The language of food

The Italian language is fascinating and beautiful, but even more so for a food lover. Dialects and slang all add to the mix, making it even richer than what the basics cover. The brilliant Italian-American linguist Mario Pei knew a thing or two about this. The Roman-born, American-bred Columbia University Language Professor wrote over 50 books on the subject of language.

I experienced nothing short of an epiphany when I was reading something he had written in 1950 about the relationship between language and food:

“The countries that display the widest range of dialects are also the ones in which cookery assumes the most diversified forms; while the lands where dialectal differences are slight exhibit a certain monotony in their food. Italy appears very close to the top of the list among countries with a wide dialectal array, and correspondingly, the food of Italy is so diversified that the cuisine of one region is practically foreign to another.”

This last sentence could not be more true, even today, 60 years after that statement was written. Regional cooking is so diverse in Italy that what you find in one region (or even in one town) you may never see anywhere else on the peninsula. It can still be said that “Italian cuisine” does not exist. It is many cuisines.

Pellegrino Artusi’s (and later, also Ada Boni’s) attempts at bringing the country together via a cookbook in 1891 did wonders in terms of language – but it did not completely change the habits and preferences of Italian kitchens from region to region.

Although Artusi unsuccessfully tried to rename some of the country’s most important regional dishes to give them a more pan-Italian sound, such as “Tortellini all’Italiana” instead of agnolotti (Piedmonte’s national pasta dish) or “Zuppa Toscana di Magro alla Contadina” (a Lean Tuscan Soup, the peasant’s way) instead of ribollita, he was successful at changing the everyday words that were used by those in the kitchen.

The editor of the 1970 edition of Science in the Kitchen, Piero Camporesi, goes as far as to suggest that it was Artusi’s cookbook that helped bring the country and its diverse dialects together into one national language, that it did more than any politician could have done. Gillian Riley in the Oxford Companion to Italian Food paints this picture: “While the questione della lingua [question of language] was being debated by academics, innocent housewives throughout the land were consulting their ‘Artusi’ every day, and his literate, slightly colloquial, Florentine version of Tuscan… became reassuringly familiar.”

What he did change were common cookery words. In his cookbook, Artusi even has a glossary to explain the vernacular Tuscan words he uses throughout the recipes. Food words that non-Tuscans may not have been familiar with include the names of vegetables like bietola (silverbeet, which he notes are often known as erbe, herbs, in other places); strutto, lard or pig’s fat, he notes is known as nzogna in Naples; the word pietra, ‘stone’, is used to describe kidneys, which are also called rene, rognone or arnione in other parts of Italy. He lists kitchen utensils from the chopping board (spianatoia) to a wooden spoon (mestolo) by their Tuscan names and cuts of meat are described by their Tuscan versions as well – these words have remained in modern Italian language (although even then, my mother in law tends to use the dialect words from her Tuscan town of Fucecchio for the wooden spoon, the rumaiolo, instead of the mestolo which is used to rumare, stir, instead of mescolare – old habits die hard!).

In short, Artusi follows in the footsteps of Dante Alighieri and the other great writers of Florence by marking the Tuscan dialect as the national Italian language.

Language and food are so intertwined, especially in Italian, where the language even lends itself to the names of dishes. The more I look into the subject, the more I feel myself falling into a rabbit hole, where the glorious worlds of food and words – two of my favourite things – intermingle.

I love the connection between Italian verbs that describe the habits of eating and the name of a dish, such as pappare, to stuff oneself, where the Tuscan bread and tomato soup, pappa al pomodoro, gets its name (a pappa is also any soft and mushy food like baby food). Another favourite of mine is minestrare, the act of ladling out soup to your family, hence the word for that famous soup, minestrone. I suppose in English, this would be like the words ‘stuffing’ or ‘batter’ that come from verbs that describe what you’re doing but somehow the Italian words are much more poetic, and describe a habit and the culture more than just the physical act.

Many Italian foods are just very self-explanatory when you know their literal meaning, something that almost combines the recipe instructions in the name of the dish. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • Biscotti means “twice cooked”, which is done to make them jaw-breakingly hard so that they stand up to being dipped in vin santo or coffee.
  • Ribollita means “reboiled”, part of the necessity of reaching the desired consistency of this thick bread soup and partly the idea that you make a big pot of it and eat the leftovers the next day (when it’s even better)
  • Ricotta means “re-cooked”: despite what many English-lanugage recipes out there will tell you, ricotta cannot be made without this part of the process – recooking leftover whey from making cheese. Mascarpone, by the way, means “ricotta” in Lombard dialect.
  • Schiacciata means “squashed” or flattened” – this wonderful foccaccia is made by squashing the dough with the fingers, giving each loaf the characteristic pock-marked “fingerprint” of the baker.
  • Pannacotta – “cooked cream” – enough said!

