How Classic Italian Dishes Got Their Names


An Italian menu guide with additional portions of etymology.

The first is ‘a’ for abbachio. Nowadays, that means the meat of a young lamb, an Easter and Christmas favourite; less appetizing the word comes from the shepherd’s crook – ad baculum – used to drive the creature to the slaughterhouse.

Baccala (traceable to a Norse word bakkeljauw / salt cod) is a common element of Roman cuisine, sometimes mantecato / butter. The cod delicacy, however, originated in Venice and beyond. His story, mixing courage and entrepreneurship, would not be out of place in a Nordic saga.

In the winter of 1432, the Venetian captain Pietro Querini was shipwrecked off the coast of France, his lifeboat then drifting to Rost, an island off the coast of Norway. His Nordic rescuers took him in for three months, while Querini observed a new way of salting fish.

Back in his Venice, he created an import business for the same product. At a time when meat was often scarce, Querini’s fish became a popular substitute.

Served in paper cones, the fish, duly desalted and fried, is now a specialty of the Jewish ghetto district of Rome. Rather ungrateful to fish, perhaps because of the ease with which cod were once caught, “fare la figure di baccalàevokes stupidity. Or sometimes slimming, like its counterpart stoccafisso, also cod but dried on sticks rather than salted. As in the old Dutch word stokvischreferring to the supports on which the fish were laid or the resulting stick-like hardness of the fish, the etymology running both ways.

Filetti di baccalà, a popular Roman specialty.

B is also for bruschetta from the adjective Romanesco’sudden‘, in standard Italian ‘abbrustolito‘/ gate. A form of bread, “once for the poor, now a delicacy for the more sophisticated” to quote Giuliano Malizia Piccolo Dizionario Romanesco.

And so to pasta. In terms of both etymology and the best way to achieve the necessary creaminess, one of the most controversial foods is the high-calorie food. carbonara. The name has been traced back to the woodcutters of Abruzzo who carried with them up the hills a dish of pasta mixed with eggs and cheese. The carbonara refers to charcoal, the end product of loggers’ work. According to some people, the mountain staple only arrived in Rome in 1944 when American soldiers added bacon to bring it in line with their breakfast at home.

A change in the ingredients therefore, even if the name remained. The Romans reclaimed the dish by substituting bacon/pancetta with the more locally authentic smoked pork cheek/guanciale, an ingredient that most diners and chefs would agree makes all the difference. Yes, as used in all amatriciana pastaof Amatrice, a small town in the northeast corner of Lazio, whose pigsties line the access roads.

In the absence of the rich tomato-based sauce of the amateurthere is a prototype in a simpler “white” version: spaghetti with gricia – from, in an entrance, Grisciano, a small village near Rieti. Others cite a family of Swiss grocers of the same name. No matter. The dish, well cooked, serves to minimize possible lexical quarrels.

The English-speaking world, much to our dismay, tends to make spaghetti and pasta synonymous. Still The Great Dizionario Garzanti has a page illustrating the different varieties distinguishable by length (long pasta Where short), thickness and above all shape: butterflies/ farfalletowards / vermicellisnails / slug; thimbles / ditalipipes / pipes, tubes/ cannelloni; then propellers / elichspirals / fusillistars / stellini (in a soup sky); small ears / orecchiette.

Everything goes without saying, unlike tonnarelli: Nothing to do with tuna but tondo /round although the shape is square, if you put your stomach around it. So Raviolietymologies referring to a Genoese cook of the same name, to turnipto our good old Nordic turnip or to groviglio / in modern Italian an entanglement but in another sense a type of stuffing.

Equally elusive are strozzapreti / “priest-strangler”. Dictionaries define it as “pasta” or “a form of Gnocchi» depending on the region: Gnocchi near Trento and in Alto Adige, where it is also known as stranglepretiand pasta in central Italy and elsewhere.

Naples pins the term, in its Neapolitan incarnation strangulationpray, about a certain abbot, Galiani (1728-1787), who in his enthusiasm for the dish risked choking. On an equally anticlerical note, the northern region of Emilia-Romagna has a history that the name reflects the wish, on the part of impoverished parishioners, that ravenous prelates meet a fate similar to that of Naples.

