After being force-fed stereotypes based on a “mamma mia!”-like artifice—perpetuated by everyone from Chef Boyardee, to that charismatic sidewalk barker in Little Italy trying to dupe tourists into trying their chicken marsala—it's easy to wonder if our knowledge of Italian-American culture is completely out of wack with reality.  

Do real-life "Goodfellas" actually make “Sunday gravy”? Do Italian families really eat “family-style”? And what's this “gabagool” stuff Paulie Walnuts keeps ordering?

Italian rituals and eating habits have deeply embedded themselves in mainstream America. As a result, classic “red sauce” restaurants exist all over the country, defined as much by the warmth of their waitstaff as their distinct patois. Still, one interesting difference between red-sauce joints and say, Jewish delis or Mexican taquerías, is that many of the terms being tossed around like pizza pies at Italian joints reflect a language that doesn’t really exist.

“A lot of it is, when people came over here from Italy, they couldn’t say a certain word. So they’d make it up,” explains Carla Pallotta of the half-English/half-Italian patois spoken in many Italian-American kitchens. That probably explains why you could not find many of these so-called “Italian” words in any sort of proper dictionary (and why no one knows exactly how to spell a few of these ‘spoken-only’ words).

Further muddling red-sauce slang is the unique mix of Italians on any given restaurant staff: You might have a big-city Roman chef, a Sicilian waiter, perhaps a bread-maker from the Umbrian or Tuscan countryside, and then a second- or third-generation Italian-American owner trying to make it work. They’re all bringing their own long-held beliefs and styles and terminologies to the table—which is probably why so much of the following slang seems predicated on discussing just how stupid your fellow co-workers are. Un fesso!

To help understand this unique culinary vernacular, we reached out to a handful of red-sauce restaurateurs for help:

  • Frank DePasquale, owner of Trattoria il Panino (Boston), as well seven other Italian restaurants, a cannoli shop, bakery, salumeria, and gelateria
  • Kami Drake Epps, co-owner of Gola Osteria (New York’s Finger Lakes Region)
  • Martino Martinez, general manager of Pane Vino On the River (Rochester, NY)
  • Carla and Christine Pallotta, sisters and co-owners of Nebo (Boston)
  • Ralph Scamardella, chef and partner of Tao Group, overseeing LAVO Italian Restaurants (New York and Las Vegas)
Illustration by Louie Chin

A capa nun è bona

A dumb co-worker or customer. “The brain is dead.”—DePasquale

Bacasa

The bathroom/toilet. “The backhouse.”—the Pallottas

Basta!

Translates to “enough!” As in, when someone keeps filling your wine glass and you’ve already had one too many.—Epps

Cafone

Someone “from the mountains”; in other words, a boor who doesn’t have the mannerisms to dine the right way. “They come into my restaurant, they don’t know how to hold a fork, they’re stabbing at the meat. Guy gives you a glass of wine, he holds it by the bulb and not the stem."—DePasquale

Cicchetti

Small, snack-sized plates of food.—Epps

Ciofeca

A shitty coffee/espresso.—DePasquale

Cupina

Pidgin for ladle. “Get it? It’s a cup.”—Pallotta

Cuzzuso

A worker who is dirty and doesn’t keep his station or table clean. One with no elegance.—DePasquale

Eggs tight

Sunny side up eggs.—Scamardella

Fra Diavolo

Italian for “Brother Devil.” Refers to a spicy sauce for pasta or seafood.—Martinez

Fries with eyes

Fried smelt fish.—the Pallottas

Illustration by Louie Chin

Gravy

“A lotta old-timers call what you put on your pasta ‘gravy.' But that’s not gravy—gravy is for meat. It’s sauce!”—DePasquale

Impallato

A guy that is lazy and doesn’t do his work because his head is in the clouds.—DePasquale

Oof-ah

Spectacular, great. Can be used for a beautiful woman—or a beautifully-cooked steak.—Scamardella

Meno male!

“Thank God!” (When your favorite dessert is still on the menu.)—Epps

Mopena

A dishcloth. “We didn’t even know this wasn’t what it was actually called until we left high school!”—Carla Pallotta

My sister’s ass

Sloppy, something you’d never want to look at. “I get a dish from a line cook, look at it, and say, ‘my sister’s ass,' and the cook must go redo it before it goes to the dining room.”—Scamardella

Paccheri

An obscure pasta shape. Neapolitan slang for “slop,” because when you cook this big, rigatoni-like pasta it flattens out unpleasantly.—DePasquale

Rigot

Ricotta. “With New York/New Jersey Italians, everything is cut short for them: Rigot. Bruschette. Prosciut.”—Carlo Pallotta

Salute

It means “to your health” when toasting wine. “But don’t put the glass down afterwards. That’s very offensive. You have to sip it immediately, or it means you don’t wish them good health.”—DePasquale

Sament

The “seeds of a watermelon,” as in a person that is the lowest of the lowest. An imbecile.—DePasquale

Schifezza

The worst of the worst; terrible food.—DePasquale

Schula macaroni/schula pasta

A strainer/colander.—the Pallottas

Illustration by Louie Chin

Sfortunato

Used for when someone pours the wine incorrectly. “They way you should always pour is with your forehand, not a backhand. If a waiter pours with a backhand he’s wishing you bad luck!”—DePasquale

Slice

Means to fire a person; get ’em out of here fast.—the Pallottas

Spiedino

Meat, vegetable, or seafood cooked on a skewer. This is where the upstate New York term speedie originates.—Epps

Spuckies

Sandwiches.—the Pallottas

Struvvoli

An intentional mispronunciation of struffoli, the fried dough balls with honey and little beads over them.—the Pallottas

Sweetie

Short for sweetbreads—the thymus or pancreas of a calf or lamb and sometimes beef or pork. When fried, it has a crispy crust and is creamy on the inside.—Epps

Terre Mare

Translates to “Earth and Sea”—the Italian version of American “Surf and Turf.”

Un fesso

A cook that can’t figure something out because he’s not bright. Can also be used when someone makes a foolish mistake in the kitchen.—DePasquale

Zappatore

Someone without passion in the kitchen.—DePasquale

Zino

Branzino (a.k.a., Mediterranean sea bass).—Epps