Italian Cooking Terminology Italian Cooking Terminology

Italian Cooking Terminology

The best way to begin to understand Italian cooking, is to understand the language!

We've complied a list of some of the most common terms and phrases found in Italian kitchens and cookbooks to help you master the art of Italian Cooking from the comfort of your home. 

Arrosto: A roast. Can be used as an invariable adjective, as in patate arrosto, or roast potatoes, or a noun, as in arrosto di maiale, roast pork. A synonym, more or less, of al forno. 

Arrosto morto: A typical pan roasting technique for meats combining dry and wet cooking. The meat is initially browned in oil or butter, then braised in liquid. Unlike pot roasting, however, the braising is accomplished by adding only a small amount of liquid at a time, repeated as needed to keep the meat moist.

All’agro: A term that described a dish that features an ingredient, usually a vegetable such as green beans, that is blanched and then dressed with olive oil and fresh lemon juice or, less often, vinegar.

Aromi: Refers collectively to herbs and other flavoring ingredients like garlic or ginger.

Alla brace: Literally, ‘at the coals’, meaning grilled. A synonym of the more common expression, alla griglia.

Al dente: Literally, ‘to the tooth’, a term used to describe the point at which pasta is properly cooked: firm to the bite but not chalky. 

Al forno: Literally, ‘in the oven’, this refers to a dish that is cooked in the oven. The corresponding English terms could be baked, oven-baked, roasted, oven-roasted or gratinéed, depending on the context, although Italians also use the terms arrosto and gratinato if they wish to be more specific.

Alla griglia: The most common way to say ‘grilled’ or ‘barbecued'. In Italy, as elsewhere, it’s a very popular way to prepare meat, fish, vegetables in the warm weather months. A synonym is alla brace. A dish of grilled food, often of different types, is known as a grigliata.

Al vapore: Means "steamed". While it is not a traditional technique in Italian cooking, it is becoming increasingly popular in modern cooking.

Antipasto: Literally, ‘before the meal’, the Italian word for appetizer or hors d’oeuvre. Antipasti are always served at table, just before the primo piatto, while stuzzichini can be eaten standing up. 

Bianco or In Bianco: Literally, ‘white’ or ‘in white’. Terms used to describe the tomato-less version of a dish that can be made with or without tomatoes. A pizza bianca, for example, is a pizza made only with cheese. Lasagne in bianco means lasagne made with béchamel sauce (and, usually, a vegetable) but not ragù.

Battuto: One or more aromatic vegetables, typically onion, celery and carrot, and sometimes including garlic, parsley or pancetta, that is finely chopped. A battuto is usually cooked in oil or butter as the first step in many dishes, after which it is referred to as a soffritto.

Bollito: Meaning ‘boiled’, can be used as an adjective or a noun. A popular way to cook meats or vegetables. A properly made bollito misto, or mixed boiled meats, is one of the glories of Italian cookery.

In brodo: Literally, ‘in broth’, one of the two main ways of serving pasta, especially (but not exclusively) fresh egg pasta. In contrast, pasta asciutta, or ‘dry pasta’ is served with a sauce. The term is also used to distinguish minestre in brodo (i.e. soups) or from other kinds of ‘dry’ minestre (i.e., pasta or rice dishes). Perhaps the most famous dish of this type is tortellini in brodo.

Condimento: While it sounds a lot like the english word 'condiment', the word condimento does not really correspond. It has a much broader meaning that refers to anything that can dress another ingredient for flavor, including the dressing on a salad or the sauce for a pasta. Indeed, the Italian verb for both dressing a salad and saucing pasta is condire.

Contorno: A vegetable side dish served with the secondo.

Crema: The term for soups made of puréed vegetables, such as crema di cannellini or crema di zucca. It refers to the creamy texture, not to cream, which is called panna in Italian. This type of creamy vegetable soup is also sometimes called a vellutata.

