In all languages, an idiom is considered to be an expression that means something different than the literal translation of its individual words. Idioms often reflect cultural traditions, values, and add color to a language by providing interesting insights into a way of life. Learning Italian idioms, expressions, and proverbs will surely help you get as close as you can to sounding Italian and to understanding more about the Italian culture.
It will probably come as no surprise that Italian is a language whose idioms often include food. There are food idioms for every taste and involving all kinds of ingredients. This article will take you on a journey to discover some of the most common Italian idiomatic expressions, which will make you sound more fluent and competent. And, the best part is… you can use them by themselves without adding much else (except perhaps some gestures), because everyone understands what you mean!
Capitare a fagiolo
One of my favourites is capitare a fagiolo, which literally translates as “to happen to the bean.” However, its true meaning is “to happen at the right time.”
- Capiti proprio a fagiolo! Just at the right moment! Perfect timing!
Origin: The origin of this expression is uncertain, but scholars maintain that it may come from the fact that Florentines really liked beans. Another explanation is that beans were once used to vote in squittini (ballots) and in public meetings.
Avere sale in zucca
When I was a teenager and I got in trouble, my mum used to tell me, Cinzia, ma ce l'hai il sale nella zucca?
Avere sale in zucca literally means “to have salt in the pumpkin,” although zucca is very often used to mean “head.” Therefore, to have salt in the head really means to have common sense.
- Se avessi un po' di sale in zucca, prenderesti i soldi che hai risparmiato e cambieresti città. If you had a little common sense, you would take the money you saved and move away.
Origin: The origin of this expression dates back to ancient times when the poorest families used to carry salt in dried, carved pumpkins. Since salt was very important for storing food, not having it began to mean “to be poor.” When zucca started to be used synonymously with head, the saying non avere sale in zucca began to be connected to common sense, or lack thereof.
There is also the botanical/biological explanation of the saying: pumpkins do not naturally contain salt, therefore avere sale in zucca is an extraordinary event. Once again, the common parallel between “pumpkin” and “head” led to the idea that the people who had salt in their pumpkin had a little something extra.
E’ andato tutto liscio come l’olio
Did you have to solve a difficult problem this year? Did you have to get through hard times, but then everything turned out okay for you in the end? Then you would say, E’ andato tutto liscio come l’olio.
This expression literally means “it went as smooth as oil,” and you can use it to describe a situation that was smooth sailing, meaning there weren’t any problems.
- Pensavamo che l'amore bastasse, che tutto potesse andare 'liscio come l'olio'...perché ci amiamo! We thought love was enough, that all would be smooth sailing… because we loved each other!
Origin: This saying probably originated from the texture of oil itself. Oil on a surface looks absolutely flat, without wrinkles, and is very smooth indeed.
Sei sempre in mezzo come il prezzemolo
The literal translation of this is, “you are always in the way, like parsley.” However, what it really means is “you get involved with things that are not your business; you are always in the way.”
Parsley is a common staple in Italian cooking. It has been known since ancient times and grows almost everywhere. These three factors combine in giving parsley the reputation of being omnipresent.
- Comunque sei come il prezzemolo....Ovunque vado ti incontro! You're like parsley, though… wherever I go, I always see you!
Origin: The name derives from the Greek petroselion, meaning "celery of stones." The Etruscans called it petroselinum sativum, where sativum means "suitable for cultivation." Indeed, parsley grew spontaneously in the high areas of the Etruscan cities.
For the Romans, parsley represented both death and evil, as well as protection and purification. The Romans would tuck sprigs of parsley in their togas for protection and may have been the first ones to adorn their plates with parsley sprigs. However, this wasn't for decoration; rather it was to protect against food contamination.
Parsley garlands were also worn at great banquets. It masked the strong odors of onion and garlic and was thought to absorb the vapors from wine, delaying the onset of inebriation. The fact that parsley was so available led to its association with a person who is always present everywhere (taken from www.botanical.com).
Sono pieno come un uovo
Sono pieno come un uovo literally means “I am as full as an egg,” and it can come in handy when someone is trying to fill your plate yet again, even though you’re completely stuffed. In this case, you would say Era tutto buonissimo, ma sono pieno come un uovo!
