Don’t be put off by their names – these Italian foods are actually delicious

What's in a name? From 'mule testicles' to 'priest-stranglers', Italy is full of tasty foods with confusingly off-putting names. Here are ten of the most revolting-sounding dishes which we promise are nicer than the names suggest.

Don't be put off by their names - these Italian foods are actually delicious
Mule testicles, anyone? Photo: Umbria Lovers/Flickr

1. Little worms

Measuring between 2.08 and 2.14 millimetres in diameter – only slightly wider than spaghetti – the name of Vermicelli pasta means “little worms” in Italian. You don't really need to use your imagination to figure out why: perhaps this is where children's author Roald Dahl got inspiration for the scene in The Twits where an old woman substitutes her grumpy husband's spaghetti for worms dug up from the garden…But don't let the name put you off. Vermicelli are delicious, especially when served in a whoreish sauce (see below).

Photo: judywitts/Flickr

2. Whoreish spaghetti

The 'spaghetti alla puttanesca' pasta dish consists of anchovies, olives and tomatoes, and its name translates literally as “spaghetti in whore's style”. What on earth does it have to do with prostitutes, you ask. There are several stories about how the dish got its saucy name – some tales state that prostitutes used to make it to lure in clients with the smell, or because the bright tomato-red colour was similar to the clothes prostitutes would typically wear. The only thing that is certain is that its origins are fairly recent – and that it tastes far better than it sounds.

Photo: nishidaryuichi/Wikicommons

3. Priest stranglers

Another pasta shape with an odd name is strozzapreti, which translates as “priest stranglers”. Several tales account for the etymology of the pasta, the most enjoyable being that gluttonous priests used to gorge themselves on it until some of them, quite literally, choked to death. A more prosaic legend suggests that the twisted shape simply resembles a priest's collar. Either way, we recommend serving up some of these at your next dinner party – they go great with pesto.

Photo: fugzu/Flickr

4. Cat salami

No need to panic, cat lovers. Yes, the name of 'Salame di Felino' technically this does mean “feline salami” and might startle you on your first visit to the butcher's, but Felino also happens to be a charming town in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna where they make excellent salami. 

Photo: Basilicofresco/Wikicommons

5. Trouser leg

These spherical folded pizza slices are popular around the world, but did you know what the word 'calzone' means in Italian? In Italian a calzone means a “stocking” or a “trouser leg”. Still hungry? The dish got its name because of how it is 'hemmed' around the edge, and another point to remember in Italy is that the final 'e' is pronounced like a 'y' in English; it's not silent.

Photo: I, Calcagnile Floriano/Wikicommons

6. Little tongues

A steaming dish of “little tongues”? Mmm, yes please. Linguine, the odd, flatter cousin of spaghetti, gets its name from its elliptical shape that supposedly resembles a tongue. Originally from the port city of Genoa, the pasta is great with pesto or seafood.

Photo: Michele Ursino/Flickr

7. Grandpa's balls

The name of the Umbrian salami 'palle di nonno', which translates literally as “grandpa's balls”, doesn't exactly set one's mouth watering. Fortunately, no grandfathers were harmed in the making of the salami and it's made from 100 percent pork. The unique texture (see below) gives it its name.   

Photo: Umbria Lovers/Flickr

8. Mule's balls

Noticing a theme here? This salami goes by the name of 'coglioni di muli' (mule's balls) owing to it's slightly scrotum-esque shape that is somewhere between a cylinder and an orb. This time the name is not only off-putting but misleading too: much like grandpa's balls, mule's balls are made entirely of pork.

Photo: Florixc/Wikicommons

9. Friar's beard

'Barba di frate' or 'friar's beard' is another name for agretti, a wiry Italian green that is all the rage among top chefs. The reason for its popularity is simple: tossed in a pan with some butter, salt, pepper and lemon juice the stringy veg is way more succulent than its name suggests. The wispy shape was the inspiration for the name.

Photo: F Ceragioli/Wikicommons

10. Little ears

Yes, it's another pasta variety which sounds a bit gross in English. Fancy a plate of “little ears”? That's what 'orrecchiette', the name of this flat disk-shaped pasta from the southern region of Puglia means. You can sort of see the resemblance, although you might be a bit worried if your ears actually looked like this. 

Photo: Foodista/Wikicommons

A version of this article was first published in August 2015.

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OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.