Italy Travel Guide

How to Decipher the ‘English’ Menu Translations While Traveling in Italy

PHOTO: nomadFra / Shutterstock.com

How can you truly enjoy Italy's incredible cuisine when so many restaurant menus offer confusing, unappetizing, or even alarming descriptions such as (whoops) “beated meat” and (whoa) "pasta whit razors”?

Italy is a dream destination, but for everything this beautiful, stylish country gets right, catering to English-speaking tourists is simply not its strong point. English-speaking visitors will find garbled English “translations” wherever they go, and nowhere is this more frustrating than in the restaurant.

Ugly literal renderings, clumsy grammar, unfortunate misspellings (cocked ham, anyone?)—there’s no end to the baffling translations you’ll find in Italy. But there are some common ingredients in this lasagna of errors. Read on for a guide to the most commonly, criminally mistranslated Italian dishes—all taken from real menus, and deciphered for you in real English. Because no trip to Italy can be fully enjoyed with only a 10 percent comprehension of what’s being offered on the menu.

Cooked Cream (panna cotta) – A custard-like gelatine and cream-based dessert.

Balls (polpettine) – Ball-shaped patties made out of anything from fish to vegetables to bread.

 [Vegetable]’s Cream (crema di…) – We all scream for bean’s cream! This term describes vegetable spreads, often found on bruschetta or in pasta dishes.

Beated Meat (battuta di carne) – Raw meat that has been finely minced with a knife; dressed with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil.

Beef Cut on the Grill (tagliata di manzo) – A grilled cut of beef.

Break up (scomposto/a) – A deconstructed version of a traditional dish or dessert, often eggplant parmigiana or mille-feuille.

Buffalo or Cow Mozzarella (mozzarella di bufala; mozzarella di mucca/vacca) – Menus will often make the distinction between different kinds of mozzarella because mozzarella made from buffalo’s milk and mozzarella made from cow’s milk are deliciously different things.

Candy Pasta (caramelle di pasta) – A whimsical stuffed pasta that gets its name from its resemblance to old-fashioned wrapped sweets.

Chopping/Cutting Board (tagliere) – charcuterie platter. These tasty assortments of meats and cheeses are served on wooden cutting boards, hence the Italian name.

Contours (contorni) – Side dishes. These vary according to the season, but patate al forno (roast potatoes) and insalata mista (mixed greens dressed with olive oil) are perennial favorites.

Cooked Ham (prosciutto cotto) – Brined baked ham, found commonly in sandwiches, on pizza, or on “chopping” (see above).

Crazy Water (acqua pazza) – A literal translation, the only crazy thing about this Neapolitan recipe is how good it is—fish poached in a broth of water, white wine, garlic, olive oil, parsley, and cherry tomatoes.

Creamy Coffee (cremoso al caffe) – A chilled, coffee-flavored, cream-based dessert.

Pasta whit Razors (pasta con cannolicchi) – Don’t worry! They mean razor clams.

 Crude/Raw/Row Ham (prosciutto crudo) – Prosciutto or cured ham. In Italian, “prosciutto” is the generic term for ham, so the distinction between “crudo” (cured) or “cotto” (brined and baked) will almost always be made.

Cuttlefish Black (nero di seppia)– Cuttlefish ink used to flavor pasta and risotto dishes, giving them a distinctive blue-black hue.

Dry Pork Ham (coppiette) – Spicy pork jerky.

Earth (terra) – A term for ingredients that come from farms, forests, or fields.

Express Coffee (espresso) – Not “expresso”!

Filled Pasta (pasta ripiena) – Stuffed pasta, like ravioli, tortellini, cappellacci, agnolotti, cannelloni, lasagne …

Finger – Finger food.

First and SecondPrimi (pasta/risotto dishes) and secondi (meat/fish dishes). Traditional Italian meals include two entrées, and the custom dictates that pasta or risotto is always (always) served before meat or fish. You can choose to eat just a grain-based dish for dinner. You can choose to eat just protein. But you’ll never get beef before pasta and that’s that.

Fish’s Soup (zuppa di pesce) – A brothy Italian seafood stew made with fish, mollusks, and shellfish, meant to be sopped up with crusty bread.

Fresh Cheese (formaggio fresco) – Creamy or soft cheeses, like mozzarella or ricotta.

Genuine Products (prodotti genuini) –“High-quality,” “artisanal,” or “authentic” raw ingredients.

Just Warm (tiepido) – Room temperature.

Kitchen (cucina) – Culinary tradition.

Little Pig (maialino) – Suckling pig.

Mix Fried (fritti misti) – An assortment of fried appetizers, such as fiori di zucca (mozzarella-stuffed zucchini blossoms), baccalà (battered codfish), or supplì (mozzarella-stuffed rice balls).

Mixed of (misto di) – Assortment.

Mountain (montagna/monti) – i.e., “mountain plate” or “mountain appetizer.” Italians categorize their dishes as mare or monti (sea or mountain); sourced from the water or sourced from the earth. Until very recently, it was considered sacrilege to mix the two in the same meal, let alone the same plate. But young chefs are challenging that time-honored canon and you’ll now find dishes like spaghetti with mussels and pecorino cheese or gnocchi with clams and sausage.

Mould (sformatino) – Savory flan.

