To help you navigate the posts on this blog and Italian recipes you may find anywhere, here’s a list of the most common Italian cooking terms and their meanings. For the names of the most common ingredients used in Italian cooking, see “The Italian Pantry“.
Arrosto: A roast. Can be used as an invariable adjective, as in patate arrosto, or roast potatoes, or a noun, as in arrosto di maiale, roast pork. A synonym, more or less, of al forno (q.v.)
Arrosto morto: A typical pan roasting technique for meats combining dry and wet cooking. The meat is initially browned in oil or butter, then braised in liquid. Unlike pot roasting, however, the braising is accomplished by adding only a small amount of liquid at a time, repeated as needed to keep the meat moist.
All’agro: A term that described a dish that features an ingredient, usually a vegetable such as green beans (pictured below), that is blanched and then dressed with olive oil and fresh lemon juice or, less often, vinegar.
aromi: refers to the aromatic vegetables (and sometimes herbs and other flavoring ingredients) that make up a soffritto (q.v.).
bollito: meaning ‘boiled’, can be used as an adjective or a noun. A popular way to cook meats or vegetables. A properly made bollito misto, or mixed boiled meats, is one of the glories of Italian cookery.
alla brace: literally, ‘at the coals’, it means grilled, as in vongole alla brace, grilled clams. A synonym of the more common expression, alla griglia (q.v.)
in brodo: literally, ‘in broth’, one of the two main ways of serving pasta, especially (but not exclusively) fresh egg pasta. In contrast, pasta asciutta, or ‘dry pasta’ is served with a sauce. The term is also used to distinguish minestre in brodo (q.v) (i.e. soups) or from other kinds of ‘dry’ minestre (i.e., pasta or rice dishes). Perhaps the most famous dish of this type is tortellini in brodo, the iconic dish from Emilia-Romagna.
al dente: Literally, ‘to the tooth’, a term used to describe the point at which pasta is properly cooked: firm to the bite but not chalky. See our page on “Italian Food Culture” for more details about this slippery concept.
al forno: Literally, ’in the oven’, this refers to a dish that is (obviously) cooked in the oven. The corresponding English terms could be baked, oven-baked, roasted, oven-roasted or gratinéed, depending on the context, although Italians also use the terms arrosto and gratinato if they wish to be more specific.
Antipasto: Literally ‘before the meal’, the Italian word for appetizer or hors d’oeuvre. Antipasti are always served at table, just before the primo piatto (q.v), while stuzzichini (q.v.) can be eaten standing up.
Bianco or in bianco: literally, ‘white’ or ‘in white’. Terms used to describe the tomato-less version of a dish that can be made with or without tomatoes. A pizza bianca, for example, is a pizza made only with cheese. Lasagne in bianco means lasagne made with bechamel sauce (and, usually, a vegetable) but not ragù. One of the most well-known of these ‘double dishes’ is pasta alle vongole, which can be made either with tomatoes or in bianco.
Battuto: One or more aromatic vegetables, typically onion, celery and carrot, and sometimes including garlic, parsley or pancetta, that is finely chopped. A battuto is usually cooked in oil or butter as the first step in many dishes, after which it is referred to as a soffritto (q.v.)
Contorno: A vegetable side dish served with the secondo (q.v.)
Crema: The term for soups made of puréed vegetables, such as crema di cannellini (pictured bel0w) or crema di zucca. It refers to the creamy texture, not to cream, which is called panna in Italian.
cucina povera: Literally ‘poor cuisine’ (i.e., the cuisine of the poor), this term refers to a style of Italian cooking emphasizing frugality, humble ingredients and simple cooking techniques, in the tradition of the peasantry. Born out of necessity, dishes in the cucina povera style has, ironically, become quite chic in modern times.
fare la scarpetta: An idiomatic expression, literally meaning ‘to make a little shoe’, for sopping up juices or a sauce with a bit of bread. The expression refers to the shape of the bread, which is said to look like a little shoe when pressed against the plate with your fingers.
un filo d’olio: literally, a ‘thread of oil’. A term usually used to describe a thin stream of oil drizzled on top of a dish to finish it a technique often used for thick, bean-based soups. Can also be used more generally to describe adding a small amount of oil to a dish or to a skillet.
