Italian Words Gone Wrong – 6 Mistakes Native Italians Don’t Make

For a narrated version of this article, please check out: Italian Words Gone Wrong – Mistakes on the Menu

Even though Italian food is prominent in North America as well as other English speaking countries, restaurant menus often use Italian words in ways that are not even remotely close to what would sound natural to a native Italian. And it isn’t just because of spelling mistakes, the grammatical and logical use of Italian words is also frequently incorrect.

This post started as a chat with two Twitter friends, Cecilia Razelli (@cocci_ge) and Carlo Settembrini (@csettembrini.) Cecilia found it amusing that I titled one of my articles “Formaggio Cheese,” given that she had noted a similar trend with constructs like “salsiccia sausage” and “prosciutto ham” (if you don’t see why Italians can find this amusing, keep reading!) Then Carlo joined the conversation, expanding to other types of mistakes that English speaking people make when using Italian words. We kept chatting on Twitter for a bit, then we moved the conversation to a shared Google Document, which eventually became the outline for this article. I would like to thank Cecilia and Carlo for engaging in this collaboration – literally, this post wouldn’t have happened without you!

To help illustrate the variety of errors that are commonly made when non-experienced Italian speakers use the Italian language, we grouped the mistakes according to their nature into six distinct families. So, let’s get started!

1. Spelling

When native Italians look for authentic Italian restaurants abroad, they often assess their authenticity merely on the number of spelling mistakes they can spot on the menus. Since the Italian language is mostly phonetic (i.e. written as pronounced,) there are no spelling competitions in Italy – spelling is generally not an issue over there(1)! This is why spelling mistakes stand out even more to the Italians.

Some spelling mistakes seem to reflect the way Italian words tend to be pronounced by English natives. Take ‘focaccia’ as an example: its misspelled counterpart ‘foccacia’ is gaining popularity because it’s closer to how it sounds in English. At other times, alternate English spellings appear to reflect the dialect of the first Italian-Americans. Words like ‘Cappicolla’ and ‘Macaroni,’ for instance, bear clear signs of a southern Italian heritage as opposed to their national counterparts: ‘Capicollo’ and ‘Maccheroni.’ Other words, like ‘linguini’ and ‘zucchini,’ reflect a combination of causes: their dialectal origin and the way the correctly spelled ‘linguine’ and ‘zucchine’ sound when read with an English accent.

To a native Italian, it’s bad enough to hear a misspelled word, but things get even worse when the alternate spelling has a different meaning in Italian. For instance, ‘panini’ is sometimes misspelled as ‘pannini.’ Now, while ‘panini’ is a diminutive of “pane,” which means ‘bread,’ the word ‘pannini’ is a diminutive of ‘panni,’ which is equivalent to “items of clothing” or “rags.” So now you know why a native Italian may get a giggle when they read that the chef’s special is the “house pannini.”

2. Plural vs. singular

Even when spelled correctly, Italian words may be misused in the context of a sentence because of an incorrect “grammatical number.” A classic example of this mistake is using the word ‘panini’ (which is the plural of ‘panino’) to refer to a single sandwich. It’s not clear why the plural ‘panini’ entered the English language instead of the singular ‘panino,’ although one theory is that ‘panini’ is assonant with other Italian-sounding words like ‘linguini’ and ‘zucchini.’ Regardless, a sentence like “I’d like a panini” sounds to a native Italian as wrong as “I’d like a sandwiches.” And it goes without saying that the word “paninis” doesn’t make any sense to a native Italian since it’s a double-plural. The same mistake occurs when ‘biscotti’ is used to refer to a single cookie (in Italian it’s the plural of ‘biscotto.’) The word ‘gelati’ instead is often used interchangeably with the word ‘gelato,’ when in reality it’s its plural form and should be used when referring to two or more Italian ice creams.

When using the English language, however, nobody is expected to use Italian grammar. Therefore, words like ‘paninos,’ ‘gelatos,’ and ‘pizzas’ are perfectly acceptable. In fact, Italians do the same with English words: they adopt the singular form and use it interchangeably both as singular and as plural (“un computer, due computer” = ‘one computer, two computers.’)

