Italian Food Words and Their Seductive Power - My Tuscan Aria
eating like italians

I grew up in the warm embrace of Italian grandparents, which meant all my senses were constantly being charmed to one degree or another.   A deep connection was fashioned between the lyrical sounds and meaning of Italian words with what I was experiencing.


Their Indiana backyard was a Tuscan garden.  The herbs were dominated by the king of them all, basilico.  Emerald green leaves, warmed by the sun and exuding their unmistakable aroma, filled my nostrils and hands.  My nonna, Olga, pulled off sprigs of rosmarino, mente and salvia, teaching me their medicinal and culinary purposes. Inhaling their distinctive smells, she would add them to the collection growing in the palms of my hands.


As she taught me their Italian names, the vowels seemed to linger on my tongue as I pronounced them out loud, matching the longing in my soul to linger there with her.

Italian Food Words

My grandfather, Ottavio, cultivated Italian vegetables (le vedure), mostly lettuces.  The bitterness of radicchio and the peppery nature of rucola, tempered by luscious green olive oil, were early trainers of my taste buds.

Italian Food Words

Zucchini would frequently arrive a tavola , stuffed and baked.  This was a favorite childhood dish and one I attempt to make that measures up to Olga’s.   I am still trying.


But it was the flowers (le fiore) of the zucchini that seduced me.  Bright, yellow-orange sirens which at the moment we removed them, were rinsed, battered, fried, drained and showered with parmigiano.  Morsels of pure bliss.


Ottavio meticulously looked after his garden tomatoes, il pomodoro.   The literal translation is “golden apples” and indeed, their summer taste was fit for the gods. Blood red juices mingled with creamy mozzarella, dark green olive oil and tender leaves of basil, creating a dance on the tongue of the four most iconic of all Italian ingredients.


And not only the taste, but the texture. The density of the firm tomato, the smooth and suppleness of softening cheese, the subtle detection of tender herb, the lush silkiness of oil….and perhaps just the slightest crunch of sea salt, all tantalizing your mouth at the same time.  The word “texture” in Italian, is “tessitura”.


More about texture, later.


There were fruit trees in their garden and none more evocative of Italian life than the fig, la fica.


For fifty years, Ottavio nurtured that tree.  After giving up its fruit for the season, he pruned and covered it to protect it against harsh Indiana winters.  Olga prophesied doom. Ottavio believed in its resurrection.


Later in life, I learned (during a Roman “rite of passage” romance), that “una fica” is a metaphor for the vagina.  It was a provocative revelation, but if you have ever opened up a fresh fig, no further explanation is required.


Adding “issimo or issima” to many an Italian word makes it a superlative.  Hence, describing something as “ficchissima,” can indeed refer to an extremely alluring woman (or really, anything that is ultra-fabulous), but in its essence, it contains the meaning of a piece of fruit that is so gorgeous, it is adorned with garlands.


The sensuous nature of the Italian soul is so often connected to food.  Buonissimo.

What Italian garden would not have a vineyard?  Like any self-respecting Italian immigrant, Ottavio made his own wine (even during Prohibition, I am told).  He built a sweet arbor for his grapes, and as summer deepened, so did the ruby red glow of the juicy fruit, nestled among the dark green leaves.  Production would go on in the cool damp confines of the basement. I learned how to eat and drink like an Italian.


Years later, when I serendipitously found my family’s farm in Tuscany, my cousins took me into la caverna del vino.  They told me that when Ottavio visited them in the early 1960s, after fifty years of being in America, he helped them build it.


My childhood was saturated with food at my grandparents’ table and with music as well: Italian grand opera, as sumptuous as a four-hour Italian meal.


Next: Part Two – Italian Opera Words

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 "Italian food is seasonal. It is simple. It is nutritionally sound. It is flavorful. It is colorful. It's all the things that make for a good eating experience, and it's good for you." Lidia Bastianich


  1. David Floyd says:

    Deliciously and provocatively quenches one’s appetite for knowledge and thirst for dreams. I feel it. I want to live it. I will.

  2. Rose Lee Hayden says:

    When I first moved to Italy, at a dinner party, I was asked about the house I bought and its garden. I could not contain my enthusiasm about my FICA, and went on and on about how lush, large, bushy and exceptional it was…compared to my fledgling Italian that is…I should have noticed others choking on their food but I did not but rather decided to add to the description and speak louder, not knowing that they were both appalled and amazed at the proud and increasingly enthusiastic description of my pussy! Well, it did lead to requests for phone number and e-mail, but I was really mortified when later I was told what the word fica is taken to mean, namely pussy or vagina. The word used for the tree is IL FICO and generally Italians get around this speaking about the fruit of the FICO. So here’s to grabbing them by the FICO…Rose Lee Hayden, Santa Marinella

    • Rick says:

      Ha, too funny! Yes, there are many such “word traps” in Italian. Another example: when you ask for penne pasta, make sure to pronounce it with two N’s! (Although I’ve seen the one N version, too!)

    • Carol says:

      Hello Rose. Thanks for sharing this exceptional moment with us! I hope that my conveying the fig as metaphor came across clearly! Those vowels can turn worlds upside down!

  3. Deb says:

    You write so beautifully; what a lovely piece! And in less than a month, we will be enjoying the fruits of Tuscany – in the words of our friend Elaine, “simply orgasmic”!

    • Carol says:

      Ciao, Deb. Thank you for writing. You’ll probably like Part Two on the seductive power of Italian words of music! See you at the Villa!

  4. […] And the words that define the music!  Italians don’t use mundane words or phrases, like “fast, slow, song, singer, lyrics” to accomplish that.  Rather, allegro (cheerful/lively)….imbroglio (with intrigue)…scherzo (a joke)….pizzicato (pinch or sting)….capriccio (whimsy or a temper tantrum)……diva (goddess)…..aria (the air)…….libretto (little book)…..ritornello (a little return trip) and yes here it is again, tessitura (texture).  (See Sensuous Italian Words, Part One, Italian Food Words) […]

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