50 Popular italian sayings about food

I had some fun creating this list of the most popular italian sayings about food. I've chosen the 50 that I consider the most common and imaginative. I also use these in my daily conversations, very frequently. Let's start!

Cercare il pelo nell'uovo. (searching the hair in the egg)

"Oh come on, you're searching the hair in the egg!" is a phrase that you can say to someone who is exaggeratedly precise or meticulous, for example noticing little typos in a document that you wrote (a document which is very well written otherwise).

Ingoiare il rospo / Sputare il rospo. (swallowing the toad / spitting the toad)

The first means "accept something even if you don't like it" (imagine swallowing a slimy toad!). For example if your boss treats you rudely and you're about to react, I could tell you "shut up and swallow the toad", since your career depends on him. The second means "tell the thing". For example if I know that you have a secret, I can encourage you to reveal it by saying "come on, spit the toad!"

Se non è zuppa, è pan bagnato. (if it's not soup, it's dipped bread)

Soup and pan bagnato (bread dipped in soup) are two different ways to present the same meal, typical of the poor italian tradition. For example, if your partner says "I am not breaking up with you, I am taking a pause" you can sadly reply "yes, whatever, if it's not soup it's dipped bread..."

Avere l'acquolina in bocca. (having the acquolina in the mouth - acquolina is a diminutive form of "acqua", water)

It's used when there's something that you really want to eat. Example, you're watching your mother who's making a cake and you say: "Hmm, it looks great, I already have the acquolina in my mouth!"

Restare a bocca asciutta. (being left with dry mouth)

Very common. For example if you're in a room with other three people, there are three pieces of cake, and these people all take a piece before you, you get nothing. Or, using this proverb... "you're left with dry mouth".

O mangi questa minestra o salti dalla finestra. (you eat this soup or you jump out the window)

It describes a situation where there are no alternatives. My grandpa told me that when he and his five siblings were kids, they could not say at dinner "I don't like this food, I don't want it", because there were no other options. Their mother would quietly take back the food, give nothing else, and present the same thing the day after, and again the day after, until they were hungry enough to eat it. Effective for picky eaters!

Piatto ricco, mi ci ficco. (rich plate, I dive in it)

You say it when there's an inviting meal in front of you, and it's a big pleasure for you to eat it.

Pancia mia, fatti capanna. (my tummy, become a hut)

This also is something you say when you're about to eat, in this case you mean "let's make room -a hut size room!- in my tummy for this delicious food".

Avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca. (having the full barrel and the drunk wife)

You say it to someone who wants two things that can't happen together. For example you say "You can't have the full barrel and the drunk wife, my dear" to a student who says he wants high marks at school, but he also wants to enjoy life, go out with friends everyday and not study a lot.

Ridi, ridi, che mamma ha fatto i gnocchi. (laugh, laugh, because mum made gnocchi)

It's usually said to someone who is laughing for a silly reason, or for something that annoys you. For example, if you fall and someone laughs about you, you reply "laugh, laugh, because mum made gnocchi".

Una ciliegia tira l'altra. (one cherry drags the other)

You say it about a food that is so tasty that you can't stop eating it. For example "I can't stop eating these biscuits, they're like cherries: one drags the other!"

È inutile piangere sul latte versato. (it's useless to cry over poured milk)

This proverb simply says that "what is done is done", it's useless to regret past actions or errors over and over. Let's say that we park downtown and we go shopping, but you forgot to lock our car. When we go back to the parking, we discover that someone stole the car. If you start to whine that you've been stupid, that is was all your fault, I could tell you "well, it's done. Now it's useless to cry over the poured milk, let's call the police and see if they can help us".

Gallina che non becca ha già beccato. (chicken that doesn't peck has pecked already)

If my nephew keeps eating bread and biscuits while he's playing in the afternoon, and then when dinner time comes he is not hungry anymore, my mother would probably say "of course he's not hungry now! chicken that doesn't peck has pecked already".

Salvare capra e cavoli. (saving goat and cabbage)

This saying is typically used in emergency or in difficult situations. It's the ability to take decisions that allow you to protect your assets in such contexts. Think at the classical game of the farmer who is on a river side, with his goat and his cabbage. There is also a wolf on the same side. He has to bring his goat and his cabbage on the other side of the river by using a boat, and he can only bring one between the three (wolf, goat, cabbage) at each trip. There is a solution that allows the farmer to "save goat and cabbage" without risking that when he is not present the wolf eats the goat, or that the goat eats the cabbage.

Spuntare come funghi. (coming out like mushrooms)

It refers to the speed with which mushrooms grow. The day before there is nothing in the woods, but a little rain and some heat, and the day after there are mushrooms everywhere. For example if you wake up and you find a lot of bumps on your face you can say "ouch! these bumps are coming out like mushrooms!"

Nella botte piccola c'è il vino buono. (in the small barrel there's the good wine)

It's pretty obvious. This is probably one of the italian food sayings that I use more to joke about my height (I am rather short). "Yes yes, I am short, but you know: in the small barrel there's the good wine!"

