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.”)

The Italian Bar – A Licensed Coffee House for Every Time of the Day

Despite being licensed, bars in Italy are nothing like pubs. They are more similar to coffee shops, but they are actually far more than that. They are an establishment that runs all day with a wide range of food items, and a necessity for tourists with fast and affordable refreshments and services.

Bars, however, can be a source of misunderstandings and frustration due to the many unwritten rules that they conform to and to their many exceptions. This post explores the significance of bars in the Italian popular culture and gives important tips for travelers who are unfamiliar with their ins and outs.

What to get in a bar?
In an Italian bar, all coffees are espresso-based. If you ask for "a coffee" ('un caffè'), you get a single shot of espresso.
In an Italian bar, all coffees are espresso-based. If you ask for “a coffee” (‘un caffè’), you get a single shot of espresso.

Bars sell a variety of products catering to the desires of the moment, and they are often a daily routine for the Italians. Coffee is sold all day but is especially popular in the morning and after lunch and dinner. Cappuccino is almost exclusively a breakfast item (accompanied with croissants or other pastries), as are juices. Aperitifs are served before lunch and dinner – some bars offer complimentary snacks as an accompaniment. At lunchtime, many bars sell sandwiches (generically called panini in Italian, whether they are grilled or not), accompanied by sodas, beer, or wine. Some bars instead offer a more extended restaurant service, from salads and cold platters to first courses and other warm dishes. A few bars remain open in the evening turning more into pubs.

Seated or standing?

In Italy, customers should always ask themselves: “Am I allowed to bring my order to a table to enjoy it while sitting?” Ignoring this question may lead to an unpleasant experience since, in general, seating is not complimentary in a bar. The price of the items served at the table can be much higher than the price at the counter. The surcharge is a fee for being served by a waiter, occupy the table for any amount of time, but mostly for sitting in a premium location, such as in a historic piazza. When they choose to be served at the table, customers are generally allowed to sit themselves, and they are then greeted by a waiter. When ordering at the counter, instead, customers don’t have rights to a table, even if they carry their order themselves, and even if there are plenty of tables available.

Some bars, however, choose not to have table service – in these, it’s OK for the customers to carry their own orders to the tables. Generally, complimentary tables are small and unclothed, with no tableware and no menus, or high tables without chairs. When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to ask: ‘Possiamo sederci?’ (May we sit down?)

Even when paying for seating, remaining for an excessive amount of time is frowned upon in Italy. Not like in North America, where coffee shops often act as lounges where people who buy a drink gain the right to hang out with their friends, do their homework or use the free WiFi for as long as they want.

Pay before or after?

In many cases, the customers pay after, when they’re finished with their food or drinks. This is generally the case during off-peak hours, especially when sitting at a table and in other situations where the barista can easily keep track of the customers to ensure that they don’t leave without paying. Sometimes, the bar might require pre-payment by asking customers to pay at the cashier first and then present the receipt (‘scontrino’) as a voucher in order to be served at the serving counter (the barista will partially rip it to tag that it has been used). Pre-payment is always in effect if the bar has an active cashier station either located at the counter or standalone. Standalone cash registers may also sell cigarettes, transit tickets, and stamps.

When being served at the table, the bill is generally brought upon request, when the customer is ready to leave. In some cases, however, the check may be brought together with the order and payment may be required immediately. This is quite common when the seating area is located outdoors (especially on sidewalks) and it would be easy for a malevolent customer to dash without paying.

Where are the fixings?

In a bar, all coffee drinks are served in their porcelain or glass cups, on a saucer, and with a metal spoon. There is no “milk and sugar” station, just sugar packets in a container positioned on the counter. Sometimes, a sugar packet is placed directly on the saucer by the barista – this is often the case if the coffee is served at the table. Generally speaking, if Italians wish to have any milk added to their coffee, they ask for it as they order (see below). It is uncommon, although perfectly acceptable, to ask the barista for additional cold milk (in a small milk jug).

