Aug 23, 2010

Italian language class (in the kitchen)

The gentle art of gastronomy is a friendly one. It hurdles the language barrier, makes friends among civilized people, and warms the heart.

–– Samuel Chamberlain

"Amor che nullo amato amar perdona…" I can't promise you'll be reciting Dante's prose while whisking up killer tiramisù. But I can point you in the right direction.

Some say learning a new language is best achieved through love. I learned Spanish thanks to a hot-blooded Argentine boyfriend who spoke nothing but Castilian. He won my heart with his melodious eloquence. And with asado and dulce de leche.

So since I love you, today I will teach you a little bit of Italian, and the lesson will be held in the kitchen. Terminology, cooking methods, culinary preparations, it's all here. This won't magically turn you into an Italian cook. But I can guarantee, once you get the words right, the rest is a piece of cake.

Lesson #1

Parla come mangi. Literally, "eat like you speak." Suggestion implicating the wisdom in keeping the words as simple as the food in one's plate. Figuratively, "cut the rhetorical crap."

TERMINI CULINARI - Italian cooking expressions

Some of the following terms, cooking methods and techniques are standard Italian cuisine language. The suffix "a," "al" or "alla" are all (according to gender) derivatives of 'in the manner of,' '–style' and way of treating or cooking the nominated foods. For example:

A bagnomaria [ah bañhomahREEah] Is the “bain-marie” cooking method that uses a double boiler (larger container holding hot water into which a pan is placed for slow cooking). Employed chiefly for the preparation of delicate sauces or, more often, to heat a substance without altering its taste or texture.

Affumicato [ahFFOOmeeKAHtoe] A term used to describe food that is smoked. The root of the word is fumo, which means 'smoke.'

Al forno [ahl FOHRnoh] Expression used to describe foods baked or roasted in the forno (oven). Pasta al forno is a spectacular layered timballo, much like lasagna as it uses partly cooked pasta, but of a shorter shape. Patate al forno are roasted potatoes, one of the many foods whose effect can be associated with that of religious ecstasy.

Al funghetto [ahl foonGHEYtoe] Vegetables cooked thinly sliced or diced, sautéed and then flavored with parsley, garlic and tomato. The best-known application of this method is for a Nepolitan eggplant recipe, Melanzane al Funghetto.

Al cartoccio [ahl carTOHtcho] Oven-baking method by which foods are wrapped in an aluminum foil or parchemnt paper envelope. Excellent for baking fish, meats and vegetables. Foods benefit from this process because minor need for condiment is required and very little dispersion of juices and aroma occurs during cooking.

Are you getting hungry?

Al dente [ahl DENteh] Phrase literally meaning 'to the tooth' intending the correct point of cooking hardness, and used to describe pasta or other food that is cooked only until it offers a slight resistance when bitten into. The opposite of soft or overdone. Mostly referred to pasta cooking, however applicable to all cooked foods. Vegetables cooked al dente conserve more taste and nutrients.

Al vapore [ahl vahPOHreh] Steaming foods is very heathy. The crunch of lightly cooked green beans under our teeth makes us feel wholesome and fit. In Italian cuisine foods are however seldom eaten "just" steamed. Unless of course one is recovering from indigestion. In that case a steamed fillet of sole and a sad looking peeled carrot are the only items on the menu. Otherwise the "vapor-method" is usually an initial step to more complex and further flavored cooking operations.

Alla bolognese [ahlla BOHlohÑHEseh] In the Bologna-style, this expression indicates a series of dishes typical of the cuisine of the city of Bologna. These are part of broader classic Italian cuisine heritage, like minced beef ragù, tagliatelle, tortellini and lasagne.

Alla cacciatora [ahlla KAHtchahTOHrah] Translates "in the manner of the hunter;" usually a food preparation indicated for chicken, hare and rabbit. The meats are stewed with garlic, vinegar and rosemary. Many variations exist according to region.

Alla diavola [ahlla DYAvohlah] Literally, "cooked in the devil’s fashion," God knows why. Way of roasting chicken, in which the bird is opened along the middle, brick-flattened and marinated in salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon juice, then roasted over burning hot coals.

