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.”)

Mediterranean Pasta with Capers, Olives, Cherry Tomatoes, and Mozzarella

This is a summer dish, but if you can find ripe cherry tomatoes, then it can be made every season. And it’s one of those pasta dishes where the sauce is so quick it can be made as the pasta cooks – my favorites when I don’t have time to plan ahead. Despite its disarming simplicity, this dish is very complete and balanced – the acidity of the tomato is countered by the creaminess of the mozzarella, and the sweetness of the tomato-mozzarella base is countered by the savoriness of capers and olives. I called it “Mediterranean Pasta”, let’s dive into it!

Mediterranean Pasta with Capers, Olives, Cherry Tomatoes, and Mozzarella

Yield: 2 servings

Total Time: 15 minutes

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Mediterranean Pasta with Capers, Olives, Cherry Tomatoes, and Mozzarella


  • 5 oz (140 g) dried linguine or spaghetti
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons capers (brine-pickled)
  • 3 tablespoons green olives (pitted and sliced, brine-pickled)
  • 9 oz (250 g) cherry tomatoes, each cut lengthwise in four
  • 1 teaspoon of dried oregano
  • 4 oz (115 g) fresh mozzarella (e.g. 2 medium bocconcini), diced
  • Salt and pepper


  1. Toss the pasta in salted boiling water. In a pan, sauté capers and olives in the oil.
  2. Add the tomatoes and oregano to the pan, maintaining medium heat. Roast for 3-4 minutes.
  3. While the pasta cooks, cover the pan with a lid and cook at low heat until the tomatoes wilt (about 5 minutes). Adjust salt and pepper.
  4. Rapidly drain the pasta and finish cooking it in the sauce until al dente.
  5. Take the pan off the heat, add the mozzarella, stir briefly. Serve immediately.

Pasta Names Explained

In this atypical post, we will go over some of the most common pasta cuts and describe the origins of their names. We will use the following template:

Italian Name (Literal Translation)
Photograph* (photos are at scale)
[sounds like, the accent goes on the syllable in bold]

The root word that inspires the shape, to which a modifier is usually applied:
-ini/-ine – small;
-oni/-one – large;
-etti/-ette – little & cute.

Main use, e.g.:
dry – boiled in salty water, drained, and served with a sauce;
baked – (often) blanched, then baked in the oven;
broth – added to a soup or broth.


Bucatini (Little Hollowed Ones) Cannelloni (Big Cute Hoses)
from ‘bucato’ = holed, hollowed
– dry –
from ‘canna’ = hose
– baked –
Conchiglie (Shells) Farfalle (Butterflies)
from ‘conchiglia’ = shell
– dry, broth –
from ‘farfalla’ = butterfly
– dry –
Fettuccine (Small Ribbons) Filini (Little Threads)
from ‘fettuccia’ = ribbon, tape
– dry –
from ‘filo’ = thread, wire
– broth –
Fusilli (Little Spindles) Linguine (Small Tongues)
from ‘fuso’ = spindle
– dry –
from ‘lingua’ = tongue
– dry –
Mezze Penne Rigate (Striped Half Quills) Orecchiette (Cute Little Ears)
[met-zay pen-aye ree-gah-tay]
from ‘penna’ = quill
– dry –
from ‘orecchio’ = ear
– dry –
Pennette Integrali (Small Whole-Wheat Quills) Rigatoni (Large Striped Ones)
[pen-ette-aye in-tay-gral-ee]
from ‘penna’ = quill
– dry –
from ‘rigato’ = ridged
– dry –
Rotini (Small Twirled Ones) Spaghettoni (Big Cute Twines)
from ‘roteare’ = to twirl
– dry –
from ‘spago’ = twine, string
– dry, broth (cut) –
Tortiglioni (Big Twisted Ones) Tubetti (Cute Little Tubes)
from ‘ritorto’ = twisted
– dry –
from ‘tubo’ = tube
– broth –
* All photos © Quatro Fromaggio. All rights reserved.

Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino – The Staple Midnight Pasta

Aglio (pronounced ‘ah-llyo’), Olio e Peperoncino (Garlic, Oil and Chili Pepper) is one of the simplest and most popular Italian pasta sauces, and one of the most delicious. Its simplicity is unmatched for showcasing perfectly cooked, high-quality spaghetti, the cut of pasta that it best goes with. Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino is really more of a pasta dressing, rather than an actual sauce. And it’s perfect for when there is no time to make a sauce, for a midnight snack, or for unexpected guests.

Italian cuisine is based on quality – the more a dish is simple, the more it requires the best ingredients. And this is definitely the case with Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino.

Let’s start with the pasta: a typical serving of 70-80 grams per person of dried durum semolina spaghetti from a quality Italian brand (e.g.: Voiello, De Cecco, Barilla). It’s possible to use another cut of pasta – spaghetti could be replaced with linguine, but that’s pretty much as far as an Italian would push it. Definitely, short pasta wouldn’t be appropriate, and neither would egg noodles.

Even by sticking to spaghetti, most Italians have a preference of what thickness best suits this dish. Every brand has its own “units”, for instance in my family we’ve always preferred the thicker Barilla #7 (‘Spaghettoni’), whereas the most popular kind is the thinner #5.

Another fundamental choice that Italians make is whether or not to break the spaghetti in half before boiling them. Traditionally, pasta should never be cut – not before cooking it and especially never after it has been dished out. However, boiling 10 inch long noodles requires a particularly tall pot and breaking them in half may be practical.

As for the oil, extra virgin olive oil is a must for this dish. Other than being a vessel on which to carry the flavor of the pasta and the spiciness of the chilies, extra virgin olive oil brings its distinct aroma, which perfectly complements them.

The third and last ingredient, chili pepper, tops up the flavor profile with the simplest cooking trick: adding some heat! Any kind of chilies can be used, from a fresh cayenne pepper to dried flakes. It’s only important to get the desired amount of spiciness, which is usually medium-hot.

Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino

Yield: 2 servings

Total Time: 15 minutes

Prep Time: 3 minutes

Cook Time: 12 minutes

Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino


  • 150 g high quality dried spaghetti
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dried chili flakes (or 1 fresh cayenne pepper*)
  • (optional) 2 tablespoons of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano


  1. Start boiling the pasta in "abundant salty water" (fig.1).
  2. In a small pan, warm up the olive oil at medium heat for a minute.
  3. Add the crushed garlic and let it fry until it turns golden-brown (fig. 2).
    *If using a fresh cayenne pepper, it should be seeded and roasted along with the garlic and then also removed.
  4. Turn off the heat, discard the garlic and add the chili flakes (fig. 3).
  5. As soon as the pasta is cooked "al dente", drain it in a colander and toss it back in the empty pot.
  6. Pour in the garlic chili oil, quickly stir and dish the pasta into serving bowls.
  7. If desired, add the grated Parmigiano Reggiano and serve immediately.

Pasta 101 – A Primer on the Most Iconic Italian Food

Pasta is probably the most recognized Italian dish. And for good reasons. Pasta plays a fundamental part in the diet of every Italian – even daily! This article describes all main pasta types.

Italians like pasta because they know it’s a filling meal that is easy to digest, a great option for the lunch break. The scientific reason behind this is in the high percentage of carbohydrates that pasta contains, a source of ready-to-use energy. Most Italians don’t believe in low-carb diets, since pasta and bread are so entrenched in their culture, although they do know that the excess of carbohydrates will show on the scale.

Now that we have the Atkins debate out of the way (probably the most controversial debate that we will ever have on this blog), let’s talk about the different ways to classify pasta (limiting to its more basic forms, and leaving some of its variations, such as gnocchi or ravioli, for another post).

Short or Long

Pasta can be short (‘corta’) or long (‘lunga’). Examples of short kinds of pasta are: maccheroni , rigatoni, penne, rotini, farfalle. Examples of long kinds of pasta are: spaghetti , tagliatelle linguine .
Even though subtle, the shape, size, and thickness of pasta affect its texture on the palate, and the way it takes the sauce (hence the flavor). Because of this, tradition tends to dictate whether to choose short or long based on the preparation, in some cases even calls for a specific cut (e.g. in the case of penne all’arrabbiata  – not arabiatta!).

The shortest kinds of pasta are usually eaten in broth (‘pasta in brodo’), as opposed to in dry preparations (‘pasta asciutta’). ‘Mac and cheese’ is an exception where a very short pasta is used in a dry dish – this, however, is not a traditional Italian recipe.

Long pasta typically poses some “mechanical difficulties” to those that are not used to eating it. The proper way to eat long pasta doesn’t involve cutting it with a knife! Instead, it consists in rolling the strings around the fork (by rotating it in the hand), optionally using a spoon as support (although this is not common in Italy). Long pasta is known to splash the person eating it, especially if tomato or oily sauces are used. That’s the main reason why in Italy it is not unusual to see people in restaurants wearing napkins around their necks.

Fresh or Dried

Pasta can be fresh (‘fresca’) or dried (‘secca’). Fresh pasta (either industrially made or hand made) is preserved by keeping it in the fridge in air-tight wrapping (and only lasts a few days). Dried pasta is industrially treated to remove its moisture and can be stored for quite a long time even if the box has been opened.

Because of its different texture and flavor, fresh pasta is considered more highly than the dried one, and on certain dishes, it’s almost mandatory. However, quality dried pasta has different properties that work well for certain dishes, and in every day’s cooking, it’s far more popular than the fresh one. Every Italian has their own favorite brand of dried pasta, and they are very loyal to it (the most popular ones are Voiello, Barilla, De Cecco).
Both dried and fresh pasta may or may not contain eggs. Egg pasta has a different flavor and texture that works well for some delicate preparations. Common cuts of egg pasta are tagliatelle, pappardelle, garganelli.

Boiled or Baked

Pasta can either be boiled in abundant salty water, or baked in the oven. When boiled pasta is ready, it is quickly drained and served with a sauce (for best results, boiled pasta should be added to the sauce while still in the pan and allowed to rest in it for a minute). The boiling time is extremely important as you want the pasta to be “al dente” (for commercial pasta, most Italians simply follow the cooking time on the box). The expression “al dente” literally means “to the tooth”, indicating that the cooked pasta should be firm enough to require it to be chewed. The chewing process makes al dente pasta easier to digest than overcooked pasta. Pasta can also be boiled in broth and served in the same broth.

Baked pasta, on the other hand, is filled or layered with other ingredients, covered in sauce, and baked in the oven. If dried pasta is used, it gets sometimes lightly pre-boiled before going in the oven. Examples are: cannelloni  (not caneloni!), or the world-famous lasagna  (plural: lasagne ).

Durum or Regular Wheat

Italian dried pasta is made exclusively with durum wheat semolina. Fresh pasta can be made of regular wheat semolina or even all-purpose flour. Durum semolina is high in gluten, and the pasta made from it holds the cooking much better, i.e. doesn’t overcook as easily as regular wheat pasta. Even the best durum pasta, however, don’t reheat well at all – no Italian would eat leftover pasta the next day. Baked pasta instead can be reheated (sometimes, Italians even bake their lasagnas intentionally the night before and warm them up the next day for a more uniform and intense flavor).

As mentioned, every boiled pasta is served with some kind of sauce, and the sauce has to be in a sufficient quantity to coat the pasta, and just a little more. It’s a common Italian habit to eat the sauce remaining in the plate with some bread. This operation is called ‘fare la scarpetta’, which literally means: doing the little shoe – shaping a chunk of bread like a small shoe and wipe the plate clean!

Regardless of the type of sauce used, grated Parmigiano (or in some cases aged Pecorino) is added (just before serving) pretty much to every pasta dish. A common exception is for sauces containing fish.

It is interesting to note that probably 50% of pasta sauces are traditionally vegetarian – this contributes to making Italy a vegetarian-friendly country.

Every Italian region has its own exclusive pasta sauce recipes, and it would be impossible to mention them all here. However, there are a few families of sauces that are popular all around Italy. Here is a list of them where every sauce is paired with its most typical cut of pasta.

  • Based on just olive oil, e.g.:
    • spaghetti ‘aglio, olio e peperoncino’ (with garlic and chili pepper)
    • linguine with shell fish or other seafood (usually with some garlic and white wine)
  • Based on tomato, e.g.:
    • tomato basil rotini
    • penne all’arrabbiata (spicy, with garlic and parsley)
    • creamy tomato farfalle (with heavy cream)
  • Pesto (basil, oil, pine nuts, Parmigiano), e.g.:
  • Just butter, e.g.:
    • pappardelle (also, ravioli) butter and sage
  • Based on meat, e.g.:
    • spaghetti al ragù (Bolognese)
    • tagliatelle ‘al cinghiale’ (with wild boar)
  • Based on cream, e.g.:
    • pappardelle with mushrooms
    • fettuccine with salmon
    • farfalle with ham and peas
  • Based on eggs, e.g.:
  • Based on cheese, e.g.:

Finally, I can’t help but mention the most common mistakes found in North America. You are likely not going to have an authentic Italian pasta dish if:

  • You are getting served preparations that in Italy don’t exist. For instance:
    • Alfredo sauce. In Italy, there are several cheese and butter sauces, but nothing called Alfredo.
    • Spaghetti with meatballs. There is some evidence of such a dish in some areas of southern Italy, but this dish is virtually extinct in Italy.
  • Your pasta is terribly overcooked – Italian pasta has to be “al dente”.
  • There is too much sauce – pasta is a dry dish, not a stew!
  • There is too much pasta – 80-100 grams (around 3 ounces) is the average amount.
  • Pasta is served with a side of salad or garlic toast – it just doesn’t happen in Italy (however, bread would be on the table).

Also, if you are making pasta at home, using pre-made sauces from a jar is a big no-no. You can buy some OK pre-made Italian sauces, but they don’t compare with the freshly made ones and don’t have a big market in Italy.

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