Mussel’s Pepper (impepata di cozze)- A delicious seafood dish more helpfully translated as “steamed mussels with pepper and garlic.”

Origan (origano)– Oregano.

Parma’s Ham Seasoning (prosciutto stagionato) – Gourmet-aged prosciutto.

Passed in a Pan (ripassato/a in padella) – Sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and hot pepper.

Pasta whit Meat Souse (pasta alla Bolognese) – Bologna-style beef and pork ragout, simmered with wine, onions, celery, tomatoes, and carrots.

Pasta Cheese whit Pepper (pasta cacio e pepe) – A spicy, cheesy Roman pasta dish tossed in Pecorino Romano cheese, pasta water, and black pepper.

Pasta Egg and Jowl aka pasta alla carbonaraShutterstock

Pasta Egg and Jowl (pasta alla carbonara) – Pasta dressed with egg yolk, Pecorino Romano cheese, and guanciale (see “porky cheek” below).

Pasta whit Tomato Souce (pasta al pomodoro) – Pasta with sautéed tomato and fresh basil.

Pasta Tomato and Bacon (pasta all’amatriciana) – Spicy tomato sauce with Pecorino Romano cheese and guanciale.

Pasta whit Razors (pasta con cannolicchi) – Don’t worry! They mean razor clams.

Pecorino Cheese Seasoned to Ashes (pecorino sotto cenere) – Or, ash-treated, fermented cheese made from sheep’s milk.

Pie (tortino) – A savory flan or layered dish.

Pistachio Grain (grani di pistacchio) – Chopped pistachios.

Porky Cheek (guanciale) – The nerve of that pig! Pig cheek is an insanely delicious cut of the pig that is found in traditional Roman pasta sauces like carbonara and amatriciana. It’s also often translated as “bacon” but honey, it ain’t bacon.

Potato’s Gnocchi with Mozzarella and Tomat (gnocchi alla sorrentina) – A Campania region baked pasta dish of pillowy potato dumplings blanketed in tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella.

Protagonist (protagonista) – Star ingredient.

Rape (cime di rapa) – English-speaking tourists may be shocked to find this on menus in the Apulia, Basilicata or Campania regions, which are renowned for this bitter brassica varietal. That’s rapini or broccoli rabe to you.

Raw/Row Fish (crudo di pesce) – Fish tartare or fish crudo.

Real clams (vongole veraci) – As opposed to … fake clams? Vongole veraci, genus Venerupis philippinarum, are known as manila clams or Japanese littleneck clams in English.

Rice/Rise – Almost always refers to risotto.

Rice with Shrimp’s Cream (risotto ai crema di scampi) A risotto dish with a velvety pink sauce made of puréed langoustine meat, tomato, and cream.

The Chef’s Fantasy (lo sfizio dello chef) – A 2022 World Cup win for Italy? Or maybe just one of their original culinary creations.

 Rise Seafood (risotto ai frutti di mare) – Risotto with sautéed calamari, clams, mussels, and shrimp.

Rocked (rucola)– A misspelling of rocket (US: arugula).

Rolls (involtini/rotolino di…) – Meat, vegetable, or fish roll-ups.

Salad (insalata) – This word, often seen on sandwich menus, refers to lettuce.

Salad Biscuits (taralli) – Crunchy ring-shaped crackers native to the Apulia region, but popular all over Italy, especially as part of an aperitivo happy hour.

Short and Long – Describing the hundreds of Italian pasta shapes—each one with its own history and flavor—would be nearly impossible on a menu, so restaurants use this shorthand.

Spaghetti on Guitar (spaghetti alla chitarra) – A long, thin, square-edged pasta shape from the Abruzzo region that gets its Italian name from its resemblance to guitar strings.

Standing (in piedi) – A stacked or tall dish.

Taste (gusto/sapore) – Flavor.

The Chef’s Fantasy (lo sfizio dello chef) – A 2022 World Cup win for Italy? Or maybe just one of their original culinary creations.

*This Product Can Be Frozen (il prodotto potrebbe essere congelato) – An attempt to warn customers that menu items marked with asterisks were bought frozen because they’re out of season or inconvenient to prepare quickly by hand; usually seafood, game, and fried foods.

Tongue’s Pasta (linguine) – Who is Tongue and doesn’t he want his pasta back? Too literal, Google Translate.

Tris – A trio of culinary offerings.

Tipical (tipico) – Traditional.

Tongue’s Pasta (linguine) – Who is Tongue and doesn’t he want his pasta back? Too literal, Google Translate.

 [Vegetable]’s Cream (crema di…) – We all scream for bean’s cream! This term describes vegetable spreads, often found on bruschetta or in pasta dishes.

Velvety (vellutata) – Puréed vegetable soup.

Water with Gas/No Gas (acqua frizzante/acqua liscia) – Fizzy or still water, sir?

Warm Soft Heart Chocolate Cake (tortino caldo al cioccolato con cuore morbido) – Chocolate lava cake.

With Her/His Condiments (con contorni e salse) – With specially paired condiments on the side.

Whit (con) – With. This is actually a phonetic rendering of a pronunciation mistake, so you’ll see it on menus far more often than you’ll see it spelled properly.

Wurstel – Hot dog. A popular pizza topping, usually paired with French fries.