3. Feminine vs. masculine

In the Italian language, nouns have gender. Moreover, articles and adjectives must match the gender of the nouns they are used with. Because of this, besides knowing if nouns are plural or singular, in order to write proper Italian one must know the gender of nouns. Luckily, most of the times it’s easy to tell if a word is masculine or feminine: if it ends in ‘a’ it’s feminine; if it ends in ‘o’ it’s masculine (this for singular words, for plural words it’s ‘e’ for feminine, ‘i’ for masculine.) So, for example, because ‘pizza’ is feminine, one should say ‘pizza classica,’ not ‘pizza classico.’ And it’s ‘pasta ai gamberi,’ not ‘pasta alle gamberi.’ Consistency is important!

4. Adjective vs. noun

Many Italian dishes bear colorful names also thanks to the use of descriptive adjectives. As an example, ‘Bolognese’ means “from the city of Bologna.” When native Italians use words like ‘bolognese’ to refer to the famous kind of ragù (a generic word for meat sauce), they say “alla bolognese,” meaning “in the style of the city of Bologna.” Although it’s acceptable to say “Bolognese sauce” (“salsa bolognese,”) it doesn’t make sense to say: “I’ve had pasta with Bolognese” (leaving out the noun.) The sentence: “I’ve had Bolognese pasta” is also likely incorrect since it means “I’ve had pasta from the city of Bologna” with no reference to its sauce. Worse yet, if you order “a Bolognese” in a restaurant, it will sound like you are ordering a person from Bologna – that would be a very dubious kind of meat sauce!

Similarly, ‘Parmigiano’ or ‘Parmigiana’ means “from the city of Parma” (referred to a masculine/feminine subject respectively.) As for the famous eggplant dish, however, it’s equally correct to say “melanzane alla parmigiana” (“parmesan eggplants”) or “parmigiana di melanzane” (“parmesan of eggplants,”) the latter using ‘parmigiana’ as a noun.

And to conclude this category of mistakes, let’s not forget that the word ‘balsamic’ is an adjective, and it means “curative,” or “having the same properties of a conditioner” (‘conditioner’ = ‘balsamo’ in Italian.) It makes no sense to an Italian to use ‘balsamico’ without a noun or a pronoun. So, you can’t have anything like “I’ll have balsamic on my salad.” Balsamic what?

5. Generic vs. specific

‘Formaggio cheese,’ ‘salsiccia sausage,’ ‘prosciutto ham’ don’t make sense to a native Italian because they are redundant. ‘Formaggio’ is Italian for cheese, ‘salsiccia’ is Italian for sausage, ‘prosciutto (cotto(2))’ is Italian for ham. So, in Italy, all you are saying when you say ‘salsiccia sausage’ is “sausage sausage,” or “‘ham ham,” “cheese cheese.” We know the prospect of Italian food is exciting, but just one term will do!

As for the origin of this construct, it may come from the North American practice to use generic product names combined with specific adjectives. For instance, people say “cheddar cheese,” or “tuna fish,” when really ‘cheddar’ or ‘tuna’ can’t be anything other than ‘cheese’ and ‘fish’ respectively.

Interestingly, however, ‘gelato ice cream’ is technically correct since gelato is not exactly Italian for ice cream: it’s a particular kind of ice cream (denser, less sweet, and less fat.) Because of this, it may be justifiable to use ‘gelato ice cream’ as a marketing strategy to indicate a specialty product (likely to be sold at a higher price.)

Also technically correct is ‘espresso coffee’ since ‘espresso’ is indeed descriptive of a distinct kind of coffee extraction. In Italian coffee bars, however, people just call it ‘espresso,’ or even simply ‘coffee’ since the coffee sold in coffee bars is almost exclusively espresso. When ordering a coffee, Italians also often shorten the name when they order an espresso variation, which comes with its own descriptive adjective. Examples are ‘corto’ (short), ‘macchiato’ (stained or spotted with steamed milk,) ‘corretto’ (corrected with liquors or spirits,) etc. Sometimes they even leave out the noun altogether and order directly a ‘macchiato,’ which ironically also happens in North America.

The construct: ‘ricotta cheese,’ instead, is completely wrong since ricotta is technically not even cheese (being it made from whey, and therefore considered just a dairy product, or ‘latticino’ in Italian.)

In the Italian language, the following are generic names as well:

  • ‘Panino’ is the generic name for ‘bread roll’ or ‘sandwich,’ whether grilled or not.
  • ‘Biscotto’ is the generic name for ‘cookie,’ though Italian cookies tend to be crunchy, rather than chewy.
  • ‘Antipasto’ is the generic translation of ‘appetizer.’ Not a particular kind of appetizer made of pickled vegetables, olives, and often tuna, or (worse) this “invention” from Kraft.
  • ‘Latte’ is the generic name for milk, cold milk to be precise – which is what you would get if you ordered a ‘latte’ in Italy. The proper name for the espresso-based drink is ‘latte macchiato’ (steamed milk stained or spotted with coffee.)

