12 Italian Food Sayings + A Fab Dessert
I was waxing on and on about how wonderful Italy is, when my Italian friend told me I must have “slices of salami over your eyes”–“aver le fette di salame sugli occhi”. It took me a beat to realize it was Italy’s equivalent of “rose-colored glasses.”
Italy is a country focused on food and through the years I’ve discovered hundreds of fascinating food-centric Italian idiomatic expressions. I took to jotting them down in the hope that eventually I’d have one for each recipe for an Italian cookbook I was writing.
Well, it turns out Italy’s got enough for at least two books! Dolci: Italy’s Sweets and Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy are both studded with these gems.
My 12 favorites:
-1- The Italian equivalent of “practice makes perfect” is the more colorful “Figliuole e frittelle, quante piú se ne fa, piú vegon belle.” Translation: Children and fried food: the more you make, the better they come out.
-2- If someone is clever, Italians say, “He’s got salt in his pumpkin”–“Avere sale in zucca”—because it’s rare, like smartness, to find any salt in a pumpkin.
-3- Shakespeare said “All’s well that ends well,” but Italians say “It all ends with biscuits and wine”—“Tutto finisce a tarallucci e vino”. Years ago in some regions of Italy, legal disputes or negotiations concluded with a handshake and a toast of red wine and a plate of tarallucci cookies.
-4- In the USA we “call a spade a spade”, but Italians “call bread bread and wine wine”–“Dire pane al pane e vino al vino.”
-5- In Tuscany when someone moves quickly, they say, “He eats the steam from the focaccia”—“mangiare il fumo alle schiacciate”—because steam escapes rapidly from schiacciate, thin focaccia bread.
-6- “Nouveau riche” in Italy is “acts like a chocolatier” –“fare la figura del cioccolataio”—because in the 1800s chocolate was so expensive that chocolate makers quickly became rich and extravagantly dressed.
-7- The innocuous-sounding “We’ve come to the fruit”—“siamo alla frutta”—actually means “I’m at my wits end” or “I’ve come to the end of my rope” coming to an impasse. Because in Italy fruit is served at the end of the meal, the party’s over. Dinner’s over is almost tragic for an Italian.
-8- An apple a day keeps the doctor away in the USA, but in Italy, “A little wine kicks the doctor out the door” Due dita di vino e una pedata al medico.”
-9- “Don’t let yourself be fenneled” –“Non farti infinocchiare” — means don’t be fooled. Fennel — the taste or even just the aroma — can overpower other flavors. Years ago dishonest innkeepers and wine makers would use it to mask the taste of an inferior bottle.
-10- Nothing like our “walk of shame,” Italy’s “mouthful of shame”—”il boccone della vergogna” is said with great flourish as a sort of ironic apology for the breach of etiquette, and intended as a compliment to the cook when taking the last bite from a communal platter.
-11- In America we say “icing on the cake” but the Italian equivalent is “come il cacio sui maccheroni,” literally “like cheese on macaroni.”
-12- The Italians even have an expression for sopping up sauce with a piece of bread. They call it “Doing the little shoe”—“Fare la scarpetta”—because of the tracks the bread leaves on the plate.
Fried Sweet Crisps Cenci
From Dolci: Italy’s Sweets by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2012)
Makes about 5 dozen
Bet you can’t eat just one! Crunchy wisps, feather-light, generously sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar— this is the classic Italian Carnevale treat that’s delicious any time of the year.
The secret to making these treats light and absolutely, totally non-greasy is to roll the dough paper thin.
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
- 2 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, diced
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons Marsala wine, plus more as needed
- Zest of 1 lemon or 1/2 orange
- Vegetable oil for frying
- Confectioners’ sugar
Put the flour into a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add the eggs, butter, sugar salt, and Marsala. Begin to incorporate flour into the center liquids, working with your fingers, until dough forms. If dry, add a few more drops of Marsala, if too moist, sprinkle with a bit more flour. Knead the dough for at least 5 minutes, until smooth and elastic.
Cover the bowl with a clean dishcloth and let rest at room temperature for 1 hour. This is key to getting those pretty little bubbles on the dough when you fry it.
Working in small batches, run the dough through a pasta maker, starting at the widest opening and ending at the most narrow. Lay the strips of thin dough onto a clean cotton canvas cloth or lightly floured work surface.
Cut the dough into whatever shapes you like, either using a curly edged ravioli cutter or a knife. They can be rectangular, triangular, irregular, anything! One of the common versions is to cut a rectangle, about 3 1/2 inches long by 2 inches wide, and making a 2-inch slit in the center
Pour 1 inch of oil into a deep pot, and heat to 335 degrees F or test if the oil is hot enough by putting a small bit of thin dough into the oil. It will rise within a second or two if the oil is hot enough.
Fry the dough in batches until just lightly barely golden (Note: they fry very quickly because they are so thin). Drain on paper towels.
Serve at room temperature dusted on both sides with lots of confectioners’ sugar.