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Some Curious Meanings Behind Italian Food Names

Having had the pleasure of learning Italian and living in Italy as a student, it delighted me to discover the meanings behind some commonly known Italian foods that are recognised the world over.


Take for example the ubiquitous ciabatta, nowadays a pretty common lunchtime sandwich option in many UK towns and cities and, I believe, in the rest of the English-speaking world as well. How many people actually know that the word itself means 'slipper'?! It might make you think twice about eating that crusty bread filled with aged ham and pungent cheese ;-))


Another favourite of mine is the (at least in the UK) lesser known 'schiacciata' which is basically flatbread but means literally 'squashed'! Brilliant!



Italian pasta names are particularly descriptive and usually relate to their shape but sometimes there’s more of a story behind the name. From the purely descriptive 'penne' and 'farfalle' - 'pens' and 'butterflies' to the uninitiated - to those nownot requiring any explanation in English like 'linguini' (from the word for “tongue”) and 'spaghetti' - a diminutive of the word spago (twine). Makes sense but who ever knew that? Not me!



Then there's the rather provocatively named 'strozzapreti' which means, wait for it: 'priest strangler' or 'priest choker'!! The origins of this particular pasta’s name is disputed but the name surely points to the anticlericalism rife in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscanyduring a certain period!

There are plenty of other examples such as 'conchiglie' (shells), 'campanelle' (bells), 'cavatappi' (cork screw), 'cannelloni' (large tubes), 'orecchiette' (a diminutive of the word 'ears'), 'lumaconi' (large snails), 'fettuccini' (from the word for slice) and 'gomiti' (elbows).

But our favourite subject here at Lavolio has a sweet edge of course so that brings me nicely onto...

Desserts & sweet things ;-)

They say that the word tiramisù itself is the fifth most recognised Italian word in Europe! And for good reason that this rich and comforting dessert’s name trips off the tongue of many a foreigner who may or may not have visited Italy, never mind the northeastern Italian region, Friuli Venezia Giulia, bordering Austria & Slovenia, from where it apparently hails. 



But do you know the meaning of the word tiramisu? Well, owing to the stimulating nature of some of its ingredients, namely coffee, the name, comprised of three words: ‘tira’, ‘mi’ and ‘su’, means 'pick me up'!

Personally, I can’t vouch for the fact that this decadent and rather carb-laden Italian after-dinner treat does anything other than putting me in the mood for a little 'pisolino' (nap)! In saying that however, I’m quite partial to its indulgent combination of coffee-soaked savoiardi biscuits, mascarpone and cocoa.

Moving West towards Piedmont to the town of Tortona, we encounter the lovely patisserie ('pasticceria' in Italian) know as 'Baci di dama' or 'lady’s kisses' so named for their shape which is said to resemble the lips of a lady intent on kissing. 

The original patented recipe uses ground almonds to create crumbly dome-shaped confectionery which are melded together with chocolate. Some recipes however use hazelnuts, which are grown in the area, with equally scrumptious results.

Still in the North, you’ll find the gorgeous sweet bread-like cakes which adorn the table of many Italian Christmas festivities: 'panettone' and 'pandoro'. The former, meaning simply 'large bread', comes from Milan and is made with raisins and candied fruits. The latter originates in Verona and has a bright yellow colour which lends it the name ‘golden bread’. 

Panettone & Pandoro


Further down towards Tuscany, is my favourite version of these divine festive breads: 'panbriacone', from the word 'ubriaco' meaning ‘large drunken bread’! Named for the fact that the dough is doused in sweet dessert wines, Vin Santo and Passito. This one doesn’t contain the dried fruit and candied peel of the Panettone and yet it still benefits from the sweetness of the fermented fruit.

Echoing the propensity to name different pasta types after its shape, we have the Sicilian speciality 'cannoli', which are essentially pastry 'tubes', as suggested by their name, usually filled with a ricotta-based cream. These delectable sweet pastries come in a variety of different sizes ranging from small bite-size 'cannulicchi', perfect with a coffee or as a lighter sweet treat, to the properly filling ones found in Palermo for those in need of more indulgence!



Cannoli Siciliani