Italian expression of the day: ‘Al fresco’

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 a phrase we’ve all heard before. It’s used in English to mean “outdoors”, and is seen particularly often in British newspapers, where it pops up in every article about picnics, barbecues, or outdoor dining of any sort.

In fact, people might think eating al fresco is very common in Italy – as in “we had a fabulous al fresco seafood dinner on holiday on the Amalfi Coast.”

But Italians wouldn’t agree – and might be slightly alarmed.

As you may have guessed, 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.”

But the adjective is usually used to mean cold, cool or chilly, or as a noun, fresco is a cold place of some kind.

– metti il vino al fresco

– put the wine in the fridge

More worryingly, the phrase al fresco is also used figuratively to mean “in prison.”

– Lo misero al fresco

– They put him in jail

So it’s no wonder that English-speaking visitors talking about eating their dinner al fresco can provoke a laugh or just a puzzled look from Italians.

It comes from the phrase stare fresco. This literally translates as “stay cool”, but figuratively it means to risk getting into trouble, or to wait in vain for something.

– 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

READ ALSO: Ten Italian words stolen into English and reinvented

Clearly a few wires got crossed somewhere along the way when the phrase al fresco made its way into the English language.

So how do you describe your lovely outdoor meal without making 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 even nicer.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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