You’re in an Italian restaurant with the menu in your hands. It’s not a tourist restaurant, so there are no English translations. Good for you.

Italian is pretty easy to pronounce. There are pitfalls, of course, for English speakers. Like vowels. You pronounce them in Italian. Yes, even the letter “e” at the end of the word is given its true place.

You’ll learn all the pronunciation rules in your first class in Italian. If you want to have a great vacation, especially in rural Italy, you’ll take an introductory course before you leave for the boot.

The Provolone Problem

Let’s start with that ending “e”. Say you want some cheese. Provolone is on your mind. It’s on the menu because it’s local, produced around Vesuvius in Campania. You’re getting the best. You say it to the waiter as we do in the US, assuming the trailing “e” is silently working to make the “o” into a long vowel. The waiter wrinkles his nose like a long-dead carcass has been shoved under it.

In Italian, you see, the “o” is always pronounced that way anyway, so the important “e” isn’t silent, it can sing. Like this:

In the audio clip, Carlotta has pronounced provolone properly, then after a pause, she politely orders some: Vorrei un po’ di provolone. You can also say “I’ll take a little provolone by using the word “prendo” as in “Prendo un po’ di provolone”.

When in Italy, do the same with that “big sock” of a folded pizza called a calzone. Pronounce the “e”, and remember that the “z” is a “tz” sound like you pronounce correctly in “pizza” only shorter. It’s not a zone in California you know, except in California.

Vexing Biscotti

One of the words Americans think they know, the twice-cooked “cookie” usually dipped into something alcoholic at the end of the meal. All my friends who do not go to Italy frequently pronounce it as if it were written “biscatti”, even after I yell at them, “do you SEE an ‘a’ in “biscotti?”

No, a thousand times no, it’s not bisc-ah-ti. You might order them like Carlotta, who wants a glass of that Tuscan vin santo with hers.

The same applies to riccota. Do you see an “a” in the middle of it? It’s pronounced simply as it’s written. The “ah” sound is what you make when the doctor shoves that stick into your mouth, right before you gag. A teaspoon of fresh riccota laid gently upon the tongue is a much better experience, trust me.

Bungling Bruschette

Ok, this is a hard one. I’ll be easy on you—it won’t be on the test. Chances are, you’re bungling it bad.

“C” is the bad boy of Italian pronunciation. Like all bad boys, they can be soft or hard depending upon their surroundings (letters). Here’s Carlotta ordering some bruschette (the plural of brushetta) to start her meal.

Gnarly Gnocchi

There’s that combo of C’s again. And “gn” which we don’t really have in English. Let’s get this right and make the waiter’s job a little easier.

Let’s say you’re on the Amalfi coast in the beautiful town of Sorrento. You spot gnocchi alla sorentina on the menu. It’s gnocchi anointed with tomato sauce made creamy with the mozzarella the area is noted for. Here’s Carlotta pronouncing “gnocchi” and then ordering some gnocchi alla sorentina in a more formal way than before, saying “I would like the gnocchi alla sorentina, please.”

Expressing Espresso

After a fine Italian meal one has a coffee. Italians have un caffè. Plain coffee in a small cup made by an enormous and well-polished machine that pushes water through the ground coffee at a very high pressure so it extracts lots of flavor into that little bit of water.

So Italians simply ask for a coffee. They have little use for the word “espresso” because that’s what it will be. BUT, you being a foreigner and all, the waiter might ask “espresso?” and at this point I’ve heard several people say, “I just want a coffee! while thinking coffee is the same everywhere and they’re receive a 28 ounce mug of the stuff. So the waiter will ask “americano”? He wants to know if you’d like a lake-full of water in your espresso like others he’s served from your country.

The argument never ends well, so to start, that little cup of espresso is a regular coffee in Italy and you’ll have to live with it or order a caffè americano.

But here’s the thing. “espresso” doesn’t have an “x” in it, so when the waiter asks, don’t say you want an expresso, because that’s not the word.

How did that x get in there anyway?

Here’s Carlotta, who wants a few drops of grappa in her coffee to “correct” it in an epic battle (alcohol vs. caffeine). She orders a caffè corretto.

So you’ve had your meal and your coffee and it’s time to go. Don’t forget to ask for the bill. If you don’t ask, they won’t (usually) bring. You can sit there until they start watering the plants with the left-over mineral water unless you do. It’s rude in Italy to settle the account unless you ask for it first. That’s why they do it in tourist joints. Rudeness is in at tourist joints and in Congress.

In any case it’s time to ask for il conto. It’s easy if you’re sober.

