Pasta Glossary or terms and words used or related to pasta with in depth explanation and how and where applied.

Some names and terms are in the southern Italian dialect given by Italian immigrants as most of them came from the south of Italy. I also have the term in Italian.

Al dente – Literally “to the tooth”. It’s the term for pasta cooked just right. It’s when biting through it’s with a slight resistance. Package cooking time is very accurate, but can’t be perfect, as each situation is different.  Tasting is the best way to determine.

When approaching cooking time, you can taste and even break pasta, easy with spaghetti using your fingernail. If you see a central white core, pasta is not done yet. When that white core is about to disappear, pasta is done.

With residual heat still there, pasta will keep cooking some extra time when drained. If you intend to finish pasta tossing it into a condiment (advised), be aware that time spent doing that is also cooking time. Pasta should be served always smoking hot.

Alla – Literally “at the”. It’s used as an abbreviated form of language. For example: ” Spaghetti alla maniera Siciliana” is shortened to become “spaghetti alla Siciliana”. “Maniera” can be translated into “manner, style, way”. Often even ‘alla” is dropped. So spaghetti alla carbonara and spaghetti alla marinara can be simply “spaghetti carbonara” and “spaghetti marinara”.

In front of a vowel “alla” is cut with an apostrophe for easier pronunciation like in “bucatini all’Amatriciana” and “penne all’arrabbiata”.

Broccoli rabe – Also spelled “broccoli raab” to imitate the sound of the drawn a vowel. It’s southern Italy dialect for the Italian “broccoli di rapa”.

Caciotta Romana – A fresh sweet semisoft cheese from Rome’s region, Lazio. Made in other parts of Italy, is simply caciotta, or assumes the origin’s name. Pasta alla checca is made with caciotta Romana.

Flour – It can be from different grains. Wheat flour is finely ground to various degrees, depending on the sifting received from the mill. In Italy type 00 flour from soft wheat is mostly used to make fresh pasta. It is equivalent more or less to American cake or pastry flour.

Grana Padano – Is an Italian hard cheese, produced for almost 900 years, similar to Parmigiano Reggiano and its best substitute. The name “grana” is for its grainy texture and “Padano” for its area of production, the vast Po river plain which goes from Piemonte to Veneto regions. Grana Padano is declared a protected designation of origin. It is also controlled by quality tests. Grana Padano has become very popular in Italy for the similarity to Parmigiano and above all for the cheaper price.

Guanciale – Name comes from ‘guancia’ (cheek).The meat comes from the pork jowl. It can be confused with bacon or pancetta, but guanciale has a more luscious richer flavor and it’s called in many dishes, most famous the bucatini all’Amatriciana and pasta alla  gricia.

Ham – When referring to ham here, the kind intended is the cooked type without any particular provenience.

Maccheroni – For the sake of easy pronunciation in English is “macaroni”. In Italian the combination ch sounds like k in English.

With the c before the ch, consonants are doubled. It reads like mack-eroni.

Now that the mystery is over, maccheroni in Italy can be referred to pasta in general. So it was in the past. But short tubular shape pasta is mostly what the name is associated with.

Pancetta –  It’s the name for bacon in Italian. It can be straight, in a slab, or rolled. Rolled pancetta is sliced thin and has less fat. In America rolled pancetta is the one easier to find.

Panino – More referred as panini in the plural, is an Italian sandwich made with Italian bread. Panino means “small bread”, diminutive of pane.

Panna – It’s the fat that floats on the surface of milk when left to rest. When mentioned in recipes, what is intended is heavy cream, like in fettuccine alla panna.

Parmigiano Reggiano – Also called in French “Parmesan” is a hard italian cheese from the milk of cows fed only grass and hay. By Italian and European law the name is a protected designation of origin. Parmigiano Reggiano can only be produced in certain areas of which Parma, hence “Parmigiano” and Reggio Emilia from which “Reggiano” are the main provinces. Parmigiano Reggiano is subject to strict quality control. The cheeses that pass the test are heat branded on the rind with the name itself. Parmigiano Reggiano is the food highest in calcium.

Pastasciutta – Two words fused together: “pasta asciutta” (pasta dry). It’s for pasta dressed with a condiment or sauce, just enough to coat the pasta, to distinguish from pasta in soups.

Pecorino – Italian hard cheese made from sheep’s milk. The most famous type is pecorino Romano. It’s rather salty with a pungent and sharp flavor. It’s used on pasta with rich robust sauces like in the Amatriciana.

Strange enough, almost all pecorino Romano now comes from Sardinia. There are other types of pecorino, produced everywhere in central and south Italy. The pecorino sardo (from Sardinia) and pecorino fromToscana and Umbria  are the most popular. They are softer and milder.

Polenta – Cornmeal. Flour from dried corn boiled into a porridge. Originally in Italy food for peasants and the poor, elevated with creative recipes and combination of a variety of ingredients.

When asked by Luigi Carnacina, the famous gastronome and author, how many recipes with polenta, I replied exaggerating, so I thought, “about 30”. “104”, Carnacina replied. He had just written a book with 104 polenta recipes.

Presutto – Dialect for “prosciutto”.

Prosciutto – It’s a cured raw ham, made almost anywhere in the world. In Italy, the documented practice goes back to centuries before Christ. Italian raw ham is called “prosciutto”. In southern Italian dialect “presutto”. Prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham) is a brand appreciated as it’s less salty. The most prized Italian prosciutto, also sweeter for the low quantity of salt is considered to be prosciutto di San Daniele in the Friuli region, the northeast corner of Italy.

Ragù – It’s a sauce made with meats and it requires a lengthy cooking time. It is used to dress pasta. There are several ragù for pasta. Most popular are the ragù alla Bolognese and the ragù Napoletano.

Semolina – Coarsely ground wheat. By law,  in Italy, dried pasta can be made only from durum wheat semolina.

Zucchina, Zucchine – Respectively singular and plural. It’s Italian name for cylindrical green squash. In America last vowel turns into an i and it’s  zucchini. Follow the link to know why.


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