There are other words that give away an essential aspect of the dish, such as Tuscan gnudi, written and pronounced in the Tuscan accent of “gn” instead of simply “n”, for nudi or naked. You see, these delicate little balls of ricotta and spinach bound with egg are the traditional filling for ravioli but in Tuscany are often found without their clothes – the thin sheet of pasta that is usually wrapped around them.

Then there are the names of pasta, which would merit its very own article. It’s enough to say that the Italians have literally thousands of names for pasta of all shapes and sizes and even when you cut it down to actually the type of pasta (some have multiple names, depending on where you are) there are well over 100 types. Whether big tubes, priest-stranglers, bow ties, butterflies, little ears, badly cut, little worms, angels’ hair, big shells, little shells, little hats, elbows, snails, little stars or big lambs there’s no denying that the Italian language, like the collective imagination, is very visual.

Throughout its vast culinary history, Italy has been introduced to new and different foods and ingredients, which called for the adoption of foreign words into the language. Some of them go so far back that no one would even suspect it, such as basilico, basil, which comes directly from the Greek word for the ancient, aromatic and essential Mediterranean herb. Even the tomato today doesn’t seem like a foreign ingredient, but it’s a relative “newcomer” to Italy’s gastronomic scene, brought from the Americas by Christopher Columbus. Not having a name for it, it was given the name of another fruit, pomodoro, Latin for “golden apple.”

Some other words were brought in through trade routes and the melting-pot environments of port cities like Venice and Livorno. Baccalà, that beloved Venetian salted cod and Stoccafisso, the air-dried unsalted cod, are actually from Northern Europe (still today the best variety comes from Norway and is imported). The word baccalà comes from the Dutch word, kabeljaauw, while Stoccafisso is an italianisation of ‘stockfish’, which in turn uses the Dutch word for ‘sticks’, perhaps referring to the wooden racks on which that the fish are dried. Similarly, Livorno’s fish stew, Cacciucco, is argued to be Turkish in origin, from the word küçük, describing the small sizes of the mixture of rock fish traditionally used in the dish.

Some of my favourite Italian food words are the ones that were introduced from English, probably in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when English tourists flooded Italy on their Grand Tours to absorb the art and history. Many fell in love with Florence and stayed. Pellegrino Artusi’s cookbook of 1891 is littered with English recipes that he came across during the many years he spent living in Florence, like the one he says was given to him by an “English signora” (a biscuit recipe that was served to him for a very English afternoon tea). You can be sure that any proudly Florentine trattoria and bar menu will feature these classics: Bistecca Fiorentina, Florentine “beefsteak” – possibly the most famous dish of the city – or rosbiffe, also sometimes spelled rosbif – the wonderfully misspelled Italian adoption of the word “roast beef”.

A curious English word that has made its way into Italian is the word plumcake, a popular breakfast item (yes, they eat cake for breakfast). It’s got nothing to do with plums (in his recipe for it, in fact, Artusi accuses this name of being misleading) but I believe it is a simple case of Chinese-whispers: what the Italians call a plumcake is actually pound cake – a simple cake of exact proportions. In fact, the other word that Italians use less commonly for pound cake, quattro quarti, seems to come from the French quatre-quarts (famous in Breton). The name refers to the equal proportions of flour, butter, sugar and eggs (in English it’s known as pound cake because the traditional recipe calls for a pound of each ingredient).

Then, looking at it the other way around, Italians have done more than we think to contribute to the English language of food. Of course there is the obvious adoption of the words of Italian food products like prosciutto and ricotta or the names of dishes as simple as pizza or pasta that we have adopted into the every day English language.

The fact that we use Italian words for so many of our vegetables shows that Italy was way ahead of English-speaking countries in terms of the sheer variety and availability of vegetables that were grown, produced and eaten on a daily basis. As the world got smaller and vegetables travelled further, we took on the Italian names (although some of them, in British English for example, got stuck with the French names, such as aubergine and courgette). There are zucchini and broccoli, of course. But consider these unlikely ones that Professor Mario Pei points out in his introduction to the English translation of Ada Boni’s The Talisman of Happiness cookbook (the original was written in 1927, this English edition was printed in 1950):

Endive (indivia), celery (sedano), chicory (cicoria), kohlrabi (this name had always had me confused, but when you think of its Italian name and reference to cabbage, cavolo rapa, it all begins to make sense), Jerusalem artichoke – also known as a sunchoke, this plant is a species of sunflower that is actually native to North America. It took the Italians to lend us a name for it, another Chinese-whispers situation where girasole, Italian for sunflower, was mispronounced and ended up as “Jerusalem”.

An unusual one is artichoke. It comes from the Northern Italian word articiocco and although you can still call it that, it’s most commonly known now in Italian as carciofo (closer to its Latin name). It was introduced from Naples via Florence to the British in the sixteenth century, who anglicised the old name, articiocco.

But going back to where this discussion began, in the midst of Italy’s diverse regions, I will leave you with a personal note and another thing that Professor Mario Pei says in his introduction to Ada Boni’s Talisman that I want to scrawl across my kitchen wall: “Variety is the spice of life. Italy has infinite variety and infinite spice.”

In Italian, paese, the word for “town” is the same as that for “country”. Italy’s tendency to be so regionally segregated and to be so protective of this regionality is something that is really an extraordinarily beautiful thing. It is the reason why I love writing about regional Italian food and particularly the region that I called home for seven years. The idea of “Italian cuisine” is so often misunderstood and made worse by bad restaurants or unresearched cookbooks. Any visitor to Italy or lover of its food should cast aside any of these preconceived notions or stereotypes and enjoy this unique aspect of this stubbornly regional country, a place where you can travel from paese to paese and in a short amount of time experience something completely different – embrace the local history, the habits, the language and, most importantly, the local food.


  1. Rosa says:

    A very interesting article! Really well-written and so informative. I really enjoeyd it.



  2. What a meaty article indeed. I enjoyed it very much and would love to understand Italian food as intimately as you do. I’ve never known some of the simplest associations between the dishes and the meanings like “minestrone” means “ministering to one’s family”. I just love that.

  3. Such an interesting post- I love how you weave the story together: literature, history, cooking, culture, etc. I look forward to visiting Italy someday and understanding the regional cuisines firsthand.

  4. Such a beautifully woven together piece. Has been such a pleasure to read.

  5. A fascinating, well researched, well written post. Love it!

  6. I’m reading Artusi at the moment but feel so sorry I can’t read it in Italian. I’m sure a lot of the charm is in the language which I am missing out on right now 😉
    We even say “Stokvis” to Stockfish “stok” is Dutch for Sticks like you said.
    So funny to find similarities in our languages!
    Just look at the word “butter”, we call it “boter” “Burro” in Italy and “Beurre” in French
    Lovely post Emiko x

    • Emiko says:

      it’s true, I’ve seen the English version too and yes, a bit is lost in translation but I’m so happy to hear you’re reading Artusi!

  7. Sara Lando says:

    and this is as usual one of those moment when you teach me about my culture.
    I love the way you write.

  8. Angie says:

    I’m totally taking the artichoke fact as my new food-fun-fact. Thanks for that!

  9. Evie says:

    Oh, Emiko, you have woven a beautiful piece of work here. You’ve inspired me to write more deeply about my subjects without worrying whether people will switch off. When work is this good, readers will certainly read to the end. Thank you for introducing me to both Mario Pei and Artusi.
    On the subject of Gnudi – here in London I know this dish as Malfatti but is it really the same dish, I wonder?

    • Emiko says:

      Thanks for this comment Evie, I used to worry too about writing too much (i did warn some about how long this post in particular was!) but in the end I know I prefer to read something more thorough than just skimming the surface (especially when it’s a subject that I’m into!) and to be honest it was very difficult to stop writing this particular post! I’m glad to hear so many enjoyed it. About gnudi, yes, they are also known outside of Florence, especially in the countryside, as ‘malfatti’ (another great name: ‘badly made’ because of their mishapen forms).

  10. Helen says:

    This is a wonderful article, Emiko, on a subject that never ceases to amaze and delight me. I recently found that “melanzane” has at least three different English names: in addition to eggplant and aubergine, it’s called a brinjal in South Africa and India. And my customers think I’m annoying when I want to know what market the cookbook is being published for!

    • Emiko says:

      I knew that as a cookbook translator you’d be into this too, Helen! “Melanzane” is one of those words I could dedicate an entire article on on its own – who knows what they were thinking this odd vegetable was when they took it for a poisonous apple, “mela non sana”!

  11. What a fascinating article. I love the way different Italian dishes are called different things depending on the region – close to my parents house in Tuscany they eat hand rolled pici, whereas travel a little further afield and they become bigoli. As an English person, these dishes sound so romantic in Italian, whereas they actually mean ‘pinched’, ‘squashed’ or ‘twice-cooked’ – so much more straightforward! I must read some of the authors you mention, such an interesting subject.

