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!

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Right Way To Eat Pizza And Other Italian Food Rules

A Few Inviolable Rules For Eating Italian Food

Another politician ruffled feathers in New York recently when he picked up a knife and fork to chow down a slice of pizza. New Yorkers grouse and grimace and make all kinds of rude noises whenever the cutlery comes out because they believe the only way to eat pizza is the way they eat it: fold it up and stuff it in your (pizza) pie hole. And as I've written before, it ain't so. But the Big Apple is the Big Apple and you can always tell a New just can't tell him much. For those of you too busy, lazy, or disinterested to follow the hyperlink, I'll briefly reiterate the basic premise: 1) pizza was invented in Italy; 2) the majority of Italians – not Italian-Americans – eat pizza with a knife and fork, ergo 3) misinformed New Yorkers can stuff it wherever they wish.

That said, let's move on to a few other inviolable rules for eating Italian food. I know, I know, who am I to dictate rules for eating food? This is America, dammit, the land of the free and the home of the brave. And we should all be free to eat anything any whichaway we want, right? It says so in the Declaration of Independence.....sort of. I think it falls under the “pursuit of happiness” clause. Hey, sorry; I don't make the rules, I just report them.

Okay. You've got this really big date planned and you want to impress by showing off your urbanity and sophistication and demonstrating your overall Italian-ness. So you pull up to the Olive Garden......and you've already blown it. But you know that, right? So you make a U-turn and head for that “Mom and Pop” place around the corner. You know, the one with the red-checkered tablecloths and the plastic grapes and the wine bottle candles? The one with the name that ends in a vowel, so it's got to be authentic, right? (Sigh)

Let's start with salad. Actually, let's not. Serving a salad at the start of a meal is a non-starter in Italy. Wha-a-a-a-a-t? C'mon! Every Italian restaurant in America offers a nice salad of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, onions, maybe some olives, a little cheese.....and they top it off with creamy Italian dressing. Yeah, well, that's America. In Italy, salads, if they are served at all, are served near the end of a meal to act as a palate cleanser and digestive aid. And that creamy “Italian” dressing? Fuggedaboutit! Real “Italian dressing” consists of oil and vinegar.

Another thing you'll only find in faux-Italian places is an endless supply of “garlic bread” to start off your dining experience. In the first place, there's no such thing as “garlic bread” in Italian cuisine. Hunks of bread slathered in garlic-flavored butter simply don't exist. And don't look too hard for “rustic” bread and a plate of herb-infused oil in which to dip it. Some places will serve it, but almost never as an appetizer. Italians love their bread, but they love it with the meal, not as a starter to the meal.

Italians serve the main meal in courses. They just do. At a minimum, expect a three-course meal consisting of a primo course of pasta or rice followed by a secondo of meat or fish, then a contorno of vegetables. Often these days, some restaurants will combine the secondo and the contorno. This is largely due to the influence of Americans who bitch and complain if all their food isn't piled up on one plate. But don't be surprised if you spend over an hour at the table fielding one plate after another, usually culminating with some sort of a fruit preparation or a cheese plate. “Dessert” as Americans know it is not all that common.

Okay. So let's move on to the classic, quintessential Italian entree, spaghetti and meatballs. Well......we could if such a dish really existed outside Italian-American home kitchens and red sauce joints. In Italy, it's an either/or proposition; never both. You can have spaghetti OR you can have meatballs. Or you can have spaghetti AND you can have meatballs. You just can't have spaghetti and meatballs. You don't believe me? Hop a flight to Italy and try it. I'll wait here so I can help you translate words like "deficiente,”“cafone,” and “stronzo.”

Now, let's say you did order some spaghetti. “Mom and Pop” bring it out to you with a spoon stuck in it, because that's the way Italians eat it, right? They hold a fork in one hand and a spoon in the other and twirl the noodles around the fork with the aid of the spoon. NOT! You do that in Italy and you'll hear those same words from the previous paragraph. Unless you're under, oh, say, five years of age. In that case, it's okay. And if you take a knife to your pasta, every Italian in the room will faint dead away. If you can't “cut” eating your pasta uncut, you'd better order something less challenging. A nice bowl of soup, maybe?