Gettare troppa carne al fuoco. (throwing to much meat on the fire)

Very popular. Example, you're in a meeting and your colleague is listing all the things that your team needs to do this week. If the list is too long and it's difficult to process all this information, you can say "wait, let's not throw too much meat on the fire, let's focus on the first two tasks and then we'll think about the rest, ok?".

Togliere le castagne dal fuoco. (taking the chestnuts away from the fire)

It's a problem if you keep the chestnuts roasting on the fire for too long, they may become burnt. Taking them away is: solving a problem. This is the meaning of this proverb.

Gallina vecchia fa buon brodo. (old chicken makes good broth)

It's a very common proverb in Italy, it simply says that the old people and the old stuff are usually good. For example it someone says "wow your cell phone is a dinosaur but it still works perfectly!" you can reply "oh yes, old chicken makes good broth!"

Chi ha il pane non ha i denti, chi ha i denti non ha il pane. (those who have the bread don't have the teeth, those who have the teeth don't have the bread)

This phrase speaks about a mocking fate. Imagine for example two girls. One is very poor, her family gives her a lot of freedom. She wants to study at the university but she doesn't have enough money, so she has to quit school and go to work very young. The other girl is from a wealthy family who pushes her to study and take a degree at the university, but she doesn't like to study and she wants to go to work as soon as possible.

Mica pizza e fichi. (it's not pizza and figs)

Pizza and figs is a humble traditional meal. Let's say that a friend comes to visit you and says "Wow your new house is great! And the garden is gorgeous too!" you can proudly reply "Of course they are. It's not pizza and figs!"

Finisce tutto a tarallucci e vino. (everything ends with tarallucci and wine)

Tarallucci (little savory doughnuts) and wine is a popular combination in Italy. It is frequently eaten at the end of a meal, in place of the dessert. The moment when tarallucci and wine are eaten is typically a pleasant moment: everybody is satisfied for the good food, happy for the wine drinked and for the conversation.The concept of this proverb is that even if during dinner you were upset with someone at your table, or you had an animated discussion with him, when tarallucci and wine are served the disputes are forgiven, everybody is again in a good mood and friendly.

Example: "How did the meeting go? Were the costumers still upset for our delay in delivering the application?". "Oh not at all, we talked about everything but the application, like if they suddenly forgot about it. Everything ended with tarallucci and wine and at the end they even congratulate with us!"

Tanto va la gatta al lardo che ci lascia lo zampino. (the cat tries so often to steal the lard that she loses her paw)

Traditionally, in the kitchen, lard is cut on the chopping board with a big knife. So, the cat tries and tries to steal it and eventually her paw is sliced away. This proverb is often used for people who have "dangerous" behaviors. For example if a popstar goes in and out of a rehab, but everytime she's out she goes back to cocaine, you could say "hm, I am scared she will end up bad. The cat tries so often to steal the lard that she loses her paw".

L'ospite è come il pesce: dopo tre giorni puzza. (the guest is like fish: he smells after three days)

This proverb says that when you have a guest in your house it's easier to get along well in the first stage, but if he stays for a long period, after awhile the first fights and disputes start. In other terms, "the fish starts to smell" and the guest is not so welcome anymore.

Chi la vuole cotta, chi la vuole cruda. (who wants it cooked, who wants it raw)

Usually different people want things done differently. Imagine that you're making a frittata (egg tortilla) for your children, but one says that he wants it well cooked, and the other one says she wants it just slightly cooked. In this situation you could answer them "oh, who wants it cooked, who wants it raw! I'll decide and that's it!"

E' la solita minestra riscaldata. (it's the usual reheated soup)

This is used for something that is well known, that has been discussed many times already, but that is proposed again. For example, we hang out and you start to moan that your job sucks. But it's years already that you're saying so, without acting to change job. I could say "i know, it's the usual reheated soup. It's useless to repeat it over and over, please do something about it!".

Mangiare la foglia. (eating the leaf)

This saying means "understanding the hidden truth". For example if you're having a family dinner and your sister leaves soon because, she says, she has to go to the library, you may actually "eat the leaf" and realize that she's going to meet her boyfriend, a boyfriend that your parents don't know about.

L'appetito vien mangiando. (the appetite comes by eating)

It means that sometimes you don't feel hungry, but then you start to eat some food and, slowly, the appetite comes and you keep on eating tastefully.

Il miglior condimento del cibo è la fame. (food's best dressing is hunger)

Not much to explain here. Is there any sauce or flavoring that makes you enjoy a meal more than hunger?

Chi tenne lo foco campà, chi tenne lo pane morì. (those who had the fire survived, those who had the bread died)

I've always heard this phrase from my grandparents in Segni. They have a fireplace in their kitchen, and during the cold winters it's usual that someone notes "hm, having a fire with this cold is a blessing!". In that case my grandpa or my granma, who lived the difficulties of the war and who didn't have radiators for sure, would reply "eh you know, those who had the fire survived, those who had the bread died".

Come un cavolo a merenda. (like cabbage as a snack)

"This intervention you made fits the topic like a cabbage for snacking!", I mean that what you said is completely out of context. After all, not many desire to eat cabbage as a snack!

