Stepping On the Tongue of the Boot

A speaker of Italian wonders why other culinary languages
don’t get as mangled as hers does.

Illustration by Peter Thomas Ryan.

Drinks had been generously poured, the company was charming and the anticipation of a delightful Italian meal stirred the taste buds. A waiter appeared, bearing rounds of crusty bread topped with an aromatic blend of tomatoes and basil in olive oil. I was all smiles—until he opened his mouth.

“Brush-etta?”

My appetite vanished. How good a restaurant could this be if the waiter can’t even pronounce the food he’s serving?

Everyone seems to know the proper way to say and spell the French foie gras, the Spanish paella, the Cuban mojito or the Cajun étouffée. But in restaurants plain and fancy, Italian gets mangled all the time. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen cappuccino spelled wrong or espresso expressed as expresso, I could easily afford the Maserati of all coffee machines. And speaking of coffee, in Italian it’s caffè. Not what the French and Spanish quaff, which is café.

As for that bruschetta I was being served, it’s properly pronounced broo-skeh-tah. Is that so much harder than fwah-grah?

When an Italian word follows a French one, as in pinot grigio (the white grape and wine of the same name), guess which one gets mucked up? The lowliest wine clerk correctly says pee-noh, but I’ve heard sommeliers who should know better recommend gree-jee-oh, when it’s gree-joh. That’s egregious.

Errors like that and rampant misspellings on menus leave speakers of Italian with a bad taste in their mouths. “It’s offensive,” says Giovanna Bellia LaMarca of Cliffside Park, a cookbook author and native of Italy who introduced the study of Italian to the Bronx High School of Science and now teaches at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan. “I wonder why these people don’t know that they don’t know the language and seek a professional to help them out.”

Culinarily speaking, I have a bone to pick with Messrs. Merriam and Webster, who maintain linguine and linguini are equally acceptable. Just because spaghetti ends in “i” doesn’t mean all pasta has to. (Generally, masculine plurals take “i” endings, feminine plurals “e” endings.) Linguine (meaning “little tongues,” which the pasta resembles) comes from lingue, Italian for—that’s right—“tongues.” There is no such word as linguini in Italian. With fettuccine and scaloppine, Merriam and Webster go even more loosey-goosey, allowing fettuccini, fettucine and fettucini, as well as scalopini. Try spelling bouillabaisse without either of those “i”s or quesadilla without one of those “l”s, and the spelling police will be all over you faster than you can say prosciutto, which is pronounced proh-shoot-oh, not pro-skew-toh or pruh-zhoot.

For the record, the luscious lemon liqueur is limoncello (lee-mohn-chehl-oh), not lemoncello. A salad of arugula, endive and radicchio (and that’s rah-dee-kyoh, not ruh-dick-ee-o) is described as tricolore (tree-coh-loh-reh), its three colors representing the Italian flag. The deli meat cut from the top, or head (capo), of the pig’s neck (collo) is spelled capocollo or capicollo, never capacollo, cappacolla, capacolla, capicola or anything else. Parma’s incomparable hard cheese is Parmigiano-Reggiano. Anything prepared Parma-style is alla parmigiana. Deriving its name from oregano—origano in Italian—oreganata is not an Italian word, but one cooked up to appear so.

The Sicilian rice ball that resembles an orange (arancia) is an arancina (little orange), or arancine in the plural (arancini, in Sicilian), certainly not an “orancine,” as one northern New Jersey restaurant lists it.

Skewered foods are spiedini, not spedini; grilled steak is bistecca ai ferri, not al ferri. (One upscale restaurant’s online menu lists “bistecca al ferri o casa”—aside from the misspelling, the words suggest that the diner has a choice of receiving a grilled steak or a house; what a deal!) A tart is a crostata, not a crostada. Tubular pastry shells filled with ricotta cream are cannoli (cannolo, if you want just one), not canolli or canollis or—mamma mia!—ganoles.

Dried pasta is meant to be cooked al dente—as in the Italian word for tooth, pronounced dehn-teh, not dehn-tay, and certainly not, as I’ve heard one of the state’s top CIA-trained chefs say, al Dante.

Speaking of the great Florentine poet of the Middle Ages, in Canto Three of his Inferno, he wrote, “…at first these sounds resounding made me weep:/tongues confused, a language strained in anguish/…And I, in the midst of all this circling horror,/ began, “Teacher, what are these sounds I hear?” Who knew Dante had been out to dinner in New Jersey?

Writer and editor Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco has a master’s degree in Italian from Rutgers University. Her website is macfusco.com. She lives in Leonia.

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