6. Food vs. preparation

To end the list of mistake families, we can’t leave out one of the most mysterious ones exemplified by the Italian-American dish called Shrimp Scampi. Scampi, plural of scampo, is a crustacean similar to a small lobster. For some reason, it also became the name of a preparation (based on tomato, garlic, and white wine) that is generally used for shrimp and other crustaceans. But if “Shrimp Scampi” makes no sense to a native Italian because it’s essentially “Shrimp Shrimp,” Olive Garden’s Chicken Scampi makes even less sense, since it’s like saying “Chicken Shrimp.”

Sometimes Shrimp Scampi is instead used to refer to a crustacean, possibly just to make a dish sound more mysterious, or “elevated,” and definitely more “Italian.” Dishes like “Linguine with Shrimp Scampi” from “Barefoot Contessa” Ina Garten are a clear indication of how mainstream this misconception has gone. It goes without saying that actual Scampi are nowhere in the ingredients.

To make matters worse, dictionaries such as the Merriam-Webster define ‘scampi’ as “a usually large shrimp; also: a large shrimp prepared with a garlic-flavored sauce,” also reporting ‘scampi’ as a singular noun with an invariant plural form. Fortunately, heroic bloggers like my friend Frank Fariello set the record straight by correctly explaining the naming issue behind this dish.

To end the category and this article, ‘Calamari’ is another example where non-native Italians may confuse an ingredient with its preparation. Whereas in Italian it generically means ‘squid,’ outside of Italy, and especially in North America, it refers to its deep-fried ring-shaped slices.

(1) In some regions of Italy, Italians make certain kinds of spelling mistakes due to how words sound in their dialects. As an example, those who speak a Venetian dialect tend to drop double consonants. In southern Italy, instead, double consonants tend to be added where they don’t belong (e.g. Carabbinieri instead of Carabinieri.)

(2) In Italy, there are two kinds of prosciutto: ‘cotto’ (“cooked” similar to ham) and ‘crudo’ (“raw, cured.”)

[Thoughts on the Table – 11] Pesto, Antipasto, and Meatballs

Gino and I are back with one more episode on Italian misconceptions. Today we are focusing on three more examples of Italian food which has been taken out of context: pesto, antipasto, and meatballs. Thanks for your feedback!


The Italian Courses

Italians like structure in the way they eat. To them, the balance between the different courses of the meal is as important as the balance between the ingredients of each dish. In Italy, eating is far more than nutrition, it’s a moment of aggregation where families, friends, colleagues get together, relax and participate in the dining ritual. This article describes a typical everyday meal (at home or in an informal restaurant) and compares it with the bigger and fancier meal reserved for special occasions (a wedding, for instance).

In Italy, even the most informal meals commonly include multiple courses. This doesn’t mean that people eat more food – the various courses are a way to break down the meal into different sections, add variety and create a progression. Appetizers and first courses come first because of their delicate flavors (and textures); second courses follow with their stronger elements; desserts, coffee, and liquors are reserved to end the meal. The subdivision into courses also introduces pauses, which in some cases are intentionally extended to give the diners the necessary time to rest their palate, and socialize.

In this article we will be referring to both lunch (“pranzo”) and supper (“cena”), as the mid-day meal and the evening meal. As for the early-day meal, please see the post on breakfast (“colazione”).

Everyday meals

Everyday meals generally only include a first course (“primo piatto” or simply “primo”) and a second course (“secondo piatto” or “secondo”), plus possibly some fruit (“frutta”) and coffee (“caffé”).

  • The first course is usually based on dry pasta, gnocchi, ravioli, or rice (“risotto”). First courses don’t need any sides and they are not accompanied by bread. Mostly during winter, and especially for dinner, the first course can take the form of a soup, which may contain pasta or rice or may be served with croutons (“crostini”).
  • The second course is centered on a protein – typically meat or fish, but also cheese or eggs. Second courses are normally served with one or more side dishes (“contorni”), such as salads or roasted vegetables. They are usually eaten with bread, polenta (boiled cornmeal), or boiled rice.

The structure of everyday meals may seem somewhat similar to North America, where it’s common to have soup or salad as a first course, a main course, and dessert. The difference is that the Italians put a lot more emphasis on the first course, so much so that the second course loses the title of ‘main’.