  12. Maureen Bradshaw says:

    What an exquisite blog! Your photographs are beautiful…..your attention to detail wonderful and your ability to communicate delightful!

    So glad to have stumbled upon you……and even more wonderful, you are in Melbourne.

    Many thanks for sharing.

  13. This is the most informative post I’ve read on the food of Italy in a long time. THanks so much for sharing it, Emiko. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, about why it is that Italy’s stubborn regionality persists, and how lucky we are that it does. I just posted an interview with Frances Mayes on my blog, and she talked about how the fact that Italy’s unification happened fairly recently in history is one reason why such regional differences remain so strong. Your list of food words is wonderful. One more came to my mind as I was reading it: canederli ~ those big fluffy bread dumplings from Trention-Alto Adige, an italianization of the word ‘knodel’, which of course also relates to ‘noodle.’ Such a fascinating subject!

  14. Y. Touchette says:

    What a pleasure to read and very informative too.

  15. Franca says:

    Simply beautiful, thank you!

  16. saffronbunny says:

    One of the best foodie blogs I have come across Emiko and I have looked at many. I lived in Sicily on and off for 3 years and never quite got over it! The influence it has had on me food-wise has been paramount to me writing about food now. Suffice to say that I am ordering my Italian Artusi right now! Read Anna del Conte if you haven’t already – she’s done a book on Pasta, also Risotto with Nettles is good.

  17. Carol says:

    As a lover of all things Italian, this was a wonderful, fascinating read. Thank you for writing so beautifully, it was a symphony of words.

  18. Sophia says:

    Absolutely loved this post. As for the Kohlrabi, maybe I can help with the confusion. Kohlrabi is the word we use in German to describe cavolo rapa (with ‘Kohl’ being the German word for cabbage/cavolo). It seems that for some reason, the English simply adopted the German term (which no doubt derives from the Italian, in particular as ‘rabi’ is much closer to the Italian ‘rapa’ than the German word for tuber, which is ‘Ruebe’).

    I moved to Rome last November and never had this romantic view and seemingly all-encompassing love of ‘Italian’ cuisine that so many expats appear to have (I am a lover of all types of food, be it Japanese, Mexican, Peruvian, German, French, Spanish, Turkish, Lebanese … or indeed ‘Italian’), but I must admit that living here with my Italian boyfriend has slowly opened my eyes to the wonders of ‘Italian’ cooking, or at least in my case for now, la cucina del Lazio.

    Italy is a special place (and I know I am lucky to live here) and however much I love my full spice cabinet it is extraordinary how much flavour one can get out of no more than a handful of superb ingredients when treated the right way (learning to make Pasta e Ceci was a revelation!). I hesitate to call this type of cooking simplistic as that would mean to undermine the sophistication behind so many of the recipes (the subtle flavouring, the loving preparation of labour intensive dishes), but living here has truly taught me how to appreciate the simple things in life, how good a lunch of a ball of fresh mozzarella and some cicoria ripassata with some sourdough bread is or indeed a bowl of Pasta e Ceci or even Pasta con le Mappe (how cauliflower pasta is known around here).

    • Emiko says:

      So well-put, Sophia. I love your explanation of Kohlrabi too – makes sense! And I love your example of pasta e ceci, it reminded me of a holiday we took to Puglia where we had this often, along with other, simple, mostly vegetarian dishes, filled with intense flavours that just pop, the result of careful cooking and an almost ingrained knowledge of how to use the amazingly fresh, local ingredients. A powerful combination!

  19. Paweł says:

    Wow! Fantastic article. I want more about italian ‘language of food’.

  20. Katey says:

    Dear Emiko

    Writing from the tiny island of Jersey in the English Channel, and rather late to the game I see having just been sent a link to your site from my Melburnian (Irish/Italian) friend.

    Fascinating article. I speak French and find their connections between language and food so instructive too. However, as a food, word and music lover, Italian is on my list.

    Re plum cake, I wonder whether it hails from a plumb line, the weighted line used to get a straight drop in construction. Surely with the great Italian architecture it would have been used in Italy, and perhaps the weight reflected the quantities used in the cake?

    Love the ministrare explanation too. My mum used to make it for us, and called it Kitchen Sink soup as everything went in it apart from the sink! My family have it most Saturday lunchtimes, ingredients shifting a bit with the seasons. Probably the most important recipe/non recipe I’m passing down to my boys.

    Best wishes- must read on!! Katey

  21. I liked how you said that language and cuisine are so closely related, especially in Italian, where the language even influences dish names. My husband loves Italian food so I was looking for a good place to take him to for his birthday this weekend. I’m hoping I can find one since I believe he deserves to enjoy the best pasta and wine the city has to offer.

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