Let the octopus cook in its own juice.
Every pan has its own cover.
You don’t get old at the table.
While these phrases may seem unrelated (and even nonsensical), they have two things in common.
They’re wise old Italian proverbs.
And they all refer to food and eating.
Food is so central to Italian culture that it’s often used as a metaphor to express profound observations about life, love and human nature.
To help you embody the Italian spirit and fully grasp Italian culture, we’ve curated a list of 15 classic and thought-provoking Italian quotes, all about food.
Mastering quotes like these can help you bridge the gap between conversational fluency and true cultural literacy.
Let’s dig in!
How to Learn Italian with Quotes and Proverbs
Unless you move to Italy full time, it’s difficult to master these quotes and proverbs without some extra effort outside the classroom. They transcend typical grammar and defy direct translation. Often, they require direct engagement with Italian culture.
So, how can you learn them?
Find an Italian Friend
The joy of learning Italian lies in using it in everyday life. This is also how you’ll learn new quotes. Making friends with Italians will vastly improve your cultural literacy and expose you to new ways of using the Italian language.
FluentU is an interactive platform that turns real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news clips and inspiring talks—into language-learning experiences. The videos feature native Italian speakers, and each video comes equipped with interactive subtitles in English and Italian, plus a full transcript, a vocabulary list and a comprehension quiz.
The Culture section of FluentU’s video portal has a variety of clips which emphasize use of Italian quotes and colloquial expressions. Check out the Italian Colloquial Expressions clip and save new expressions to your own customized vocabulary list.
Watching videos on FluentU will also help you work on your accent and your listening comprehension, by exposing you to Italy’s various regional cultures and dialects. For example, you can check out A Question for Southern Italians as a great jumping-off point.
Get started with FluentU’s free trial!
Listen to Italian Podcasts
Italian language acquisition podcasts dedicate a lot of time to Italian culture and colloquial speech. To learn more about how everyday Italians actually speak, listen to the 30 Minute Italian podcast. Each show’s notes document new and notable phrases and proverbs.
To practice pronunciation on your own, you can also use the Forvo online Italian dictionary.
Food for Thought: 15 Wise Quotes in Italian About Food and Life
1. Chi lavora mangia, chi non lavora, mangia, beve e dorme.
Literal Translation: He who works eats, he who doesn’t work, eats, drinks and sleeps.
Meaning: Work is just a way to earn money. The real joy in life is living. So, while your work may pay you and get your food on the table, time spent not working offers life’s true rewards.
2. A tavola non si invecchia.
Literal Translation: You don’t get old at the table.
Meaning: Enjoy life to the fullest. Pull up a chair, grab a plate of pasta and pour a glass of wine. Italians focus on the pleasures in life and when you’re at the table, life is at it’s finest.
In addition to being inspiring, this quote also offers an ideal opportunity to practice reflexive verbs in Italian.
3. Anni e bicchieri di vino non si contano mai.
Literal Translation: You never count years or glasses of wine.
Meaning: Once again, it’s best to fully inhabit and enjoy the moment. Better yet, with a glass of wine in hand. Often if an Italian offers a friend a libation, this proverb is quoted. Just don’t count how many glasses.
4. Ad ogni pentola il suo coperchio.
Literal Translation: For each pot its own lid.
Meaning: While it may be easy to commit a secret wrong, the truth always catches up with you. Italians love to use this proverb when speaking of sneaky corrupt politicians. Ultimately it means that you can commit a crime but you can’t hide forever.
Note the article used in the above quote is il because coperchio (lid) is singular and masculine. As you learn new Italian quotes, be sure to practice your articles. You’ll thank yourself later on!
5. Bacco, tabacco e Venere riducono l’uomo in cenere.
Literal Translation: Bacchus, tobacco and Venus reduce a man to ashes.
Meaning: This is a proverb about vices. Bacchus is the god of wine. Venus the symbol of women. The gist here is that wine, cigarettes and women can lead to a man’s downfall when he overindulges. Consider yourself warned!
You’ll notice a lot of verb conjugations in each of these quotes. For example, as in the above conjugation of ridurre (to reduce), you’ll need to make sure you remember your Italian verb conjugations.
6. L’acqua fa male e il vino fa cantare.
Literal Translation: Water is bad and wine makes you sing.
