If you want to fluently speak a foreign language, knowing grammar rules is not enough! You also need to know a certain number of collocations and idiomatic expressions. That’s why today we are going to talk to you about the most common Italian expressions… with FOOD in them!
Food-related idiomatic expressions
Italians sure love good food and cuisine, so of course, there are so many expressions that have to do with it in this language. Let’s see the most interesting (and useful) ones.
What are the most common Italian food-related expressions?
- CADERE (o CASCARE) A FAGIOLO: when something happens at the right moment, with perfect timing.
This expression dates back to ancient times when farmers would always have beans (“fagioli”) at their houses because they were cheap and also easy to store. Hence, when a wanderer or pilgrim came unexpectedly, people would say they “capitavano a fagiolo“, i.e. when lunch was already on the table. And guess what was for lunch… exactly… beans!
Hanno offerto a Luca un lavoro a tempo indeterminato: questa opportunità casca a fagiolo visto che non voleva più fare l’università. (They offered Luca a permanent job: this opportunity “casca a fagiolo” since he didn’t want to follow university anymore)
- TUTTO FA BRODO: anything can be helpful, every little bit helps.
This expression clearly references the making of broth (“brodo“), a very popular dish during winter in Italy. Usually you need many ingredients to prepare broth, but often people use leftovers such as vegetables or cheese peels. That’s why this expression implies that even what may seem useless can actually be important.
Devo pagare il libro ma non mi bastano i soldi… Tu puoi prestarmi qualcosa? Anche degli spiccioli, tanto tutto fa brodo! (I need to pay for my book but I don’t have enough money on me… Can you lend me some? Even just some loose change, “tutto fa brodo“!)
- ESSERE ALLA FRUTTA: referring to people, it means being feeble, without strength, physically or mentally tired, exhausted.
When used in reference to an event or situation, it means to reach the limit, when there’s nothing you can do about it anymore. This expression has a negative overtone.
It obviously refers to the long Italian meals, which usually end with fruit (“frutta“).
Dopo aver lavorato per 12 ore di fila, ero proprio alla frutta, così mi sono presa un giorno di ferie. (After 12 long hours of work I was really “alla frutta” so I took a day off work. )
A Roma il problema dei rifiuti è diventato insostenibile. Siamo proprio alla frutta. (The issue with garbage in Rome has become unbearable. We are really “alla frutta”)
- ESSERE UN PEZZO DI PANE: being a good, caring, generous person.
This expression compares someone’s inner goodness with the good and soft inside of bread (“pane“), a genuine but delicious food that everyone has at home. After all, who doesn’t like bread?
Marco ieri ha soccorso una donna per strada e poi l’ha anche accompagnata in ospedale. È proprio un pezzo di pane. (Yesterday Marco rescued a woman on the street and then took her to the hospital. He’s such a “pezzo di pane”)
- SE NON È ZUPPA È PAN BAGNATO: Nowadays, this expression is used to say that even though something is presented in two different ways, it essentially remains the same.
When you think about it, the meaning of the saying is pretty clear: in the past, poor people would make soup (“zuppa“) with pieces of bread soaked in water (“pan bagnato“). An example that comes to mind is the typical Florentine dish pappa al pomodoro. The Italian word for soup “zuppa” comes in fact from “suppa”, which once meant “soaked piece of bread”.
Se faccio il progetto in poco tempo ma con qualche imprecisione, il mio capo si arrabbia. Se lo faccio perfetto, ma ci metto molto tempo, il mio capo si arrabbia. Se non è zuppa, è pan bagnato. (If I finish my project in a short time but it’s imprecise, my boss gets mad. If I do it perfectly but it takes me long, my boss gets mad. “Se non è zuppa, è pan bagnato”)
This expression is also used in a very specific situation. Let’s say we ask someone a question that has two possible answers but only one is right. If the person chooses the wrong one and realizes it is the wrong one so they switch to the other, we say “Duh, ‘se non è zuppa, è pan bagnato'”. It means “there were only two options, so if one is wrong, the other is obviously right!”
- RENDERE PAN PER FOCACCIA: get even with someone, tit for tat.
The etymology has to do with the history of bread (“pane”). The expression originally had a positive connotation because it referred to the customs of good neighborhood, i.e. when someone made focaccia they gifted some to their neighbor, who could then give some bread in return. Unfortunately, nowadays “rendere pan per focaccia” has a negative connotation.
Invece di presentarsi all’appuntamento per chiarire dopo la mia sfuriata, Paola è rimasta a casa. Mi ha reso pan per focaccia. (Instead of coming to the date we set to clear up the time I stormed out, Paola stayed at home. “Mi ha reso pan per focaccia”.)
- (ANDARE) LISCIO COME L’OLIO: smooth as glass, with no complications.
This expression most likely comes from the fact that oil is always smooth and fluid, and its lubricity reduces friction between bearing surfaces.
