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Italians do it better #4: False Friends

You know them. Or maybe not. But you surely hate them: false friends. I'm not talking about people who claim to be your friends but try to stab you in the back. I'm talking about some foreign words that sound incredibly similar to other words in your local language, but have a different meaning.

During my career of inexpert translator, I stumbled upon a lot of false friends. So here's a list of the 11 funniest false friends I ever had the pleasure to meet.

1) Aperitive. If you ask for an aperitive in Italy (aperitivo) you won't cure your constipation at all. But you'll probably get drunk. Aperitivo is a drink you have before lunch or dinner. A glass of Martini, Bellini, Aperol are common "aperitivi". In Milan an "aperitivo" is something more, since it's also called happy hour and it's accompanied with a huge buffet. If you need an aperitive in Italy you better ask your local chemist for a "purga" (read: poorga, which curiously contains the sound "poo"...)

2) Ballista. Nice weapon in some games, but don't ever ask for a ballista in Italy since the word means "liar", and it's kinda rude. The weapon is called "balista", with one L.

3) Cafeteria. It's very similar to "Caffetteria", which is a bar, a place where you drink coffee. Cafeteria is called "mensa", like the IQ society.

4) Cane. This is very funny, because it means "dog". When I read about people being "caned in the ass" in Singapore I always think about... nevermind.

5) Coffin. It's very similar to "cofano", bonnet, the cover of a car's engine. I remember I was watching The Dirty Dozen once, and one of the US soldiers was speaking Italian to a Sicilian kid. He told the poor little guy he was going to find a "cofano" for his dead mother. I heard about a lot of dead bodies being put in the trunk, but not in the bonnet.

6) Confetti. Usually gifted at weddings, baptisms and graduations. You use white confetti for weddings, blue or pink for baptisms (depending on the sex of the baby) and red for graduation ceremonies. And you eat them, cause "confetti" are sugared almonds. Confetti here are called "coriandoli". And no, we don't eat small pieces of paper. We throw them in our friends' eyes, like everyone else.

7) Corpse. In Italian "corpo" is a body. It's not necessarily a dead one. So don't worry if someone says something about your "corpo". Unless they're laughing at your huge ass.

8) Morbid. Very similar to morbido, "soft", "fluffy". If someone says "morbido" referring to your hair, your skin or your hands... it's definitely a compliment. Well, perhaps a roadkill Care Bear could be both "morbid" and "morbido".

9) Paper. This is one of the funniest of my childhood, since "Papero" means "Duck". The prefix "paper" has been widely used in Disney's comics here in Italy. Duckburg is Paperopoli, Donald Duck is Paperino, Scrooge McDuck is Paperone, etc. When I played Paperboy for the first time on the NES I thought it was going to involve an anthropomorphic duck-boy (I used to be a huge fan of Howard the Duck). I felt disappointed when I figured out it was just a guy throwing newspapers. But I met my first false friend.

10) Pollution. The nightmare of every English teacher dealing with hormone-filled teenagers. In Italian the word "Polluzione" means "wet dream". It's more a medical term than "wet dream" (dictionary suggests me to say "nocturnal emission"), but try to imagine 20 guys giggling every time the teacher talks about the environment. I used to be one of those 20 guys, I don't regret it. Now I understand why I didn't have a girlfriend at the time.

11) Preservative. This could be a possible candidate for the "English teacher's nightmare contest", but since it's quite technical, I learned it when I was too old to find it any funny. "Preservativo" means "condom". Tee-hee-hee!

Let me conclude with a bonus word:


(I'll let you figure out what it means).

Italians do it better #4: False Friends


Italians do it better #3: Gordon Ramsay

Yesterday I decided to let Sky TV enter my life. I climbed up to my roof, held the legs of a poor technician who installed a parabolic antenna by leaning out the edge, redefining the job safety laws at the same time. My girlfriend and I spent our Saturday night watching some good shows, starting with an old episode of Lie to Me. Then we watched things blow up in Mythbusters. Finally, my girlfriend decided to zap to Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. That show is hilarious, especially for us Italians when an Italian-like restaurant is involved. Basically, you can understand why Italian food often sucks when cooked abroad: they use frozen or precooked food and they absolutely have no idea of the Italian taste. Sausage with cheese? What the fuck?