Alla giudia [ahlla jewDYA] The popular method of frying artichokes in Rome’s Jewish community, to which this technique ows its name. The artichoke is deep fried whole, completely immersed in boiling hot oil. In the process it opens like a flower, acquires a splendid copper hue and becomes crisp and fragrant.

Alla milanese [ahlla MEElahNEHseh] Meats and vegetables dunked in beaten eggs then dredged in breadcrumbs, and fried. The most famous application of this cooking method is cotoletta alla milanese, a delicious lean and wafer-thin boneless cutlet of veal or pork, usually taken from the leg, pounded flat, breaded and sautéed in a combination of frothy butter and olive oil.

Alla parmigiana [ahlla PARmeeJAHnah] A preparation suitable for any vegetable, the most famous being the trademark Eggplant Parmigiana. The vegetables are sliced, fried and then layered with tomato sauce, grated Parmigiano cheese and fresh basil. The gratin is sometimes added with diced Mozzarella cheese.

Alla piastra [ahlla PYAStrah] Foods cooked on the heavy flat iron piastra are griddled. Italian meats, fish and vegetables are frequently broiled on the red-hot surface and then seasoned with only salt, olive oil and sometimes mint leaves and breadcrumbs, cherry tomatoes, olives... somebody stop me.

All’acqua pazza [ahll’akwah PATZah] Literally “in the manner of the crazy water.” This cooking method is commonly applied to white fish stewed in spicy tomato, olive oil and garlic. The recipe belongs to the ancient Napoli fisherman-food tradition. It became very popular in the upscale touristy island of Capri in the 60’s. Sometimes black Gaeta olives and capers are added, but I'm not too in favor of those additions. Jussayin'

All'arrabbiata [ahll’ AHRahbBYAtah] The "enraged" sauce is one commonly cooked in a saucepan with plenty spicy peperoncino or Cayenne pepper, and tomato. Only one pasta shape is contemplated for true all’arrabbiata, and that’s penne.

A 'scapece [ah skaPEHcheh] Typical Neapolitan recipe for zucchini. The zucchini are initially fried then marinated in vinegar, chopped garlic and peppermint leaves. The method’s name, contrary to popular belief, is not after someone's surname; Mr. Scapece–who according to some purportedly invented the dish–never existed. The term is of Spanish origin. During the Aragonese domination of the seaport city of Napoli, many Castilian words came into common Italian speech patterns. The Spanish verb "escabechar" means 'to pickle,' to 'marinade' and this method is precisely that.

Arrosto [arROHStoe] Onomatopoeic adjective describing foods that have been oven-roasted. Pollo arrosto, arrosto di maiale, patate arrosto… don’t these sometimes obscure terms simply make your mouth water?

Besciamella [BEHshahMELlah] Also called by its original French name, béchamel. This basic white sauce is made by stirring milk into a butter-flour roux. The thickness of the sauce depends on the proportion of flour and butter to milk. Often used in oven baked pasta timballi and lasagne al forno.

Bocconcini [BOHkohnCHEEnee] Two definitions: 1. Small nuggets (about 1 inch in diameter) of fresh Mozzarella di Bufala. Bocconcini are generally sold packed in whey.
2. Diminutive term for "small mouthful," referring not so much to size, rather to the appetizing appeal of dishes described in this manner. Therefore, in Italian cookery, the word bocconcini may be attributed to many dishes. For example, bocconcini di vitello in bianco is a rich mouthwatering preparation of veal chunks cooked with wine, flour and pickled baby vegetables. {Recipe to be posted soon. I promise.}

Bollito [bohLEEtoe] A food that has been boiled, for example hard-boiled eggs, vegetables, pasta, etc. When used as a noun, bollito however refers to the complex Piemontese recipe where 7 different cuts of various meats are boiled tender in broth, served sliced and dressed with several sauces.

Brasato [braSAHtoe] The verb translates into "braised," but in Italian cuisine, brasato is a dish made by searing meat which is then immersed in bold red wine and simmered slowly for hours. The most famous application is Brasato al Barolo.

