June 1st, 2008, by Francesca

Finally, finally, I added audio files to lesson #2: Hunting down your food.

I know it's taken me forever and you probably thought I'd never get around to it. Sorry about the delay. Also, I am very slow recording and editing audio files so I only recorded one reading per file. I still have to add audio to lesson # 3 (Al bar) and hope to do that next weekend.

Al Bar

April 14th, 2008, by Francesca

caffe, coffee, tazze, tazzine

NOTE: Another little lesson without audio files. I know… I am a flake. Still in catch up mode after a weekend of running around like a headless chicken. Fortunately, I had prepared this entry a week ago so at least I have something for you while I get my act together.

You already know many Italian words, but are you using them à propos? And are you pronouncing them correctly? If you speak American English, you may find the following information useful. The tips on culture and pronunciation should be generally useful, regardless of which flavor of English you are familiar with.


Espresso, often referred to simply as caffè in Italy (what other kind of coffee is there, anyway?) is a thick, smooth kind of coffee that comes served in teeny tiny cups filled only half way. None of that brodino (little broth) they serve in most American places, thank you. Not only espresso cups are small and never filled to the brim, but the frothiest part of the coffee sticks to the inside of the tazzina (small cup). It's a classic example of quality vs. quantity. Espresso is not liquid to wash down your breakfast, but rather concentrated taste and flavor to offset the sweetness of your morning cornetto (croissant).


Latte means "milk", not coffee with milk and foam, as Starbucks would have you believe. So, if you go to a bar in Italy and ask for latte, the barista will look at you funny and serve you a glass of milk, most likely cold. The closest in Italy to what people call "latte" in the US, would be cappuccino.

Cappuccino vs. Caffelatte

Caffelatte or caffè latte is what people make at home and differs from cappuccino in two important ways:
1) Unless you have a super-duper industrial strength espresso machine at home, your home made coffee will not even resemble il caffé del bar (the bar's espresso).
2) Cappuccino is a coffee drink with hot milk and foam added; Caffè latte is a milk drink with some coffee added.


American bars (think Cheers) serve alcoholic drinks and snacks to go with those drinks. A bar in Italy serves coffee drinks, pastries, fruit juices, sodas, sometimes panini, often gelato, and alcoholic drinks. You could probably think of an Italian bar as a hybrid of the American café and bar.

When people say andiamo al bar (let's go to a/the bar), they could go to have breakfast, an aperitivo before lunch, a sandwich for lunch, a digestive after lunch, a coffee with or without a sweet snack in the afternoon, an ice-cream at all hours of the day, an aperitivo before dinner, and so on.

Il bar is not just a place to eat and drink, but also a place to meet up with your friends. After work and during the weekend, people often go to their bar of choice to get together with friends. On weekedays and during business hours, it's often collegues who go to a bar together to grab a quick lunch or an after lunch coffee. Espresso is to Italians as tea is to the Brits; it's always the right time for a nice cup of coffee.

The finer points of espresso

In addition to basic espresso, these are some popular variations:

caffé ristretto shrunk coffee
caffé alto tall coffee
caffé doppio double coffee
caffé macchiato stained coffee
caffé corretto corrected coffee

caffé ristretto is a shorter espresso. When you make espresso, you leave the cup under the spigot for a certain amount of time during which the coffee poured into the cup is creamier and stronger at first and then more watery and less flavorful as the spigot runs. Coffee lovers will often ask for the "shrunk" version, with only the strongest essence from the first half of the pull.

caffé alto (or lungo) is the opposite of caffé ristretto in that the cup is left under the spigot a little longer. If you order an espresso at Starbucks, this is what you're getting.

caffé doppio is a double espresso made by placing the cup under two spigots.

caffé macchiato (mnemonic: "macchiato" = "marked") is a regular espresso "stained" with a bit of hot milk (with or without foam).

caffé corretto — I love this expression, the implication being of course that regular espresso needs "correcting". The adjustment is usually done with a few drops of grappa and you will mostly encounter this in northern Italy, especially in the Veneto region.


Have you noticed how many double consonants appear in Italian words? And we pronounce them, too!
It's important that you learn to recognize the difference between the sound of a simple consonant and that of its double, or you could end up saying something other than what you mean.
For instance:

  • pala, palla (ball)
  • note (notes), notte (night)
  • cane (dog), canne (canes)
  • coro (chorus), corro (I run)
  • faro (lighthouse), farro (spelt)

Don't think that this is too fine a distinction. You'll be glad you get the pronunciation right when we get to the next lesson: Pasta & Co. Try to say cappelletti. Trust me; it's a word worth all the pronunciation trouble. Cappelletti in brodo (in broth) and cappelletti al ragú are a basic pasta dish in Emilia-Romagna and one of the most satisfying.

Hunting down your food

April 6th, 2008, by Francesca

hunting down your food

Before you can eat your food, you must of course find it. So, here's a couple of useful phrases for the next time you find yourself in Italy on an empty stomach.

Scusi, dov'è il mercato?
Excuse me, where is the market?

C'è un ristorante qui vicino?
Is there a restaurant nearby?

Hai fame?
Are you hungry?

Si, ho fame.
Yes, I'm hungry.

Andiamo a mangiare.
Let's go eat.

Andiamo a prendere un caffè.
Let's go get an espresso.

A few words to help you understand where something is located.

sempre dritto (keep going) straight
a destra (on the) right
a sinistra (on the) left
dietro l'angolo around the corner

And some examples of how to use them:

Dopo il semaforo, giri (gira) a destra.
After the traffic light, turn right.