Now, Italians love Parmesan cheese, right? So surely they can't complain if you douse your entree with a generous helping of Italy's favorite cheese, right? Ehhhh......not so much. In the first place, chances are the dry, powdery, cheese-like substance you're shaking out of that shaker at the “Mom and Pop” bears as much resemblance to real cheese as reality television does to reality. Or as margarine does to butter. But even if the stuff you're using is the real deal and not just cheese-flavored sawdust, it's still a rule breaker in every instance except pasta. Adding Parmesan to a pasta dish is generally okay – unless it's a seafood pasta dish. More on that in a second. But adding it to a beef, veal, pork, or other meat dish? Ehhhh.....not so much. And don't even think about adding cheese to fish or seafood. There's logic behind the prohibition. Italian cheeses in general, and Parmigiano-Reggiano or “Parmesan” in particular, have very definite flavors of their own. Many of them, especially Parmigiano-Reggiano, are very salty and would, therefore, run the risk of substantially altering or overwhelming the natural flavor of the dish. That and the fact that it's just not done.

Speaking of putting things on your food, let's talk condiments for a minute. They are practically non-existent in Italy. At least in the common American sense. I once prepared a beautiful, delicate pecan-crusted chicken with Dijon mustard sauce for somebody and then stood watching in abject horror as he doused it in ketchup. “I just put ketchup on everything,” was his rationale. He'd last about thirty seconds in Italy. Don't go looking for ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, ranch dressing, barbecue sauce, steak sauce or any of the other add-ons common to the American table. Italians like the taste of their food. They don't bury it under gallons of stuff designed to “add flavor.” They like the flavor as it is. About the only “condiment” you're likely to find on an Italian table is olive oil and even that is to be used sparingly so as not to mask or overwhelm the natural taste of the food itself.

By now you must be a little thirsty. How about a cup of coffee or a soda to help wash down that washtub full of pasta “Mom and Pop” just put in front of you? (Portion size is another issue for another time.) If you're in Florence, South Carolina, no problem. If you're in Florence, Italy, it ain't gonna happen. Coffee is for after the meal and soda is only offered in pizza joints that cater to Americans. The vast majority of Italians drink water or wine with meals. Water is frizzante (sparkling) or naturale (still) and you'd better be a fan of room temperature because asking for ice will get you talked about, perhaps even to your face. And to the horror of puritanical, prohibitionist American parents, kids drink wine with meals! Yeah, it's pretty watered down, but it's still a normal thing that does not result in roving gangs of drunk children staggering through the streets.

While we're talking about coffee, if you're a big cappuccino or latte drinker, guzzle it down before noon. Those are considered breakfast beverages in Italy and are pretty much banished after midday. After that, it's all espresso. (And that's ES-presso, not EX-presso, by the way). If you really can't hack the black, you can order a caffé macchiato, an espresso topped with a little frothed milk.

If you like a really big breakfast of bacon, sausage, eggs, potatoes, pancakes, toast, jam, etc., or if you're a milk and cereal person, either way, you're gonna hate Italy. In Italy you get a cornetto (a kind of pastry) and coffee.

And if you're a “grab and go” person who likes to eat on the run, you won't get far in Italy. In America it's commonplace to grab a hot dog or something and hit the pavement, munching as you walk. In Italy, that's almost unspeakably rude. Meals are social occasions and food is meant to be savored and enjoyed, not shoved into your face as you perambulate. Even “snack foods” like suppli or panelle aren't eaten on the go, although standing and eating is acceptable if there's no place available to sit. The only exception to this rule is gelato. Italians love their ice cream, and going for un passeggiata (a walk) while eating ice cream is almost a national tradition.