- Mamma, era veramente buono, ma sono pieno come un uovo. Mum, it was really good, but I'm stuffed now.
Origin: It is said that the egg is nature's perfect container, because the liquid always fills 98% of its space. Eggs are extremely full like a person would be after consuming a great amount of food or drink.
Avere il prosciutto sugli occhi
Avere il prosciutto sugli occhi literally translates as “to have ham (prosciutto) over your eyes.” What it really means is “to be unable to see the truth” either figuratively (somebody is trying to trick you and you don’t see it) or realistically (the referee didn’t see the foul because he had prosciutto over his eyes).
- Che cosa credi che ho le fette di salame sugli occhi? Me ne sono accorta anch’io che non aveva nessuna intenzione di accettare la mia proposta! Do you think I can't see the truth? I realized that he wasn't going to accept my proposal!
Origin: This saying dates back to the second half of the 800’s, a time when there were many references to the dialects of Emilia Romagna and Tuscany. These areas are famous for the production of cured ham.
Avere le mani di pastafrolla
Do you constantly drop things? An Italian friend may tell you…
- Hai le mani di pasta frolla! You are clumsy!
Avere le mani di pastafrolla literally means “to have pastry dough hands.” However, what it really means is “to be unable to hold something without dropping it,” or to just be clumsy.
Origin: Again, the origin of this idiom may be attributed to the texture of pastry dough itself, which tends to crack and crumble as you roll it.
Tutto fa brodo
For the next idiom picture this: you are in a shop in Italy but you didn't know they were having a sale. So the clerk gives you a discount, and you think tutto fa brodo, though you may not want to say it aloud.
Tutto fa brodo literally means “everything makes broth.” However, what you are really saying is “every little bit helps.”
- Ho venduto deilibri usati su Amazon, non ci guadagno molto ma tutto fa brodo in questo periodo. I sold some second hand books on Amazon. I didn’t earn much, but every little bit helps during this time.
Origin: A good broth is mainly cooked with meat. However, in earlier times when the economy was predominantly rural and food resources were scarce, meat was expensive and not easy to obtain. Therefore, anything cheaper and more available was used to season broth, such as vegetables, potatoes skins, and cheese crusts.
Ti consiglio di vestirti 'a cipolla
During cold winter days, mums in Italy usually tell their kids, Vestiti a cipolla! That doesn't really mean to dress like an onion, but rather to dress in layers.
Ti consiglio di vestirti 'a cipolla means, "I suggest that you dress like an onion," or "I suggest you dress in layers."
- Vestirsi a cipolla significa vestirsi "a strati," con i vestiti più leggeri sotto e sopra quelli più pesanti.
Origin: This comes from the composition of onions themselves. Onions have layers, one on top of the other. Similarly, you should wear multiple articles of clothing in the winter, so that you can take a layer off when it is too hot and put it back on again when it is too cold.
If you go to Italy, you'll hear cavolo! all the time, and I can guarantee you that we are not talking about vegetables.
Il cavolo (the cabbage) is found in many idiomatic expressions. It usually means something along the lines of “wow!” or “incredible!” but it can also be used in many other contexts to replace swear words.
- Ma che cavolo dici?? What the heck are you talking about?
- Come i cavoli a merenda. Like cabbages for a snack.
This last one indicates that something is unrelated to something else. It can also be used to describe a bad combination of things, like articles of clothing that don’t match. Here are a few other examples:
- Fatti i cavoli tuoi! Mind your own business!
- Sei una testa di cavolo! You are an idiot!
- Ma che cavolo! What the heck!
Even if you've been studying Italian for years, you might find yourself scratching your head and wondering what these unusual expressions mean. However, being able to navigate idioms and use them correctly will help you get as close as you can to sounding like an Italian and understanding more about the Italian culinary heritage.
The expressions found in this article are my favorite Italian idioms. However, I know some of my students are aware of other colorful Italian phrases, so what are your favorites? Leave a comment and share it with me!