A footnote indicates how it was the custom of church owners to partially settle their ground rents in the form of food; this “poor” dish was offered as a particularly effective way to do so. A more neutral etymology is the similarity of the pasta shape to a cleric’s collar. Or maybe the origin is phonetic: from Greek strongulos and preptosmeaning round in shape.

From pasta to pizza. Alberto Angelo in Gusti traces this quintessentially Italian delicacy to ancient Egypt, at least in form and base. Then, etymologically, in Byzantine Greek: pitta, the bread which is written today with a single t. Or to Lombard (what?) bizzo / a bite. Anyway, the first recorded use of “pizza” dates back to 997 when the bishop of Gaeta, north of Naples, stipulated that one of his tenants send him duodecim pizza /12 pizzas every Easter and Christmas. Too bad the same clergyman was not centuries later to preside over the marriage of pizza with tomato. Or at least its passata /paste/ id is Passed through a sieve to remove seeds and skin.

Tomatoes still whole on their plant were initially prized for decoration rather than for consumption. Add white mozzarella cheese and fresh green basil and in Pizza Margherita you are served in the colors of the Italian flag honoring the eponymous queen. Pizza Bismark, meanwhile, was named to celebrate the Italian-Austrian-German alliance of 1882.

Whether the fried egg in the middle represents the helmet of the Prussian emperor is up to the consumer. Not to be outdone with Naples, pina and pinery are the equivalents of Rome. Both, rightly, from Latin Pinsère: work the dough in relatively thick strips.

Porchetta is synonymous with the Castelli town of Ariccia near Rome.

And so porchetta. In England, the meat and the animal it carves often have different names. The origin of this dates back to the Norman Conquest: Old English words for cattle reared in the fields by the unfortunate Anglo-Saxon peasant, French/Latinised Norman equivalents for meat once it arrived at the table of the (Norman) lord of the manor .

For example, mutton-sheep, pig/pig, cow/beef, etc. Here, however, the animal arrives before dinner both verbally and, except for the absence of bones, physically intact. Adjacent to Rome’s opera house is a restaurant somewhat larger than a cubbyhole. On three wheels since the Colli Romani, the animal sports here a pair of sunglasses to attract customers. With a quarto of white wine, slices of the same spicy meat can be tasted to order.

Elsewhere, on Rome’s Piazzale Prenestina, a kiosk sells porchetta sandwiches for €3 each, a super snack to eat while waiting for the bus? Back in Ariccia, its place of origin, the animal/meat has its annual feast, as well as in Piglio near Frosinone.

Similar-sounding Scarpetta, as in “make the scarpetta”, is not a shoe, but bread shaped into one to pick up the leftovers from your plate. “The last and most exquisite bite”, enthuses Giuliano Malizia Piccolo Dizionario Romanesco.

Wake up with a tiramisú

Finally the dessert. From Treviso near Venice comes the tiramisù / pick me up. Fittingly for a dish from Casanova’s hometown, it was once touted as an aphrodisiac. (cf. and more creditably, the commercial for coffee, a key ingredient, ‘Give your life a little lift.’)

Or you could try a zabaione Where zaglione, a sort of pastry cream/trifle with Marsala wine. The name has been paired with a medieval mercenary, Giovan Paolo Baglioni, or, more peacefully, with the Franciscan monk Pasquale Baylon, patron saint of pastry chefs. Other theories associate it with the Illyrian word for barley beer or Emilian for food (zibanda).

With so many etymologies, it’s no wonder that in the broadest sense the word connotes a random but happy mix. Another incarnation of the word, at least according to some, is Zibaldone, as in the title of the notebooks of the famous sweet tooth Leopardi, a kind of philosophical, literary and sometimes gastronomic “trifle” where, over a period of 15 years, the poet noted his thoughts.

Thus, suggesting the “bread from heaven” of an agnostic, he writes on page 4184: “Eating, the most interesting of occupations, must be done well since on good digestion depends the well-being of man, his good physical condition and therefore his mental state. and moral health too.

By Martin Bennett

This article was published in the June 2022 online edition of Wanted in Rome magazine.


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