One last rule to wrap up, and this one applies more to dining in a home situation than in a restaurant: clean your plate. No matter how trendy it might be in America, in Italy it is still insulting to the host when you leave unfinished food on your plate. Don't worry about gaining a hundred pounds. Unlike the “abbondanza” foolishness Italian-Americans promote, wherein tables groan and diners moan as they undertake to consume portions that would feed armies of starving Armenian children, Italians are very moderate and balanced eaters. Your Italian mama in Naples, Florida might pile enough pasta on your plate to fill up the trunk of a Buick, but your Italian mama in Naples, Italy would give you a portion about the size of your closed fist. Despite what hokey TV commercials would have you believe, that's Italian. But be careful not to clean your plate too quickly. Your politely concerned host might refill it, thinking you are not getting fed enough.

When it comes down to it, these are just rules, not laws. They represent respect for a culture and its traditions. If you break them, nobody is going to report you or have you arrested. At worst, you'll be looked upon as un maleducato, ignorante cafone. If you can live with that, so can I.

Friday, April 22, 2016

A Culinary Education: Do You Really Need Culinary School?

I'm $100K Richer And I Can Still Make Risotto With My Eyes Closed

As an adjunct to our catering/personal chef service, we occasionally conduct cooking demos or “classes” for interested people in the community. We recently mentored a young person who expressed an interest in attending Johnson and Wales for a culinary education in pastry. That's great and we certainly don't discourage it, but it brings up the question of what exactly constitutes a “culinary education?”

I have a “culinary education.” It started more than fifty years ago when, at age seven, I mounted a step-stool in front of my mom's stove and learned how to cook bacon. By the time I was ten, I had added poached and scrambled eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches, boxed macaroni and cheese, instant mashed potatoes, frozen French fries, and Minute Rice to my expanding repertoire. I look back now and say, “Oh my god! Minute Rice?” But hey, it was the sixties. That was as close to scratch cooking as we came in those days. I can do a little better now. The point is I took the initiative to learn. And I've never stopped learning. A “culinary education” is never complete.

I demur a little when I'm introduced as a “chef.” I guess I qualify in the most liberal sense of the word because, yes, I can cook, I can create a menu, and I can supervise the running of a kitchen. And I bill as a “personal chef” because there's no such industry title as “personal cook,” although it would be a more accurate representation. I didn't go to culinary school. I am entirely self-taught. Like a lot of professionals, I started out as a teenager, busing tables and washing dishes. I had grandparents and aunts and uncles in the restaurant business and a mom who had the talent be a professional cook even if she wasn't one. With the notable exception of my ten-thumbed father, everybody in my family cooked and cooked well. So I had a lot of excellent teachers. And I carried on the family tradition: both of my sons can cook. When they were growing up, their mother was a multiple award-winning biscuit baker for a national fast food franchise. My older son was turning out scratch-made cakes when he was ten and he is now a successful restaurant manager, having worked his way up from McDonald's and through stints as a waiter and as a line cook. He never set foot in a formal classroom, but I'd say he has a fairly good “culinary education.”

The traditional European model for a “culinary education” is based on apprenticeship. Even the world's first “celebrity chef,” Marie-Antoine Carême, started out as a kitchen boy in a cheap Parisian chophouse. His heir apparent, Auguste Escoffier, began his celebrated career working as an apprentice at his uncle's restaurant in Nice at age thirteen. Jacques Pepin, Wolfgang Puck, and Heston Blumenthal are just a few of the many current European chefs who have no “formal culinary education.” But if you count the awards and the Michelin stars they've accumulated, you'd have to admit they've done okay without one.

Culinary schools are a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. In the 1870s, the Women's Educational Association of Boston created the Boston Cooking School, America's first school dedicated solely to a culinary education. You may recognize the name Fannie Farmer, one of the school's top students who later became its director and gained worldwide acclaim for her work on “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book,” most often called “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” still in print and still in demand today.

