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How Italian Foods Got Their Names

June 2, 2012 Carlino's Restaurant no comments

To us, Italian food names sound delicious. In their native language, some of these names are fanciful, whimsical or even a bit strange. A plate of little tongues followed by a monk’s hat and a pick-me-up might sound unusual, but you may have ordered just such a meal on your last visit to Carlino’s.

Tongues and Ears: Pasta Names

The many shapes of pasta lend themselves to creative naming. Most names come from the pasta’s  resemblance to familiar items. Farfalle, for example, is Italian for butterflies; conchiglie look like cowrie shells, and that’s what the name means. Some pasta names are more of a stretch. Orecchiete and linguini don’t look especially like ears or tongues, but those are the names they bear. Ordering a plate of ears or tongues in English might raise a few eyebrows, but in their native Italian, they sound as delicious as they taste.

How Italian Foods Got Their Names


“Cacciatore means “hunter” in Italian”

Cacciatore means “hunter” in Italian, so chicken cacciatore is literally “hunter-style chicken.” The game birds and rabbits that comprised a hunter’s evening meal required a pungent sauce that could stand up to their robust flavors. Tart tomatoes, briny olives and browned onions paired well with these foods. Today, they more often accompany tender chicken, but the bold flavors of this hearty sauce are perennial favorites.

Pasta puttanesca also has its origins in a profession – specifically, the oldest one. Etymologists aren’t quite sure how the savory dish got its unsavory name. One theory is that ladies who worked at night couldn’t always get to the market before closing time; they devised a sauce made up of ingredients that kept well such as olives, anchovies and capers so they could cook something delicious even if they hadn’t gotten a chance to shop. The name may also be a sly bit of marketing from an Italian nightclub owner in the 1950s. Whatever its true origins, pungent pasta puttanesca has become a favorite for diners from all walks of life.

Dead Man’s Bones and Pick-Me-Ups: Italian Desserts

You’ve probably enjoyed tiramisu, but you may not know what the name means. It’s Italian for “pick me up,” which is exactly what this confection of layered ladyfingers, espresso-flavored cream and cocoa does. Others suggest that the dish is so rich that you’ll swoon with delight and may need to ask someone to pick you up, but it’s more likely that the name comes from how the coffee-laced sweet energizes you after a hearty dinner.

Dead man’s bones sound like something an ogre would enjoy, but ossi dei morti are a traditional treat to serve with coffee. The meringue-based cookies bake firm and brittle. The spicy cookies contain plenty of cinnamon and cloves, sometimes in a marrow-like layer between two bone-shaped cookies.

Although Italians take coffee seriously, even coffee names are prone to a touch of whimsy. Cappuccino gets its name from Capuchin monks’ clothes. When it first reached Europe, coffee was generally served black, but Italians preferred it mellowed by a dollop of milk. The soft brown hue of a perfect cup of milky coffee was the exact shade of the Capuchin monks’ hoods, so the coffee became cappuccino.

Italian food is almost as delicious to say as it is to eat, so the next time you enjoy a plate of hunter-style chicken or a quick pick-me-up with a monk’s cap after dinner, think about the fun the creators of these dishes must have had naming them.


Carlo, Wali and all your friends at Carlino’s

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