Ramsay gets pissed and tries to teach those unfortunate chefs how to cook some decent food by yelling profanities at them. It's a good technique, I guess. But, watching yesterday's episode, I noticed that even master Gordon Ramsay made a HUGE mistake while eating spaghetti. He used a fucking spoon. Me and my girlfriend were like "Argghh! What the hell?". So, I decided to write five simple rules for the good spaghetti-eater.

1. Don't use a spoon. Let's start with the rule Gordon Ramsay broke. Rolling your spaghetti by using a spoon as a support for the fork is considered somehow boorish. I talked to a polish friend once, asking him why he asked for a spoon at the restaurant. He told me "Because it's more polite, I don't have to get closer to the plate with my face". No, my friend. It doesn't work like that. If you roll your spaghetti properly, you won't bend like a pig in its trough.

2. Don't cut em. This is a thing that really pisses me off. As you probably know, there are two types of pasta. The first one is called "pasta corta" (short pasta, including maccheroni, fusilli, farfalle, penne, etc.), the other is "pasta lunga" (long pasta, typically spaghetti, tagliatelle, bucatini, linguine, etc.). When the pasta is called "long", it's because it's supposed to be eaten in its entire length. Cutting spaghetti is an insult to the chef, and someone here considers it rather disgusting.

3. Don't slurp. You're not eating chinese noodles. Roll your spaghetti, put the fork in your mouth and enjoy.

4. Don't exaggerate. Don't roll too many spaghetti with your fork. It's not a fast food, a big bite won't be more satisfying than a small one. Roll the correct quantity by bending your fork in the plate, starting from the edges of it. Don't ever put your fork in the middle, vertically, otherwise you'll roll half of the spaghetti in your plate.

5. Don't inundate everything with parmesan cheese. If you love grated cheese on your pasta, be sure it's Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano or Pecorino DOC. Use an appropriate quantity (a spoon). Please notice that there are some dishes that cannot be accompanied with parmesan, typically the ones including fish or seafruits. Some years ago I met a German lady in Venice, sitting next to my table at the restaurant. She ordered "spaghetti alle vongole" (spaghetti with clams). When the waiter came with the food, she asked for some parmesan. The waiter refused to carry out her request. She insisted, and finally ruined that little masterpiece of Italian cuisine with a load of grated cheese. Gross.

Finally, I would like to conclude with a couple of things you should definitely do while eating spaghetti. Eat slowly. Enjoy your meal, try to isolate the different flavors that compose your dish. Choose a simple recipe: as Gordon Ramsay correctly says, the secret of Italian food is the simplicity. But please, Gordon, don't ever use that spoon again.

Italians do it better #3: Gordon Ramsay

Italians do it better #2: Speak Italian!

Since my friend Petter seems not to like Italian language at all, I'm dedicating the second episode of my "Italians do it better" blog to... Italian language. I won't say Italian is the language of music and arts, while Swedish is the language of IKEA products. Anyway I do love foreign languages, and with a syllogism I do love Swedish as well (let's say I'm a "FAN" of it, since fan is the only Swedish word I know). But you know what? I met a lot of people that got laid thanks to their Italian accent, while I never listened to a girl talking about "the beautiful Swedish accent that guy had". Or also, I know there's a Swedish song entitled "Pappa jag vill ha en Italienare" (Daddy I want an Italian) while there is no Italian songs about a Swedish guy. Think about that, fellows! And add a "mamma mia" in some sentences, it may be useful.

Anyway, let's talk about my language. First of all, Italian - like Italy - is a relatively young matter. While Italian language was born in the Middle Age deriving from vulgar Latin, we could say that Italian became the language of Italians during the media-age. It became widespread thanks to radio and TV, since everybody used to use dialects as a mother tongue. Italy has been, and is, a country of dialects. Every province, sometimes every town uses a different dialect, while Italian has been used as a "lingua franca" (bridge language) for many years. Italian has been used by literate people, while common people spoke it as a foreign language. Italian dialects are very different, and sometimes are classified as a proper tongue. For example, a word like "lavoro" (Italian for "work") in Venetian is "laòr", in Sicilian, "travagghiu", in Sardinian "triballu" and in Neapolitan "fatica". Imagine an Italian person traveling in the XIX century with a chariot: he or she had to understand several languages in order to do just a few kilometers. While Italian is now the language of everybody here, there are still some places where dialect is very common. In my birthplace, for example, dialect is used in public places, banks, etc. My parents speak dialect at home, and so do many of my friends.

