Everything Sounds Better In A “Foreign” Language
Okay, so you've heard a lot about the new Italian place downtown and you've decided to have dinner there. The atmosphere is nice, the service is friendly, and you're shown to a lovely table. You are presented with the menu.......and the trouble begins. There's a lot of Italian written there and the only word you're really sure of is “spaghetti.” Uh-oh. You ask yourself, “Should I order the fegati di coniglio arrosto con cime de rapa?”
People like going out to Italian restaurants with me. I can't count the number of times a dining companion has turned to me, pointed at something on the menu and asked, “What's that?” Many so-called “ethnic” eateries use what English-speakers consider “foreign” words to describe their fare. Oftentimes this is done out of overweening pretension, but most of the time it's intended to impart authenticity. Sometimes it backfires, as in the case of an Italian chef I read about who was having trouble selling his crespelle, a stuffed crepe dish. His customers hadn't a clue what a “crespelle” was, so they ignored what I am sure was a delicious creation in favor of safer alternatives. When the chef caught on and changed the name to the less correct but more familiar “cannelloni,” sales immediately increased.
Somehow, everything sounds more romantic or more exotic or just......better when it's articulated in another language. If the extent of your Italian vocabulary was limited to words found on Chef Boyardee labels, I could smilingly curse you out in a string of truly vile Italian and you would probably smile right back at me because it would sound so pretty. (There's a t-shirt circulating around that says, “Vaffanculo Is Italian For Have A Nice Day.” Trust me, it isn't. If you don't know, Google it. And I really want one, BTW.) And when it comes to menu entries, you gotta admit that fegati di coniglio arrosto con cime de rapa sounds a lot better than roasted rabbit livers with turnip greens, right? So in the spirit of helping you steer clear of those possibly unwanted rabbit livers, allow me to present a not-so-brief glossary of some of the more common words and phrases you might encounter on an Italian menu.
Let's start with the meals themselves. Breakfast is prima colazione or just colazione. The lunch offerings will usually be labeled pranzo, and the dinner menu will be cena.
Now for the menu headings. In English, menus are divided into categories like “appetizers,” “soups,” “salads,” “entrees” or “main courses,” “sides,” and “desserts.” Italian meals are broken down into similar divisions: Appetizers are antipasti, soups are either zuppe or minestre, and salads are insalate. You'll find pasta listed under primi or primi piatti, indicating its position as the first course. Pasta is never served as a “side dish” in Italian dining. Besides pasta, primo dishes often include risotto, and the aforementioned zuppe. What Americans would consider as the “main course” is actually the second course, or secondo, usually a type of meat dish. Be advised that secondi are often served alone, without any vegetables or other sides. Italians don't do a “meat and two” or “meat and three” with the main protein and all the sides piled on one plate like Americans do. To Italians the “sides” are the contorni, a course unto themselves. And the dessert course is the dolce. You might also find Italian food words like pane (bread), bevande (drinks), and caffè (coffee) listed on the menu. Sometimes a selection of aperitivi and digestivi – before and after dinner drinks – might show up in higher end places, while merende (snacks) might appear on less formal menus.
Okay, that takes care of the broad, general categories. But what about the specific descriptors for the menu items themselves? What do all those pretty words that end in vowels really mean? Most restaurants either list the dishes in Italian with an English translation following or vice-versa. Some don't and if you don't read Italian, you can either ask your server or take your chances. Or you can become familiar with some of the more common words and phrases.
Let's start with the way your dish is prepared. You know what “baked” and “roasted” and “broiled” and “boiled” and other cooking terms are in English, right? Here are some of their Italian equivalents: affettato (sliced), affumicato (smoked), al forno (baked), al vapore (steamed), alla griglia (broiled), arrostito (roasted), bollito/lesso (boiled), brasato (braised), caldo (hot), con formaggio (with cheese), cotto (cooked), crudo (raw), freddo (cold), fritto/fritte (fried), grigliato/arrostito alla griglia (grilled), in camicia or cotto in bianco (poached), in umido (stewed), in burro or nel burro (in butter), piccante (spicy), purè (mashed – as in mashed potatoes; purè di patate), salsa di panna (cream sauce), tostato (toasted). You might see something in brodo, as in tortellini in brodo. That's Italian for “in broth.” And if something – usually a fish dish – has been cooked in a paper or foil pouch, it'll show up on the menu as in cartoccio.
As far as what you might be eating, we'll begin with pasta. I'm not even going to try to list all the varieties of pasta you might encounter on an Italian menu. There are literally hundreds, ranging from agnolotti to ziti. You're probably familiar with most pasta shapes as most restaurants feature only a handful of the more common types. Long, round, thin strands of spaghetti; long, flat linguine; slightly wider ribbons of fettuccine; short, tubular penne, rigatoni, and ziti; stuffed pillows of ravioli or tortellini – pretty much everybody knows those. Even farfalle (butterflies), cavatappi (corkscrews), “little ears” of orecchiette, and the classic spiral fusili are fairly easy to recognize. Sometimes the Italian name of American staples may surprise you: good ol' elbow macaroni may be written as maccheroni and shells are often referred to by their Italian name, conchiglie.
You may not be as familiar, however, with many of the sauces with which the numerous pasta shapes are paired. There are a million of those, too, so I'll just describe a few of the most ubiquitous preparations.
