“Italian” Dressing?

italian dressing

Italian dressing. Obviously you can’t find such a thing in Italy, exactly like you’ll hardly find anything called “Chinese food” in China. But it isn’t just the name that doesn’t exist, Italians don’t even know the concept of a (premixed) dressing that you can buy in a store.

The main reason why Italians don’t buy any bottled dressing is that there is only one really popular salad dressing – a simple mix of oil and vinegar, plus salt. Now, oil and vinegar don’t actually mix… and that is probably another reason why there is no “Italian dressing” in a bottle: it would look gross!

So, how does mixing of oil and vinegar work? They are applied separately; it’s recommended that vinegar and salt go on first (salt dissolves in vinegar, and doesn’t in oil – some people even premix salt and vinegar in a tablespoon before adding it to the salad), then after a quick toss olive oil is added on, just enough to lightly coat the greens and enhance their flavor.

Now, what kind of oil and vinegar? A light olive oil (e.g. a delicate extra-virgin from Tuscany or Liguria, or a less flavorful non extra-virgin olive oil) is generally preferred on delicate greens (such as lettuce). Vegetable oils can also be used. For stronger greens (such as arugula) a fruity and aromatic extra-virgin is instead recommended. As for the vinegar, regular red wine or white wine vinegars are the most common, but balsamic vinegar is becoming more and more popular. Balsamic vinegar originates in the regions surrounding the cities of Modena and Reggio Emilia. It’s now also made elsewhere, but the one produced in Modena and Reggio Emilia is certified as Protected Designation of Origin, and guaranteed to be made using traditional methods. As an alternative to vinegar, lemon or other citrus can be used to add acidity.

Instead of bottled dressing, households always have oil, vinegar, salt and pepper on the table as, generally speaking, people prefer to dress their own salad themselves. The same goes for restaurants and cafeterias – oil and vinegar are brought to the table whenever a salad is ordered and the waiters never ask what kind of dressing the customer would like.

Typical leafy greens used in Italian salads are lettuce and its variants (Romain, lamb’s lettuce or ‘soncino’), endive, spinach, arugula (a.k.a. rocket), radicchio , chicory, cabbage. Other vegetables commonly used are sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers (with optional onions), fennel, any kinds of cooked and chilled beans, chilled boiled potatoes and green beans.

Italians love their salads, but they normally have them only as a side to the second course (which is normally meat or fish), or at most as an appetizer. Unlike in North America, salad is never served as a side to a pasta or rice dish. Lately, “big salads” (‘insalatone’) have become a popular lunch choice, they usually have some leafy greens with a combination or all of the following: corn, canned tuna, hard-boiled egg slices, ham, cheese dices (e.g. Fontina or Swiss). Big salads’ dressing is normally the usual oil and vinegar, or just oil.

There is absolutely no Caesar salad in Italy.

10 thoughts on ““Italian” Dressing?”

  1. I always thought the vinegar and oil on the table in restaurants in Italy were for dipping your bread into. In Canada, most Italian restaurants bring a plate of vinegar swimming in oil, along with a basket of bread, to your table as a free appetizer, or you can order it off the menu. Is this common in Italy too?

  2. Candicus: I can't personally remember of a restaurant doing that in Italy but I don't think it's despicable. Part of it could be (but I'm guessing here) that good bread, oil and vinegar are common in Italy, so restaurants won't be consider serving that as something particularly fancy. Oil and vinegar are most commonly used as dressings. They are very common at restaurant tables but I have to say, in really excellent ones you won't usually find them, as you're not supposed to need to adjust the food they serve you.

    TasteTheHappy: it depends what you mean with "lighter". Lighter taste usually it's not, extra-virgin is usually richer. Personally I prefer extra-virgin for almost all uses even if I have to say it's not the best for frying because it boils at lower temperatures than oils made from other seeds.

  3. It's also interesting to notice that none of the balsamic vinegar you'll ever taste or buy is actually "real".

    I could think that some really fancy restaurants could use some of the traditional balsamic vinegar to prepare some dishes, but I seriously doubt it. Surely nothing you buy to dress the salads or you get in the restaurants in the form of a flask you can use, it's made of the traditional Italian balsamic vinegar.

    The traditional one is aged for a long time (more than 20 years) in barrels of different kind of woods and is extremely expensive (no way it could cost less than 100$ even in small bottles) so in practice is really never used.

    Consumer-grade balsamic vinegar is often something not aged at all but made with additives to make it look like the real thing.

  4. Very good points, DEADC0DE.

    Candicus: I've also never seen that oil and vinegar dip anywhere in Italy. I also personally don't mind it, except that I wouldn't want to eat that much oil and vinegar 🙂

    tastethehappy: "Virgin" olive oil is obtained using a purely mechanical process (cold press and no use of chemicals), the highest quality virgin oil (with particularly low acidity) is called "extra-virgin". Virgin olive oil has better properties than regular olive oil, but usually it also has a quite strong fruity flavor.

  5. That was a really good post. I also thought it was for separate dipping which wasn't much to my liking. Now mixing them…I'm going to have to try that at home!

  6. I am reading this two years later, but sadly it's still topical. I am a Neapolitan who has lived in England, Canada, and now the US.
    Currently in Portland, where a number of decent "Italian" restaurants exist. They do their best, and the chef are passionate about Italian food and would be quick to admit that their food can, at best, only represent an approximation of what one finds in Italy.
    One of these places, Nostrana, gets my admiration not only for the freshness of the food but also for how uncompromising they are toward the American palate (and that travesty of Italian food that is in reality Italian-American food—a cuisine in its own right, perhaps, but nothing like the real thing).
    Well, browsing the reviews of Nostrana on Yelp I found one that scolded the restaurant for being rude and lazy because they brought olive and vinegar to his table, and expected him to dress his own salad! O tempora o mores!

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