In bigger cities, such as Milan, dialect is only used amongst older people. This is due to the multicultural situation derived from heavy immigration these cities matured in the last 60 years, that's why Italian language has here become more important than dialect. But that isn't always true: in Naples, a multicultural city, dialect is still the mother tongue of many people. I heard immigrants from north Africa speaking Neapolitan in Naples.

Italian, by the way, is the official language of Italy. The one we refine at school, the one we formally use. is written in Italian language, which is spoken and understood by the greater part of the population (execpt for the province of Bolzano, where German is the main language).

It's not very easy to learn: we conjugate all the verbs, we have five grammatical moods and seven grammatical tenses. We have masculine and feminine articles, adjectives and nouns. We use a lot of simple and complex prepositions. Most of the words are paroxytones (stress on the penultimate syllable), a few are proparoxytones (stress on the third-to-last syllable) and all the oxytones (stress on the last syllable) have a grave accent (à, è, ì, ò, ù) on the last letter of the word. You won't ever find an accent in the middle of a word, like in French or Spanish. Most of the Italian words end with a vowel, and you can easily discriminate masculine words (ending with "o" or "e") from feminine words (ending with "a", very few with "e"). Plurals change the last vowel in "i" if masculine, "e" if feminine. So "gatto" (cat) and "gatti" (cats), "mela" (apple) and "mele" (apples). We have exceptions, but basically that's it.

I believe Italian is a beautiful language to learn and to speak. It's musical, it can express love in a special way. For example we have two ways to say "I love you": one is for your real lover ("Ti amo", to use with parsimony) and the other one for all the people you really care about ("Ti voglio bene"). A little boy won't ever say "Ti amo" to his father or mother, he'd look bizarre. I said my first "Ti amo" when I was 16 years-old, and I said it to two or three girls at best in my entire existence, it's a very important moment for everyone's life here. But perhaps I'm old fashioned.
Finally, if you don't want to learn Italian (hello again, Petter), you can easily learn the second language of Italy: gestures. I know that most of you are using your hands to gimmick an Italian person, and sadly it's quite true: we use A LOT of hand gestures when we talk. But they're not random gestures, they have a meaning and they add emphasis if used properly.

Probably the most recognized gesture is the one we make by joining the tip of all the fingers and then twisting the wrist up and down. This means "What the fuck...?" and expresses doubt or incomprehension. We join the left index and the right index two or three times to say "They get along". We touch our balls to protect ourselves from bad luck, and in some special occasions (when an empty hearse passes by, for example). We make horns with our fingers for the same purpose, or to insult someone (horns mean "you're wife is cheating on you"). We put a thumb on an eye to say "he's smart". We scratch our thumb and index on the chin to say that something is very good or a girl is very beautiful. We twist our wrist showing the index and the thumb to say "there is nothing to do about that". We bite our hand to say we've just lost a good chance. We poke our temple to express craziness. We wave a hand behind a shoulder to say "a long long time ago", while waving it in front of our chest means "that was close!"... I could keep on talking about hand gestures for days. Anyway, it's a funny way of expressing themselves if you think about that.

Finally: you don't have to act like monkeys trying to speak Italian. And, most importantly, you don't have to wear a moustache.

Italians do it better #2: Speak Italian!

Italians do it better #1: 150 times

Italians do it better #1: 150 times

2011 will be an important year for Italian people. This year Italy will turn 150 (yeah, we're a relatively young country, despite the multi-millenary heritages). That's why I decided to write some posts in English, to celebrate this event and to tell the world how life here is, between pizza, pasta & mamma mia.

I'd like to dedicate this first post to... well, pizza. I know, it's rather stereotypical. But what the hell, everyone loves pizza. And when you talk about it, you inevitably think about Italy. Pizza is what I'd call "a triumph of simplicity". It's a flatbread, with some tomato sauce and olive oil. That's it. Yeah, I know what you're thinking: where's the cheese? Where are the pepperoni, salami, zucchini and everything else ending with an "i"? Pizza is a simple thing, while that "everything else" is just an extra. I saw many pizzas around the world, and I still remember a monstrous pizza I saw once in Cambridge, UK. It had everything - and with everything I mean everything - on it, in an inexplicable mix of ingredients. I think they even put some porridge on it. It might have attracted some Britons, but I clearly remember what me and my Italian fellows thought about it. We were disgusted, and we opted for some fish and chips instead (and that was tasty).