Il ristorante è sulla sinistra, di fronte alla banca.
The restaurant is on the left, in front of the bank.

Subito dopo il Bancomat.
Right after the ATM.

And when you get to the restaurant:

Scusi, dov'è il bagno?
Excuse me, where is the bathroom?

If you speak American English, don't try to translate "restroom" into Italian. You could end up saying something close to "retirement home", where you may find some interesting characters, but no gourmet food.

Just as in English, some expressions are contractions and the apostrophe indicates where something has been removed. [Words between brackets show the non-contracted forms.]

dov'è [dove è] where is
l'angolo [lo angolo] the corner

And some expressions simply cannot be translated literally. [Words between brackets show word-by-word translations.]

qui vicino [here close] nearby
ho fame [I have hunger] I am hungry
a destra [at right] on the right
a sinistra [at left] on the left

Giri a destra = turn right.
"Giri" is the formal expression; "gira" is informal. To be on the safe side, use informal expressions only with young people and close friends.

By now, you should have noticed that personal pronouns are not as pervasive in Italian as they are in English. In fact, they can generally be omitted. The reason is that, for most tenses, the subject of the verb is already identified by the verb ending, therefore making the personal pronoun redundant. Take for instance the present tense of the verb mangiare (to eat). See how every person has a distinct ending?

(io) mangio I eat
(tu) mangi you eat
(lui/lei) mangia he/she eats
(noi) mangiamo we eat
(voi) mangiate you eat
(loro) mangiano they eat

That's it for today. Check back in a couple of days for the audio files and, if you are curious about what's next, keep an eye on the table of content (permanent "toc" link in the top right menu).


March 23rd, 2008, by Francesca

As I was pondering the best way to get started with our informal introduction to the Italian language and culture, Pipie jumped on my desk and I found myself thinking that if he could speak, his favorite word would be pollo.


So, there you go: your first Italian word is pollo (chicken) — same spelling as in Spanish, but different pronunciation. And since pollo is a kind of meat, let's look at some related words.

Please note: my programmer extraordinaire — Ben — has written a little script that allows me to load several audio files to one link so… you can click the link once to hear the slow version of how a word is pronounced, and then you can click it again to hear one or two reads at normal speed. Nice, eh? I will try to provide 3 different readings whenever I introduce a new word.

la carne meat
il manzo beef
il vitello calf
il maiale pork
la pecora sheep
l'agnello lamb
il pollo chicken
il coniglio rabbit
la gallina hen

Already from this short list you can see a few things. For starters, everything in Italian has a gender: masculine, feminine, neuter. This means that nouns (book, cat) and adjectives (red, hot) have different endings depending on whether they are feminine or masculine. Neuter has the same endings as masculine and only differs in the singular pronoun (he, it), so for all practical purposes you can think of genders as being either masculine or feminine.

Because of this, when you talk about meat you say la carne, because carne is feminine, while you say il pollo because pollo is masculine. I know, it makes no sense, and if you know other languages such as French or German you will often find that a noun is feminine in one language and masculine in another. You just have to memorize the words and I suggest that when learning a new word, you learn it along with its article; it will save you time in the long run and prevent you from having to unlearn things.

You may have noticed that Italian uses the same word to indicate both the animal and its meat. So, maiale means both "pig" and "pork", although we also have the word porco which can mean both "pig" and "pig meat".

In addition to coordinating nouns and adjectives according to their gender, Italian matches them based on whether they are singular or plural, so we say il pollo if it's one chicken and i polli if it's more than one.

Let's look at the various articles.

Singular Plural
il, lo, la the (singular)
i, gli, le the (plural)
un, uno, una a, an (singular)
dei, degli, delle some, a few (plural)

Some examples:

Singular Plural
il pollo (the chicken) i polli (the chickens)
lo scampo gli scampi
la gallina le galline
un pollo (a chicken) dei polli (some chickens)
uno scampo degli scampi
una gallina delle galline


There are a few sounds in Italian that don't exist in the English language and we have our first example in the words gli and coniglio which contain the same sound you will encounter in the word aglio (garlic).

A proposito (by the way), gatto is NOT a kind of meat; it means "cat". :)


Italian grammar (wikipedia entry in English)

Grammatica italiana (wikipedia entry in Italian)

I think this will keep you busy for a while. I know it kept *me* busy for more than I had expected. Although I've been doing web development since 1995, I've never really created audio files before so after I had the text for my post ready, I went to the Apple store to get a microphone (the built-in mike in my laptop didn't quite cut it) and then researched audio editing software for the Mac. I ended up buying Audio Hijack Pro and Fission and spent the best part of yesterday getting acquainted with my new equipment and testing it out. I recorded all my words four times in a row because I kept forgetting to turn on the mike. Ahem…

Anyway, I hope you find this helpful and that the vegetarians will forgive me for this beginning. It wasn't planned, and you can blame it on Pipie.

P.S. I am still working on design elements, typography and the like, so you'll notice some changes as time goes by.

Italian for foodies

March 18th, 2008, by Francesca

Would you like to learn some food-related Italian?
Is that a yes I hear?

Italian for foodies

All right, then; I'll get you started in a few days with your first mini lesson. Little by little you'll learn the names of foods, ingredients, dishes and so on. I can't promise you grammar lessons, but I'll see if I can find good online sources that will help you put the words together.

Aside from words, I'll try to provide insights into the Italian mind. Even though I've been away from Italy for 16 years, I think you can trust me there; all my cultural biases are still more or less intact. And for my American friends, there will be a special issue on the "things you think you know". Ha!

While I get ready for class, here's your homework: rent the movie Big Night. It will put you in the right frame of mind.