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pasta on display at a supermarket in Italy

60+ Italian Cooking Terms To Know – A Comprehensive Glossary of All Cooking Vocab from a Local

Last updated on November 23rd, 2023

Have you ever tried to follow an Italian recipe at home, either in English or Italian, and you find that there are some Italian cooking terms that you simply don’t understand?

It’s happened to all of us and it’s beyond frustrating when you are knee deep in a new recipe, covered from head to toe in flour, eggs or breadcrumbs and then you come to step 3 and realize you need to stop what you are doing and find out what the heck it means.

Don’t let this happen to you! With this comprehensive glossary of Italian cooking terms, you will never have to scramble over reading various articles and websites to find what you are looking for. Just look it up here: we have listed everything in alphabetical order, making it user-friendly and easy to navigate. 

close up birds eye view of a recipe written in italian
Recipe for pappa al pomodoro written in Italian from my husband’s grandfather’s cookbook

Happy cooking!

  • arrosto: a synonym for al forno used to describe the process of roasting something such as finocchi arrosti (roasted fennel) or a roast piece of meat such as arrosto di maiale (roast pork). 
  • arrosto morto: a pan roasting technique used for meats in which the meat is first browned in butter, oil or both and then braised in a small amount of liquid until tender. 
  • all’agro: characterized by dressing most typically a blanched vegetable in olive oil and some form of acid such as lemon juice or vinegar. 
  • aromi: a selection of various herbs and seasonings such as garlic and ginger used to flavor many dishes. 
  • bollito: meaning ‘boiled’, this is a popular cooking technique for both meats and vegetables. Good Italian bollito misto is made by actually very slowly simmering mixed meats until fall-off-the-bone tender. 
  • alla brace: a synonym for alla griglia, literally translating to ‘at the coals’, meaning grilled such a bistecchine di maiale alla brace (grilled pork chops). 
  • in brodo: literally meaning ‘in broth’, a common way to serve pasta, especially egg pastas or stuffed pasta such as tortellini in brodo, a classic dish from Emilia-Romagna.
  • a cartoccio: when a food, typically vegetables, fish or meat cooked in parchment paper or aluminum foil.
  • a crudo: when food is raw such as gamberi a crudo or gamberi crudi (raw prawns).
  • al dente: literally meaning ‘to the tooth’, this term is used to describe how Italians define properly cooked pasta. It should be firm, to the bite and with a slight spring back as you bite down. 
  • al forno: meaning  ‘in the oven’, this is the Italian definition of oven-baked or roasted in English. Anything baked in the oven such as vegetables, meat or fish. 
  • antipasto: anti means ‘before’ and pasto means ‘meal’, meaning appetizer. Appetizers are not finger food that you might find at a party with cocktails but rather, something you would eat sitting down at a table before eating your primo piatto.
  • bianco/in bianco: literally, ‘white’ or ‘in white’, used to describe dishes that can be or are typically made with tomatoes but are made without. Pizza bianca is your typical pizza but has no tomato sauce but just cheese or cheese and a white sauce. Pasta in bianco means pasta in butter or oil (with or without cheese). 
  • battuto: when aromi or aromatics of a dish such as carrots, celery, onion, garlic and parsley are finely chopped and fried in olive oil, often used as the base for many Italian dishes. 
  • brasare: braising something, typically a piece of meat, very slowly over a low flame. Brasato is the Italian adjective used to describe food that has been braised. 
  • condimento: refers to anything that can be used to flavor another ingredient. It can be a pasta sauce, a gravy, pan drippings or a salad dressing, just to name a few.  
  • contorno: a side dish served with the secondo piatto.
  • crema: this term refers to puréed soups made from vegetables and/or beans, also known as vellutata. Crema also describes the plain, cream flavor of things such as gelato but does not mean cream. 
  • cucina povera: translating to ‘poor cuisine’, it describes the traditional method of Italian cooking that uses local ingredients and simple techniques to prepare very good tasting food. Many iconic Italian dishes were born from this such as ribollita and pasta e fagioli. 
