Italian is one of the most lyrical, romantic languages in the world. As written by the 13th century “Father of the Italian Language,” Dante Alighieri, it is the language of art, music – and food. But English-speakers have always had a hard time with Italian words. I don't know why. Italian is just not that difficult. But as far back as the early twentieth century, Italian chef Ettore Boiardi had to spell his name in phonetic English – “boy-AR-dee” – in order to keep Americans from mangling it.
Oddly enough, some of the worst manglers are Italian-Americans. There are reasons for that. When Italian immigrants arrived on American shores, many were desperate to “fit in,” to “be American.” Many “Americanized” their names and “Americanized” their language. This was especially true during World War II, when Mussolini's alliance with Nazi Germany caused anti-Italian sentiments to run high in the U.S. As a result, a lot of Italian words were altered to sound more American. Regional dialects also played a part. “Italian” is actually based on the Tuscan dialect, but other regions often pronounce words differently. And then there's just general linguistic laziness. People in the Italian-American enclaves of New York, New Jersey, and South Philadelphia are especially guilty of abbreviating and desecrating pure Italian with words like “pro-SHOOT” in place of prosciutto, “mahtz-a-RELL” instead of mozzarella and for turning a masculine Italian name like Mario (MAH-ree-oh) into something that sounds more like a female horse, “MARE-ee-oh.”
Some people might think you are being pretentious when you try to “sound Italian” in an Italian restaurant. I disagree. There is no pretension in being correct. In my opinion – an opinion shared by most language experts – when a “foreign” word is introduced into a language, the correct pronunciation of that word is the pronunciation afforded it in its original tongue. It's a matter of “when you make up words, you can say 'em your way; when I make up words, you say 'em my way.”
The French will slap you down for the slightest improper inflection of their language. Italians? Not so much. Oh, they'll cringe, but they won't complain. I, however, being a prig and a purist, will. Therefore, permit me to offer a brief vocabulary lesson in the proper pronunciation of Italian foodstuffs.
Unlike English, Italian is a phonetic language. You say it like you see it. That makes it easy because there are no crazy letter combinations. No “eight” that sounds like “ate.” No “knights” and “nights.” No silent “e”s. There are five vowels. Each has one or two simple sounds: “A” sounds like the “a” in “car” – it's an “ah” sound; “E” has two sounds, one like the “e” in “men” and the other like the “ay” in “hay”; “I” is always sounded like “ee”; “O” also has two sounds, “oh” as in “coat” and “aw” as in “frost”; and “U” is always sounded as “oo.” That's it.
There are a few rules regarding consonants. For instance, the “r” is always rolled. The “ch” combination is a hard “k” sound, as in “chianti.” The same sound is produced when “c” precedes “a”, “o”, or “u”. The letter “c” followed by an “e” or an “i” produces a “ch” sound, as in “church.” A “g” followed by “a”, “o,” or “u” has a hard sound, as in “good.” When followed by an “e” or and “i,” it produces a soft sound, like the “j” in “job.” The “gn” combination is sounded like the “ny” in “canyon.” The “gia” combination is tricky; Italians pronounce each letter, but they do so very quickly. It comes out sounding like “jyah.” It's never “JEE-ah.” Giada De Laurentiis is “JYAH-dah” not “jee-AH-dah” and Gianni Versace is “JYAH-nee” rather than “jee-AH-nee.” It's harder to write it than it is to say it.
“H” is the only silent letter in the Italian language.
One more consonant rule: In English, double consonants are lumped together and sounded as one. In Italian, you separate them. One consonant ends a syllable and the other begins the next. Not in an exaggerated way, but still very distinctly. You'll see the importance of this later.
English-speakers pluralize words by tacking an “s” onto the end. And since that's the way it's done in English, that must be the way everybody does it, right? Not really. When you see the word “paninis” on a sign or menu, you're looking at a made up word. You can have a panino if you would like just one sandwich or if you want more than one you can have panini. No “s”. Same thing applies to any word that ends in “i.” It's already plural. Cannelloni, ravioli, tortellini, cannoli, etc. Adding an “s” to such words does not make them plural, it just makes them wrong. In America, such errors have become accepted through common usage, but “I'll have a panini” or “I'd like two paninis” is still bad Italian.
Another peculiar peccadillo involves any word that ends in “e.” Perhaps because there are so many “silent e” word endings in English, English-speakers seem to have an aversion to pronouncing the “e” at the end of any word. But remember, Italian is phonetic. The “e” is meant to be sounded. A calzone, for example, is correctly pronounced “kahl-ZAW-nay.” “KAL-zone” or “kal-ZONE” is incorrect.
One big minefield for mispronunciation is Italian cheeses. I once asked the “sandwich artist” at a national chain place for a slice of provolone on my sandwich. Of course, I said, “proh-voh-LOH-nay.” She said, “Oh, you mean “PRO-vuh-lone?” No, dear, I meant exactly what I said, thank you.
Mascarpone drives me wild. It's not “MASS-kar-pohn.” It's “Mahs-kar-POH-nay.” And despite what some TV chefs constantly say, it's most definitely not “MARS-kuh-pone.” Look at the word. “Mascarpone.” There's no “r” before the “s.”
Mozzarella and ricotta are delicious cheeses. And they sound delicious when correctly pronounced. “Mohts-sah-RAYL-lah” and “ree-KAWT-tah” sound yummy. “Mahtz-uh-RELLA” and “ruh-KOTTA” just sound unappetizing.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is pronounced “par-mee-JYAH-noh rej-JYAH-noh” not “par-ma-gee-AH-no reg-ee-AH-no” as Americans say it. And if you just say “parmesan,” that's okay, but it's “PAR-mee-zahn,” not “parma-john” or “parma-zhan,” or “par-mee-zee-an” or any of a dozen other variations.
