The simplicity of Italian food is one of the reasons why it has become one of the most popular cuisines cooked in American homes. An increase in cookbooks available and cooking television shows has further fueled people’s desires to cook Italian cuisine.
However, despite the simple techniques and the use of minimal ingredients in many classic Italian dishes, the terminology used to describe the ingredients and cooking methods can often seem complicated or confusing. The way that Italians describe their food and culinary techniques is a direct reflection of the passion Italians feel about food. Unfortunately, when people struggle to understand the terms used, it can create a stumbling block in the creative process and deter people from attempting to cook this type of cuisine.
If you enjoy Italian cuisine and want to recreate these dishes yourself at home, then it is important you understand the terminology used. Here are some of the most common culinary terms you will come across when cooking delicious Italian food.
Dishes and Ingredients
Aioli– This is a type of garlic mayonnaise that is served as a dip or accompaniment to many meals.
Antipasto– This means before the meal. A selection of antipasti is often served before meals in Italy.
Arancine– Translating as ‘little oranges’ these are rice ball croquettes with a stuffing, such as soft cheese or veal. The rice becomes orange color once saffron is added and they are then fried.
Arrabbiata– A popular pasta sauce, arrabbiata is tomato-based with the addition of chilies. The word arrabbiata means angry. If pancetta is added to this sauce, it is called amatriciano.
Bagna Cauda- A warm sauce that is made from olive oil and anchovies. This is typically used as a dip for vegetables.
Besciamella– The white sauce in lasagne and a number of other Italian dishes is called besciamella. However, the French word, béchamel, is more commonly used.
Bolognese-One of the best-known sauces is Bolognese, although most people make a variation of this rather than using the traditional Italian ingredients. It should contain finely chopped meat, celery, tomato paste and onions.
Bufala-This is a soft and creamy version of Mozzarella cheese, which is made from Buffalo’s milk. It is best eaten raw rather than cooked as it has a delicate flavor.
Burro– Butter is the preferred fat in northern Italian cuisine and is usually used for sautéing.
Capelli d’angelo– Translating as ‘angel hair’, these are extra thin strips of pasta.
Carbonara– This is another popular sauce that is often incorrectly made. Traditionally, it is made with eggs and pancetta. However, variations often include the addition of cream, cheese, and mushrooms.
Contorni– Contorni is an accompaniment to the main meal of fish or meat. It usually consists of cooked vegetables.
Crostini– Toasted bread is called crostini in Tuscany but is known as Bruschetta in Rome. The toasted bread is often served topped with other ingredients, such as chicken livers, tomatoes, mushrooms or peppers.
Dolce– A sweet, pudding or dessert is referred to as dolce.
Fiorentina– A large portion of meat is referred to a Fiorentina.
Formaggio– Any type of cheese.
Gnocchi– Gnocchi are a type of Italian dumplings. Although they are most commonly made from flour and potatoes, they are sometimes made with breadcrumbs, semolina or ricotta. Check out this great Gnocchi recipe!
Insalata– Italians often have a salad course, or insalata, between the main course and their dessert.
Polpette– Italian meatballs.
Pomodoro-A tomato sauce with no meat. Pomodoro translates as ‘golden apple’ and this refers to the yellow tomatoes used in the traditional form of the sauce.
Primavera– Fresh vegetables are the main ingredient of this dish that is traditionally made in the spring, hence the name ‘primavera’ as this is the Italian word for spring.
Primo-Not including the antipasto, primo is the first course of a meal and this is often either a pasta or risotto dish.
Puttanesca– The word puttanesca means ‘the whore. This is a tomato-based sauce that also contains garlic, olives, capers and olive oil.
Saltimbocca– There are variations of this dish and its name means ‘jump into the mouth’. The tradition in Rome is to use prosciutto crudo, veal or cured meat presented on skewers and served with a marsala or white wine sauce. Other variations use pork cutlets or chicken.
Seconda– The main course of the meal is called the second and this is typically a fish or meat dish.
Semolina– Made from durum wheat, semolina is a coarse flour.
Soffritto– This refers to the basic sauce used for many dishes and it consists of finely diced celery, onions, carrots, and garlic.
Affumicato– This means smoked and is a word usually used alongside a meat or fish.
Al dente– Literally translated, this phrase means ‘to the teeth’. This relates to the texture of pasta and when it is ready to eat. Pasta should still have a firm quality to it and taste slightly chewy.
Al forno– You may have come across this on menus at Italian restaurants as part of the name of some dishes, such as lasagne al forno. It means that a dish is cooked in the oven.
Al Mattone– A method of cooking where ingredients are cooked under a brick so they are flattened in preparation for sautéing or grilling.
Battuto– Italians use this term to describe the cutting stage of creating food when the knife strikes the ingredients and the cutting board.
Crudo– Raw or uncooked. If you notice the word ‘crudo’ on a menu, it is most likely to describe an appetizer of raw fish.
Now that you have a clearer understanding of the terminology used for Italian cooking, you can begin to expand your repertoire of dishes inspired by Italian cuisine and cooking techniques.