The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

You Can't Have a Panini.......or Raviolis, Either

I'll Choose Correct, If You Don't Mind. Or Even If You Do

I was in an eatery the other day that touted the fact that they had paninis for sale. And the menu listed all the paninis individually. You could have a chicken panini, a ham and swiss panini, a turkey panini, a roasted tomato and mozzarella panini, and a bunch more paninis. There's only one problem: you can't
have a panini. Actually, you can't have paninis, either. So, I guess that's two problems.

You say, “What do you mean? Of course I can have a panini. Lot's of places sell paninis.”

<Sigh> You can't have a panini because “panini” is plural. And you can't sell paninis because “paninis” isn't a word. You don't make something that is already plural more plural by adding an “s” to it. Now, if you want a nice Italian sandwich and you order a chicken (or ham or turkey or whatever) panino, I'm sure it will not only be delicious, it will also be grammatically correct. And if you order two or more of them, then you will, indeed, have panini on your plate. You will not, however, have “paninis,” for such do not exist.

The same applies if you order those wonderfully rich and filling little pillows of stuffed pasta. If you have a bowlful, you have ravioli. If you stick a fork in one and eat it, you have consumed a raviolo. And you can't have “raviolis” for the same reason you can't have “paninis.”

“Pish posh,” you say (especially if you're Mary Poppins.) “Nobody really says 'panino' and 'raviolo'.” To which I reply, “Italians do, and so do people who want to be right.”

Please don't start singing the old “common usage” or “colloquialism” songs. I've heard them a hundred times and they don't get any better with repetition. I'm told, “A word becomes a part of the language through common usage; it's called a 'colloquialism'.” Okay, in the first place, a word that is incorrectly used is still incorrect, no matter how often it is incorrectly used. And if you look up “colloquialism,” you will find that it is defined as a word used in informal speech in place of a more formally accepted word. None of which makes it right, thankyewverymuch.

It is a part of English-speaking arrogance, I suppose, that assumes every language in the world pluralizes by adding the letter “s.” Italian does not. Italian nouns are made plural by changing the ending of the word, often according to gender. Feminine nouns – those that usually end in “a” – take the ending letter “e” in their plural form. Masculine nouns that end in “o” take the letter “i” in plural form. These are broad general rules, but I'm trying to prove a specific point here, not give an in depth language lesson. The point is, you don't put an “s” on any Italian word to make it plural.

I got into an argument with a Neapolitan friend of mine over cannoli. I say the plural rules apply and he disagrees. “You're right about the others,” he allows, “but not about cannoli. It's just cannoli, no matter what.” I disagree with his disagreement. And I have several other Italian friends and numerous dictionaries to back me up. You can have cannoli, but you can't have a cannoli. Or “cannolis.”

Here are a few other things you can't have: you can't have a cannelloni, you can't have a manicotti, you can't have a crespelle, and you can't have a gnocchi. Similarly, adding “s” to any of these words will not make them plural-er, but it will get you eye rolls from Italians.

There are a couple of words where I am almost forced to acknowledge the application of the “common usage” ploy: one of them is zucchini and the other is pizzas. Although technically a single squash fruit is a zucchina and the correct plural is zucchine, it becomes masculine and a zucchino in the Tuscan dialect, the plural for which is zucchini. To avoid all the confusion, just go with zucchini. I'm forced to give that one up. Same thing for pizzas. A single pie is a pizza; more than one are pizze, but “pizzas” is just so overwhelmingly prevalent. It's still wrong, of course, and I bite my tongue whenever I catch myself saying it. But that's a battle I'll lose, so I don't fight it.

The plural of “pasta” is paste, not “pastas,” but that one usually gets a pass, too. And even though there really are proper singular forms of spaghetti, linguini, and macaroni, such are classified as “uncountable nouns” which have no plural form. (“Milk,” for example, is an uncountable noun.)

And lest you think people who spell “lasagne” with an “e” are either stupid or pretentious, rest assured they are neither. “Lasagne” is the proper plural of “lasagna.” No “s,” per favore. When you put a bunch of single lasagna noodles together, you get lasagne, not “lasagnas.”

A lot of people criticize Giada De Laurentiis for what they consider her over-pronouncing of Italian words like “spaghetti,” which she enunciates as “spah-GAYT-tee.” Sorry, folks, but she's right. It just sounds funny coming out of her mouth because, even though she was born in Rome and didn't speak a word of English when she came here as a child, she doesn't otherwise have an Italian accent. Her aunt, Raffaella, or “Raffy,” as she calls her, has a very pronounced accent, so Italian words sound more natural with her. But when Giada the California girl properly says the same word, she gets accused of being “fake” and “pretentious.”

I get similar critiques and comments from people who think I'm “showing off” or “putting on” when I correctly pronounce things in Italian. How the hell you can be “pretentious” or a “show off” for properly pronouncing a word is beyond me. I guess if people like Giada and me would just stick to saying “spuh-GETTY” and “MARE-uh-NARE-uh” like the “common usage” folks do, we'd be in for less criticism. But we'd also be doing a great disservice to a beautiful language. So, given the choice between being correct and being “common,” I'll choose correct, if you don't mind. Or even if you do.

I'm going to quit now before I drag out my other “proper pronunciation” soapbox, the one I mount when I want to talk about employees of Italian restaurants who butcher the pronunciation of Italian dishes. Servers in Mexican places would sound stupid if they talked about “TACK-ohs” and “qwes-uh-DILL-uhs,” wouldn't they? But nobody minds when Italian waiters say “broo-SHET-uh” and “MARE-uh-NARE-uh.” My friends say, “Well, you shouldn't be so critical. That's just the way they learned.” <deep breaths, deep breaths> But I won't do that right now. I'm fine. Really. And I like the sounds of nails on a blackboard and squeaky tennis shoes on wet floors.

And I wouldn't dream of advocating that you carry a black marker and fix all those menus that have the word “panini” on them. But it's a thought.

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