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.


Why some of Italy’s food festivals are ‘fake’ – and how to pick the best ones

Italy's countless sagre, or food fairs, are an autumn highlight. But how do you find the best events - and avoid the more commercial ones? Reporter Silvia Marchetti explains.

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are 'fake' - and how to pick the best ones

Italy’s renowned food fairs are one of the most exciting events during autumn and winter, particularly the coldest months when we’re looking for culinary weekend distractions. 

For the uninitiated, sagre are key gourmand exhibitions mixing local food, premium products, cheeses and olive oil – all the ‘excellences’ of the area – but lately I find some are just, well, fake. 

READ ALSO: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

Instead of selling traditional indigenous delicacies, vendors sell a little bit of everything which they think appeals to foreigners and city people desperate for a rural break. 

Last weekend I went to the sagra at Osteria Nuova, near Passo Corese in Lazio, and found mozzarella from Naples and limoncello from Amalfi: now what do those have to do with the Rieti countryside?

It was sad and disappointing. Even though it takes place in an area which is famous at this time of the year for exquisite porcini mushrooms and chestnuts there was not even one single vendor selling these. Instead, there was codfish from Venice and porchetta from the Castelli Romani.

Up until a few years ago the Osteria Nuova food fair was very genuine and appealing: it was actually a real farmers’ market where animals were sold: not just rabbits and hens but cows, horses and donkeys. It was a vibrant event. 

Now the cages that once kept the animals are empty. And people just go there to stuff themselves with huge sandwiches and hotdogs. It’s always hell finding a parking spot because the fair is very close to Rome, luring day trippers on a ‘scampagnata’.

Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

My advice is to avoid visiting food fairs which are too close to big cities and towns, but pick offbeat villages or unknown rural spots where the sagre are small and with local producers selling authentic, ‘indigenous’ products. Choosing the remote hillsides, where traditions tend to survive, is of course better than the touristy areas. 

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

Also, it’s best if the food fair is not too heavily sponsored or advertised in national newspapers. The best thing to do is search online for all food fairs in the area you plan to visit during the weekend or even during the week, and ask friends and locals as word of mouth can often be more reliable. 

Among the authentic sagre I would recommend the porcini mushroom food fair in San Martino al Cimino in the pristine hills of the Tuscia countryside in Lazio, where the woods are dotted with porcini. 

At the fair not only bags of huge porcini are sold but you can also buy a lunch ticket and taste various mushroom dishes sitting down at wooden tables. Last time I was served a delicious potato and porcini soup which inspired me to replicate (successfully) the recipe at home. 

However, the best thing is to search for the weird and unknown – food fairs with funny names and showcasing products that sound and look really bizarre. So forget about the usual truffles, mozzarella, limoncello, ham and pasta-filled events. I suggest opting for quirky food festivals in never-heard-of-before villages where the culinary adventure comes with a cultural jolt. 


When I hear about something amazingly off-the-wall and tasty, with a particular story or legend behind it, my curiosity and taste buds tingle.

Last weekend I was surfing the web and came across the Ciammellocco festival in the tiny hamlet of Cretone, Lazio, which immediately aroused my curiosity. 

READ ALSO: 14 reasons why Lazio should be your next Italian holiday destination

As I had never heard of it before, I jumped in the car the following day and ventured out to an isolated woody area with a few small dwellings, where one single bakery makes this huge, funny-sounding, highly-nutritious sweet-salty doughnut with fennel seeds which has been around since at least the middle ages. Housewives used to make it for their husbands as a substitute for lunch when they went off working in the fields. 

Even though I have tasted similar ciambelle in my life none come close to ciammellocco, crunchy and tender at the same time, made with eggs but light.

Next I heard about the Sagra della Papera in Carassai, Marche region, offering succulent duck meat dishes with pappardelle pasta and roasted duck breasts, and given duck isn’t something you’d normally find in Italian restaurants, it makes the cut for authentic food events. 

Vegetarians can’t miss the Festival degli Orapi in the village of Picinisco north of Naples where guests are treated to platefuls of a unique, delicious spinach variety which is made exquisite by the fact that it grows beneath goat poo, a natural fertilizer. Locals actually roam the countryside with a knife to scrape away the poo and extract the orapi.

In Pedagaggi, Sicily, local housewives organize the Sagra della mostarda di fichi d’india, with gourmet dishes made from exotic-looking prickly pear mustards. 

READ ALSO: ‘La scampagnata’: What it is and how to do it the Italian way

Other curious sagre include the Festa del Gorgonzola set in the town of Gorgonzola in Lombardy which is the real birthplace of Italy’s iconic blue cheese. Huge pentoloni of steaming pots of gorgonzola in the middle of the piazza lure pungent cheese addicts. 

Also Diamante’s festival del peperoncino in Calabria is a must stop for lovers of strong, authentic hot dishes spiced up with chili peppers (there’s even a peperoncini eating marathon).

Real sagre tend to showcase one premium native product rather than a myriad with overlapping origins.

The more ‘local’ you dive into the deepest, remote corners of Italy full of tradition and folklore, the more genuine the sagra and the more satisfying the gastronomical experience.