al forno: literally ‘in the oven’, it refers to any dish that is baked or roasted in the oven, including pasta, potatoes or other vegetables or fish, as well as chicken or other meats.
fritto: fried, as in pollo fritto, or fried chicken. (The verb ‘to fry’ is friggere.) A plate of mixed fried food, either fish, meats and/or vegetables, is a very popular dish in Italy. As the Italians say, fritte son bone anche le scarpe: even shoes taste good when they’re fried…
Gnocchi: pronounced ‘nyaw-kee’, this is the Italian word for dumpling. The most common type of gnocchi is made from potato, but gnocchi may also be made from flour, semolina, ricotta and spinach. A special kind of gnocchi made from bread is called canederli, also known in German as Knoedel, a speciality of the Alto Adige. Gnocchi alla romana are made with semolina boiled with milk, cut into disks and baked.
alla griglia: the most common way to say ‘grilled’ or ‘barbecued’,. In Italy, as elsewhere, it’s very popular way to prepare meat, fish, vegetables in the warm weather months. A synonym is alla brace (q.v.) A dish of grilled food is known as a grigliata.
insaporire: To saute meat, vegetable or other food in a soffrito (q.v.) to allow it to absorb its aromatic flavors.
mantecare: To beat, whip or simply stir vigorously to achieve a smooth, creamy consistency. It is the finishing step in making a risotto, whereby you add grated cheese (usually parmesan), and/or butter or oil to the cooked rice, usually off heat, and stir vigorously to incorporate the ingredients and produce a creamy texture. The technique is sometimes used in other dishes such as baccalà mantecato. The corresponding noun is mantecatura.
minestra: The closest thing in Italian for a generic word for ‘soup’, although a minestra is usually substantial rather than brothy and it can also be used in a way that includes ‘dry’ soups (i.e., pasta dishes), essentially as a synonym for primo piatto (q.v.). To avoid confusion, term term minestra in brodo can be used to described true soups. Other terms for soup include crema (q.v.) and in brodo (q.v.) Soups often have their own unique names, such as la jota, a sauerkraut-based soup from Trieste, and la ribollita, a Tuscan minestrone.
minestrone: Literally a ‘big minestra’ or just ‘big soup’, this well-known term refers to a category of mixed vegetable soups, generally very thick and hearty. There are many types of minestrone from all over Italy; see our post on minestrone for full details.
odori: Literally meaning ‘scents’. The collective name for the herbs and vegetables that go into a battuto, eg onion, carrot, celery, garlic and parsley In Italian markets, you often get some odori for free when you purchase your usual shopping–at least when you’re a cliente fisso, or regular customer.
in padella: A term that refers to sautéing leafy green vegetables such as spinach, chard, escarole or chicory simply in garlic and oil, sometimes with a bit of peperoncino (q.v). The vegetable is usually parboiled or wilted before being sautéed. The term can also apply to other vegetables like potatoes, that are prepared in the same way. Very similar to the trifolati technique (q.v.).
pasta all’uovo: A term for fresh egg pasta, typically made from a dough of soft flour known in Italy as “OO” and whole eggs. The most common types of pasta all’uovo include fettuccine, tagliatelle and pappardelle. Most stuffed pastas, including cannelloni, ravioli, cappelletti and tortellini–are also egg pastas. Egg pastas are often made fresh at home, in which case they are also known as pasta fatta in casa (home-made pasta) or pasta fatta a mano (hand-made pasta) or pasta fresca (q.v.)
pasta asciutta: Literally, ‘dry pasta’, it really refers to pasta dressed with a sauce. It is ‘dry’ relative to the other principal way of making a pasta dish, in brodo (q.v.)
pasta fresca: Freshly made pasta, more often than not a pasta all’uovo (q.v.), especially in central and northern Italy. But in southern Italy there are many types of paste fresche made entirely from semolina flour and water, such as orecchiette and cavatelli. Also knowns as pasta fatta in casa (home-made pasta) or pasta fatta a mano (hand-made pasta).
pasta secca: Also literally ‘dry pasta’. The generic term for factory-made pasta made from hard (durum) wheat and water that you will find in stores. There are an almost endless variety of paste secche, among which are spaghetti, linguine, bucatini, penne, rigatoni, ziti and farfalle. Used in contrast to the term pasta fresca, or freshly made pasta.
