Do you want to cruise around the streets of Rome with confidence?
Do you want to unearth the historical foundations of the modern Italian language?
Do you want to really sound like an Italian?
If so, it’s time to take on Italian culture and unique native speech with Italian idioms.
Idioms, if you don’t already know, are bits of language native speakers often use to talk to each other.
They’re a curious group of words and expressions that are figurative in nature, but whose meanings are easily deducible and readily understood by speakers of the language.
Idioms add so much color and richness to any language.
Because of this, you can never be described as “fluent” in a language without being able to hold your own in its idioms.
Why Learning Italian Idioms Is a Must for Learners of the Language
Idioms are a little different from the literal and grammatically perfect sentence examples found in textbooks.
In real life, communication can not only be grammatically awkward (like “Long time, no see!”), it can also be a lot more figurative. (No, you’re not really “killing two birds with one stone,” but hey, you already know what that means.)
An idiom’s meaning has very little to do with the individual words that make it up.
Take the Italian idiom “Fare il chilo!” (literally, “To make the kilo”) as an example. Anybody can pick up an Italian app and learn the meaning of individual words. But it takes a certain finesse to comprehend the full expression.
“Facciamo il chilo” means “Let’s rest after lunch.” As in, “Abbiamo mangiato un sacco, facciamo il chilo” (We ate too much, let’s take a post-lunch rest).
To more fully appreciate the meaning and richness of Italian idioms in this post, how about we first try looking at some of their counterparts in English?
Take “sit on the fence,” for example. What could this possibly mean to someone who’s not a native English speaker?
Well, you can sit on the fence all day long and never divine the meaning of this idiom by closely inspecting each word in the phrase. These babies are figurative in nature, and paying a visit to the finest stables in the world won’t reveal the meaning of “straight from the horse’s mouth,” either.
Idioms are creative ways of saying something with spice and punch. A native speaker won’t waste his breath saying, “The exam was not difficult at all. I found the questions very easy,” when he could have just easily uttered, “It was a piece of cake.”
Instead of saying, “That was awful! I don’t think anybody will ever pay to hear you sing,” a native speaker can just suggest, “Don’t quit your day job.” (The punch there can be both literal, as the speaker may be literally suggesting the person not quit their day job, and figurative, as they’re using one thing to say another.)
Finally, it’s important to note that there’s a story or history to idioms. They didn’t just rise out of the water to join the ranks of literal phrases and expressions. They have origins and provenance, even if native speakers don’t remember them.
For example, “know the ropes” came from old sailing tradition, as being familiar with the rigging was an essential skill in working a ship.
Idioms are little peeks into the history, beliefs and traditions of the language that they carry.
The Italian idiom “Capita a fagiolo” (literally, “happens at the bean”), which is an expression used when something happens at exactly the right moment, is reminiscent of a time when the nation’s poor only had beans for meals. When you come “at the bean,” you come at a time when food is served.
And for the hungry peasant, that’s as perfect a time as there is!
All this being said, why don’t we proceed to the next section and look more closely at some interesting Italian idioms?
40 Cool Italian Idioms for the Smooth-talking Language Learner
Once you get the following 40 idioms under your belt, you can discover even more on your own by watching and listening to authentic Italian resources like the videos on FluentU.
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Tap on any word to instantly see an image, in-context definition, example sentences and other videos in which the word is used.
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1. In bocca al lupo (In the mouth of the wolf)
We say, “Break a leg” to actors and musicians before they brave the stage to perform. The equivalent of that in Italian is “In bocca al lupo” (In the mouth of the wolf). Don’t say “Buona fortuna” (Good luck). That’s bad. There’s an Italian superstition that if you wish somebody good luck, bad things will happen instead.
The wolf reference may have come from the mythical twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, who, as the story goes, were suckled and cared for by a she-wolf. So being “in the mouth of the wolf” may not be a bad thing after all.
But then the response to “In bocca al lupo” (which should never be “Grazie”), will turn the whole picture on its head, proving the fascinating nature of idioms. You would say, “Crepi il lupo,” or “May the wolf die.” Or just “Crepi!” for short.
I know. Creepy, huh? But that’s really the standard reply.
So when in Rome…
2. Buono come il pane (Good as bread)
Okay, this will be the first of our food-related idioms, and I’m telling you that there will definitely be more on this list. They’re full-throated testaments to the high value and esteem Italians give to good food. (That’s why the Italians also have the idiom “Brutto come la fame,” which literally means “Ugly as hunger.”)