  • DOC: acronym for denominazione di origine controllata, or “controlled name of origin”, given to specific Italian food and wines as a legal way to protect their authenticity and names. For example Brunello di Montalcino DOC is protected under this certificate, validating its authenticity in terms of name and quality. If you buy a DOC product, you know it’s going to be good. 
  • fare la scarpetta: literally meaning ‘to make a little shoe’, referring to the act of mopping up whatever is left on your plate with a little piece of bread. You won’t see Italians using a whole slice of bread for this, but rather, a small piece which they hold with the tips of their fingers and press down firmly on the plate and scrape it towards them or around it, soaking up any remaining juices or tiny scraps (this act of holding the bread is said to resemble a shoe on the ground).
  • un filo d’olio: literally translating to a ‘thread of oil’, used to describe the technique of finishing food with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. It will also be used to describe the small amount of oil (just a drizzle to just swirl around in the pan) you should add to a sautée pan before adding your food.
  • fritto: meaning “fried”, such as pesce fritto (fried fish) or fritto misto (mixed fried food), most commonly various fish or meat, vegetables and pieces of polenta. Friggere is the verb ‘to fry’
  • fumetto di pesce: a very concentrated broth made from leftover fish parts such as the head, tail or shrimp shells. 
  • gnocchi: (pronounced nyaw-kee in Italian) is the general term for dumpling in Italian, most commonly made from potato but not necessarily. They can also be made from ricotta and other vegetables like spinach and swiss chard. 
  • alla griglia: a synonym of alla brace, this term describes food that has been grilled over coals or on a bbq grill. La grigliata is a secondo made up of various grilled meats and vegetables. 
  • insaporire: a term used to describe flavoring food that you are cooking, often with a soffritto, but not limited to. 
  • mantecare: the process of beating or whipping ingredients together to obtain a smooth, creamy consistency such as when making homemade mayonnaise. It’s also used to mean “finishing” a dish like with butter and parmesan that is added to risotto off the heat at the end, right before surviving. Baccalà mantecato is a whipped cream of cod fish that is served on toasted bread from Venice.
  • merenda: meaning an afternoon snack eaten between when school lets out at 4:30 and 6pm. 
  • minestra: the general ombrella word for ‘soup’ in Italian although many soups have their own specific names such as ribollita from Tuscany or jota from Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
  • minestrone: ‘big minestra’ is a term generally describing chucky and hearty vegetable soups that you find all throughout Italy although the recipe will change depending on the region and the season.  
  • montare: to whip, most commonly egg whites or cream, into whipped cream. 
  • una noce di: a reference to the amount of a specific ingredient, such as butter, that you should add to the dish about the size of a whole walnut (including the shell). 
  • odori: Literally meaning ‘scents’, this is a general name for all the herbs and vegetables used when making a battuto such as garlic, parsley, carrot, onion and celery. At open air markets in Italy you will often be asked if you would like ordori with your purchase if you buy lots of vegetables at a stand. You can also buy them all together, a bit of each one, in a small package at Italian supermarkets. 
  • in padella: a term describing the technique of sautéing most typically vegetables in a pan with oil, garlic and sometimes chili pepper. If using this technique, the greens should be blanched before being ripassati or risaltati in padella. You can also risaltare leftovers such as pasta from the day before with un filo d’olio, a bit of oil. 
  • pasta all’uovo: fresh egg pasta made from 00 flour, eggs and salt. Ribbon pastas and most stuffed pastas are made from long sheets of fresh egg pasta. Typically, they are handmade (fatto a mano) at home (fatto in casa) but nowadays, you can also find them made, dried and sold in stores.
  • pasta asciutta: meaning ‘dry pasta’, this term refers to the primi piatti made from pasta that is served in a sauce (as opposed to swimming in brodo, or in a broth). 
  • pasta fresca: freshly made pasta, either egg pasta such as tagliatelle found in Tuscany or semolina pasta such as orecchiette found in southern Italy.
  • pasta secca: meaning ‘dry pasta’, this term is referencing commercially produced dried pasta made from durum wheat and water that you can buy in the grocery store such as penne or spaghetti.