There are currently about five hundred cooking schools of one sort or another in operation in the United States. One of the more famous, the Le Cordon Bleu school, modeled after the historic institution of the same name that opened in Paris in 1895, recently announced that it was shuttering all sixteen of its American campuses. According to, “Le Cordon Bleu and other culinary institutes in the U.S. have come under increasing scrutiny for their outrageous tuition costs, high drop-out rates, and dismal job prospects. Eater analyzed the data this summer and found overwhelming evidence that culinary school isn't worth it. These for-profit centers have even been sued for their deceptive recruiting tactics and falsified rates of post-school job placement. Career Education Corporation [Le Cordon Bleu's parent company] settled one class action lawsuit from former students to the tune of $40 million.”

Now, if you want to talk about bang for your buck, consider this: a formal culinary education can set you back as much as $100K for a full four year program. That equals about twice what a graduate can expect to make, assuming they land a top job as an executive chef at a high end restaurant, a position that yields between $50K and $60K per year. If they don't quite make the top spot, they can expect to rake in between $35K and $40K as a sous chef. My young student can figure on slightly less, about $32K, as a pastry chef, and if a culinary grad winds up working the line, they'll get by on somewhere around $25K per year.

The biggest problem facing the industry right now is that prospective culinary students watch too much TV. They all want television contracts handed to them along with their diplomas so they can all be the next Bobby Flay. And it just doesn't work that way. None of them want to start in the trenches. They expect to start at the top. They blow $100K on an education that will net them $25K, if they're lucky, and often wind up walking away from the industry bitter, disillusioned, and deeply in debt.

The funny part is that most food service jobs don't require a degree of any kind. Check your newspaper listings: “experienced line cook wanted,” “hiring experienced sous chef,” “looking for experienced cook.” So go ahead and show up in your starched whites with your shiny blue ribbon diploma, but be aware that the grubby guy who's been prepping veg in a restaurant basement for the last four years probably has a better shot at the job than you do.

So what, exactly, do they teach you at culinary school? Technique. Lots and lots of fancy French technique. You'll be able to brunoise and julienne with the best of them after graduation because you'll be schooled and drilled in prep technique until you can do it in your sleep. You'll also learn more about butchery than you ever thought you'd need to know. Not only will you be able to efficiently hack your own steaks from a side of beef, you'll be able to disassemble a chicken blindfolded. You'll become proficient at sauces after they hammer the Mother Sauces and their derivatives into your skull. Same goes for making stocks. You'll learn the importance of mise en place, French for “everything in place,” an absolutely essential concept that stresses the necessity of organization throughout the cooking process. And you'll learn tips and tricks to enhance your creativity. But be aware: like acting, singing, dancing, and other creative endeavors, cooking is both a skill and an art. If you have raw talent and natural ability, going to culinary school will develop and enhance it, enabling you to attain greater success in the field. If, however, you simply suck in the kitchen, you'll still suck after cooking school, except you'll have the added burden of being broke. Star Trek's Jonathan Frakes once told me his acting degree (a BA from Penn State) was just an expensive piece of worthless paper. Either you are an actor or you aren't. Going to acting school won't turn somebody with no talent into an actor. Neither will going to cooking school make a chef out of a person who can't boil water. They might be able to pound enough technique into such a person as to enable them to function in a kitchen, but the art part, the creative process necessary to be truly successful, simply can't be taught.

So, do you really need to impoverish yourself (or, more likely, your parents) and mortgage your firstborn in order to acquire a decent, functional “culinary education?” Not really. Witness the aforementioned Pepin, Puck, and Blumenthal. Add Thomas Keller to the list. And Tom Colicchio. And Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Jose Andres, and the late Charlie Trotter. Ina Garten didn't go to culinary school and neither did Rachael Ray, but it doesn't seem to affect their TV ratings or earning potential. Many chefs, like Mario Batali, gave culinary school a shot, but dropped out. Not because they couldn't hack it, but because they found it too structured and limiting. Batali advises young people to “attend college while cooking in high-end restaurants; after graduating you'll have enough experience you won't need to go to culinary school.”

