Run a search for “seafood pasta recipe” and you’ll get some 258 million results, at last check.
Those are obviously all terrible.
No credible pasta chef would blog their recipe in English!
Whittle those down by running a search in Italian: “Ricetta pasta allo scoglio” (recipe for shellfish pasta; literally: “pasta of the reef”).
This nets me a select 123,000 results and most of them, I’m sure, are based on generations of refinements by Giovannis and Marias cooking up the delights their bambini (children) recovered from the seaside.
Using recipes in Italian isn’t just better for your cooking and more impressive to your guests—it also allows you to learn and practice Italian food vocabulary in a real-world situation.
We’ve previously covered learning Italian through YouTube cooking videos, which can be useful for motivation and for seeing cooking processes in action. And the gesticulating, salivating Italian chefs are adorable and not-to-be-missed.
But I’ve found that I usually also need written Italian recipes for cooking, as these allow me to easily look up tricky vocabulary, get exact measurements and refer back to the instructions while cooking.
So today, we’ll be talking about the basic food vocabulary we need to have in order to cook Italian food, first for understanding ingredients and then for tackling cooking techniques.
How to Study Italian Food Vocabulary
It doesn’t matter if you’re a complete novice to Italian or a master of advanced grammar: You can absolutely make use of the delicious Italian-language cooking wisdom on recipe sites or in cookbooks.
All you need are the right tools:
A Good Dictionary
To start learning new vocabulary with authentic Italian recipes, install the Google Translate extension (for Chrome, Firefox, etc.) in your browser. It can give you a one-click machine-translated overview of a recipe before you dive in further—it won’t be perfect, but it’ll give you a basic understanding of what to expect.
You can also look up specific food vocabulary in WordReference (especially the forums) and other dictionaries.
Certain food words don’t translate exactly. To see what it really means, head to its Italian Wikipedia entry. Here, you’ll usually see a picture of what the food word conjures in the Italian mind and the various species or sub-species of plant or animal associated with the word. You’ll also be able to click over to the English entry to see a vague equivalent.
If you already have a high level of Italian and love to read about food ingredients, check out some articles in Italian that get very deep into the weeds on specific types of food and how they’re used in kitchens in various parts of the country.
If, however, you prefer to learn with videos, you can try the authentic videos on FluentU. Watching these is almost as good as actually traveling to Italy and eavesdropping on conversations (which is impolite, anyway).
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
All videos come with interactive subtitles that allow you to see the definition of any word as you go and even hear it in use in other situations.
There’s also the option to make your own vocabulary lists, like, say, the words in the list below!
Of course, the very best way to understand Italian cooking is to take an Italian train up and down the boot, stopping at restaurants and kitchens every few kilometers to sample and observe cooking techniques.
Done properly, this’ll take at least a few decades.
It’s just a bit more time-consuming than the shortcut internet cooking strategies described above but far more rewarding.
40+ Essential Italian Food Vocabulary to Whet Your Appetite for Learning
Italian Cooking Ingredients
Let’s start with some of the most common words you’ll see in your Italian ingredient lists.
A quick note about recognizing plurals: In many cases, feminine nouns end in -a and their plural form changes this to -e. Masculine nouns often end in -o and in the plural this changes to -i.
You’ll usually see recipes calling for a plural of some ingredient like pomodori, but then need to reverse-engineer into the singular pomodoro (tomato) to look it up in a dictionary.
Here we’ll list vocabulary as it’s most often seen in recipes (plurals, generally).
pomodori di Pachino — a variety of very tasty large cherry tomatoes from Sicily
cozze — mussels
vongole — clams
calamari — squid
scampi — shrimp
olio extravergine d’oliva — extra-virgin olive oil
vino bianco — white wine
vino rosso — red wine
sale — salt
pepe nero — black pepper
zucchero — sugar
spaghetti, ziti, bucatini, capellini, taglierini, etc., etc., etc. — These are different types of pasta noodles.
It doesn’t matter what type you use for what dish unless an Italian (or someone with the pretensions of one) is dining with you. Then, correct matching is a matter of life or death.
Be careful, as pasta-matching laws do vary by region. Italian Wikipedia has the best overview and lots of photos.
impasto — dough
farina — flour
acqua — water
lievito — yeast
mozzarella — mozzarella; perhaps in the variety of heavenly bufala or buffalo milk cheese
basilico — basil
mascarpone — a type of cream cheese (no, you may not substitute with Philadelphia)
cacao amaro in polvere — unsweetened chocolate powder
caffè — If a recipe (for tiramisù, for example) calls for this, it means espresso, and definitely not American-style brew coffee.
Don’t use coffee pods, either! If you don’t have a proper espresso machine, make your lesser espresso with an Italian coffee pot instead and then carry on with your lesser cooking experience.
uova — eggs
melanzane — eggplants/aubergines
You might be tempted, when interpreting Italian recipes, to toss in a few more things, as the ingredient lists can seem austere to the untrained chef.
But don’t do it!
Simplicity is the whole point. Italian cuisine celebrates the expert combination of just a few very high-quality ingredients.
And what if you live in a part of the world that doesn’t offer access to mascarpone, bufala or proper fresh shellfish? Move. For your own sake, move.
Measuring Italian Food
Here are some common measures that you’ll see in recipes:
grammi — grams (usually abbreviated to g in recipes)
It’s useful to have an electric kitchen scale for Italian recipes as they often list ingredients by weight. Americans can switch such a scale to metric.
spicchio — slide, wedge, clove, small bunch
For instance: spicchio di prezzemolo — a bunch of parsley
cucchiaio — spoonful (imprecise)
Do note that some regions have different words for the same thing. One example is broccoli rabe: It can be called broccoletti in Rome, rapini in Tuscany and friarielli in Naples.
And in addition to such regional differences in Italian, there are a few words that have crept in from Italy’s 33 other languages and some recipe writers unknowingly or intentionally use ingredient vocabulary from those languages, instead.
Vocabulary for Italian Cooking Techniques
Often, verbs in recipes are written in the plural command form, which ends in -ate, -ete, or -ite.
Generally, to get back to a dictionary form (infinitive) that you can look up, you’ll just remove the -te from the end of the word and add -re.
For instance, you might see:
Follow the instructions above, and you’ll know that it comes from the verb:
mescolare — to blend, mix, stir
Here are some other words you’re likely to see (in their plural command forms):
tritate — chop up
impastate — knead
versate — pour
utilizzate — use
scegliete — choose
trasferite — transfer
coprite — cover
friggete — fry
cuocete al forno — bake in the oven
bollite — boil
saltate — sauté
Don’t be thrown when these command words have a couple-letter Italian pronoun tacked on at their tails (often l plus a vowel). These usually indicate that you should do something to the foodstuff.
For example, one might be told concerning one’s mussels:
Trasferitele in una seconda pentola. — Transfer them into a second pot.
I hope this has left you enthusiastic, salivating, and ready to use Italian in your own kitchen.
We’ve seen above that there’s not a one-to-one correspondence between Italian and English words for food, so it’s good to keep that in mind as you dive in deeper and need more vocabulary.
Enjoy your meal!
Mose Hayward has been riding trains all over Europe for decades, pigging out on the continent’s delicacies and attempting to recreate them at home.
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