  • peperoncino: (plural peperoncini) small, dried chili peppers that are used most commonly in southern Italy but also in the central regions. You will find it added to pizzas, pasta and oils infused with it. 
  • primo piatto: also just known as il primo, it refers to the first course meal that is carb heavy such as pasta, rice or soup 
  • piatto unico: this term refers to a recipe that serves as both a first and second course, most commonly including both a carbohydrate and a protein such as polenta con le salsicce (polenta with sausages). 
  • quanto basta: often written as ‘q.b.’, this means ‘just what you need/just enough’ and is used in Italian recipes when listing quantities of spices and seasonings such as salt and pepper. Another way to look at it is ‘to taste’ (unhelpful for newbies in the kitchen but nonetheless a very popular Italian cooking term). 
  • ragù: a long-simmering tomato and meat based sauce such as ragù alla bolognese and ragù alla napoletana.
  • ripassare: to re-heat and flavor in a pan with oil and most likely garlic and/or chili pepper. Many Italian greens are boiled and then cooked this way to enhance their flavor. 
  • rosolare: the verb to lightly and slowly saute something in olive oil or butter, such as a soffritto. Whatever is cooking should not brown but just cook through gently over low heat.
  • salsa: this term generally refers to an uncooked (but not always) sauce that is served alongside another dish, typically meat or fish, such as a green sauce, anchovy sauce or spicy sauce. 
  • saltare: this verb literally means to toss or jump, referring to food that is jumping around in the pan as you heat it through. You will often see written fare saltare la pasta in padella, which means to toss the pasta over medium heat in a skillet (with that very fancy wrist movement that might finish in half your pasta dish on the floor – just kidding, don’t bother doing this unless you know how or want to learn. Tossing it gently with a spoon will be fine). 
  • sbiancare: meaning ‘to blanch’ in english. 
  • secondo piatto: also known as simply il secondo, it means the second course consisting generally of meat or fish with sometimes a side, but not always. 
  • sfumare: this cooking term means to simmer typically with a type of alcohol, usually wine. When you see this term, it means you should cook with the wine until it has evaporated and all the alcohol has cooked off. It’s a very common term in making risotto. 
  • soffritto: chopped up aromatic vegetables such as onion, carrot and celery, gently sauteed in oil and/or butter until cooked through. This is the base for many Italian dishes including sauces and meat dishes. 
  • spaghettata: a very quickly made impromptu pasta dish, most commonly late at night (in our house this is pasta al burro e noce moscato (pasta with butter and nutmeg).
  • spezzatino: a slow cooked stew of meat such as rabbit, beef, pork, lamb or wild boar but it can be any meat. 
  • spianatoia: a large wooden board, usually with a type of lip meant to help it stay put on the counter when making fresh pasta.
  • una spolverata: used to describe a dusting of something such as powdered sugar, cocoa powder or flour. Often you will see una spolverata di zucchero a velo (a dusting of powdered sugar).
  • stuzzichini: small snacks or bites that Italians nibble on at a party or with a cocktail.
  • sugo: best described as a tomato-based sauce for pasta although colloquially it’s also used to refer to any sauce, even the pan drippings served as a sauce with a roast. 
  • trifolati: Literally meaning ‘truffled’ because thinly sliced mushrooms cooked this way are said to look like an expensive truffle. This technique describes the process of simply sauteing thinly sliced vegetables in garlic and oil such as mushrooms, artichokes or zucchini and finishing them with finely chopped parsley. 
  • in umido: a dish that is typically stewed slowly in a rich tomato sauce whether it be meat, vegetables or fish. 
  • al vapore: literally steamed, referring most likely to vegetables or potatoes.
  • vellutata: a pureed soup typically made from vegetables, also known as a crema. 
  • in zimino: the technique of simmering fish like squid or baccalà with greens such as spinach or swiss chard, typically used in Tuscany. 
  • zuppa: meaning soup, often rustic and chunky, not smooth, including soups made with hearty grains. Other terms are minestra and minestrone
top view of bistecca fiorentina on the grill with veggies grilling around it
Bistecca alla fiorentina

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