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Italian expression of the day: 'Al fresco'

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
Italian expression of the day: 'Al fresco'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Here's why you probably won't want to tell Italians you're eating 'al fresco' this summer.


Al fresco is an Italian phrase we all know. Or do we?

It's used in English to mean 'outdoors', and in the British media it pops up in every article about picnics, barbecues, or outdoor dining or entertaining of any sort.

No wonder then that so many English speakers think eating al fresco is common in Italy, as in: 'we had a fabulous al fresco seafood dinner on holiday on the Amalfi Coast.'

But the meaning of the phrase al fresco changed somewhat when we borrowed it into English.

Since the Italian word fresco can mean 'fresh', It sounds plausible that you'd be describing eating 'in the fresh air'.

READ ALSO: Ten Italian words stolen into English and reinvented

The adjective is usually used to mean cold, cool or chilly. As a noun, though, fresco is used to mean a cold place of some kind. A fridge, for example.

- metti il vino al fresco

- put the wine in the fridge

More worryingly, the phrase al fresco may also be used figuratively to mean 'in prison'.

- Lo misero al fresco

- They put him in jail


This usage comes from the phrase stare fresco, which literally translates as 'stay cool' but figuratively it can mean to risk getting into trouble, to wait in vain for something, or perhaps to be a little delusional about the chances of something happening.

- Se continui così stai fresco.

- If you carry on like that you're in trouble.

- se ti aspetti che quello ti aiuti, stai fresco.

- If you expect me to help you, you'll be disappointed.

So it's no wonder, then, that hearing visitors talking about eating their dinner al fresco can provoke a puzzled look from Italians - at least those who aren't familiar with the pecularities of the English language.


Clearly a few wires got crossed somewhere along the way when the phrase al fresco made its way across the linguistic border.

So how do you describe your lovely outdoor meal without making unsuspecting Italians think you're in some sort of trouble?

You could try:

- pranzare all'aperto.

- to eat lunch outside.

- cenare all'aria aperta.

- to have dinner outdoors.

Which we think sounds much nicer, anyway.

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