I say again, I'm not a “chef.” And I don't want to be one. I'm a very good cook and that's good enough for me. I can more than function at home cooking for friends and family and I can hold my own in my somewhat limited professional capacity. I don't cook with rarefied ingredients that I can't pronounce, but I defy you to beat my lasagne. When faced with a side of beef or pork, maybe I don't have the chops to break down my own chops, but I do know a great butcher and I can still strike fear into the hearts of chickens. I may not be as fast or fancy with my knife skills as a Le Cordon Bleu student, but my strip cuts and cube cuts are just as good thanks to the free “Knife Skills” class I went to at a nearby kitchen store and the follow-up online course I took for twenty dollars. The fifty bucks I spent on a “Basic Sauces” course at a local cooking school taught me everything I need to know to turn out a bechamel as well as any Johnson and Wales grad. Give me some herbs and aromatics and a chicken carcass and I'm your stock man. Learned that one on You Tube or someplace. Marcella Hazan taught me a kick ass tomato sauce – or at least one of her cookbooks did. Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking is a bible to nearly every professional chef. I have an autographed copy that Dr. McGee signed after I drove halfway across the state and shelled out a few bucks to sit in on one of his presentations. Amazon and my local bookstore are loaded with textbooks from the CIA and other institutions and my kitchen is as good a place to study them as theirs is. In fact, I've spent hundreds of hours studying with some of the most noted Italian chefs in the world. My extensive instruction at the hands of Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich, Michael Chiarello, Giada De Laurentiss, Mary Ann Esposito, Rocco DiSpirito, David Rocco, and a host of others didn't cost me any more than the price of basic cable. I'm $100K richer and I can still make risotto with my eyes closed. And, of course, I've spent years learning from the very best: my mom, my grandmother and a host of family and friends in home and restaurant kitchens everywhere. So, am I a formally trained and educated “chef?” No, but I sure as hell can cook.

Bottom line, if you've got the talent, the dream, and the drive, but not the big bucks, here's how to make it in the food business without culinary school:

  1. Have passion. If you don't eat, sleep, and breathe food, don't bother. You can't half-ass it or make cooking a part-time hobby.
  2. Get your act together. Figure out where you want to go. Classic French, Italian, Hispanic, Asian, American, or wherever your passion leads. Then gather your resources and get into it. I am part Italian, but the only “foreign” language I was exposed to as a kid was French. It's a long story. But when I decided that Italian food was my passion, I boned up on Italy and learned Italian in order to better understand that culture and its cuisine.
  3. Study. Everything. Cookbooks, food magazines, local classes, online courses. Don't overlook the value of TV cooking shows. Just ignore the dreck and drivel that Food Network puts out and find some real cooking shows on PBS. You might still learn a little from some of the less egregiously stupid network shows like Chopped or Top Chef, but don't waste your time with the vast desert of idiotic food-themed game shows that the chowder heads at Scripps seem to think represent America's taste. Work especially on technique: that's 90% of a “formal” culinary education. Seek out knife skills classes and technique classes pertinent to your particular passion. Take a food safety course. Restaurants snap up ServSafe certified people practically on sight.
  4. Find a kitchen. Unless you just want to be a better home cook, at some point you're going to have to venture out into the bigger, badder culinary world. And, for cryin' out loud, be realistic in your expectations. Unless you're a real prodigy, you're not going to waltz into a fancy restaurant after watching Bobby Flay cook a steak on TV and land a head chef job right out of the box. Don't be afraid to be a dishwasher. I did it. I also hated it, but it got me exposed to a professional kitchen environment at an early, formative stage. Just being around a kitchen when I was a kid helped me understand what I was getting into. Wait tables. A lot of European culinary programs make their trainees work both sides of the house. Again, you may not be cooking, but you'll increase your food knowledge. Offer to stage (stazh) or apprentice in a local restaurant kitchen. Free labor for them, free education for you. Win-win. And once you land that kitchen job, work your ass off. Reality check: not every kitchen is “Hell's Kitchen,” but every kitchen is hot, sweaty, grueling, repetitive, and prone to long hours with short breaks and endless cycles of high-pressure intensity alternating with periods of mind-numbing boredom. Get used to it. Don't bitch and complain. You'll get marked as a whiner and made to suffer for it accordingly. Just keep your head down and chop the veg, stir the sauce, scale the fish, flip the burgers, sear the steaks, and......
  5. Don't Ever Stop Learning. Guess who learned something new today? Me. And I've been cooking for more than a half-century. Check your ego at the kitchen door because you will never know it all. Cuisines evolve, techniques change, equipment improves, innovations abound every day. And if you don't keep up, you'll be left behind. If you ever reach the point where you're no longer challenged, where you no longer care to be creative or innovative, where cooking no longer excites you or stirs your passion, just hop on the first delivery truck that pulls up to the back door and ask them if they need a driver.
Okay, now that I've pointed you in the right direction and saved you thousands of dollars, go out and get a job. Open a nice Italian restaurant. And if you look through the pass someday and see some cranky, gray-haired old fossil giving your waitstaff a hard time for mispronouncing “marinara” and “bruschetta,” just step out and shake my hand and say, “thanks.”