Meaning: Drink that wine. This is from an old Italian drinking song called “Bevilo Tutto” (Drink it All). Often friends egg each other on to drink more by singing this proverb.
For a real treat, you can see Samuel L. Jackson and a group of Italian nuns singing the song in the film The Hitman’s Bodyguard.
7. O mangi questa minestra o salti la finestra.
Literal Translation: Either eat this soup or jump out the window.
Meaning: Roughly similar to the English expression “take it or leave it,” this is a favorite proverb of harried Italian moms and grandmas. When confronted with a picky child, a mother might shout, “o mangi questa minestra o salti la finestra.” She means business.
8. Pollo, pizza e pani si mangiano con le mani.
Literal Translation: Eat chicken, pizza and bread with your hands.
Meaning: The most visceral pleasures in life aren’t fancy. Knives and forks may be just fine, but when you really want to enjoy a moment, get down to business and use your hands. No need to put on airs.
9. Se non è zuppa è pan bagnato.
Literal Translation: If it’s not soup, it’s wet bread.
Meaning: This is a phrase used to express that two things are essentially the same, even if they’re spoken about in different ways. It’s much like the English phrases “six of one, half dozen of the other” or “same meat, different gravy.”
This quote happens to feature the adjective bagnato (wet). The more illustrative the proverb, the more abundant the adjectives! Remember the importance of adjective order and conjugation when learning these expressive proverbs.
10. Tanto va la gatta al lardo che ci lascia lo zampino.
Literal Translation: The kitty goes so often to the lard she leaves her pawprints there.
Meaning: You can’t get away with something forever. Eventually a clue (or a pawprint) will be spotted and you’ll be found out. It’s a very Italian version of “getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar.” Italian kitties like lard more than biscotti, I guess!
11. Meno pregiato è il pesce e meglio il brodo riesce.
Literal Translation: The less noble the fish, the better the broth.
Meaning: The most rustic things can be the most pleasurable too.
This is a common sentiment across Italy, where people all around the country appreciate “cucina povera” or peasant food. Whether you’re in Northern, Southern, Adriatic or Tyrrhenian Italy, you’ll find that Italians have a great fondness for the simple pleasures in life.
12. Troppe salse vivande false.
Literal Translation: Too much sauce means false food.
Meaning: Frilly, fancy cover-ups can do nothing to mask the bad. When it comes to both food and life in general, what seems good on the outside can mask badness on the inside.
13. La farina del diavolo va tutta in crusca.
Literal Translation: The devil’s flour all turns to chaff.
Meaning: Cheaters never prosper. Something that starts with bad intentions usually ends badly.
Chaff is the dry, scaly covering on wheat and corn. It can’t be turned into more valuable flour and was historically used by farmers as livestock feed. Thusly, chaff was considered debris.
In this quote, the devil can’t produce valuable flour due to his malice.
14. ‘O Purpo S’adda Cocere Int’ A L’acqua Soja.
(Note: This proverb is in the Italian dialect of Naples. Its standard Italian translation would be: Il polpo si deve cuocere nella sua stessa acqua. Why not try to learn both the Neapolitan and standard Italian versions? You’ll earn serious brownie points from your Neapolitan friends!)
Literal Translation: The octopus must cook in its own water.
Meaning: Sometimes a stubborn person needs time to ruminate and reflect.
This is a Neapolitan phrase that has now been adopted across Italy. It refers to an obstinate person who may dismiss all new ideas proposed to him. You can say, give it time. He’ll come around. Or in Neapolitan Italian, you can say, let that octopus cook in its own juices.
15. La cucina piccola fa la casa grande.
Literal Translation: The small kitchen makes the house big.
Meaning: The love at the center of the kitchen builds the foundation of the home. The kitchen is the center of Italian domestic life and a way for all families to feel rich in spirit. After all, it’s at the table that Italian families come together daily, whether rich or poor. The kitchen is the common denominator.
The Italian love of food and family inspired so many old proverbs because a good meal transcends socioeconomic and regional differences.
As a relatively new country (Italy was only unified in 1861) with great regional difference, these proverbs join the Italian population in the common language of Italy’s great love—food.
As you learn Italian, make note of new proverbs and practice with your Italian friends. You’ll inhabit the Italian spirit in no time.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Italian with real-world videos.