Caffè – Regular (single-shot) espresso, 20-30 ml, served in a 60 ml espresso cup
Caffè doppio – Double-shot espresso, 40-50 ml(1)
Caffè macchiato caldo (“marked” or “stained”) – Espresso with a dollop of steamed milk
Caffè macchiato freddo – Espresso with a dash of cold milk
Caffè corretto (“corrected”) – Espresso with a dash of liqueur, grappa if not specified, or brandy (e.g. Vecchia Romagna), Sambuca, or other
Caffè lungo (“long”) – Espresso obtained by allowing more water to flow through(2) (30-40 ml)
Caffè ristretto (“shrunken”) – Espresso obtained by stopping the water flow part-way through(3) (15-20 ml)
Caffè con panna (“with cream”) – Espresso with a drop of cold heavy cream
Caffè decaffeinato (“decaffeinated”) – Espresso made with decaffeinated ground coffee (popular is the brand name “Hag”)
Marocchino – Espresso with chocolate powder on top, and then a dollop of steamed milk
Cappuccino – Espresso with steamed milk(4) (at 65°C) in the proportions of 1/3 coffee, 1/3 milk, 1/3 milk foam, served in a cappuccino cup (~120 ml)
Cappuccino tiepido (“lukewarm”) – Espresso with steamed milk and some cold milk (served around 50°C)
Cappuccino ben caldo (“well hot”) – Espresso with steamed milk (warmed up to 75°C)
Latte macchiato – Espresso with a larger amount of steamed milk (with only a small layer of foam on top), served in a latte macchiato glass (~200 ml)

(1) Not as commonly ordered in Italy as it is in North America
(2) Weaker in flavor, but containing more caffeine
(3) Stronger in flavor, but containing less caffeine
(4) It’s preferable to use whole milk, for a creamier and more flavorful foam

Can I get it to go?

Getting coffee to go is quite uncommon in Italy, mostly because it only takes five minutes to drink an espresso or a cappuccino (which is never served too hot). Italians also prefer to use ceramic or glass cups, which are warmed up beforehand not to draw any heat from the freshly made coffee. The only case in which is acceptable to ask for the coffee to be served in paper cups with lids is when the coffee is meant to be carried to a work meeting in a nearby office, or when the customer can’t physically go to the bar, e.g. because they are working in a nearby store. In big cities, occasionally, bar waiters can be seen walking around the streets as they deliver coffees-to-go on a tray.

Am I even in a bar?

There are different kinds of bars, and they have different opening hours. Most bars open quite early in the morning (some as early as 5 or 6 am), catering to commuters. These bars remain open until late afternoon or early evening. Other establishments, instead, open around lunch time (with cafeteria service) or even later in the afternoon and continue until late at night (some as late as 2 or 3 am). This is often the cases for bars that operate as ‘enoteche’ (wine bars), or as ‘gelaterie’ (gelato shops).

Bars that double as pasticcerie (pastry shops) are more likely to be open during regular store hours (generally, 9.00 am to 7.30 pm). It has to be noted that not all pasticcerie offer bar service – when they do, they tend to display a “Bar Pasticceria” sign. Similarly, some restaurants also offer bar service. When they do, they also display a “Bar” sign (e.g.: “Bar Ristorante, “Bar Trattoria”, or “Bar Pizzeria”). Unlike in North America, it is generally not acceptable to stop in a restaurant (that isn’t also a bar) just for coffee or drinks.

Panino, the Italian Sandwich

What is the correct pronunciation of “bruschetta”? Check out this and other often mispronounced Italian words.

In Italy, just like in all Europe and North America, a ‘panino’ (Italian for sandwich) is a popular lunch option, and in some cases also a quick dinner alternative. Italian bars often press-grill their sandwiches to enhance the flavors, turn the bread more fragrant and crunchy, and melt any cheese. However, at home, or when bakery-fresh bread is available, the Italians enjoy non-grilled sandwiches just the same.

This article describes both styles of Italian sandwich: the world-famous grilled sandwich (known as Panini) and the less known un-grilled version.

Going back to the word “panini”, in Italian it refers to all sandwiches – and it’s plural. «One sandwich» translates as ‘un panino’ (from ‘pane’, bread). «Two sandwiches» translates as ‘due panini’ and shouldn’t be re-pluralized as Paninis – it causes native Italians to cringe!

A “Panini” press

Grilled panini are prepared in a “Panini” press (called ‘piastra’, literally: plate). In Italy, they generally feature established combinations of fillings, though these combinations don’t have universally assigned names. Common types of bread used are: ciabatta, francesino (a small French-style roll), and in some cases focaccia. Classic fillings combinations are:

  • mozzarella, tomato (plus arugula and/or prosciutto cotto or crudo);
  • prosciutto cotto or crudo, fontina, salsa rosa (“pink sauce”, made of mayonnaise, ketchup and whiskey);
  • prosciutto cotto or crudo, brie (plus lettuce and/or tomato);
  • prosciutto cotto, brie, olive tapenade;
  • prosciutto crudo or bresaola, goat cheese or stracchino (plus lettuce and/or tomato);
  • speck (smoked cured prosciutto from Tyrol), brie, salsa rosa;
  • speck, goat cheese, arugula;
  • grilled vegetables and cheese (see below for a recipe).