Bread is the perfect food. Young and old, rich and poor have been nourished by bread. It’s baked daily with equal parts fervor and reverence by Italian mothers and bakers. There’s really nothing sweeter-smelling than a fresh batch of perfectly baked bread.
“Buono come il pane” (Good as bread) is used to describe a person with a heart of gold. He or she is somebody who’s generally known for being kind and generous, generally has the qualities of a good person. You use “Buono come il pane” for such an individual. You can use it as a blanket description of a good person, when you really don’t have anything else to say about him or her.
Let’s say you admire an Italian politician for good leadership and integrity. Then some information about him comes to light that reveals him as a corrupt and ruthless person. You can say that you thought of him as “Buono come il pane.”
3. L’erba del vicino è sempre più verde (Neighbor’s grass is always greener)
You may have already guessed the English equivalent of this one: The grass is always greener on the other side.
The fact that it has an English equivalent suggests that this sentiment is part of human nature, a universal expression of discontent.
Yes, Italians feel it, too, the envy and longing for what others have. Doesn’t matter that they have some of the world’s most mouth-watering food, most beautiful art and most scenic spots—they sometimes feel they’re missing out, just like everyone else.
4. A mali estremi, estremi rimedi (To extreme evils, extreme remedies)
“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” That’s the English equivalent to this baby. And the Italian version might have one-upped its English counterpart because of the rhyme in “A mali estremi, estremi rimedi.”
A witty turn of phrase is made so much tighter with rhyme and that’s why in another Italian idiom, “Si chiama Pietro e torna indietro” (“Its name is Peter and it comes back,” told to a friend to let them know that the thing they’re about to borrow should be returned), “Pietro” is the name used. Because it rhymes with “indietro” (back). The idiom wouldn’t have the same punch if, say, “Gary” were the name used!
5. Affogare in un bicchier d’acqua (To drown in a glass of water)
To drown in a glass of water is to be easily overwhelmed with little problems. For example, a not-so-bright fellow running around in circles trying to solve a simple arithmetic problem, or a little girl who wails like it’s the end of the world because she lost her favorite hairpin, could be said to be drowning in a glass of water.
6. L’amore domina senza regole (Love rules without rules)
All’s fair in love and war. Men in pursuit of the woman of their affections know this and won’t be bound by the usual limits of fair play.
Italian men, the likes of Casanova, are world-class romantics and can sweep you off your feet with their uber-sexy accent and perfectly-made pasta. So watch out when you visit Italia. You just might fall in love with the place, the pizza and the people.
7. I frutti proibiti sono i più dolci (Forbidden fruit is sweetest)
Now that we’re talking food, have you ever noticed that no matter what the doctor says, that last piece of cake is practically impossible to resist?
It seems that the more you’re prohibited from having something, the more that something becomes more appealing than ever.
You want what you can’t have, and “I frutti proibiti sono i più dolci” is the Italian recognition of this basic human irony. Some parents even use this on their kids. Employing reverse psychology, they say “Don’t,” when they actually are thinking, “Go ahead.”
I remember one couple who forbid their teenager from going to her grandma’s house. (“I forbid you to visit that old lady. You are never to set foot in her house again!”) Human nature works like magic and the teen found herself mysteriously gravitating towards grandma’s house just to watch TV. It was never on her radar before. I frutti proibiti sono i più dolci.
8. Conosco i miei polli (I know my chickens)
Ever tried showing a toddler he’s not building his Legos right?
You know what happens? He defiantly snatches the blocks from your hand, as if saying, “Leave me alone! I know what I’m doing. I can handle this.”
“Conosco i miei polli” is said in that same spirit.
So if Italians want to express something like, “I know what I’m talking about,” or “I know who I’m dealing with,” or “This is right up my alley,” they utter this idiom with an air of quiet confidence.
9. Minestra riscaldata (Reheated soup)
Italian boy meets Italian girl. The two fall in love.
The relationship has its ups and downs. Both fight to make it work.
They grow apart, and the relationship ultimately disintegrates.
Months after, they meet and try to rekindle the bond.
“Minestra riscaldata” is that state of reviving a relationship gone sour. It’s just never the same. The expression doesn’t just apply to romantic partners; it can also be appropriate to describe the bond between friends, business partners, etc.