Carpaccio [kahrPAHTcheeoh] Carpaccio consists of thin shavings of raw meat, which may be drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, often topped with Parmigiano flakes. It is generally served as an appetizer. The term carpaccio though has in recent years been applied to almost every raw fleshy food other than beef fillet, such as veal; or all kinds of fish fillets, mollusks, smoked swordfish, tuna, etc. The original recipe was invented in the '50s by Giuseppe Cipriani (owner of Harry’s Bar in Venice) and dressed with a creamy dressing.

Carpione [carPYOneh] Sautéed olive oil, onion and sage leaves, diluted with water and vinegar. This marinade is then poured boiling hot over vegetables, fried fresh water fish, particularly eel, trench or carp.

Chitarra [keeTAHRrah] Contrary to what the translation would imply, this is not a musical instrument, but a similar shaped implement belonging to the Abruzzo tradition of homemade pasta making. This chitarra is a wooden frame upon which metal strings are tightly fitted. The pasta dough is flattened over the taut strings and by falling through them, is cut into thick spaghetti strands. So when referring to spaghetti alla chitarra, this is not the name of a pasta recipe, rather that of a pasta type.

Cotto [KOHtoe] Past participle of 'cooked.' The term can be applied to a specific food, as in prosciutto cotto for example, which is ham. Or simply define, as in ben cotto something which is cooked well done (literally, 'well cooked'); poco cotto: underdone; troppo cotto: overdone; cotto a puntino: cooked properly (literally, 'cooked to a dot').

Crudo [CREWdoe] Italian adjective for "raw." Prosciutto is also just called 'crudo,' and so is the vast array of raw shellfish and mollusks simply referred to as "crudo di pesce." An addition of drizzled raw olive oil in recipes is defined as olio a crudo.

Dorare [dohRAHreh] Literally 'to gild,' the meatphoric transitive verb in Italian cooking means 'to coat in egg and flour and lightly brown.' Alici dorate is a yummy southern Italian recipe for "golden" anchovies.

Fondo [PHONEdoe] Is the partly caramelized fat and juice exuding from meat during cooking that forms at the bottom (hence the Italian name) of the cooking pot. Diluted with water, stock or wine and heated, it is transformed into a 'deglazed' tasty gravy that can be poured over the sliced meat, or served separately in a sauceboat.

Fuoco [FWOkoe] Is fire. When a recipe calls for foods cooked over a particular heat range, they are accordingly a fuoco basso (low heat), fuoco medio (medium), fuoco alto (high), fuoco moderato (mild), fuoco vivace (lively), fuoco minimo (very low) etc. A little bit like in music tempo.

Fritto [FREEDtoe] Deep fried foods also play an important role in Italian cuisine, whether they be part of a more complex preparation like that of Parmigiana di Melanzane, 'Scapece marinades, or as stand-alone fried foods, such as Arancini, croquets or Olive Ascolane (meat-stuffed green olives, breaded and then deep fried).

Giardiniera [JARdeeneeERA] Mixed baby vegetables, principally cocktail onions, carrots, cauliflowers, bell peppers, and pickles preserved in a vinegar brine. Italian giardiniera is different from the American condiment called with the same name, which usually uses other assorted vegetables, such as peppers, olives and pimentos marinated in vegetable oil.

Impanare [EEMpahnAREH] From the word pane–which means bread–this term refers to dredging food with an outer coating. It literally means dipping or rolling food in seasoned breadcrumbs. The food can be dipped into beaten eggs before being dredged with the dry mixture commonly called a panatura. Coating food in this manner usually precedes frying.

In cagnone [een cahÑHOneh] Boiled rice, seasoned with butter sautéed sage and garlic, and then served with lots of grated Parmigiano.

In salmì [een saulMEE] Way of preparing wild game, particularly hare. The animal is cleaved into sections, marinated for a couple of days in wine and spices, and then stewed in a Dutch oven.

In umido [een OOMeedoe] Meat, fish, chicken or rabbit cooked in a 'humid' tomato sauce, seasoned with olive oil, parsley and wide variety of spices.