Anyway, we do have "monstrous pizzas" here as well (even though they are less monstrous than the one I saw). But let's start with the basics. If you'll have the chance to visit Italy, there are some things you'll need to know in order to enjoy a nice, truly Italian pizza.

First of all, learn these two names: marinara and margherita. These are the simplest pizzas available in all the pizzerias here. The first one is considered the first pizza to have been invented. It's a pizza with tomato, oregano and garlic. BAD BREATH WARNING. But it's great. The second one is probably "the pizza", the one that materializes into someone's mind when you say that magic 5 letters word. It's a pizza with tomato, mozzarella cheese (sometimes called "fior di latte") and basil. It's a classic, and you really must give it a try when you are here in Italy. Don't overstuff your pizza with extras: least is best.

There are also some other pizzas that are considered classic. One is called "capricciosa", with artichokes, black olives, ham and mushrooms. There's also a variant, called "quattro stagioni" (four seasons) with the same ingredients separated in four sectors of the pizza.

Then we have the diavola (she-devil), my favorite when I was a child. It's a margherita with spicy salami. And, finally, the "napoletana" with anchovies. Napoletana means "from Naples". It seems that in Naples it's not called "napoletana". This happens very often with some non-traditional pizzas: names change from region to region, sometimes from restaurant to restaurant. For example, there is a 50% of pizzerias that calls a pizza with tuna "tonno" (meaning, guess what, "tuna"). Another 30% calls it "nostromo" (boatswain) and the remaing 20% uses some unfortunate names. Sometimes you can find pizzas with some very funny names. I ate a pizza called "eat and shut up" once. You better be looking at the ingredients before the waiter comes. Bring a small dictionary, some ingredients are very peculiar and the waiter isn't always able to translate words like "melanzana" (aubergine), "rucola" (rocket) or "cozze" (mussels).

Before rushing into a pizzeria and sitting down, you really have to mind the cooking method your pizzeria is actually using. There are two ways to bake a pizza: the first one is with an electic/gas oven. It's frequently used in smaller, cheaper pizzerias and in take-away shops. It's the most diffused cooking method all around the world, but not in Italy. A pizzeria with an electric oven is considered a low-quality one, and you have to pay attention to that aspect, cause they are often tourist traps. You wanna eat an Italian pizza in Italy, right? Look for pizzerias that has a "forno a legna" (wood pizza oven): sometimes you can read a "forno a legna" sign at the entrance, or simply take a look inside and look for the enormous oven. You won't find pizzerias with the (in)famous juggling chefs. It's a myth: they won't twist the pizza in the air, but passing it with some very fast movements from the left hand to the right hand. It's always nice to watch, but not so picturesque and acrobatic. And if they do acrobatic stuff, it's just for touristic purposes. Sorry about that.

Then, in Italy there are various types of pizzas. The first one is the standard, traditional pizza. It's has a relatively crunchy crust, and it's basically the most common pizza in Italy. The second one is the Neapolitan pizza. As you can assume from the name, this is the pizza from Naples. And it's the best one. It has a soft, bready, thin crust, high and puffy edges (called "cornicione", eave), a special quality of tomatoes (San Marzano tomatoes) and it must respect some quality standards. Unfortunately the only town in Italy where every single pizzeria makes Neapolitan pizzas is Naples. In every other town (except for some towns around Naples) you have almost no chances to eat a Neapolitan pizza, unless you know the place. In Monza, where I live, there are some 90 pizzerias. One of them makes Neapolitan pizza, another one makes a "quite-Neapolitan pizza" and the remaining 88 make standard pizzas. I'm not saying that the traditional, crunchy pizza is bad. But if you're traveling X miles to come here, you might want to eat the best pizza of your life. Also, we do have take away pizzas. These are always baked in electric ovens, cut in squared pieces and they're extremely thick. Take away pizzas are good, but you can't say to have eaten a pizza in Italy by eating just a take away one. It's a totally different experience. Moreover, pizza is definitely a social experience and take away pizza doesn't capture this essence.

Finally, we DON'T have pizza fast foods here. You won't find Pizza Hut, PizzaExpress, CrappyPizza or whatsoever. To be honest, we do have a pizza fast food. It's called Spizzico, and it's average. An Australian guy told me once it was "delicious". That made me think they must have some really bad pizza chains down under.

So enjoy your pizza here. And remember to ask "il conto" cause they will never bring your bill if you don't ask for it!