10. Non avere peli sulla lingua (Not to have hair on your tongue)
This Italian idiom means to be straightforward and speak one’s mind, regardless of the possibility of upsetting or insulting someone. In short, you’re not mincing any words. You simply say what needs to be heard. Period.
11. Trovarsi fra l’incudine e il martello (To be between the anvil and the hammer)
This happens when you’re left with a bad choice alongside another equally horrible option—like a lazy teenager made to choose between cleaning his car or cleaning his room.
This is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of situation where you’re caught between a rock and a hard place, the devil and the deep blue sea. That kind of situation sucks big time…in any language.
12. Hai voluto la bicicletta? Allora, pedala! (You wanted a bike? Now, pedal!)
Italy produces some of the world’s finest bicycles. And Bianchi, the world’s first bicycle company, established in the 1880s, is still churning out two-wheelers today.
Italy has embraced its biking culture, with color-coded bike lanes, large bike parking spaces and prevalent bike-sharing programs. It’s no wonder that the language has reflected this love affair with the bicycle in one of its idioms.
“You’ve made your bed, now lie in it” is its closest equivalent English idiom. Both have to do with gracefully facing the consequences of one’s actions or decisions. “Hai voluto la bicicletta? Allora, pedala!” is often remarked to a person whining about a state of affairs that they brought upon themselves.
“You married the wrong girl?”
“You failed the final exam?”
“You lost everything gambling?”
It’s your own doing. Deal with it!
13. Diciamo pane al pane e vino al vino (Let’s say bread for bread and wine for wine)
Remember what we said a few idioms back about someone who doesn’t have hair on their tongue? The one who’s a straight shooter, yeah?
They’ll probably be saying, “Diciamo pane al pane e vino al vino.”
Or, if we go by the English equivalent, “Let’s call a spade a spade.” They’ll call it as it is. There’ll be no “sugarcoating” and no “beating around the bush.” If they think you’re a bad actor, they’ll tell you so. If they think your cooking sucks, you’ll hear about it.
Italian men have been known to call a spade a spade. So when you walk the streets of Florence and hear a “Ciao bella” thrown your way, you better believe it.
14. Ha molto sale in zucca (Has a lot of salt in his gourd)
A gourd is an oddly-shaped fruit often used in English to represent a person’s head or brain. So to “lose one’s gourd” is to be crazy or to lose one’s mind.
“Ha molto sale in zucca” refers to a person who has a good head—someone not only bright, but one who possesses a lot of good sense.
15. È tutto pepe! (He is all pepper)
From salt, we go to pepper. Pepper is used to kick any cooking up a notch. There’s just something about it that brings life to bland dishes and imbues them with a richer flavor and aroma.
In Italy, especially in its Southern region, peppers are frequently used in dishes and you can often find little red peppers called “diavoletti” (little devils) strung together and hung to dry.
“È tutto pepe!” is used to describe somebody full of life—someone with a vibrant personality and a sunny disposition that lifts everyone’s spirits. So if you hear this said of you, take it as a high compliment.
16. Ti sta a pennello (Fits you like a paintbrush)
Speaking of compliments, if you hear this one in one of Italy’s premier fashion stores, like Valentino, Versace, Prada, Armani or Dolce & Gabbana, it means the person assisting you is working on commission. Seriously though, it means the dress or whatever it is you’re trying on fits you perfectly. (It fits you so perfectly it looks like it’s been painted onto your body.)
17. Fare troppi atti in commedia (To make too many acts in a comedy)
There are usually just three acts in a standard play. To have too many acts in a comedy means someone is trying to accomplish too many things at once. In English, you could say the person is “wearing too many hats” or has “hands/fingers in too many pies.”
18. Rompere il ghiaccio (To break the ice)
This one means exactly what it means in English. “Rompere il ghiaccio” is to obliterate awkwardness between people in social situations, especially for those who have just recently met.
19. Sputa il rospo (Spit the toad)
This means “speak up.” To remember it, you could imagine releasing a toad from your mouth and letting it freely speak about the beauty and wonders of from whence it came.
20. Colto con le mani nel sacco (Caught with his hands in the bag)
This one is comparable to the English idiom, “caught red-handed” or “caught with one’s hands in the cookie jar.” These idioms refer to someone who got caught stealing cash or something else, often helping themselves to the detriment of others.
21. Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro (One pope dies, another will be made)
This Italian idiom is used to signify how life goes on even after the worst of tragedies. Your Italian boyfriend broke up with you? Don’t worry, there are plenty of fish in the sea. If even the pope isn’t indispensable, the loss of something or someone shouldn’t stop your world from turning. Life goes on, as it always has.
22. Togliti dai piedi! (Take yourself out of my feet)
Let’s say you’re peacefully walking the streets of Milan and somebody suddenly snatches your wallet. You decide to get some much-needed exercise and pursue the offender through the major thoroughfares of a foreign city. You would shout, “Togliti dai piedi!” as you gave chase. It means “Get out of my way!” You would then catch the bad man and give him a good scolding for what he did.
But in reality, you probably wouldn’t even know you’d been victimized by a pickpocket until it was too late. It’s always better to stay safe abroad and keep any valuables in your hotel (or better yet, never bring them on your vacation in the first place).
23. Alla come viene, viene (It comes out as it comes out)
You don’t want to hear this from the staff of an Italian restaurant, ever. It means “It is what it is.” The expression gives the sense that a thing is done in a shoddy, slapdash manner.
24. Attaccare il cappello (To hang up one’s hat)
Imagine a miner hanging his hard hat on the wall after a long day. He’s done, having finished his work. In the case of this idiom, however, the person hanging up his hat doesn’t have to work at all anymore because he’s just snagged a wealthy wife.
In English, we have the expressions “hang up one’s gloves,” “hang up one’s boots” and “hang up one’s hat.” They all mean to retire, or quit doing something. Notice that the objects referred to in the idioms—gloves, boots and hat—are those often used by the working class to perform various job functions.
The Italian “Attaccarre il cappello” not only means quitting in general, but has the added sense of quitting by virtue of marrying somebody rich (usually a man marrying a rich woman). So the Italian version wins this one, what with all the perks of a golden retirement.
25. L’abito non fa il monaco (The dress does not make the monk)
Everyone knows that “clothes don’t make the man.” We shouldn’t judge anybody on looks, we shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover.” But if that man is covered in fine Italian leather and smells like Armani in the morning, we really can’t help but judge away—albeit favorably.
26. Caduto dalle nuvole (Fallen from the clouds)
This means to be completely taken by surprise, usually from news of something that’s negative in nature. “Taken aback” captures some of the same meaning, as in “She was taken aback when she heard that I lost the baby.”
27. Mal comune, mezzo gaudio (Common bad, half rejoice)
Misery does love company. (This is a conclusion that has been borne out in psychological research.) To put it in a more positive way, “a trouble shared is a trouble halved.”
28. Farsene un baffo (To make a mustache of it)
Consider a mustache. It’s just there, growing on your face, without any effort. It’s always there, but you don’t really notice it. It doesn’t bother you at all.
To make a mustache out of something means to treat something as insignificant, or not bothersome or burdensome at all. So you don’t make a fuss about it.
29. Ogni morte di papa (Every death of a pope)
Italians revere the Pope, but they do have an expression for saying “once in a blue moon” that’s based on his demise. It’s “ogni morte di papa.” These fellows often reach a ripe old age before checking out. (Seems like being close to God does have its perks.)
So really, the death of a pope doesn’t come very often, making the idiomatic expression a fitting description.
30. Tale madre, tale figlia/Tale padre, tale figlio (Such mother, such daughter/Such father, such son)
Like mother, like daughter.
Like father, like son.
Such is life. It doesn’t matter which hemisphere on earth you live in. Soon enough, you’ll embody your folks’ spirits—hovering over others, asking them if they’ve eaten, just like Mom. Or fixing light bulbs even when they’re working perfectly fine, just like, well, Mom.
31. Tutto fa brodo (Everything makes broth, soup)
This Italian expression means every little thing counts. Everything contributes something to the whole—whether it be a lone euro tossed into a donation basket, 10 minutes of quality time spent with your young daughter or a simple smile given to the old lady who rings up your groceries…
Imagine making soup. You’ve got a plethora of vegetables ready to be dunked into the water. You’ve got pinches of different spices and ingredients set to add a distinct flavor. Every little thing you have contributes to the whole. You don’t need a whole lot, just little pinches of many things, and you get exquisite soup.