Come il cacio sui maccheroni. (like cacio cheese on maccheroni)

The perfect opposite of the previous proverb. Cacio binds very well with maccheroni, so if I say "this hat on that dress will be like cacio on maccheroni!" I mean that it is perfectly appropriate for the dress.

Non si vive di solo pane. (you don't live with just bread)

It means that in life there's the need for more than just the basic things necessary for survival (for example one of the simplest foods, bread, to eat). If someone sadly says "I am unhappy, but I have a good job and all the money I need... I should be ok" you can answer "Eh, but you don't live with just bread".

Usare il bastone e la carota. (using the stick and the carrot)

In ancient times, in Italy, mules were used a lot for agricultural works, particularly to carry wood and other heavy objects. But mules are also cosidered "stubborn animals", that sometimes don't want to cooperate. So their owners used two methods to convince them to work. The hard one, a stick to hit them, and the good one, a carrot that was held in front of them, to make them move. Using the stick and the carrot nowadays means using both gentleness and severity. It is often cited about kids and their education.

Al contadino non far sapere quant'è buono il cacio con le pere. (don't let the farmer know how good is cacio cheese with pears)

The food combination cacio + pears is a very good one, but also one people tend not to think of. So it's like a "secret". This saying suggests to keep a secret.

Tutto fa brodo. (everything makes broth)

This is used to mean that "in the grand scheme of things" everything is useful. For example if we are evaluating our finances to understand what kind of new car we can afford, and I ask "I have few hundred dollars cash upstairs, should I go to see how many? Maybe we could use them too?" You can answer "Definitely! Go. Everything makes broth".

Chi mangia da solo si strozza. (he who eats alone chokes)

Eating is and has always been considered a social moment in Italy. According to this saying you should never eat alone, or you will choke.

La farina del diavolo va tutta in crusca. (the devil's flour becomes all bran)

The plans that are made with bad intentions fail. Traditionally the bran is considered the worst part of the grain (one of the few cases of traditional non-wisdom!) and it is used to feed the animals. So if the "flour becomes all bran" things went awry.

Buon vino fa sangue. (good wine makes good blood)

This popular adagio has no real meaning, but recently scientists are discovering that wine, particularly red wine, helps maintaining a good health thanks to some nutrients present in grapes.

Trovare pane per i propri denti. (finding bread for your teeth)

"His new girlfriend has a strong personality. This time he surely found some bread for his teeth". It means that for the guy, who is used to be the one who wears the pants in a relationship, things will not be easy this time. The saying can be also cited in other situations, for example if I am your boss and I know that you are a very skilled worker, I can assign you a very hard task and say "Here. This is going to be bread for your teeth. I hope you can do it because it's a mess".

Fare il pesce in barile. (act like a fish in the barrel)

The fish in the barrel stays there, closed in his container, doesn't know what happens outside, doesn't have an opinion about any fact. For example, if there is a controversy and you don't take any position, you're "pretending to be a fish in the barrel".

Una mela al giorno toglie il medico di torno. (an apple a day keeps the doctor away)

This one doesn't need any explaination since it's exactly the same as in the english language. Obviously it is extremely popular.

Essere alla frutta. (being at fruit time)

Fruit is usually eaten at the end of lunch or dinner in Italy, so it's the "final stage". This phrase is used ironically to mean that someone has reached his terminal stage, for example: "What, you forgot your keys again? Man, you're really at fruit time!". Another example: "guys, these are our last hundred dollars and then we are broke. We're officially at fruit time."

Rompere le uova nel paniere. (breaking the eggs in the basket)

It means ruining someone's plans. For example if I was planning a trip this weekend but my mother-in-law comes to visit unannounced, she surely breaks my eggs in the basket.

Chi dorme non piglia pesci. (he who sleeps does not catch fish)

This is the italian version of "the early bird catches the worm".

Mangia-pane a tradimento. (bread-eater in betrayal)

This describes a person who lives at someone else's expense without doing anything. It is very commonly used against the italian politicians, who are popularly considered a mass of "mangia-pane a tradimento".

Meglio un uovo oggi che una gallina domani. (better an egg today than a chicken tomorrow)

This saying is very appropriate for the conservative nature of italians, a population that is very inclined to save and to rarely buy on hire purchase. Many italians tend to prefer the sure thing now (egg) than a promise of a better thing in the future (chicken).

Non si fanno le nozze con i fichi secchi. (you can't make a wedding with dried figs)

Dried figs are a rural simple meal. If you're organizing something "big", like a wedding catering, people expect you to serve "important" foods: lasagna, cannelloni, meat, fish, cake... It would probably be a certain shock for the guests (actually I'd love to see such a scene) if all the wedding lunch would consist of dried figs!

Dire pane al pane e vino al vino. (saying bread to bread and wine to wine)

A person who is used to speak the truth is a person who is used to name things with their real name. So she says "bread" to bread, and "wine" to wine.

Essere un pezzo di pane. (being a piece of bread)

Someone who is a piece of bread is someone very nice and very easy-going. For example: "How is it going with your new manager? Is he ok?" "Oh very well, he is a piece of bread".

003 Notes: Rephrased few sentences better on July 29, 2015

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