When Italian panini are offered outside of Italy, they tend to differ quite substantially. The biggest no-no’s are the use of:

  • More than one kind of meat (although it may happen in some cases, this is very unlikely in Italy);
  • Large amounts of meat (in Italy, more than a few slices would be considered overpowering);
  • Too many ingredients (in Italy, it’s never more than 3 or 4 in total);
  • Any kind of dressing (oil and vinegar are for salads, not for sandwiches!);
  • Honey-mustard, barbecue sauce, spicy mayo (since they don’t exist in Italy).

For un-grilled Italian sandwiches, bread rolls that are light and crunchy are generally used (for instance the michetta, known in some parts of Italy as ‘rosetta’ or ‘tartaruga’). As far as fillings go, they generally include one feature ingredient, for instance:

  • prosciutto ‘crudo’ (raw, cured pork);
  • prosciutto ‘cotto’ (Italian ham);
  • coppa, also known as capicollo (also cured pork);
  • salame (cured sausage);
  • Italian bologna (not to be confused with Baloney!) and other kinds of mortadella;
  • pancetta (Italian bacon);
  • bresaola (cured beef);
  • porchetta.

Sometimes, fresh greens and/or cheese may be added to complement the flavor. For instance, prosciutto crudo may be had with ‘stracchino‘ and arugula; prosciutto cotto with fontina. Other classic options include cold frittata (e.g.: with herbs or roasted zucchini), or cold breaded veal cutlet.


Now, onto the recipe for the grilled panino in the picture above – a slight variation on the grilled vegetables and cheese theme, thanks to the addition of spicy roasted onions.

Ingredients for 2 panini
– One small onion (sliced)
– 2 bell peppers, red or yellow (seeded and each cut in 4 wedges)
– 2 zucchini (sliced)
– 100 g provolone, scamorza or fontina (sliced)
– one handful of fresh arugula (washed and dried)
– 1 tablespoon of olive oil
– salt and cayenne pepper

– In a non-stick pan, roast the onion in olive oil at medium heat for 5 minutes, then lower the temperature and cook for an additional 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and cayenne pepper.
– Using a sandwich press, grill the bell peppers (lightly sprinkled with salt) for 20-30 minutes at medium heat.
– When the peppers are ready, put them aside and peel off the skin (it should come off easily – if it doesn’t, let the peppers rest for 10 minutes in a sealed zip-lock while they are still warm).
– Grill the zucchini (also sprinkled with salt) for 10-15 minutes at medium heat.
– When the zucchini are ready, put them aside and roughly wipe the grill clean, while keeping it turned on.
– Assemble the sandwich by layering the cheese, the grilled vegetables, and the roasted onions.
– Warm up the sandwiches in the press until the cheese melts. Then add the fresh arugula and serve.

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The Magic of Autogrill – Highway Restoration, Elevated

If you are Italian, or if you have driven around Italy, you are probably familiar with “Autogrill” as a chain of restaurants that serve the highways all throughout the country.

What is the correct pronunciation of “bruschetta”? Check out this and other often mispronounced Italian words.

But even if you are unaware of Autogrill, every time you travel you are actually exposed to the Autogrill Group, a catering giant that runs several licensed franchises (including Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks) in the airports, train stations and ports of over 40 countries worldwide (including USA, Canada, and Australia).

Even though the Autogrill Group is based in Italy, to most Italians “Autogrill” is just the generic name of the restaurants located on the highway – even of the ones that are run by the competition (e.g.: Chef Express, Ristop), or that are branded differently because of their size (e.g.: Ciao, Spizzico). And this despite the fact that Autogrill restaurants are nowadays common also in major city centers. The Autogrill name is so universal that in the rest of this article we will also use it as a synonym of highway restaurant.

Italians like Autogrill because it’s familiar and reliable, because it’s good value for money, and because it can be conveniently accessed without leaving the highway. This detail is particularly important, given that most Italian highways are toll roads and exiting them requires the drivers to go through the time-consuming pay booths. Foreigners like Autogrill because it involves very little interaction with (Italian speaking) staff, and because of the high quality of its food, especially compared to the greasy North American road-side restaurants.

The bridge-style Autogrill (above), from the inside.
The bridge-style Autogrill (above), from the inside.

All Autogrill are located in regular service stations. The smaller ones may consist of just a coffee bar and are generally only moderately busy. The larger Autogrill, and particularly the bridge-style ones (which go across the entire highway and are accessible from both travel directions), can instead attract large amounts of customers, especially around lunch and dinner time. They are structured for maximum efficiency and divided into three main sections:

  • A mini-supermarket with snacks and regional foods (such as olive oil, dried pasta, wine, cheese, cured meats), over-the-counter drugs, toiletries, batteries, newspapers and magazines; tobaccos and pre-paid phone cards can be purchased at the cashier.
  • A coffee bar which sells espresso drinks, pastries, and (often) grilled sandwiches (‘panini’, in Italian, plural of ‘panino’), such as Camogli (made with focaccia, Italian ham and swiss), Rustico (with pancetta, smoked provolone and tomatoes) and Fattoria (with speck and fontina cheese).
  • A separate cafeteria-style restaurant.

The restaurant is, in its turn, divided into two sections: the actual self-service (which ends at the cashier), and a sitting area where the purchased meal can be consumed.

A meal for two: penne all'arrabbiata, linguine al pesto, cheese plate, red wine, sparkling water, and bread.
A meal for two: penne all’arrabbiata, linguine al pesto, cheese plate, red wine, sparkling water, and bread.

When entering the self-service, each diner takes a tray and loads it with what they prefer. Drinks (including beer and wine) are directly available for pickup, and so is a fairly large selection of cold dishes (appetizers, sides, fresh and aged cheeses, freshly baked bread, fruit, and desserts). Hot courses are instead plated to order by an attendant. Most Autogrills offer a choice of two or three first courses (e.g.: pasta and risotti) and a couple of second courses (e.g.: meat and fish). After filling the tray, the customer brings it to the cashier who often offers to add an espresso to the bill (the coffee is meant to be had at the bar after the meal). The sitting area is basic but comfortable. The tables are kept clean by staff (though racks for used trays are provided to the customers), dressing and condiments (oil and vinegar, salt and pepper) are available, as well as cutlery and additional napkins. Occasionally, microwaves ovens for re-heating are also provided; if they are missing, plastic heat-keeper domes may be available to help keep plates warm.

In conclusion, Autogrill is dear to the Italians and very much part of their collective imaginary. Every aspect of this Italian icon reflects the spirit of Italy, from the mini-supermarket that resembles the neighborhood shop, to the traditional coffee bar, to the family-style food served in the cafeteria. For those rushing through Italy in their first European trip, Autogrill can give a pretty good snapshot of Italy and of the Italians and shouldn’t be missed.

For more information, check out the official webpage of Autogrill.

The Mystery of Bread

The smell of bread… Freshly baked bread has such an evocative fragrance. Italian bread, just like most artisan kinds of bread, is usually made of just yeast, flour, water, and salt.

The Chemistry

Yeast. The kind most commonly used is baker’s yeast, which is also used for brewing alcoholic beverages (in fact in Italian it’s called ‘lievito di birra’, beer leaven). Unlike sourdough (a symbiotic combination of a lactobacilli culture and yeasts that naturally develops when a mix of flour and water is left at room temperature for a certain amount of time, and where lactic acid is produced as a byproduct), baker’s yeast is a cultivated form of just yeast (Saccharomyces) and it’s preferred because not sour.

As part of the leavening process, the yeast eats the sugars contained in the flour and transforms them through an enzymatic process in dextrose and fructose, while producing carbon dioxide (CO2) and alcohol. The CO2 is responsible for the rising of the bread, but the fermentation itself and the caramelization of the sugars that occurs in the oven are responsible for the resulting flavor and smell. To lengthen the fermentation and increase the flavor, a starter (also called pre-ferment or ‘mother dough’) is often used. The classic Italian starter is called biga (a thick mixture of baker’s yeast, flour, and water that gets prepared ahead of time and then added to the fresh yeast). As an alternative, a portion of dough from a previous batch can be used.

Flour. Flour from several kinds of grains can be used (including rye, barley, corn), but Italian bread mostly uses high-gluten wheat flour. The gluten content is fundamental to give “structure” to the bread so that it holds its shape while rising and that prevents it from collapsing during the baking.

