Frequently Mispronounced Italian Food Words
--and how to say them right

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 ricotta. 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 ricotta 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 sorrentina 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 sorrentina in a more formal way than before, saying “I would like the gnocchi alla sorrentina, 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.