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Never Mind Bad Italian, Let's Talk About Bad English

Elocution Isn't Everything – It's The Only Thing

I spend a lot of time writing about people who maim and massacre words in the beautiful, lyrical Italian language. But you know what? I live in America and unless I wander in to what passes for an Italian restaurant around here, my chances of hearing Italian being butchered are fairly slim. Not so with English, however; that poor, beleaguered language gets beaten and battered every day by those for whom it is supposed to be a native tongue. Malapropisms, mangled idioms, made up words, or just general grammatical abuse, all usually uttered with complete sincerity, are, nonetheless, sometimes hilarious.

I was speaking with a teenager the other day who was telling me about his efforts to speak properly and his belief that doing so was essential to being taken seriously in life. What a breath of fresh air! Honest proof of hope for the future. I shared with him my philosophy that elocution isn't everything – it's the only thing, and that sometimes you have to be a square in order to be well-rounded. If only this young man could be cloned, perhaps some of my pet linguistic foibles and faux pas would become extinct. Speaking of which, I know someone who says “faux pas” in reverse, rendering it as “po fa.” I hope the person is just being funny.

One of my favorite abused idioms is “cut the mustard.” Referring to something weak or unable to perform, and often rendered as “Can't cut the mustard,” or “too old to cut the mustard,” this one is a real hoot. Why intelligent people would think that performance and a spicy yellow condiment were in any way related is quite beyond me. The proper term is “cut the muster” and is a reference to a military roll, or muster. When one is too old or otherwise too infirm to appear for duty on said muster, one is unable to make the cut, or to “cut the muster.” I know some Dijon can be a little thick, but I've never yet encountered a mustard that I had to cut.

Then there's “for all intensive purposes.” A thorough and intensive examination of this phrase will reveal that the actual term is “for all intents and purposes.” “Intensive purposes?” Please!

I used to know someone who used the phrase “a blessing in the skies.” (Sigh) I don't much associate with that person anymore, and that may, indeed, be a “blessing in disguise.” Or perhaps just a blessing.

Then there are folks who like to “wet” their appetites. I don't know to what degree moisture affects the appetite, but I prefer to sharpen – or to “whet” – mine, thank you.

There's probably no hope for this one: “spitting image.” Used to describe an exact duplicate, especially of a person, it's really rather disgusting when you come to think of it. Who would want an image of themselves that expectorates? The actual idiom is “spit and image” and it has been around for a very long time. Some theorize that it has biblical origins relating to God's using his “spit” to create man in his image. A newer take holds that the term is derived from “spitten,” the archaic dialectical past participle of the word “spit.” Yale University's Laurence Horn, a professor of linguistics, opines that said "spitten image" refers to "a likeness that was literally spit out, but where figuratively the 'spit' in question involved a rather different bodily fluid." Think about that the next time you're tempted to use the expression.