Cucina povera: Literally, ‘poor cuisine’ (i.e., the cuisine of the poor), this term refers to a style of Italian cooking emphasizing frugality, humble ingredients and simple cooking techniques, in the tradition of the peasantry. Born out of necessity, dishes in the cucina povera style have, ironically, become quite chic in recent times.

DOC: Stands for denominazione di origine controllata, or “controlled name of origin”. A designation under Italian law to protect the names of genuine wine, cheeses and other Italian agricultural products. It is used colloquially as well to describe the authentic version of a particular dish.

Fare la scarpetta: An idiomatic expression, literally meaning ‘to make a little shoe’, for sopping up juices or a sauce with a bit of bread. The expression refers to the shape of the bread, which is said to look like a little shoe when pressed against the plate with your fingers.

Un filo d’olio: Literally, a ‘thread of oil’. A term usually used to describe a thin stream of oil drizzled on top of a dish to finish it a technique often used for thick, bean-based soups. Can also be used more generally to describe adding a small amount of oil to a dish or to a skillet. 

Fritto: Means fried, as in pollo fritto, or fried chicken. (The verb ‘to fry’ is friggere.) A plate of mixed fried food, either fish, meats and/or vegetables, is a very popular dish in Italy. 

Gnocchi: The Italian word for dumpling. The most common type of gnocchi is made from potato, but gnocchi may also be made from flour, semolina, ricotta and spinach.

Insaporire: To sauté meat, vegetable or other food in a soffrito to allow it to absorb its aromatic flavors. An extremely common technique in Italian cookery.

Mantecare: To beat, whip or simply stir vigorously to achieve a smooth, creamy consistency. It is the finishing step in making a risotto, whereby you add grated cheese (usually parmesan), and/or butter or oil to the cooked rice, usually off heat, and stir vigorously to incorporate the ingredients and produce a creamy texture.  

Minestra: The closest thing in Italian for a generic word for ‘soup’. A minestra is usually substantial rather than brothy and it can also be used in a way that includes ‘dry’ soups (i.e., pasta dishes), essentially as a synonym for primo piatto. To avoid confusion, the term minestra in brodo can be used to describe true soups. 

Minestrone: Literally, a ‘big minestra’ or just ‘big soup’, this well-known term refers to a category of mixed vegetable soups, generally very thick and hearty. 

Odori: Literally meaning ‘scents’. It is also the collective name for the herbs and vegetables that go into a battuto, e.g. onion, carrot, celery, garlic and parsley. 

In padella: Or more fully, ripassati in padella, a term that refers to sautéing leafy green vegetables such as spinach, chard, escarole or chicory in garlic and oil, sometimes with a bit of pepperoncino. The vegetable is usually parboiled or wilted before being sautéed. The term can also apply to other vegetables like artichokes and potatoes, that are prepared in the same way. In padella is very similar to the trifolati technique. 

Pasta all’uovo: A term for fresh egg pasta, typically made from a dough of soft flour known in Italy as “OO” and whole eggs. The most common types of pasta all’uovo include fettuccine, tagliatelle and pappardelle. Most stuffed pastas, including cannelloni, ravioli, cappelletti and tortellini—are also egg pastas. Egg pastas are often made fresh at home, in which case they are also known as pasta fatta in casa (home-made pasta) or pasta fatta a mano (hand-made pasta) or pasta fresca. 

Pasta asciutta: Literally, ‘dry pasta’, it really refers to pasta dressed with a sauce. It is ‘dry’ relative to the other principal way of making a pasta dish, in brodo.

Pasta fresca: Freshly made pasta, more often than not a pasta all’uovo, especially in central and northern Italy. But in southern Italy there are many types of paste fresche made entirely from semolina flour and water, such as orecchiette and cavatelli.

Pasta secca: Another term that literally means ‘dry pasta’. Pasta secca is the generic term for factory-made pasta made from hard wheat and water, that you can find in stores. There are an almost endless variety of paste secche, among which are spaghetti, linguine, bucatini, penne, rigatoni, ziti and farfalle. Used in contrast to the term pasta fresca, or freshly made pasta.

