surface of the pasta rough, not shiny. That roughness is critical to how the sauce attaches itself to the pasta; slippery, non extruded pastas are slippery and shiny and most sauce falls to the bottom of the bowl. Whereas sauce clings very well to die extruded pasta.


  1. Janice Blaufox's avatar

    Janice Blaufox

    You always teach me something new. That is hard to do because all of my family came from Italy and I was taught a lot in their kitchens.
  2. Susan's avatar


    Thank you! I never knew about die extruded pasta, and why sauces adhere better to them.
  3. Sue Hofer's avatar

    Sue Hofer

    Thanks so much Mary Ann! You have the best cooking show on tv! You teach us so much and show us your great adventures in Italy, too!
  4. Joe's avatar


    Commercially produced pasta brand recommendation?
  5. Mary's avatar


    Thanks so much never new that about olive oil and tomato.
  6. Barry's avatar


    I am a bit confused. You say use paste that uses San Marzano tomatoes and that Mutti is good. But Mutti doesn't say it contains San Marzano tomatoes and, in fact, has in big letters on it's cans that say its location, Parma. Parma is not anywhere near the San Marzano region, which is near Napoli.

    I have never seen paste labeled San Marzano or D.O.P. and would love to get some. Perhaps this kind of labeling for paste doesn't exist?
  7. Flavius Q. Zook's avatar

    Flavius Q. Zook

    There is an excellent book on the subject of foods that are presented to the consumer as being something they are not. The book is entitled "Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating and What You Can Do about It" and the author is Larry Olmsted. It is a very interesting and readable book and I found the chapter about so-called "parmesan" cheese as marketed in the USA to be shocking. Olmstead's description of how real Parmesan is produced in the Parma region of Italy fascinating. I would highly recommend the book to anyone who cares that they food they purchase is the genuine article.

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