Formal meals

Italian formal meals always begin with a starter course (“antipasto”), and continue with one or more first courses, one or more second courses (meat or fish, sometimes interleaved with a lemon sorbet as a palate cleanser), a cheese course (“formaggio”), desserts, a fruit course, coffee, and liquors. One or more second courses may be replaced by a “piatto di mezzo” (a soufflé or a “torta salata”, similar to a quiche).

  • For starters, a selection of appetizers is a must. They may be in the form of pre-assembled platters, or, more informally, they can be brought to the table in serving dishes, or even presented in a self-service buffet (see the article on antipasto).
  • First courses have elaborate preparations and sometimes make use of expensive ingredients (e.g.: truffles, seafood). When more than one first course is served, the portions of each become smaller. In some cases, a sampler of primi containing 2 or 3 dishes on the same plate may be offered; this, however, is becoming more and more uncommon.
  • Second courses also have a refined presentation and sophisticated ingredients. With respect to North America, the meat portions are smaller to compensate for a filling first course. In restaurants, for some meat or fish dishes, a chef may plate each portion in front of the diners by working in a carving or plating station set up next to the dining table. If both a fish secondo and a meat secondo are served in the same meal, it’s customary to serve them in that order and to interleave a sorbet (usually lemon) as a palate-cleanser. If all second courses are based on meat, or if there is only one second course, then a sorbet may be served between first courses and second courses.
  • Formal meals often have an entire course dedicated to cheese, either in the form of pre-assembled samplers, or where a selection of cheeses is presented on serving trays. In some cases, aged cheeses are paired up with jams (especially figs and pears jams), aromatic honey (e.g.: chestnut tree honey), or mostarda.
  • Desserts are also a must in formal dining. In restaurants, a daily selection of cakes, pastries or tarts is often presented on a serving cart for each diner to choose from.
  • The fruit course may be prepared in a salad (called “macedonia”), and optionally served with ‘gelato’. In winter, a combination of dried fruit and fresh fruit might be offered.
  • Coffee is always served. In restaurants, it’s in the form of espresso; at home, it may be from a home-espresso machine or a ‘Moka’.
  • Liquors often conclude the meal because, like sweets, they quench the appetite. They are normally digestive bitters (“amari”). However, grappa, Sambuca, amaretto, nocino, and especially limoncello are also common.

Note that the aperitif (aperitivo) – an appetizer drink generally accompanied by a light snack – is not part of the courses as it’s usually had some time before the meal, possibly even in a different venue.

Bread and wine

In both informal and formal setups, bread is very important to the Italians (so important that any food that comes with bread is generically called “companatico”). Individual buns and sliced loaves may be served in a basket, or set directly on the table. Butter is not part of the tradition, though in some cases unsalted butter curls may still be served. Bread may be had as a snack before the primo – sometimes in the form of breadsticks (“grissini”) – and it always accompanies the second course. In informal setups, it’s acceptable, after the primo, to use a few bread chunks to wipe up any pasta sauce that may be left on the plate. This practice, called “scarpetta” (little-shoe) is however never used after eating risotto, as its cream (made of starch) is not technically a sauce.

Wine, somewhat common in everyday meals (especially for dinner), becomes mandatory in formal dining – and it must be of high quality. First courses, “piatti di mezzo” and fish courses are paired up with white wines or light reds. Meat-based second courses, instead, require stronger red wines. See the article on wine for more information.

Further Readings

For more information, check out 10 Facts About Italian Food, an interesting article on some of the less known misconceptions about Italian food.


More featured articles

Antipasto – A Primer on the Italian Starters Course

The word ‘antipasto’ (plural, ‘antipasti’) comes from anti- (before) and pasto (meal) and has absolutely nothing to do with pasta. An antipasto is the Italian equivalent of the starters course, but it also defines each individual appetizer (or hors d’oeuvre) that this course is made of. For instance, an Italian would say: “We started the meal with an antipasto [course]”, as well as: “They served us three types of antipasti [dishes]”.

It is common for any formal meals, home cooked as well as in restaurants, to begin with antipasto and then continue with first course (pasta or rice), second course (meat or fish), cheese, dessert, fruit, coffee, and digestive liquor. Everyday meals, instead, generally only include first course, second course, and optional coffee. Occasionally, however, an informal antipasto can be a nice addition to every meal.