Pomodoro is a simple and yet very flavorful smooth-textured tomato sauce. Marinara is a little chunkier tomato-based sauce that, because it is usually cooked longer and may contain more ingredients, is generally a bit thicker and richer. And please, please, please don't massacre the pronunciation; I don't care how many times you hear it pronounced “mare-uh-NARE-uh”, the proper pronunciation is “mah-ree-NAH-rah”. And roll those “r”s, baby. Diavolo or “devil” sauce is a spicier tomato-based sauce. Bolognese does not rhyme with “mayonnaise.” It is properly pronounced “boh-loh-NYAYS-eh and when properly prepared, it is comprised of a combination of ground meats (beef and usually veal and/or pork), tomatoes, celery, carrots, red wine, and a touch of dairy such as milk or cream. Puttanesca is a mid-20th century Neapolitan sauce that usually contains tomatoes, anchovies, olives, capers, and garlic. Carbonara is a sauce formed by pouring a combination of eggs, cheese, and some form of ham/bacon over hot pasta. Quattro formaggi is literally a “four cheese” sauce, usually mozzarella, provolone, Parmigiano, and Romano, but may be made up of any four cheeses at hand.
One “sauce” you will not find on an authentic Italian menu is “Alfredo.” That's because “Alfredo sauce” does not exist in real Italian cuisine. Roman restaurateur Alfredo di Lelio used to make a variation of a common Italian butter and cheese pasta; he just increased the amounts of butter and cheese and blended them with a touch of the starchy water in which the pasta was cooked. Americans got hold of the concept, added cream, and called it a “sauce.”
The next course on the menu – the secondi – is meat, poultry, or fish, the Italian words for which are carne, pollame, and pesce. First up, beef.
The Italian word for beef is manzo, so an order of roast beef, for instance, would be arrosto di manzo. Steak is a little different; bistecca. Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a thick Porterhouse cut cooked and served in a Tuscan style, is probably the most common example. The Italian word for veal is vitello, most commonly found on American menus as “Vitello Parmigiana” or “Veal Parmesan.” And you'll only find it that way on American menus because the dish doesn't exist in Italy.
Pork is maiale. A pork cutlet would be cotoletta di maiale and a pork chop would be braciola di maiale. Most Italian sausages (salsicce) and cured meats (salumi) are made from pork. These include traditional salami, mortadella, coppa, and soppressata. Italian ham is called prosciutto and bacon is pancetta. Occasionally you'll find something called “speck” on an Italian menu. This is a denser ham usually produced in Italy's northern-most region, Alto Adige. Speck is cured with spices like juniper and bay leaves and then smoked and aged for a deeper, richer flavor.
Chicken is pollo; and it's “POHL-loh” in Italian, not “POY-yoh” as it is in Spanish. And while we're on the subject of chickens, you'll find the eggs they produce listed as uova. You don't often see turkey on an Italian menu, but when you do, it's tacchino.
As noted, pesce is Italian for fish; specific kinds of fish include salmone (salmon), trota (trout), tonno (tuna), and branzino (sea bass). And, of course, l'acciuga (anchovy).
The general Italian term for seafood is frutti di mare, literally “fruits of the sea.” Specific seafoods include vongole (clams), l'aragosta (lobster), cozze (mussels), gamberi (shrimp), ostriche (oysters), and calamari (squid). Scampi is a whole 'nuther animal. It's actually a type of lobster or prawn. It is sometimes called a Norway lobster, a Dublin Bay prawn, or a langoustine. But it's not a shrimp except in America where “shrimp scampi” usually refers to shrimp cooked in garlic, lemon, and butter.
Other meats you might find on Italian menus include coniglio (rabbit), anatra (duck), and fegato (liver).
A contorno is literally a boundary, a margin, or a side. In culinary terms, it's a side dish. Contorni are usually vegetables (which, in themselves, are verdure) and may include: aglio (garlic), asparago (asparagus), carciofo (artichoke), carote (carrots), cavolo (cabbage or kale), cavolo nero (black cabbage), cetriolo (cucumber), cipolla (onion), fagioli (beans), fagiolini (green beans), funghi (mushrooms), grano (corn; sometimes also written as mais), lattuga (lettuce), olive (olives), patate (potatoes), piselli (peas), pomodori (tomatoes), prezzemolo (parsley), sedano (celery), and zucchine (zucchini). One vegetable which needs no translation is broccoli; it's the same in either language.
The dolce or dessert course can be a little confusing because cakes, pies, and tarts are all called torte. Cookies are biscotti and the Italian version of ice cream is gelato. Vanilla, chocolate, and caramel are vaniglia, cioccolato, and caramello, respectively. And even though dolce translates literally to “sweets,” most Italian desserts are more fruity, usually consisting of albicocche (apricots), arance (oranges), banane (bananas), ciliegie (cherries), fragole (strawberries), lamponi (raspberries), mele (apples), pesche (peaches), pompelmo (grapefruit), or uva (grapes). Top them with a little zucchero (sugar) or panna montata (whipped cream) for a delicious dessert.
Wash everything down with bevande, the broad term for “drinks.” You can have una tazza di caffè o tè (a cup of coffee or tea), un bicchiere o una bottiglia di birra o vino (a glass or bottle of beer or wine), or you can just have some aqua (water). Gassato o lisce (carbonated or smooth) is up to you. Soda has gained popularity and is usually identified by brand. Succo (juice) may be available and latte (milk) is sometimes an option. If you like your drinks without ice, order senza ghiaccio.
Okay, I didn't get around to the cime di rapa. And I didn't mention ravanelli (radishes) either. And zucche! How could I forget about pumpkins? And I failed to delve into the “delicacies” like cieche fritte (fried baby eels), lampredotto (boiled cow's stomach), or finanziera (a dish containing a rooster's wattle, cockscomb, and testicles cooked with vegetables) because you're not likely to encounter them much outside their native regions. No, I think if you commit everything I've written to memory (or at least bookmark the page on your device) you'll be ready to sally fearlessly forth to that new Italian place downtown without concern for undue embarrassment or potential gastric disaster.
Buona fortuna e buon appetito!