Peperoncino: A small, dried hot red pepper used often in central and southern Italian cooking. Red pepper flakes, which are easy to find, are an acceptable substitute for most dishes, but you need to be careful as they burn quickly when fried in oil.

Primo piatto or Primo: Refers to the first course of an everyday Italian meal, usually a pasta, risotto or soup.

Piatto unico: A dish that can serve as both primo and secondo, ie. a one-dish meal. Often a dish that combines both a carb and meat, such as ossobuco with risotto alla milanese, or polenta with sausages. But it can also apply to a dish like eggplant parmesan, that is so rich you don’t need another dish to make the meal complete.

Quanto basta (or q.b.): literally translates to ‘as much as is enough’, a common term used in Italian recipes to mean, more or less, ‘to taste’ or as much as is needed to achieve the desired result.

Ragù: A long-simmering tomato-based sauce, typically made with meat. The two most famous are ragù alla bolognese, made with minced beef, or a mixture of minced beef and pork, known in English as Bolognese sauce, and ragù alla napoletana, made with a single piece of beef chuck. The Neapolitan version is the forebearer of the Italian-American ‘Sunday sauce’, made with sausages, meatballs and, often, a mixture of other cuts of beef or pork. Often translated as ‘gravy’, this is something of a misnomer, since a gravy, properly speaking, is made from the drippings of a roast.

Rosolare: To lightly saute in oil or butter, especially a soffrito, over low heat. Often translated into English as ‘to brown’ but this gives the wrong impression, as the point is not to caramelize but to soften the ingredient and intensify its flavor. The corresponding noun is rosolatura.

Secondo piatto or Secondo: Refers to the second course of an everyday Italian meal, usually a meat or fish, or sometimes a vegetable dish. You might be tempted to call this the ‘main course’, but Italian meals typically have no ‘main’ course. The first course, or primo, is typically as filling as the secondo, if not more so. Both are considered equally ‘important’ parts of the meal.

Soffritto: A battuto of aromatic vegetables, most typically onion, carrot and celery, sauteed in oil and/or butter to bring out its flavors and used as a flavor base for countless sauces, soups and stews.

Spaghettata: A spur of the moment meal or snack, usually a quickly-made pasta dish, often eaten late at night. Perhaps the most typical dish for a spaghettata is aglio, olio e peperoncino – a simple spaghetti dish with olive oil, parsley garlic, and pepperocinos.

Spianatoia: Is a Wooden board, usually with a lip to hug the countertop, used as a surface on which to make fresh pasta.

Stuzzichini: A term used to describe little things to nibble on at a party or as a snack.

Sugo: The most commonly used term to describe a tomato-based sauce for pasta. Ragù is a particular kind of sugo. 

Trifolati: A term to describe a simple technique of sautéing a vegetable—most typically mushrooms—in garlic and oil, then seasoning with salt, pepper and finely chopped parsley. The term literally means ‘truffled’ because the thinly sliced mushroom made this way is said to look and taste like truffles. The same technique can be used for other vegetables like artichokes or even some cuts of meat like kidneys. The same basic technique can also be used for leafy vegetables, but dishes made that way are referred to as ripassati in padella or simply in padella.

In umido: A term to refer to a dish that is stewed, usually in a tomato sauce. It can apply to fish, meat or vegetables. Eggs made this way are sometimes called uova in purgatorio, or Eggs in Purgatory.

Vellutata: A soup generally made from puréed vegetables such as the vellutata di cavolfiore (Cream of Cauliflower Soup) thus named for its smooth and velvety texture. Crema is a near synonym. 

In zimino: A term used in Tuscan cooking to refer to a dish in which the main ingredient (classically, seafood) is simmered in spinach or swiss chard.

Zuppa: One of the many words for ‘soup’ in Italian. Zuppa refers to rustic soups which are typically meant to be eaten with bread, either for dunking or laid on the bottom of the bowl. The verb inzuppare means to ‘soak’ in the sense of soaking bread (or another porous solid) with a liquid to soften. Other terms in Italian for ‘soup’ are minestra, crema and minestrone.


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