I also love people who make up new words. Some folks feel that using ten-dollar words will make them sound more knowledgeable. And that's generally true – unless the words are made up and not worth ten cents. For example, I know someone who says “categoried” when he means “categorized.” An object with a purpose is “functionable” rather than “functional.” A person is “instituted” instead of being “institutionalized.” And when all is right with the world, there is a sense of “normalty.” I keep trying to tell this person that there is “normality” and there is “normalcy,” but there is no such state as “normalty.” But I get nowhere because he “lives under the optical illusion” that he is extremely intelligent.

There's no shortage of mangled words in American English. Besides the aforementioned, dozens of others come quickly to mind. The following are a few of my favorites:

Acrossed vs Across – I am certain you have come “acrossed” many people who incorrectly employ this one. “Crossed” is a past tense verb. “Cross” is a present tense verb. “Across” is an adverb. In the statement “I went across the street,” “went” is the verb and “across” is an adverb modifying the verb. “Acrossed” is simply not a word.

Nucular vs Nuclear – A recent president had problems with this one, so if it's one of your grammatical gremlins, at least you're in good company. But it's still “NEW-clee-er” and not “NEW-kyoo-ler.”

Hunnert vs Hundred – If you express the numerical value of 10 x 10 as “hunnert,” welcome to the country. That's primarily where people who can't say “hundred” live.

Off-ten vs Often – Oh, this one grinds my gears every time I hear it and I hear it more and more “off-ten” these days. The word has been pronounced “OFF-en” – with a silent “t” – practically since the beginning of time. The downfall of the proper pronunciation began when common English-speakers learned how to write. They saw that there was a perfectly good “t” in there and, by golly, they were determined to not let it go to waste. This is one of those “correct through common usage” battles that purists – like me – usually lose. But I vow to fight vigorously and “offen” for the proper pronunciation, “common usage” be damned.

Febuary vs February – Look at the letters, folks; there's a second “r” in there. It's “FEB-roo-air-ee” not “FEB-yoo-air-ee.”

Liberry vs Library – Reference “February” above. “LYE-brer-ee” not “LYE-berry.”

Athuhlete vs Athlete – This word has only two syllables, not three. Although it may be more verbally “ath-uh-LET-ic” to say “ATH-uh-leet,” it's incorrect. Two syllables only: “ATH-leet.”

Spaded vs Spayed – When you have your female dog or cat “fixed,” I can assure you the veterinarian does not employ a shovel anywhere during the procedure. Fluffy or Fido has been “spayed” not “spaded.”

Excape vs Escape – Personally, I try to escape from people who say “excape” as expeditiously as possible.

Expecially vs Especially – I especially try to escape from people who say “expecially.”

Tenderhooks vs Tenterhooks – Once upon a time, woven cloth was dried on a wooden frame called a “tenter.” The fabric was attached to said frame by way of metal hooks, called “tenterhooks.” At some point, a state of tension or anxiety came to be associated with these hooks. “My situation has left me on tenterhooks.” When these hooks got tenderized, I'm not quite certain. But I am quite certain they are still “tenterhooks” and not “tenderhooks.”

Upmost vs Utmost – Although it is generally most desirable to move up, I still try my utmost to avoid those who put forth their “upmost” effort.

Miniture vs Miniature – I know there's a great movement afoot to make words shorter and more compact, but please don't “min-ah-chur-ize” the word “MIN-ee-ah-chur” by pronouncing it “MIN-ah-chur.” There are four syllables there; please use them all.

Asterix vs Asterisk – In case you don't know what it is, it's the little star-like symbol above the “8” on your keypad. In case you don't know how to say it, it's “AS-ter-isk,” not “AS-ter-ix.”

Verbage vs Verbiage – In a effort to reduce excess “VER-bee-age,” I suppose many people take to eliminating letters and syllables, thus reducing their potential “VERB-age.” But it's still wrong to say it that way.

Mischievious vs Mischievous – I go NUTS over this one! “Mischievous” derives from the Anglo-Norman French “meschef.” In modern English, that's “mischief.” When you turn it into an adjective, it becomes “mischievous,” pronounced “MISS-che-vus.” However, as early as the fifteenth century, an extra syllable snuck in there and turned the word into “miss-CHEE-vee-us.” The OED considers “mischievious” to be a “non-standard” spelling and a “variant” usage, usually confined to regional, colloquial, or humorous use. So I guess if you want to sound like a humorous hick, it's okay to be “mischievious.”