Other commonly mutilated Italian food words include:
Biscotti: Americans tend to flatten this word out – “bis-KOT-ee.” “Bee-SKAWT-tee” is correct. “Bee-SKOHT-tee,” is pretty close. “Bis-KOT-ee” is not even in the ballpark.
Bolognese: Regarding that wonderful meat sauce from Bologna, remember the “gn” and the final “e”. “Bolognese” does not rhyme with “mayonnaise.” It's “boh-loh-NYAY-seh,” not “BO-luh-naze” or “bo-luh-NAZE.”
Braciole; This is one of those dialect things. In Sicily – and, by extension, Sicilian neighborhoods in the US – this beef dish is pronounced “brah-ZHOOL.” Sort of. Anywhere else in Italy, it's “brah-chee-OH-leh.”
Bruschetta: It gets way under my skin when I hear someone ask for “broo-SHET-uh.” It gets even further under my skin when a server offers “broo-SHET-uh.” I have crawled many a waiter or waitress for that transgression. The word comes from “bruscare” and is pronounced “broo-SKAYT-tah.” Even “broo-SKET-tah,” would be okay. But “broo-SHET-uh” is just annoyingly wrong. Think of it this way; do you send your kids to SHOOL?
Caprese: Capri is an island off the coast of Italy. It is properly pronounced “KAH-pree” rather than “kuh-PREE.” “Kuh-PREE” has something to do with women's pants. Anyway, cuisine from the island is correctly pronounced as “kah-PRAY-say” rather than “kuh-PREES.”
Espresso: I don't know where anybody sees an “x” in that word. “Es-PREHS-soh is correct. “Expresso” must be the instant or “express” version of Italian coffee.
Gnocchi: One of those tricky words. It's got the “gn”, the “o”, a double consonant, and a “ch” to deal with. The proper pronunciation is “NYAWK-kee.” As long as you use the “ny” sound at the beginning, you can probably get by with cheating a long vowel sound – “NYOAK-kee.” However, any variation of “NOH-kee” is badly incorrect.
Marinara: This one has the old “fingernails on a blackboard” effect on me. Even more so than “broo-SHET-uh.” Scads of Americans order “mare-uh-NARE-uh” all the time. Aaarrrggg! What they should be ordering is “mah-ree-NAH-rah.” That other ugly abomination is just a butchery of the language.
Pancetta: I actually heard an Italian-American restaurateur talking about “pan-SET-uh” on national TV. Buddy, either learn to say “pahn-CHEHT-tah” or go open a hot dog stand.
Pasta: If you hear someone say “PASS-tuh,” he probably orders “TACK-ohs” in Mexican restaurants. He could be British. The Brits make worse Italians than Americans do. Which is just weird because they also say “toh-MAH-toh.” Anyway, even in London, “PAHS-tah” is correct. “PASS-tuh” is not.
And then there are the various kinds of pasta. Americans hopelessly twist pasta names like spaghetti, tagliatelle, fettuccine and others. Instead of “spah-GEHT-tee,” “tah-glee-ah-TAYL-lay,” and “feht-too-CHEEN-nay,” you get “spuh-GET-ee,” “tag-lee-uh-TELL-ee,” and “fet-uh-CHEE-nee” every time. Even my food hero Alton Brown is guilty of “tag-lee-uh-TELL-ee.” E tu, Alton? And have you ever ordered a male body part for dinner? You have if you've ordered “PEN-eh” pasta. This is one of those words where the separation of the double consonant is really important. “Penne” is pronounced “PAYN-nay.” or even “PEHN-neh.” Hit that brief separation or you come away sounding like you're asking for pene, the aforementioned body part. Also,“penne” is not a homophone for a copper coin. “Penny pasta” might be a good price for the dish, but it's lousy pronunciation.
Pasta fagioli: If the stars make-a you drool like-a “pasta fazool,” that's a-wrong-o. It's pasta fah-JYOH-lee. If you order “pasta fazool” in New York, they'll give you a bean dish. If you order it in Italy, they'll give you a funny look.
Risotto: When it comes to pronunciation fits, this creamy, delicious rice dish falls into the same category as biscotti and gnocchi. It's “ree-SAWT-toh,” or even “ree-SOHT-toh.” But there is definitely no “z” sound. It's not “rizz-OH-toh.” And while some English-speakers can get the hang of rolling their “r”s – Scots do it quite well – most Americans just can't manage it. So as long as you're not putting some weird buzzing sound in the middle of the word, you can get a break on the “r.”
Americans have gotten a bad rep all over the world because we always expect people in other countries to do things our way. The “right” way. The American way. Which means, of course, everybody should speak our language. But people in other cultures really do appreciate it when you respect them enough to at least attempt their way of speaking.
Not long ago, I was being assisted by a Japanese clerk in a big chain department store. She spoke English well enough, but with a very heavy accent. When I thanked her by saying “domo arigato,” she positively beamed with happiness. I had made her day with one appropriate phrase in her language.
So how about it? Are you ready to be a “goodwill ambassador” to your favorite Italian restaurant? With a little practice, it's easy to pick up a few food words. And it's a great way to impress your friends without having to lay out a week's pay for a copy of Rosetta Stone.
Buon appetito e buon pronuncia!