Five delicious Italian food idioms, explained

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Five delicious Italian food idioms, explained
Giving bread in return for focaccia suggests a huge offence, even though they're both delicious baked treats. Photo: Iñigo De la Maza

Why might your Italian friends think you have ham over your eyes? Why shouldn't you give back bread? Author Michele Segalerba explains these and other culinary expressions.


Stare stretti come sardine | To be packed like sardines

You do know this idiom because you have borrowed this one into English. It means to be squeezed in a small place with more people than the place would actually allow, as canned sardines.

Illustration by Rossano Segalerba

What you might not know is the origin of the word sardina: it derives from the name of the Italian island Sardinia because of the abundance of this fish in its waters, already known during the time of ancient Romans.

In another Italian island, Sicily, sardines are used as main ingredient for the superb pasta con le sarde, prepared with bucatini, hollow spaghetti, sardines and anchovies.


Rendere pan per focaccia | To give bread for focaccia

Focaccia is so delicious that you should be happy to receive it, even if you have to give bread in return. But despite the mention of tasty bakery products, the meaning of this idiom is actually “to return an offence or an injustice with even more harshness”.

Illustration by Rossano Segalerba

Its origin is uncertain, but almost identical expressions were used in ancient Rome. More recently it appeared in the famous collection of novellas by Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, and even Dante, in his Divine Comedy, mentions a similar construct with different food: “to give dates for figs”.

Menare il torrone | To beat the nougat

I love this one. Well, I love nougat.

The word nougat probably comes from Latin panis nucatus, “nutted bread”. There are three basic kinds of nougat. The white nougat (torrone in Italian) made with beaten egg whites and honey; it appeared in Italy in the early 15th century. The second is brown nougat (nougat noir in French, “black nougat”), made without egg whites and with a crunchy texture. The third is the Viennese or German nougat, which is essentially a chocolate and nut (usually hazelnut) praline. 

Illustration by Rossano Segalerba

The expression menare il torrone comes from the preparation of the nougat, which takes a lot of patience because both the single ingredients and the mixture need to be beaten for a long time. In the same way, someone who “beats the nougat” is challenging our patience by teasing us with annoying and protracted remarks, or with undesired attentions.

Francesca Mortadellina, a good friend of mine, says that this phrase isn’t offensive because it mentions sweets: if she says so… then use it without hesitations!


Pasto luculliano | Lucullian meal

Lucullus is the guy who brought the cherry tree from Asia to Europe, a general who won an important war in Ponto, the area around the Black Sea, and came back to Rome full of glory and treasures.

After the war he decided to withdraw from public life and to enjoy his richness, by constructing big villas, libraries and collecting art masterpieces. He was an excellent host and his tables were always full of any kind of delicacies.

Illustration by Rossano Segalerba

Plutarch tells us that once Lucullus was alone and was served a very frugal dinner. He called his servant to complain, and the servant answered: “Sir, there are no guests tonight, that is why there is little food on the table.” Lucullus exclaimed: “What? Don’t you know that tonight Lucullus is Lucullus’ guest?”

Today a lucullian meal means a sumptuous or lavish banquet.

Avere le fette di prosciutto sugli occhi | To have slices of ham on the eyes

Something is happening right in front of you and you didn't notice? Well, why so – do you have slices of ham on your eyes?? 

Yep, in Italy we use this idiom when someone is not able, or doesn't want, to realize something that for everybody else is pretty obvious. Apparently the expression originated in northern Italy, in Emilia-Romagna, a place that is very well known for the production of superb hams.

The English equivalent could be “to have your head in the sand”.

READ ALSO: Ten colourful Italian idioms and the strange meanings behind them

Photo: oocoskun/Depositphotos

This is an extract from Speak Like You Eat, a collection of more than 100 Italian food idioms written by Michele Segalerba and illustrated by his brother, Rossano Segalerba.

Michele speaks fluent Spanish, French, German, English and Portuguese. He’s lived in the Netherlands, in Ireland and he now lives in Mainz, Germany, where he works as an accountant for a pharmaceutical company. His heart, however, still belongs to his birthplace of Genova.

Rossano Segalerba was also born in Genova, where he attended art school, graphic narrative courses and graduated in communication science. His works have appeared on several underground publications and can be found in private collections. He lives in the beautiful coastal town of Santa Margherita Ligure, near Genova.

To order the book online, click here.


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