Glossary of Italian Foods and Food Terms
Aceto Balsamico: Balsamic vinegar, a sweet-and-sour, dark-brown vinegar traditionally made in Modena. The vinegar is made from the cooked juice of Trebbiano grapes, and aged for several years in a succession of different wood barrels. Real balsamic vinegar reads aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena on the label and is quite expensive. In the supermarket, you will find aceto balsamico de Modena, which is not made by the same method at all; it is simply a sweetened wine vinegar but fine for use in Italian cuisine.
Affumicato: Smoked; used to refer to smoked meats and fish.
Agrodolce: Sweet and sour.
Al Dente: Italians cook pasta "al dente," which means "to the tooth," meaning that it still has a little bite.
Al Forno: In the oven.
All'aglio e Olio: A dish with this name is made with garlic and oil. A famous, easy-to-make pasta dish is spaghetti all'aglio e olio.
Antipasto: A little something that is served before the meal, or as an appetizer.
Arista: Loin of pork.
Arrabbiata: A tomato sauce flavored with chili to make it spicy (Giada's Stuffed Shells with Arrabbiata Sauce).
Biscotti: Means "twice-cooked" and refers to a type of cookie for which the dough is cooked twice: usually first in a log, which is then sliced; the slices are cooked again until dry and crisp.
Bistecca: Steak, usually beef, but can also refer to pork or veal.
Bocconcini: Means a bite-sized piece of food. You're likely to see it referring to small balls of fresh mozzarella cheese.
Alla Bolognese: Means in the style of Bologna, and usually refers to a slow-cooked meat sauce with vegetables and tomato.
Botarga: Intensely flavored dried mullet or tuna roe, cut into thin shavings for use in salads and pastas.
Braesaola: Air-dried beef fillet, served thinly sliced and uncooked in salads and antipasti.
Branzino: Sea bass.
Bruschetta: Toasts, usually served with a topping of some sort as an antipasto. While the two words may be used interchangeably, bruschetta are typically larger pieces of toasts, while crostini are typically smaller.
Burridda: A fish stew or soup.
Calzone: A savory pie made from a yeast dough that is rolled to a round like a pizza, filled, folded over to make a half-circle, and baked.
Cannoli: Crisp, deep-fried pastry tubes that are filled with cream.
Caponata: A traditional Sicilian vegetable dish made with eggplant and tomato.
Alla Caprese: In the style of Capri, meaning made with tomato, basil, olive oil and mozzarella cheese.
Carpaccio: A dish of raw beef sliced very thin, often seasoned with lemon and olive oil or mayonnaise, served as a salad or antipasto.
Contorno: Vegetable side dish, usually served alongside of the main course
Crema Pasticcera: Pastry cream, a thickened cream of milk and egg used in desserts.
Crespelle: Crêpes, both sweet and savory.
Crostata: Flat, open-face tart, sweet or savory.
Crostini: Toasted bread like a crouton, usually served with a topping of some sort, or sometimes just a drizzle of good olive oil.
Crudo: Uncooked. You will likely see it in reference to a raw fish appetizer.
Farro: Spelt, a grain used in soups, breads and risotto-like preparations. Barley may be substituted.
Fontina: A cow's milk cheese made in the Valle d'Aosta region in northern Italy.
Frittata: An open-face omelet, made entirely on top of the stove, or started on top of the stove and completed in the oven; usually flavored with vegetables, herbs, meats or cheeses.
Frutti di Mare: Seafood.
Gelato: Italian ice cream.
Alla Genovese: In the style of Genoa, which means "with basil, garlic and oil."
Gnocchi: Dumplings. We're most familiar with those made with potatoes and flour, but, in Italy, they are also made with semolina, ricotta or breadcrumbs.
Gorgonzola: A type of cow's milk blue cheese from the town of Gorgonzola, in the north of Italy.
Grana Padana: Hard cow's milk cheese from northern Italy.
Granita: An icy, granular frozen dessert.
Integrale: Whole wheat.
Marinara: A tomato sauce with garlic, olive oil and oregano.
