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In Italy, food is king.
As I’ve mentioned before, food is the ultimate topic of conversation, and there’s nowhere better to engage in a conversation about food than in Italy. I’ve had dinners where literally 99% of the conversation had something to do with food – and dinners in Italy can last hours.
If you’re thinking of heading to the Land of Pasta, you’re going to need to be prepared. Whether you’re describing what you’re currently eating, recounting a recent meal, planning what’s on the menu tonight or tomorrow or, as in the comic above, describing alien foods from your home country, you’ll need a stockpile of words and phrases to get you through the meal. Here are some of the ones in my personal collection, in the order that you will probably need them, along with a general overview of the Italian meal system (and don’t forget that Italian is only half spoken – the other half is gestured) – buon appetito!
Mangiamo – let’s eat!
Aperitivo – aperitif. This is where it begins. A course unto itself – more than simple appetizers, less than a full meal – the aperitivo opens the meal, and is a light alcoholic bevande (drink) and a snack.
Ho fame – I’m hungry. I’ll bet you are.
Non vedo l’ora – I can’t wait. Useful in combination with rubbing your hands together and an eager expression.
Patatine – chips. This can refer to either French fries or potato chips, but in the aperitivo course it’s generally chips. Other common aperitivo snacks are olive (olives), arachidi (nuts) and formaggio (cheese).
Antipasto – appetizer. As if an aperitivo wasn’t enough. Now we’re getting our fingers greasy. Don’t overdo it, though; there are still many courses to come.
Salata/o – salty. The ending of adjectives depends on the gender of the noun being described. Salty ham is prosciutto salato, while salty bruschetta would be bruschetta salata. Note that the adjective comes after the noun.
Fredda/o – cold.
Buona/o – good! Definitely use this one liberally, drawing out the syllables as long as necessary to communicate just how realllllllly good it is. Variations: molto buono (very good), buonissimo (great!), mamma, che buono! (oh my god that’s good). Not to be confused with: bene, which means “good” or “well” in a moral or adverbial sense, not to describe food.
Primo – first course. Pastas, risottos, zuppe (soups). The key to understanding the Italian meal structure is thinking of each course as a completely separate, inviolable category of food. Just as you at home would probably not eat ice cream before salad, equally distressing to the Italian is the idea of having a pasta dish for any other course than the primo (or any other meal than lunch, for that matter. I learned that one the hard way). Again, don’t overdo it; we’re just getting started.
Pesante – heavy. Tough to digest. Used by Italians to describe German food.
Troppa/o – too. As in, too much, too little, or troppo buono!
Calda/o – hot. Not spicy, though; that’d be piccante.
Gustosa/o – tasty. Because you can’t have enough ways to say that.
Secondo – second course. This is where the meat comes in – from bistecca (steak) to pollo (chicken) to pesce (fish) to agnello (lamb), all decked in the most wonderful sauces and spices. This is generally considered the “main” course, although depending where you are or the situation, the primo might be more important. And by the way, if you think this bewildering multitude of courses are just for fancy dinner parties, think again. Every meal I’ve ever had at my in-law’s place, in a tiny countryside village, has featured at least four of these courses. And we’re not nearly through yet.
Morbida/o – soft. Also: tender, in the sense of describing food.
Perfetta/o – perfect. Nuff said.
Contorno – vegetable course. Steamed, cooked or raw verdure (veggies), and yes, always served as a separate dish, never with the meat. You should have seen the look on my Italian wife’s face the first time we had Thanksgiving dinner in the USA and we just piled our plates full of everything.
Ancora, per favore – more, please. Perhaps no other phrase will ingratiate yourself more with your hosts. After all, an empty plate and licked lips speak for themselves.
Cruda/o – raw.
Cotta/o – cooked.
Sono pieno – I’m full. That may be so, but this is a futile attempt, my friend.
Finischilo/la! – finish it! This is generally what you’ll hear as the last bite from the pan is scraped onto your plate by hosts eager to fill you up as much as physically possible.
Insalata – salad course. That’s right, we’re not out of the woods yet. Unlike back in the States, the salad is eaten after the main courses, not before as some kind of appetizer. I personally don’t care when I eat my salad, but the Italians around me seem to care a great deal, so as they say, “when in Rome…”
Secca/o – dry. In the sense of food, anyway.
Fresca/o – fresh.
Il giardino – garden.
Sono veramente pienissimo – I’m really very full. Nice try.
Formaggi e frutta – cheese and fruit course. Generally whatever’s in season or a specialty of the region, such as mele (apples). Arachidi (nuts) might also be eaten.
Dolce – dessert; sweet. Means both the dessert course, and to describe something as sweet tasting. You might have a tiramisu, panna cotta, or panettone or pandoro if it’s around Natale (Christmas). Gelato and sorbetto wouldn’t be out of the question, either.
Leggera/o – light.
Caffè – coffee course. Mandatory. We’re almost at the end here. This isn’t a latte or some kind of milky cappuccino, now. This is a piping-hot shot of pure espresso straight to the gut.
Forte – strong.
Amara/o – sour.
Digestivo – “digestive”. A shot of spirits to help that enormous meal make its way through your digestive system. Usually a grappa or limoncello or similar strong drink. After setting down your empty digestivo glass, you now have permission to lean back, sigh happily, and begin talking about what a great meal it was.
Fantastica/o – fantastic. To describe what you’re eating, or the meal in general, if it was particularly good. See also: splendida/o, magnifica/o.
Ho mangiato bene – I’ve eaten well. Doesn’t translate particularly well into English, but it’s a crucial phrase, believe me. Also used to compliment the quality of food in a place at which you’ve eaten in the past, i.e., abbiamo mangiato molto bene la (we ate very well there).
Cosa mangiamo domani? – what’re we eating tomorrow? Because it literally never, ever stops.
Bonus Venetian dialect expression: Magna e tasi – shut up and eat!
Any suggestions? Did I miss anything critical to the Italian mealtime experience?