The salt is responsible not only for the taste but also for the color of the bread. Common table salt or sea salt is added near the beginning of the mixing process, but avoiding direct contact with the yeast. Tuscan bread is an exception where salt is completely absent.

Regular drinking water mediates between yeast and flour. The minerals naturally contained in Italian water also affect the bread’s flavor and texture.

The Cultural Significance

Now that we have the complex chemistry of bread out of the way, let’s talk about what bread means to the Italians.

Bread is very dear to the Italians; it’s so dear that it is synonymous of ‘good’ (a common Italian saying calls a good-natured person “good like bread”, ‘buona come il pane’). Bread is considered essential to every meal (except of course for meals which are made of bread, like pizza), so much that it traditionally represents the center of the banquet and every other food that is served with it is generally referred as ‘companatico’ (something that goes with bread). And since bread is a given in every meal, it’s free in restaurants (or, better, it’s included with service), and refilled as needed without charge.

Italians eat bread without any butter. As a result, people generally take one bun or bread slice from the basket where it’s served, place it directly on the tablecloth by their plate and eat it with hands, one bite-sized chunk at a time (biting off directly is instead a big no-no).

All Italian bread would probably be considered as ‘fancy’ in North America, there is, in fact, nothing like the standard day-to-day sandwich bread. The closest thing is called “pan carré”, French for ‘square bread’, a long-preservation preparation meant to be toasted, somewhat popular in Northern Italy, but that doesn’t compare with traditional Italian bread.

Bread used to be bought fresh every day at a bakery. And since bakeries used to be closed on Sundays (pretty much like everything else in Italy), on Saturday people would buy double amounts and accept to eat stale bread the next day. Now of course bread can also be bought in superstores, and many people freeze it and every day they thaw the desired amounts (if properly bagged and frozen when very fresh, bread remains almost unaltered for a few weeks).

Is there such a thing as Italian bread?

Not really. Bread in Italy comes in a big variety of shapes and kinds, from small rolls to big loaves, which vary across the peninsula. The most known kinds of Italian bread include:

  • “michetta” o “rosetta” (Lombardy): round shaped bun, with flat base and star incision. Completely empty inside because of the long leavening.
  • “biova” (Piedmont): slightly heavier than michetta because only partially empty and slightly denser.
  • “carasau” (Sardinia): a flatbread, extremely thin and crunchy.
  • “francese”, “francesino”: French-style bread (loaf or bun).
  • “ciabatta” (not ciabbata!), classic denser bun, rectangular shaped, used for instance to make “panini” (singular “panino” !), grilled sandwiches where the bread is cut horizontally and filled with one type of cold cut or ham and optionally cheese and roasted vegetables.
  • “filone”, “sfilatino”: similar to a baguette.

Special bread featuring the addition of other ingredients (from simple milk or oil to olives, raisins, or grapes) is also quite common. It has to be noted that the law imposes the use of the “Special Bread” label for any kinds of bread containing more than 4.5% of fat.

Focaccia (not foccacia!) can be considered a type of special bread containing olive oil. The most basic focaccia is simply sprinkled with coarse salt, but there are many variations (even a sweet one covered with sugar). The most famous focaccia comes from Liguria, and particularly the city of Recco (topped with Crescenza cheese).

A slice of classic Panettone
A slice of classic Panettone

Panettone is also a type of special bread, definitely the most representative sweet bread, a typical Christmas cake that originated in the city of Milan, but is common all throughout Italy (though usually only around the Christmas time). Panettone contains eggs, butter, sugar, raisins, and candied citrus peel and its complex preparation requires different stages of leavening.

A typical preparation that uses a slice of toasted bread as its base is the famous bruschetta (brus-‘ket-ta, not bru-‘shet-ta!). The most classic bruschetta is topped with diced tomatoes, garlic, onion and olive oil and originates in Central and Southern Italy.

Two other regional specialties (both from Emilia Romagna) are Piadina (a flatbread which is traditionally eaten with fresh creamy cheese and cold cuts) and ‘gnocco fritto’, fried dumpling which is also eaten with cold cuts or cheese. Both kinds of bread can also be served as desserts (usually with chocolate spreads, gnocco fritto can also be served with honey).

Finally, several preparations are based on stale bread, either diced and softened in milk or grated. One preparation typical of the eastern Alps is Canederli (though originated in Germany and Austria), bread dumplings usually containing cheese and smoked cured meat, served in broth or with melted butter.