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When we speak of Italian cuisine, we are speaking of the varied cuisines of geographic entities that were the city-states before the Risorgimento, the unifying of Italy. There is another class of Italian cuisine, it seems to me, that of the worker.

The Vineyard Worker

Wineries in Italy, especially Piemonte, are more like small farms in which the workers (which often include the owner and family) have many tasks. Tasting rooms can close while the staff picks grapes in the fall. But work takes fuel, and one day we discovered some high-octane deliciousness.

It was a glorious day, the sun shone brightly, the sea of vineyards around us stretched as far as the next distant hill crowned with a small castle. We found a restaurant and stopped in.

On the menu was a ravioli dish. I don’t remember what it was named, but how it was named intrigued me. I asked the waitress. She reddened and got all flustered. “Signore, this is what was fed the workers. It’s just ravioli and they are boiled and then we pour the red wine over them. Just red wine, there is no sauce really.” The subtext, of course, was that this was not for us, vaunted tourists, but for the common folks taking a nostalgic trip to the time they picked grapes in their younger years.

I ordered it of course. It was good. I could imagine tired workers leaning against giant beams palming bowls of ravioli and getting their wine infusion with every spoonful. It was, after all, time to rid the tanks of the old to make way for the juice of the grapes they were now picking. It look like this:

The wine worker's lunch: Ravioli with vino.

The Pig Slaughter Worker

As I am the, “what the hell is this weird thing, I gotta have it” kind of person when I’m staring at a restaurant menu, I once found “grilled salami” in the secondo piatto section of a menu printed in bad English. The steaming patty was good. It wasn’t salami. It hadn’t been cured.

You see, many rural Italians still keep a pig or two. In the winter they slaughter the animal and make salami, prosciutto, and other wonderful salted pig parts to hold them over through the winter. It’s been happening since forever in rural spaces.

When I bought our house in the rural Lunigiana corner of Tuscany, we happened to have a neighbor named Armando who raised pigs. One winter I watched the process of making the noble animal into food. It was then that I came to understand what I was eating that day.

On the first day the butcher broke down the pig in an open shed. On the second morning Armando, the butcher, and other workers gathered in a garage and began turning the appropriate parts of the pig into things like salami and Mortadella Luniginese. As the grinder cranked the folks helping kept taking little bits of the pork to taste. Raw.

Then the spices were added and mixed in along with a couple of glugs of Armando’s homemade white wine. At that point it was lunch time. The workers and I scurried to the kitchen.

I hadn’t seen them take out bits of the salami mixture, but handfuls of the spiced pork were now being pressed into the teste, little ceramic “plates” with a lip that could stand the heat of being heated to high temperatures right on the fire.

So what came out was that grilled patty of salami I’d eaten. It was a way that the workers could share the exact thing being produced, as in the case of the ravioli with wine for the wine workers. It was also a way the padrone could get a final idea of the level of seasoning.

In the Lunigiana, we call this grilled salami chiodo di maiale. It looks like a plain ol’ burger, but it’s way better.

Chiodo di maiale

The Worker’s Lunch

All over the Lunigiana, as well as other places in Italy, you can get what they call worker’s lunch. It’s a bargain at between 10 and 13 euro. That includes a pasta, soup or risotto, a main course, vegetable or salad, wine, mineral water and coffee, no tipping, no tax. It’s always a bargain.

Get a taste for a typical pronzo di lavoro the typical “worker’s lunch” you don’t have to work for by reading a review of Ristorante Vecchia Bruxelles.

Don’t you wish you were in Italy right now?

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Pasta with breadcrumbs: Cucina Povera from Basilicata

Menus in a foreign language can be very perplexing. The solutions so far haven’t been so helpful; no Self-respecting foodie would even think of going to a restaurant that relied on pictures to tell the story of how the food looks, for example.

But people like seeing pictures on the web. That’s ok.

So what we’re doing is giving you the pictures in private, then telling you how an Italian dish is generally prepared, in which region you’d expect to find it, and where it goes on the menu. When the site is fully populated we’ll turn it into an app so you can carry it around on your phone so that when you see something on the menu that totally baffles you, like Chicche con cicale di mare you can say, “gosh, I’ve wanted to taste that since I got this wonderful app on my phone and saw the picture!”

And since there can’t be a person on earth who can resist the taste of sea-grasshopper, why would anyone pass up the opportunity to eat well just because the Italian title didn’t register in those little gray cells?

The site is just being built. You can poke around a bit in the wreckage as we add stuff and spiff up the environment with noodles of code, but we have no idea of how you found us so soon in the process.

But welcome nevertheless.

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