Antipasti are often served in small portions meant for sharing; some restaurants even offer a buffet of antipasti, allowing the diners to mix and match their favorite items. More informal establishments, such as pizzerie and trattorie, are instead more likely to feature only a limited number of individual antipasti platters.

Legend for the feature image.
Legend for the feature image.

The most common antipasti are cold dishes, but there are a few regional specialties that are served warm or hot, all of which are almost completely unknown in North America. Some warm appetizers are:

  • ‘Olive all’Ascolana’ (7). A particular type of green olives, stuffed with a meat paste, then breaded and deep-fried in olive oil (typical product of the Marche region).
  • ‘Gnocchi fritti’ (6). A type of fried bread (see The Mystery of Bread, typical of the Emilia region).
  • ‘Mozzarella in carrozza’. Literally: “mozzarella in the carriage”, breaded and deep fried mozzarella (typical of central Italy).
  • ‘Bagna càuda’. Piedmontese dialect for “warm bath”, a sauce made with anchovies, garlic and oil, used as a dip for raw or cooked vegetables (typical of the Piedmont region).
  • Deep fried, grilled or oven roasted squid. Common all throughout Italy.

Typical cold antipasti include:

  • Cold cuts. E.g.: prosciutto crudo (2) (raw, cured pork – sometimes served with cantaloupe), prosciutto cotto (Italian ham), pancetta (Italian bacon), coppa (1) (called capicollo in southern Italy, also a type of cured pork), salumi (3) (cured sausages – including ‘bologna’ and other kinds of ‘mortadella’), lardo (4) (aromatized, cured pork fat), bresaola (cured lean beef – often served with slivers of Parmigiano, lemon and olive oil).
  • Grilled vegetables. E.g.: thinly sliced eggplants, zucchini, bell peppers.
  • Deli preparations. E.g.: ‘insalata di mare’ (seafood salad, with cooked squid, octopus, mussels and shrimp, marinated in lemon, oil and parsley), ‘insalata russa’ (cooked vegetables, mostly potatoes, peas, and carrots in mayonnaise), marinated anchovies, ‘sarde in saor’ (sardines in an onion marinade, typical of the Veneto region), Sicilian ‘caponata’ (fried eggplant in a tomato, onions, celery, olives and capers stew).
  • Savory Tarts. E.g.: spinach and ricotta ‘tortino’, cut into bite-size chunks.
  • Egg-based preparations. E.g.: cold ‘frittate’ (5) (for instance with roasted zucchini and herbs, with asparagus or with mushrooms) and ‘uova ripiene’ (halved hardboiled eggs where the yolk has been mixed with mayonnaise and canned tuna).
  • ‘Sottaceti’. Pickled vegetables (preserved in vinegar), e.g.: cipolline (small onions in white vinegar), ‘cetriolini’ (baby cucumbers marinated in vinegar, and without any dill!).
  • ‘Sottòli’. Vegetables preserved in olive oil, e.g.: black and green olives, artichokes, mushrooms, mixed vegetables, ‘cipolline borettane’ (a particular type of pearl onions, in a sweet and sour preparation).
  • Cheeses. E.g.: mozzarella (sometimes served in a Caprese salad – with sliced tomatoes and olive oil), provolone or any other fresh and mild cheeses.
  • Breads. E.g.: sliced artisan bread (served without butter!), flatbread (e.g. Sardinian ‘pane carasau’, possibly served with a tapenade of olives or mushrooms), breadsticks (sometimes wrapped in prosciutto slices).
  • Bread-based preparations. E.g.: ‘bruschetta’ (toasted bread with diced fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil) and ‘panzanella’ (a red onion, tomato and cucumber salad, either with chunks of moistened stale bread – as commonly prepared in Tuscany, where it originated -, or served on a toasted bread slice – as typical in all central Italy -).

One particular preparation that can be served as an antipasto as well as a side is a mix of cooked vegetables (e.g.: cauliflowers, carrots, green beans, mushrooms, green peppers), pickled vegetables (e.g.: artichokes, onions, cucumbers), canned tuna, olives and tomato paste. In North America, a modified version of this dish (also containing dill pickles and various vegetable oils), sold under the generic name Antipasto, has become quite popular as a snack – completely obfuscating the original meaning of the word ‘antipasto’. This is why North Americans think of ‘antipasto’ as the Italian, “higher class” alternative to salsa, meant to be enjoyed with crackers, nachos or chips – what a great example of Italian food aberration!