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The paesan’ glossary

This is a post I’ve been mulling over in my mind for some time, keeping it in my back pocket for a while now. But this week’s Fatted Calf newsletter spurred me into action. In it, I found, like Marcia, yet another culinary compatriot exulting his Italian-American heritage. Some highlights:

I was raised on pasta, weaned from mothers’ milk and plunked down in  front of a bowl of buttery pastina. My family ate macaroni three or  four times a week…I pitied the people around me who purged pasta from their  diet and when that carbohydrate fearing freak of a doctor dropped dead  I smiled inside. And then I made myself a bowl of spaghetti aglio olio.

Words plucked from my own heart and head.

My mother is full-blooded Italian, though it’s not as linear as all that. Her father’s parents came from Reggio di Calabria, the very tippiest toe of the boot (read: practically Sicily); her mother’s mother’s parents came from Benevento, in Campania, about an hour from Napoli; and her mother’s father came from the diminutive mountain town of Salle in Abruzzi, which today has a population of just 400.

Long story short, a patchwork quilt of Southern Italian paesani. These and thousands of other emigrant meridionali settled in my hometown of Schenectady, NY. It’s important to understand that, at that time, in the early 20th Century, Italy itself was still barely unified, and so these emigrants, while ostensibly (and to the untrained American eye) generically "Italian," each had a completely distinct and discrete culture. Schenectady became a micro-melting pot of these Southern Italian cultures and dialects. These were by and large poor, uneducated people, and their vernacular was coarse. The combination of multiple dialects resulted in something even more gritty.

I did not learn Italian growing up; even my mother, only a generation or two separated from the Old Country, only learned how to count and swear. (The grandparents would slip into Italian when they didn’t want the kids to hear what they were saying.)  But what I was not aware of was how much dialectic had seeped into my everyday speech, how much was woven so deeply into my family’s linguistic patterns that I simply took them for granted. And it wasn’t until I studied Italian in the classroom that I understood how modified these words were from modern, standard Italian.

My mother tells me that, when she went away to college, she struggled in the grocery store in Syracuse, because she couldn’t find scharole. That’s because it was called escarole. Language is food is culture; all three things are irrevocably tied to our sense of self.

So, I thought I would include a little glossary of terms, so you know what the hell I am talking about should we meet face-to-face. For, though I may write escarole, I will almost surely say scharole.

The paesan’ glossary:

What I say … What it means …
pasta va-ZHAWL pasta e fagiole
ruh-GOT ricotta
shca-ROLE escarole
bra-ZHAWL braciole
ma-NEST minestra
alley OH-lee spaghetti all’aglio e olio
shpa-GET spaghetti
PAR-meh-zhan parmigiano
manna-GOT manicotti
peet-za VREET pizza fritta (fried dough)
gah-bah-GAWL capicola
peet-zee-AWL pizzaiola
kah-vah-DEL cavatelli
pas-ta-CHACH pasticiotto
jam-BOTT giambotta

(Update 6/7/07 and 7/1/07 with additions from my mother)



One year ago today …
it was all about my Cuisinart food processor. And it still is.

  • And the rest of us naifs just apply our ALM Spanish pronunciation to those vowels and consonants. How un-goombah.

  • jo

    gab a gol – capicola
    Pizza gaina – That lovely easter pie of cold cuts, pasta and cheese, sort of Italian mac and cheese quiche
    man i cot – manicotti
    I’ll think of more I’m sure – Dad’s Mom – Parma, Dad’s Dad Naples.

  • CC: Someday you’ll unleash your inner goombah, I am sure.
    Jo: Excellent! I think it would be really interesting if lots of others with similar roots posted their phrases. Fun, no?

  • I have never met an Italian who was what you call a linear full-blooded Italian! They all have parents and grand parents coming from all over the country! What I as a Swede find very interesting is how they talk about this and analyze their heritage so to speak, in Sweden you might talk about where you come from originally but you never ask about from where your parents come. It so different, Swedes obviously feel more at home with their national identity whereas Italy is quite a young country if you consider it as a united country and this is clearly reflected in this way of checking out people’s origins. OK Ok, I’m stopping now!

  • Ilva, how interesting. I have had glimmerings of that during my visits there – for example, Romans only consider someone truly Roman (romani di romani) if they’ve been there for I think at least 4 generations, maybe as much as 7. It stands to reason that during the early part of the 20th century, when millions were being displaced from their hometowns due to poverty, they migrated around the country as well as abroad. In that way, Italy has a small affinity with America. Despite its 3000-year history, Italy as you say is a very young country indeed.

  • My grandparents on my father’s side came from Calabria, spoke English, but with quite an accent. My nana, great grandmother, who came to the States with three children (one of which was my grandfather) in 1914 never quite got the hang of English, but we always understood each other. She lived to the amazing age of 105.
    I made pasta e fagiole last week and pronounced it pasta va-ZHAWL to a friend who looked at me very strangely and proceeded to say pasta fadge-I-ol-I. I laughed to myself when I heard that.

  • Love this post – my grandfather was from Calabria and I grew up with pasta va-ZHAWL, too. I have a question though – does anyone in your family use a word that sounds like MO-jur to describe soaking up juice (from a tomato salad say, or a bowl of soup) with a slice of Italian bread? I don’t know if this word is actually derived from Italian, but my family uses it all of the time! Any ideas?

  • Hm, I’ve never heard that, but I’ll ask my mother if her parents/grandparents ever said such a thing. Surely there are lots of phrases that I never heard, as my great-grandparents all passed when I was an infant or before I was born.

  • Oh, an Loulou, my great-aunt Margaret came to the states when she was 16 and lived the next seven decades in the US, but to the end spoke with such a thick accent you could barely understand her. 🙂

  • And from your Northern Italian cousin:
    PAH-sta fa-ZOOL – pasta e faggiole
    Fee-GAH-za – Fougasse/Focaccia
    Bra-ZOOL – Bracciole
    AG-lee OH-lee (as one word) – spaghetti all’aglio e olio
    If anyone finds a translation for “toothlatch” (an oversized ricotta & swiss chard ravioli) I’d love to know what it is!

  • Oh, and for Carolyn, I don’t know the origin either but my dad’s family pronounced the soup soaking thing mo-ZUR (and it applied to salad dressings too). Tomato sauce spooned from the vat on the stove straight onto bread was called ZAL-sa mo-ZUR.

  • I’ve never heard of toothlatch before. Again, I’ll have to ask my mother!

  • Mark

    No napkins at our Italian family dinners, everyone used the moppina or moppin sounds like Mop-een.
    Passing around the rag.