Macedonia [MAHcheyDOÑah] Mixed fruit salad, made with both chopped fresh or canned fruits, seasoned with lemon juice, orange, sugar and optional liqueur.
Macedonia varies according to season. During the winter months, the choice is slim, therefore it can be enhanced with raisins, nuts and dried figs. In spring and summer refreshing and colorful macedonia can be served à la mode. Or drowned in champagne.

Mantecare [MAHNteyKAHreh] The action of whipping foods and cheeses or sauces together in order to combine all elements into a creamy blend. From the Spanish root 'manteca,' for butter.

Mazzetto guarnito [matzEHTtoe gwarNEEtoe] From the French term bouquet garni for garnished bouquet. A bundle of aromatic herbs bound together to avoid dispersion during cooking in sauces or other preparations. The Italian aromatic mazzetto (small bunch) is made with parsley, basil, thyme and bay leaves, but can vary and include celery, sage and other herbs according to taste. Usually wrapped in a cheesecloth, muslin or gauze. I use the knotted end section of a nylon pantyhose.

Mostarda [mosTAHRdah] The piquant condiment made with mustard seeds, pepper and other spices in Italy, however is a much broader term.
Mostarda di Cremona, for example, is a tangy mixture of candied fruits soaked in honey-mustard syrup, seasoned with rosé wine. It can vary from mild to pungent, and it is usually served to accompany boiled meats in the bollito entré, or with aged cheeses. Mostarda from Veneto is similar, and the one made in Mantova uses exclusively candied apple.

Raffreddare [RAHfrehDAHreh] Intransitive Italian verb for 'to cool' or 'cool down.' The derived term essere raffreddato applied to a person (and not a food in this case) means 'to have a cold.'

Ragù [rahGOO] The term derives from French, it is however the ultimate Italian pasta sauce. The Bolognese ragù is prepared with minced meat; in the southern recipe the meat is left whole and cooked with tomato, oil and spices for hours.

Rosolare [ROEsoLAHreh] Italians love to sear. Cooking quickly over high heat, causing the surface of the food to turn brown while the interior stays moist, is a method that not only gives food an appetizing color, but also a rich flavor. Searing is usually done on top of the stove, but may also be achieved under a broiling unit.

Salmoriglio [SAHLmoeREEjlyo] Sicilian condiment made with olive oil, lemon, parsley, oregano and a tablespoon of salted water. It usually dresses thick brabecued swordfish steaks.

Saltare in padella [sahlTAReh een pahDELah] Saltare means to jump, which is the root of the French term sauté. This technique is used to cook foods (usually greens) in heated garlic-flavored olive oil, seasoned with spicy peperoncino and a dash of salt. The derived green oil and delicious tasty pan-fried greens are a gift of Nature. Especially if paired with crusty warm bread.

Sbollentare [SBOHlenTAHreh] To blanch. Blanching, or preparing foods (generally vegetables, nuts or fruits) for further cooking is obtained by immersing them briefly in boiling water. This is a very useful procedure. Blanching helps peeling tomatoes, for example. Use a paring knife to slice a tiny X on the bottom of each tomato; drop it in boiling water for about 20 seconds; then use a slotted spoon to transfer it to a bowl of ice-cold water to stop it from further cooking. Skins should slip right off.

Soffritto [sofFREEtoe] Mirepoix - a mince of onions, carrots and celery chopped with a heavy knife and sautéed in olive oil to flavor the initial phases of cooking. Sometimes lard, pancetta or prosciutto are added to this holy trinity fundamental base for stews, sauces, soups and ragù.

Scaldare [scalDAHreh] The opposite of raffreddare, scaldare is 'to heat.' When a recipe calls for olive oil heated in a skillet with chopped garlic, for instance, it simply says scaldare l’olio con l’aglio.

And that immediately makes me want to go to the stove.

Reference: Il Cucchiaio d'Argento ~ The Silver Spoon
Images courtesy of: Linda Carter Holman - - - - - - - Sara Maternini - profumidallacucina


  1. This is so helpful for me, so many times I am looking for the proper phrase!
    Plus packed with good ~Italian Cooking Knowledge~
    Grazie, Lola :)

  2. Grazie Chuck for your comment. I'm happy this is useful to you!

  3. Hi Lola... You are literally amazing ! Thanks so much for this handy guide... will have to try it the next time I take an italian lady out to dinner. Do you think la grenouille will mind ? The "devil's fashion" of cooking sounds particularly good...

