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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian expression of the day: ‘Fare la scarpetta’

Who knew that shoes could be so appetizing?

Italian expression of the day: 'Fare la scarpetta'
Photo: DepositPhotos

You know you've been living somewhere a while when idioms you once would have wondered at cease to raise so much as an eyebrow.

When a reader wrote to me recently to inquire about the Italian expression for 'mopping your plate with bread', I found myself replying nonchalantly: “Oh yes, you mean fare la scarpetta, which is… um… 'to do the little shoe'.”

On second thoughts, it is weird.

Scarpetta is just the regular word for shoe (scarpa) with the diminuitive suffix ~etta/o attached. Most of the time it refers to shoes that are either small, like kids' shoes, or especially light, like ballet slippers or tennis pumps.

But in this particular idiom, it describes an action anyone who's ever eaten in Italy can picture right away: using a scrap of bread to mop up all the sauce too delicious to leave when you've already polished off your pasta.

See below for a demonstration:

 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 

 
 

 
 
 

 
 

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Where slippers come into it isn't clear. One theory goes that your piece of bread starts to look like a shoe when you're pressing your thumb into it to keep your grip, while another runs that scarpetta refers to an old type of pasta traditionally made in Tuscany that was shaped, well, a bit like a slipper: broad and concave, all the better to scoop up sauce.

Yet another version suggests that the phrase is an oblique reference to poverty: since mopping up every drop of sauce isn't exactly genteel table manners, it may have been derogatorily attributed to people who didn't have enough to eat – so poor they could only afford slippers, or perhaps so hungry they could eat a shoe.

 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 

 
 

 
 
 

 
 

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These days it's perfectly acceptable to wipe your plate clean (just keep a napkin handy for after). The reader who asked about the phrase says she was informed of it by an Italian restaurant owner, who must have taken it as a compliment that his customers didn't want to leave a drop behind.

He also referred to another regional variation on the phrase, our reader tells me. The only alternatives I've been able to track down are pucciare il pane nel sugo ('to dunk bread in sauce'), which seems to come from the north of Italy, and possibly fare la sponza ('to do the sponge'), which could be a version in the far south. 

There's also fare la zuppetta ('to do the little soup'), but in that case the image seems to be more of dunking bread or biscuits in a whole bowl of milk, wine or any other liquid. 

However you want to say it, I think we can all agree: fare la scarpetta is a wonderful thing.

Do you have an Italian word you'd like us to feature? If so, please email our editor Jessica Phelan with your suggestion.

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘A quattro palmenti’

The phrase you'll need to describe a true staple of Italian summer.

Italian expression of the day: ‘A quattro palmenti’

If you’re lucky enough to be spending your summer holidays somewhere in Italy, don’t kid yourself: there’s going to be a lot of eating – or overeating – involved.

Today’s expression might at least help you describe it.

Mangiare a quattro palmenti’ is a popular expression used to describe the act of eating in a particularly fast and greedy manner.

Just think of the way all diets and semblances of self-constraint are generally dashed out of the window as soon as a plate of hot panzerotti is placed at the centre of the table.

The phrase could be considered the Italian equivalent of English expressions of the likes of ‘wolfing down’, ‘scoffing’, ‘gobbling’, ‘scarfing down’ and so on.

Oh, Luca, puoi per una volta provare a non mangiare a quattro palmenti?

Scusa, avevo tanta fame.

Oh, Luca, can you please try not to wolf down [all of your food] for a change?

Sorry, I was hungry.

Le sfogliatelle che fa mia nonna sono buone da morire. Le mangio a quattro palmenti ogni volta che le cucina.

My grandma’s sfogliatelle are to die for. I scarf them down every single time she makes them.  

But, while the action may be familiar to almost anyone, the idiom’s literal translation is likely to be tough for Italian learners to crack.

In fact, the word ‘palmenti’, which is the plural of ‘palmento’, isn’t used in any social context other than the one mentioned above and it would be practically impossible to glean its meaning by simply analysing the structure of the noun.

So, what is a ‘palmento’? Though the word might remind you of palm trees (‘palme’ in Italian) or the palms of one’s hands (‘palmi’), it’s got nothing to do with either.

A ‘palmento’ is one of the two fundamental elements allowing for the correct functioning of a water mill, namely the millstone – naturally, the other one is the water wheel. 

A millstone’s main job is that of rotating on a stationary base so as to grind and crush wheat or other grains, thus producing flour. Does that remind you of something?

Living up to their repuation as highly imaginative people, at the start of last century, but possibly even before then, Italian speakers started associating the laborious grinding of millstones to the chewing motions of human jaws and the expression ‘a quattro palmenti’ (‘with four millstones’) became a way to describe people greedily chomping on their food.

It isn’t quite clear why exactly four ‘palmenti’ were used here, though the number must have been seen as exaggerated and hyperbolic. 

Hai veramente intenzione di mangiare tutto quello che c’è a tavola a quattro palmenti?

Si, quello era il piano…

Are you really going to scoff everything that’s on the table?

Yeah, that was my plan…

The expression ‘mangiare a due palmenti’ also exists, though it’s hardly ever used nowadays, so feel free to stick with the ‘four-millstone’ version.

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

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