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I love everything about la cucina italiana, whether you translate it according to a 13th-century definition as the place where food is prepared or according to a 14th-century definition as “l’arte di preparare i cibi” (the art of preparing food).
Italy’s food and language meld together as smoothly as cacio sui maccheroni (cheese on macaroni). Both boast a rich and rollicking history dating back to ancient times. Both vary greatly from region to region, even from village to village. Both reflect centuries of invasion, assimilation, and conquest. And both can transform daily necessities into vibrant celebrations.
Alta cucina (haute cuisine) descends from la cucina principesca, the refined dishes prepared by the cooks of the nobility. Cucina povera (cooking of the poor or peasant cooking) refers to a now-fashionable mode of Italian cooking that uses the basic ingredients that were the only things available to i poveri (the poor).
Italians’ (and my) favorite cooking is cucina casalinga (home-cooking). In cucina (in the kitchen) I like to read aloud the lilting words for simple culinary techniques such as rosolare (make golden), sbriciolare (crumble) and sciacquare (rinse).
But Italian’s gastronomic words do more than tease or appease the appetite. They spice up daily conversations. “Cosa bolle in pentola?” (What’s boiling in the pot, or cooking?) Italians ask when they want to know if something is going on. Gotten yourself into a mess? You’ve made an omelette (fatto una frittata). Fed up and can’t take any more? You’re at the fruit (alla frutta) or the final course. Have a crush on someone? You’re cooked (cotto).
Italians call a busybody who noses into everything prezzemolo (parsley); someone uptight, a baccalà (dried cod); a silly fool, a salame (salami); and a bore, a pizza. They dismiss a story told time and again as fritta e rifritta (fried and refried) and something that’s all sizzle and no steak as tutto fumo e niente arrosto (all smoke and no roast).
When a speech, book or movie is slapped together in a hodgepodge manner, critics find it as hard to digest as a polpettone (big meat ball). Cucinare qualcuno (to cook someone) means treating him as he deserves--cooking his goose, so to speak. But if you’re told to farti i cavoli tuoi, that has nothing to do with making cabbage. This idiom translates as, “Mind your own business.”
Words and Expressions
cucina a gas -- gas cooker
cucina economica -- kitchen range
libro di cucina, ricettario -- cook book
cuocere a fuoco lento / a fiamma bassa -- to cook on a slow fire or low flame
cuocere a fuoco alto / a fiamma alta -- to cook on a high fire or flame
fare qualcuno a polpette or fare polpette di qualcuno -- to make mincemeat of someone, beat somebody to pulp.
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.
You can practically smell the food cooking in this delightful video from a cucina in Rome: