Food Culture and Tradition

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Italian Food Glossary and Food Terms


Abbacchio: suckling lamb.

Alla Cacciatora: prepared according to the “hunter’s style,” which means slowly simmered in a sauce of vinegar and water liberal with garlic, minced anchovies, rosemary, and sage.

Alla Fiorentina: prepared according to the Florentine style, which often (but not always) means that spinach is included.

Bagna Cauda: literally, a “warm bath.” Simmered mixture of olive oil, butter, garlic, anchovies, and sometimes other ingredients such as cream. A specialty of Piedmont and Turin.

Bottiglierie: a wine shop that not only sells wines of all types but also often serves soups, all to the accompaniment of wandering musicians and troubadours.

Brodetto: fish soup or chowder with as many variations as there are soup pots. Yet each Brodetto is made with fish and usually served with bread, the local variations depending on the available fish and seafood.

Bruschetta: that’s what they call it in Rome; in Tuscany they call it Fettunta. By any name, it began as stale bread, rubbed with garlic and drizzled with newly pressed olive oil. More recently it has undergone a metamorphosis to become a popular appetizer topped with finely cubed fresh vegetables, freshly chopped herbs, and maybe a drift of cheese, served warm and crispy from the oven.

Budini: puddings.

Caffe: a coffee shop that also serves as a meeting place, club, or office. Also a place to read a paper, write a letter, or just watch people. Specialty coffees (caffe latte, cappuccino, espresso, iced coffee) are served with sweets or snacks.

Caffe Latte: equal amounts of hot coffee and hot milk. Usually served as a morning beverage.

Cannelloni: tube pasta or crepes that are stuffed with meat then rolled and sauced and baked with cheese. Specialty of Rome.

Cannoli: Sicilian dessert of thin fried pastry tubes stuffed with a creamy filling based on Ricotta cheese and rich with fruits, nuts, chocolate, etc., then finished with a dusting of sugar.

Caponata: a Sicilian dish of chilled and well-seasoned eggplant, anchovies, and capers served as a side dish or appetizer.

Cappuccino: frothy hot coffee prepared from steamed milk and espresso, served with whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon or cocoa. It’s named for the light brown color of the robes of the Capuchin monks.

Carciofi alla Guidia: the Jewish style of cooking artichokes – flattened and fried. A specialty of Rome.

Cassata: the traditional Sicilian cheesecake made from Ricotta cheese and blended with grated chocolate and chopped candied fruits then chilled in a mold. Cassata Gelata is the ice cream version prepared in a special metal mold and consists of an outer layer of rich ice cream and an inner layer of softer cream and chopped fruits.

Con le Vongole: served with clam sauce.

Costolette alla Milanese: a crisp breaded veal cutlet fried in butter. Sounds Austrian, but it is believed that this dish was introduced into Vienna by the Austrian General Joseph Radetz who discovered it in Milan in the 1800s.

Crostini: literally “toasted bread,” but there are many versions that vary from alternating slices of bread and cheese grilled on skewers to toasted bread slices over which a sauce is poured, cheese is melted, etc. Used as a snack or appetizer.

Espresso: prepared by forcing steam through finely ground black coffee producing a strong richly flavored drink. Usually served black in small cups.

Fagioli: beans. One of Italy’s staples.

Fegatelli: a Renaissance dish prepared by rolling a fine membrane around a chopped-liver stuffing then slicing and serving as an appetizer.

Focaccia: another bread of Southern Italy, reputedly introduced by the Greeks. Flatly shaped yeast dough in a large oval or square liberally sprinkled with available herbs and olive oil.

Frito Misto: literally means “mixed fried foods,” and includes small morsels of cooked vegetables, fish, seafood or meats or even left-over rice or noodles that are hound with eggs – all deep-fried then served piping hot.

Gelateria: ice cream shops, the first believed to have been in Tuscany in the 1500s.

Gnocchi: a specialty of Rome but prepared all over Italy. A dough is made from flour and eggs with either semolina, polenta, or potatoes, then formed into small shapes and poached. To finish, they are drizzled with melted butter and sprinkled with cheese and oven-baked until bubbling hot. Street vendors serve a snack called Bom-Bolini, which are crumb-crusted and deep-fried Gnocchi.

Gremolata: finely minced fresh garlic, fresh parsley, and grated lemon rind.

Grissini: thin crisp bread sticks believed to have originated in Piedmont.

Minestre or Minestrone: a hearty vegetable soup with pasta and/or beans that can be a whole meal and which the Genoese claim to have invented. Often served with a spoonful of Pesto Sauce.

Osso Bucco: a typically Milanese dish of veal shanks simmered in a sauce of wine, tomatoes, and onions then served with Risotto Milanese and garnished with a sprinkling of Gremolata.

Osteria: a quick-snack shop.

Panettone: a light egg-rich yeast dough studded with chopped fruits and nuts and baked in a tall cylindrical mold. Commonly eaten throughout Christmas festivities for breakfast with coffee but also enjoyed anytime. Believed to have originated in Northern Italy.

Polenta: thick cornmeal prepared in a copper pot then served as the base for any meal. Traditionally cooked fresh daily in Milanese kitchens.

Porchetta: spit-roasted suckling pig.

Ravioli: typical Genoese dish of small squares of pasta dough filled like little pillows with a meat or vegetable mixture then coated with sauce or melted butter to serve. Prepared in many versions (both sweet and savory) throughout Italy and sometimes with different names.

Risi a Bisi: the Venetian Risotto of rice and peas cooked in a rich stock as a side dish of soup yet always eaten with a fork.

Risotto: the Northern Italian way of preparing rice – well cooked and well flavored, usually in a broth with added cream and butter.

Saltimbocca: literally, “jump in the mouth.” Slices of ham and veal seasoned with fresh sage and browned in butter and wine.

Sambuca: Rome’s favorite clear anise liqueur served after dinner with a coffee bean floating on top to be crunched while sipping.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara: hot pasta is tossed with beaten raw eggs, crumbled salt pork or crisp bacon and grated cheese.

Stufato: stewed beef and tomatoes.

Torta Pasqualina: a layered “pie” of buttery pastry and cheese-spinach filling, similar to the Balkan cheese pies made with phyllo pastry and the Greek Spanakopita.

Zabaglione: a soft warm custard of eggs and Marsala wine served in tall glasses and eaten with a spoon.

Zuppa alla Pavese: Milan’s soup of bouillon afloat with toast carrying a poached egg and dusted with Parmesan cheese.

Zuppa Inglese: literally “English soup” but it is neither English nor a soup and its name may be a gentle aspersion. One thing is certain: it is a delicious dessert of layered rum-soaked cake and custard.

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