32. Un pezzo grosso (A big piece)
From little things we go to big things.
“Un pezzo grosso” is synonymous to the English idiom “big shot” or “big wig,” usually referring to somebody of high importance or someone who wields strong influence over the whole.
For example, the Italian prime minister is “un pezzo grosso” of the whole Italian political system. In fact, the biggest of them all.
33. Calare le brache (To pull down one’s pants)
“Calare le brache” means to chicken out and surrender. Another Italian idiom in the same vein is “chiudere bottega” (to close up shop), which means to give up.
You may not master Italian in a week or two, but it’s no reason to give up. Keep your store open and your pants up!
34. Avere un cervello di gallina (To have a hen’s brain)
A person who acts stupidly, has low intelligence or has poor judgment is said to have a hen’s brain.
It comes from the belief that the bigger the size of the brain, the more intelligent the animal. And judging from the size of its head, one can clearly say that a hen (or bird) does have a small brain animating the whole apparatus, and is therefore by this standard not too bright. And the person who acts stupidly (like the thief who posts his loot on Facebook), is said to possess a brain the size of a bird.
A recent study, however, has revealed that birds’ brains are actually more complex and robust than formerly believed. An apology to all the feathered and winged members of the animal kingdom is probably in order.
35. Cane non mangia cane (Dog does not eat dog)
Unlike most of the other idioms on this list, which basically agree with their English counterparts, this one is the complete opposite and a repudiation of the line “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.” The Italian version holds a more optimistic view of the world. Yes, there’s “honor among thieves.” There’s a line that cannot be crossed, there’s a code of conduct that governs even the most sinister of people.
If even the dogs know their limits and don’t destroy their own kind, how much more is this true with humans? For example, a corrupt politician won’t tell on his equally corrupt comrade. A whole office staff will stick up for a colleague in trouble. A student won’t betray a classmate for the good graces of a teacher.
But as you may know, sometimes, humans prove different from their canine friends. An employee, student or even a friend can betray another. In these situations, the appropriate idiom then becomes “Cane mangia cane” (Dog eat dog).
36. Avere le braccine corte (To have short arms)
We all have that uncle. You know the one. He always comes around for the holidays, but never brings you a present, always promising to next year. He never picks up the check because the bill always curiously arrives when he’s in the restroom.
“Avere le braccine corte” doesn’t refer to the T-rex, whose arms were literally short. The expression refers to a cheap person who never seems to have the arm length or strength to reach for his wallet.
37. Cornuto (Horned)
This is a rather painful idiom that refers to someone cheating on someone else. The offending party may be evil and deserve to wear the “horns,” but in Italian tradition, the one wearing the “horns” is actually the victim, or the party being cheated on. So to be “cornuto” means your partner is cheating on you. The expression usually comes with a hand gesture for which the index finger and the pinky are held up, like during rock concerts.
Probably one of the biggest insults you can hurl an Italian man’s way is to say that he’s “cornuto.”
In reality, though, the expression doesn’t always mean that somebody is being cheated on. In fact, it’s often used just to rile up, say, somebody driving a beat-up Vespa who suddenly cut you off. Or a football referee perceived to be calling the game for the other team.
So if you just want to mess somebody up, this idiom and its corresponding hand gesture would be the way to go. Just don’t expect an Italian stallion to take it sitting down.
38. Raro come una mosca bianca (Rare as a white fly)
Have you ever seen a white fly?
39. Non vedo l’ora (I don’t see the hour)
This Italian idiom means you just absolutely cannot wait for something. You can’t think or see straight from excitement. Be it your Italian vacation, your Italian girlfriend coming for a visit or that Italian cheese recipe bubbling in the oven.
40. Che palle! (What balls)
This is a (strong but) widely-used Italian expression that could be translated as “Dang!” or “Sucks!”
Use it to express annoyance or irritation at a situation or person. Maybe the Italian waiter always brings you the wrong food (maybe because you didn’t roll your R’s correctly when you ordered). You could say “Che palle!” while being served.
(Seriously, though, it’s best to be courteous and gracious whenever you visit other countries.)
That’s it! You’ve just learned 40 of the most common and useful Italian idioms used by native speakers. There are so many more, and this is really just a start.
Forge ahead with your study of Italian and you’ll be putting yourself in the way of some really interesting and creative idioms.
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