The Year of Food in the Italian Language

Feb 26, 2018


L’anno del cibo italiano

The Year of Italian Food

The Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Agricultural Policies has named 2018 “The Year of Italian Food.”  While I personally feel we should celebrate Italian food every year, I’m delighted to add my voice to the chorus of praise for everyone’s favorite cucina (a triple-tasking word that can translate as cuisine, cooking and kitchen).

Italy’s food and language meld together as smoothly as cacio sui maccheroni (cheese on macaroni). Both boast a rich and rollicking history dating back to ancient times. Both vary greatly from region to region, even from village to village.  Both reflect centuries of invasion, assimilation and conquest. And both can transform daily necessities into vibrant celebrations.

Italians have long realized that we are, quite literally, what we eat.  Sapia, Latin for taste, gave rise to Italian’s sapienza (wisdom). In pursuit of divine wisdom and saintly virtues, Italians developed the tradition of “eating the gods.”   Through the yearly cycle of church holidays, they devour dita degli apostoli (fingers of the apostles, crêpes filled with sweetened ricotta); minni di Sant’Agata (breasts of Saint Agatha, stuffed with marzipan); occhi  di Santa Lucia (eyes of Santa Lucia, circles of durum bread);  and  at Christmas cartellate (the cloths that cradled the baby Jesus, made of flour, oil and dry white wine) and calzoncicchi  di Gesu Bambino  (pillows of pasta filled with a mix of pureed garbanzos, chocolate, and homemade rosolio (a liqueur derived from rose petals), fried and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon

I have adopted a similar strategy of “eating Italian” to make the language part of me.  l read aloud the lilting words for simple culinary techniques, such as rosolare for make golden, sbricciolare for crumble and sciaquare for rinse.  I  revel in the linguistic pantry of pasta shapes:  little ears, half sleeves, stars, thimbles—and the tartly named lingue di suocera, “twisted mother-in-law tongues,” and strozzapreti, “priest-stranglers” (rich enough  to sate ravenous clerics before the expensive meat course). 

Desserts like zuccotto (sponge bombe filled with ice cream), ciambellone (ring cake), suspiru di Monaca (a nun’s sigh) and tiramisu (pick-me-up) glide so deliciously over the tongue that I agree with cooks who claim they can fare respirare i morti (make the dead breathe).   I’m especially fond of Rome’s lacrime d’amore  (tears of love), candy sugar pearls filled with the same sweet syrup parents serve children for a toast on special occasions.

Italian’s gastronomic words—like the dishes they describe—do more than tease or appease the appetite. They spice up daily conversations—as you’ll find in the following examples:

Words and Expressions

Prezzemolo (parsley) — a  busybody  who noses into everything   

Salame (salami) –- a silly fool, blockhead

Mozzarella –- someone bland or boring

Polpettone (large meatball) — a worthless or banal movie

Tutto fumo e niente arrosto  (all smoke and no roast) — all sizzle and no steak

Dianne Hales is the author of  MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.


Subscribe here



La Passione
Mona Lisa
La Bella Lingua