Five delicious Italian food idioms, explained

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.

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

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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From spritz to shakerato: Six things to drink in Italy this summer

Summer in Italy means lots of things - trips to the beach, empty cities, strikes, and metro works - but it also ushers in the spritz and negroni season. Here are some of the best drinks to cool down with in Italy this summer.

From spritz to shakerato: Six things to drink in Italy this summer


Venice wins all the prizes for being the home of the spritz: the jewel in Italy’s summertime daisy crown and one of the country’s most popular exports.

To first-time customers, the sweet-and-bitter combo can taste unpleasantly like a poisoned alcopop. Stick with it, however, and you’ll soon learn to appreciate this sunset-coloured aperitif, which has come to feel synonymous with summer in Italy.

The most common version is the bright orange Aperol Spritz, but if this starts to feel too sweet once your tastebuds adjust then you can graduate to the dark red Campari Spritz, which has a deeper and more complex flavour profile.

What are the best summer drinks to order in Italy?

Photo by Federica Ariemma/Unsplash.


If you’re too cool for the unabashedly flamboyant spritz but want something not too far off flavour-wise, consider the Negroni.

It’s equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari – though if you want a more approachable version, you can order a ‘Negroni sbagliato’ – literally a ‘wrong’ Negroni – which replaces the gin with sweet sparkling Prosecco white wine.

Served with a twist of orange peel and in a low glass, the Negroni closely resembles an Old Fashioned, and is equally as stylish. A traditional Negroni may be stirred, not shaken, but it’s still the kind of cocktail that Bond would surely be happy to be seen sipping.


Don’t fancy any alcohol but still crave that bitter, amaro-based aftertaste?

A crodino might be just what you’re after. With its bright orange hue, it both looks and tastes very similar to an Aperol Spritz – so much so that you might initially ask yourself whether you’ve in fact been served the real thing.

Similar in flavour are soft drinks produced by the San Pellegrino brand; bars that don’t have any crodino on hand will often offer you ‘un San Pellegrino’ as a substitute. These drinks are usually available in multiple flavours like blood orange, grapefruit, or prickly pears.

A barman prepares a Campari Spritz cocktail in the historic Campari bar at the entrance of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuel II shopping mall. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP


Much like the crodino, the chinotto is another distinctive bitter Italian aperitivo drink.

With its medium-dark brown colouring, however, the chinotto bears more of a resemblance to Coca Cola than to the spritz, leading to its occasionally being designated as the ‘Italian Coca Cola’.

In reality far less caramelly and much more tart than coke, the chinotto has its detractors, and the fact that we’re having to describe its flavour here means it clearly hasn’t set the world alight since it was first invented in the 1930s (it was subsequently popularised by San Pellegrino, which became its main Italian producer).

If you’re looking for another grown-up tasting alternative to an alcoholic aperitivo, however, the chinotto might just be the place to look.


What’s not to love about the bellini?

Its delicate orange and rose-pink tones are reminiscent of a sunset in the same way as a spritz, but with none of the spritz’s complex and contradictory flavours.

A combination of pureed peach and sugary Prosecco wine, the bellini’s thick, creamy texture can almost make it feel smoothie or even dessert-like. It’s a sweet and simple delight, with just a slight kick in the tail to remind you it’s not a soft drink.


Not a fan of drinks of the fruity/citrusy/marinated herby variety?

If caffeine’s more your thing, Italy has an answer for you in the caffe shakerato: an iced coffee drink made with espresso, ice cubes, and sugar or sugar syrup.

That might not sound inspired at first, but hear us out: the three ingredients are vigorously mixed together in a cocktail shaker before the liquid is poured (ice cube-free) into a martini glass, leaving a dark elixir with a delicate caramel coloured foam on top.

You couldn’t look much more elegant drinking an iced coffee than sipping one of these.