Sherbert vs Sherbet – Only one “r” here, good people. I'm sure Bert likes SURE-bet, but maybe he should just call it “sorbet.” (And that's “sore-BAY,” not “sore-BET.”)

Tact vs Tack – Both are fine words, but they are not interchangeable. I know people who, when referring to altering a course of action, change their “tact,” and I suppose, if they think of it at all, they think of “tact” a being a shortened form of “tactic.” None of that's true. The word “tack” has a nautical origin. On a sailing ship, the “tack” refers to the lower leading corner of the sail, which points the direction the ship is heading. If you change course, you are changing from one tack – or heading – to another, thereby “taking a different tack.” You may be able to do so tactfully, but other than that, the two words have nothing to do with one another.

Supposably vs Supposedly – This isn't so much a case of mispronounced words as it is one of misuse of similar but unrelated words. “Supposably” really is a word, but one that has nothing to to with “supposedly.” “Supposedly” refers to what one believes or assumes to be true; “Supposedly, I will get a big raise next week.” “Supposably,” on the other hand, refers to something that is capable of being conceived; something that can be supposed. “I could supposably get a big raise next week, if my boss isn't too cheap.” “Supposably” isn't a very common expression in actual use, but its misuse in place of “supposedly” is quite common.

Suit vs Suite – You hear this all the time on TV; “Come in today and get your brand new new bedroom suit.” But just because they say it on TV doesn't make it correct. Unless you're talking about pajamas, I suppose. That might be an appropriate example of a bedroom “suit.” A “suit” is a set of coordinating or matching garments. A “suite,” in this context, is a collection of similar or related things that can be used together or for a common purpose; furniture, for example. A “suite” can also be a set of rooms or a collection of musical pieces considered as one composition. A “suit” is just a suit. I guess you could hang it in the closet of the suite for which you have purchased a new suite of furniture or you could wear it while listening to a piano suite. Wouldn't that be sweet? But there's no such thing as a “suit” of furniture – unless you plan to wear your sofa and chairs.

Realator vs Realtor – Another case where all you have to do is look at the word. Two syllables; “real” and “tor.” There's no “a” in between.

Jewlery vs Jewelry – Back in my radio days, we used to advertise for a place called “Jewelry Warehouse.” I think I was the only one in the building who could say “JEW-el-ree.” Everybody else stumbled over their tongues and said, “JEW-ler-ree,” much to the client's displeasure.

Foilage vs Foliage – This one cost a recent “Jeopardy” contestant a bundle. The word used to describe the aggregate of leaves of one or more plants is pronounced “FOE-lee-edge.” Some people try to shorten it to “FOE-ledge” and some, like the “Jeopardy” guy, try to get away with “FOYL-edge.” But Alex Trebek was too smart for him. No money for you, loser.

Mute vs Moot – If I had a nickel for every time I heard “mute” used instead of “moot.” But I don't, so it's a moot point about which I will remain mute.

Irregardless vs Regardless – Regardless of your proclivity toward making up delightful new words, “irregardless” simply isn't one.

Ex cetera vs Et cetera – “Et cetera” is literally Latin for “and the rest.” In common usage, it is an expression that means “and other things” or “and so forth.” In even more common usage, unfortunately, is “ex cetera,” which means nothing because it isn't a real word or term.

Bonus: Calvary vs Cavalry – “CAL-vary” is another name for “Golgotha,” ostensibly the site of the crucifixion in Christian tradition. “CAV-al-ry” is a military term for soldiers on horseback. The two are not interchangeable. One does not send in the Calvary nor does one ascend Mount Cavalry.

And finally, no matter how fast you want it, there is no “x” in “espresso.” You might be able to order your Italian coffee in the express lane, but it'll still be “espresso.” I just had to throw something Italian in there.

Now, friends, armed with your new-found erudition, go out there and speak well. I'll be listening.