peperoncino: A small, dried hot red pepper used often in central and southern Italian cooking. Dried Mexican hot peppers are find substitutes. Red pepper flakes, which are easy to find, are an acceptable substitute as well, for most dishes, but you need to be careful as they burn quickly when fried in oil.
primo piatto or primo: Refers to the first course of an everyday Italian meal, usually a pasta, risotto or soup.
piatto unico: A dish that can serve as both primo and secondo, ie a one-dish meal. Often a dish that combines both a carb and meat, such as ossobuco with risotto alla milanese, or polenta with sausages. But it can also apply to a dish like parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmesan) that is so rich you don’t need another dish to make the meal complete. In modern times, with working couples with less time to devote to preparing meals, piatti unici are becoming ever more common.
quanto basta, or q.b., literally, ‘as much as is enough’, a common term used in Italian recipes to mean, more or less, ‘to taste’ or as much as is needed to achieve the desired result.
ragù: A long-simmering tomato-based sauce, typically made with meat, either in a single piece or minced. The two most famous are ragù alla bolognese, made with minced beef, or a mixture of minced beef and pork, known in English as Bolognese sauce, and ragù alla napoletana, made with a single piece of beef chuck. The Neapolitan version is the forebearer of the Italian-American ‘Sunday sauce’, made with sausages, meatballs and, often, a mixture of other cuts of beef or pork. Often translated as ‘gravy’, this is something of a misnomer, since a gravy, properly speaking, is made from the drippings of a roast.
rosolare: To lightly saute in oil or butter, especially a soffrito, over low heat. Often translated into English as ‘to brown’ but this gives the wrong impression, as the point is not to caramelize but to soften the ingredient and intensify its flavor. The corresponding noun is rosolatura.
secondo piatto or secondo: Refers to the second course of an everyday Italian meal, usually a meat or fish, or sometimes a vegetable dish. You might be tempted to call this the ‘main course’, but Italian meals typically have no ‘main’ course. The first course, or primo (q.v.), is typically as filling as the secondo, if not more so. Both are considered equally ‘important’ parts of the meal.
soffritto: A battuto (q.v.) sauteed in oil and/or butter to bring out its flavors and used as a flavor base for countless sauces, soups and stews.
spianatoia: Wooden board, usually with a lip to hug the countertop, used as a surface on which to make fresh pasta.
stuzzichini: Term to describe little things to nibble on at a party or as a snack.
sugo: Most common term to describe a tomato-based sauce for pasta. Ragu‘ (q.v.) is a particular kind of sugo.
trifolati: Term to describe a simple technique of sautéing a vegetable—most typically mushrooms—in garlic and oil, then seasoning with salt, pepper and finely chopped parsley. The term literally means ‘truffled’ because the thinly sliced mushroom made this way is said to look and taste like that elegant tuber. The same technique can be used for other vegetables like artichokes. The same basic technique can also be used for leafy vegetables, but dishes made that way are referred to as ripassati in padella or simply in padella (q.v.)
in umido: A term to refer to a dish that is stewed, usually in a tomato sauce. Can apply to fish, meat or vegetables. Green beans are particularly nice made this way.
al vapore: steamed. Not a traditional technique in Italian cookery but one that is becoming increasingly popular in modern times.
in zimino: a term used in Tuscan cooking to refer to a dish in which the main ingredient (classically, seafood) is simmered in spinach or swiss chard, for example seppie in zimino (squid) orbaccala’ in zimino (salted codfish). NB: Unlike their English or French equivalents, a dish called ‘alla fiorentina’ does not necessarily mean that a dish is made with spinach. It merely means that the dish is in the style of Florence. Trippa alla fiorentina, for example, contains no spinach at all, just as the famous bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine-style steak).
zuppa: one of the words for ‘soup’ in Italian. It refers rustic soups which are typically meant to be eaten with bread, either for dunking (as in the Neapolitan zuppa di pesce) or laid on the bottom of the bowl (as in the Tuscan zuppa di porri). The verb inzuppare means to ‘soak’ in the sense of impregnating bread (or another porous solid) with a liquid to soften, as in the famous dessert zuppa inglese, made from sponge cake soaked in herb liquor. But there are zuppe that are made from pulses or grains, such as thezuppa di orzo (made with barley). Other terms in Italian for ‘soup’ are minestra (q.v.), crema (q.v.) and minestrone (q.v.).