An American’s guide to restaurant Italian

Lost in pronunciation

Thomas Austen
July 16, 2015

It’s no secret that traces of Hollywood mob films and Olive Garden ads pollute many Americans’ Italian vocabularies—vocabularies usually limited to words of or related to dining. While channeling James Gandolfini may work at the local red-sauce joint in the States, when Americans land in Italy and rush to the nearest osteria, they often wish they had trusted Roberto Benigni instead.

 

Eateries that cater to tourists may offer their menus in English, with helpful translations of pomodoro to ‘tomato’ when describing bruschetta, but the name of the Italian dish stays as is. In other words, understanding is made easy, but when it comes to speaking, you’re left at sea. What to do when faced with ordering? Here’s a handy guide for pronouncing some basic restaurant Italian, with some helpful mnemonics provided.  

Espresso
You probably say ex-'pre-sō
You should say es-'pre-sō
X marks the spot where you’re caught. Using that x sound puts an x on your forehead, marking you as a turista.


Bruschetta
You probably say brü-'shet-ta
You should say brü-'sket-ta
Although Webster’s may confirm the former pronunciation, the sch is pronounced sk in Italy. So, the next time you pronounce bruschetta in Italy with a sh, you’ll understand why the locals want you to shhh. A trick: tell yourself you want to ‘score’ that tasty brü-'sket-ta.

 

Gnocchi
You probably say 'nȯ-kē or 'nä-kē  
You should say 'nyȯ-kē (ȯ as in saw)
Again, ignore the Webster’s variant. Instead, imagine saying knee-hockey, and speed it up a bit. You could even refer to the Three Stooges’ triumphant ‘Nyah, nyah, nyah!’ for help on that otherwise unfamiliar ‘ny’ sound.

 

Buono
You probably say 'bwā-nō (ā as in day)
You should say 'bwō-nō (ō as in bone)
Buono is useful when trying to express your appreciation of food that so often warrants it (especially if you’re too full to finish and want to reassure the waiter, who can’t believe you haven’t cleared your plate). No matter how much you enjoyed your meal, that 'bwā-nō that you’re borrowing from high-school Spanish class has no place at the table. Think ‘good to the bone’ and you’ll remember 'bwō-nō.


Grazie

grazie

You probably say 'grat-zē (ē as in easy)
You should say 'grat-sē-e (e as in yet)
Remember, you’re not yet done until you say a proper thank you. If you say it right, your waiter will thank you for helping ward off that terribly commonplace mispronunciation reinforced by every well-meaning American dad and by Brad Pitt’s performance in Inglourious Basterds.   

 

Bonus note: Mistakes are not limited to the kitchen. The monuments, museums, and masterpieces that dress the Florentine landscape are as appealing as the dining for American visitors, and are just as littered with names that rarely roll off the Anglo-tinged tongue. As an example, Ponte Vecchio and Palazzo Vecchio—avoid ve-chee-oh. I repeat, the ch serves as a k. I’m actually quite surprised no one pronounces Michelangelo as if he were Mitchellangelo.

 

If there are other words that trip you up and that aren’t provided here, don’t hesitate to ask an Italian for clarification: it’s the best way to improve. They’ll appreciate the effort you’re making. Just be sure to avoid prefacing your request with an es-coo-za-may (scoo-zee, or scoo-zah-mee instead). 

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