Durante la riunione di oggi, tutto è andato liscio come l’olio e nessuno ha sospettato che non mi ero preparata per la presentazione. (Today’s meeting went “liscio come l’olio” and nobody suspected I was unprepared for my presentation.)
- AVERE IL PROSCIUTTO (o LE BANANE) SUGLI OCCHI: this expression is often used as reprimand, often to point out how sloppy someone was or to point out that a person is purposely denying something so clear, so evident that’s impossible not to see it.
Cioè tu ora vorresti innaffiare il giardino? Ma non vedi che sta piovendo? Hai le banane sugli occhi? (Now you want to water the garden? Can’t you see it’s raining? “Hai le banane sugli occhi?” (literally, “do you have bananas over your eyes?”))
Sembra che Sergio abbia il prosciutto sugli occhi: è palese che sua moglie lo tradisce. Lo sanno anche i muri! (Looks like Sergio has “il prosciutto sugli occhi”: his wife is clearly cheating on him. Everybody knows it!)
- (FINIRE) A TARALLUCCI E VINO: it’s a troubled situation that looked like was going to have severe consequences but in the end resolved itself in an informal and friendly way.
The meaning of the expression dates back to ancient rural culture. When guests (both expected and unexcepted) came by someone’s house, the host arranged what we would define today as an aperitif. It was made of simple products like taralli and a nice glass of wine (“vino“). Pretty informal, effective and friendly.
Ma hai saputo? L’altra sera Luca e Maria avevano iniziato a litigare ma per fortuna è finita a tarallucci e vino! Altrimenti, avrebbero potuto ferirsi a vicenda! (Did you know? Last night Luca and Maria started arguing but then luckily it all ended “a tarallucci e vino! They could have hurt each other!”)
- SALVARE CAPRA E CAVOLI: it means smartly deciding to save two needs or interests that earlier seemed incompatible as the situation required sacrificing either one or the other.
This saying comes from a famous logic game: a farmer needs to bring a goat (“capra“), a wolf and a basket of cabbage (“cavoli“) across the river. He only has a small ship which can hold not more than one thing aside from him. Even though he can’t bring more things at a time he still manages to bring everything to the other side without the wolf eating the goat and the goat eating the cabbage. How does he do that? You’ll find the solution at the end of the article!
Aveva promesso a sua moglie di portarla al cinema, ma aveva dimenticato che avrebbe dovuto fare da babysitter ai figli di sua sorella. Poi per fortuna ha salvato capra e cavoli e ha portato anche i bambini al cinema! (He promised his wife he would bring her to the cinema but he forgot he had to babysit his sister’s kids. Luckily he “ha salvato capra e cavoli” and brought the kids too to the cinema!)
- ESSERE UNA TESTA DI RAPA: someone who’s a bit dull, stupid, foolish, someone who’s a bit slow.
For sure it’s not a compliment, in fact, turinps (“rapa“) are known for being a poor food, with low nutritional value.
Nonostante abbia seguito tutti i corsi di recupero, Alberto non ha superato l’esame. È proprio una testa di rapa! (Even though Alberto followed each one of the additional lessons, he didn’t pass the exam. He’s such a “testa di rapa”!)
- FARE UNA FRITTATA / LA FRITTATA È FATTA: (literally, “to make an omelet”) it means to screw up.
There’s also the “upgraded” version of “La frittata è fatta!” (literally, “the omelet is done cooking”). This exclamation is used to say “look, the damage is already done”, as to suggest not to think about it because there’s nothing left to do to solve it.
Ormai la frittata è fatta! Hai già inviato i documenti sbagliati al cliente e lui ci ha licenziati. Ora non possiamo fare più niente affinché ci riassuma! (Now “la frittata è fatta!” You already sent the client the wrong documents and he already fired us. We can’t do anything to be hired back)
- ESSERE UN SALAME: even though salami is delicious, this expression is yet an insult. It means someone is either clumsy and moves awkwardly, or they’re just stupid.
This expression comes from the word “salame” (salami), i.e. “salamen”, which once meant “salt”. Why? Because people would put fish (for example, salted codfish) in salt before meat. As a matter of fact, telling someone they are a “baccalà” (salted codfish) means the exact same as “essere un salame”.
Hai davvero donato i tuoi soldi a quel truffatore? Sei proprio un salame! Si capiva che stava mentendo! (Did you seriously give money to that crook? You’re such a “salame”! You could clearly see he was lying!)
Here’s the solution of the goat and cabbage” riddle:
- Bring the goat from side A to side B (meanwhile leave the wolf and the cabbage on side A)
- Go back
- Bring the wolf from A to B
- Bring back the goat from B to A (so that the wolf doesn’t it now that they’re both on side B)
- Bring the cabbage from A to B (so that the goat doesn’t eat it now that they’re both on side A)
- Go back
- Being the goat from A to B (while the wolf and the cabbage are waiting for you there)
If you liked this lesson, we know you’re going to like our lesson about Italian expressions and vocabulary of the human body!