  4. I am getting hungry...and I just finished breakfast! :-)

  5. This is an excellent resource. Mille grazie!

  6. What better way to learn a language! You take it literally inside.

  7. Hi Eleonora, this was such a wonderful post - thanks for taking the time to make it so interesting and user friendly!! Ciao, bella!

  8. and now i will eat and speak with passion and gusto...smiles. thanks for the lesson lola! smiles.

  9. p.s. I'm sending you visitors: this is too good not to share!

  10. Ciao Eleonora,
    Wonderfully written. Having gone back and read some your older posts, dovrei precisare that this is wonderfully written, as usual.

  11. Owen~ Don't get me into trouble with la grenouille! ;)
    Saretta~ good sign!! Did you ever find farina di ceci?
    Graphic foodie~ Thank *you*! And you're very prego!!
    Heiko~ Cheers! Grazie
    FHFG~ I'm glad you enjoyed it ;)
    Brian~ My pleasure... now get cooking!
    Rosaria~ Brava, the more the merrier!! Grazie
    Andrea~ Thank you, sei molto kind :D

  12. Elenora-what a great post-thanks so much!

  13. Janie~ Thank *you* for visiting and for leaving a comment!

  14. Wow, Lola! I can easily pronounce it all, now finally I know what it all means! Grazie, das ist ein wundervoller Ratgeber! I especially liked the fried potatoes. Me too I am for the simple dishes. Would love to stretch out my legs under your table.
    Wait, I`ll write you a mail now!
    Ha - the veri word is chant! Let`s chant then! O sole mio...

  15. What a fun post!I love the idioms. I took a brief Italian language class and intend to take another this year. Sigh - the only Italian I speak - is cooking!

  16. This is awesome. Thank you for putting it together, very helpful

  17. Where did my comment go, what???

  18. Geli~ Thank you, I'm so happy you enjoyed learning a little Italian. I'd love you to stretch your feet under my kitchen table! I have comment moderation, so it takes a little before they appear on the website.
    Theresa~ So happy you liked it!


  19. Fabulously information, and I LOVE that quote at the beginning. :-) Totally inspired me today. :-)

  20. Rambling Tart~ Wonderful! I'm happy to have inspired you! Thank you for leaving such a nice comment.

  21. What an amazing resource Eleonora, grazie! I've posted on the Orsoni facebook page ~

  22. JoAnn~ Great! Thank you very much!!
    ChefC~ :)

  23. Awesome resource! That actually clarified some of the terms that I have read on Italian restaurant menus (of course the have the food description, but not typically the direct translation). Thanks. :)

  24. Cooking on a Dime~ I'm happy you found this useful. Thank *you* for visiting! Ciao

  25. Thank you! This list gives me exact meanings for some phrases for which I only had an abstract sense. Very useful!

  26. Jim~ Thank you! Sometimes we take expressions for granted, using them abstractly, you're right! Glad you enjoyed.

  27. Eleonora ~ mille grazie for all the prep terms. more study is due so i can order more presicely when in Roma...
    The melons balls in broth is a new recipe for me - something i can attempt even in Montana.

    Your blog is packed with good things - thanks you!

  28. Deborah~ Well, that might just be the next post, an "ordering your meal in Italian" template! ;)

  29. wow. I'll start learning those now...

  30. Brava, Alice!! When do we meet up for a nice aperitivo??? Baci

  31. searching for sole/fish recipes I found this blog where you mention your argentinian boyfriend, and you make me smile (I'm the canadian who lived in Argentina Buenos Aires) remembering mis amigos cordobeses... however I cannot stop reading your blog!! it's very helpfull

  32. Alicia~
    Nice to see you here, and so happy you enjoy the blog! Please take a moment to vist my recipes page scroll down to Fish & Seafood Entrées, and go crazy.