Mascarpone: A fresh Italian cream cheese with a very soft, creamy texture and buttery flavor. Mascarpone is used in both sweet and savory dishes.
Al Mattone: A technique by which an ingredient is cooked under a brick so that it lies flat for sautéing or grilling.
Mozzarella di Bufala: Cheese made from the milk of water buffalo. Mozzarella is also made from cow's milk (much more commonly found here in the States), in which case it is called Fiore di Latte. Both spoil quickly and should be used as soon as possible after purchase.
Nocciola: Hazelnut, widely used in Italian cuisine in both sweet and savory dishes.
Olio di Oliva: Olive oil. Extra-virgin oil, made from the first pressing of the olives, is the highest quality.
Panzanella: A traditional salad made with stale bread, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, basil and olive oil.
Parmigiano-Reggiano: An excellent hard, cow's milk cheese originally produced in and around Parma. If you're in doubt, true Pamigiano-Reggiano will have those words stenciled on the rind.
Pecorino: A hard sheep's milk cheese made in the area around Rome (called Pecorino Romano), as well as in Tuscany, Sardinia and Sicily.
Peperoncino: A hot chili pepper used in Italian cuisine.
Pesto: A famous green sauce from Genoa, made with basil, olive oil, pine nuts and pecorino, traditionally mashed together in a mortar and pestle.
Pignoli: Pine nuts.
Pizza: Open-faced pie made with yeast dough topped with savory toppings, originally from Naples.
Pizzaiolo: Fresh tomato sauce from Naples often used in pizza-making.
Polenta: Both an ingredient — cornmeal — and a porridge made from cornmeal.
Porchetta: Spit-roasted, whole suckling pig.
Porcini: A meaty mushroom used both fresh and dried in Italian cuisine.
Primo: The first course of a traditional Italian meal.
Prosciutto: Although in America we think of prosciutto as a raw ham, in Italy the word simply means ham: prosciutto cotto is cooked; prosciutto crudo is raw.
Provolone: A sharp cow's milk cheese.
Alla Puttanesca: A tomato sauce flavored with capers and anchovies, and often with olives, garlic and chile flakes, as well.
Ribolitta: A soup made with white beans, vegetables, stale bread and cheese. Ribollita means re-boiled because the soup is to be cooked, then left to stand before it is reheated.
Ricotta: A fresh cheese traditionally made with whey that is drained off in the process of making another cheese (often Pecorino), and then cooked. Ricotta salata is dried, salted ricotta cheese used for grating and shaving; it has a much longer shelf life than fresh ricotta.
Ripieno: A stuffing or filling.
Risotto: A savory dish of rice cooked slowly in broth, served as a first course. Risotto is made with a special Italian rice that remains firm during cooking while it imparts its starch to the dish, thickening the broth to a creamy texture. Arborio, carnaroli and vialone nano are the varieties of Italian rice appropriate for risotto.
Saltimbocca: A dish of pounded-veal scallops rolled with prosciutto and fresh sage. The name means "leap into the mouth."
Salumi: A general word for cured meats including those made with ground meats, such as salami and mortadella, and whole, bone-in meats, such as prosciutto.
Scaloppina: A thin, pounded piece of meat, such as a veal scallop.
Secondo: Main course of a traditional Italian meal.
Semifreddo: The word means "partly frozen," and refers to an Italian dessert of molded custard or ice cream.
Sformato: A molded dish, sweet or savory.
Soffrito: A mixture of chopped vegetables, usually onion, carrot, celery and garlic, which forms the base of many Italian soups, sauces and stews.
Speck: A ham, traditionally from the Alto Adige region of northern Italy, that is boned, cured and smoked. This is a rare example of a salumi that is both cured and smoked, and reflects the influence of Eastern European tradition on Italian cuisine.
Spiedino: A skewer, as in skewered, grilled meats.
Tartufo: A truffle, of which there are both white (bianco) and black (nero).
Tiramisu: A dessert of ladyfingers soaked in espresso and layered with a cream, often made with mascarpone cheese.
Zabaione: An egg custard made by beating egg yolks with sugar and wine over a water bath until fluffy.
Zeppole: Fritters, served sprinkled with sugar.