By: Dina Di Maio
You know what your grandma called it, but when you type the family recipe name into Google, it shows you listings for magic wands or Rapunzel costumes. Which is what happened when I tried to search for “wand” cookies or “capuzel” lamb’s head.
I’m going to explain why it’s so hard to find traditional recipes passed down from your nonna (anonn, to me, in Neapolitan). Then I’m going to give you some tips on how to find those recipes. Finally, I’m going to list the names of some popular Italian dishes so that you can easily search for recipes.
First, why is it such a challenge to find recipes for family favorites? There are a few reasons, and I talk more about them in my book, Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People.
- Dialect—The Italy of today is divided into 20 regions, but Italy has been a country only since 1861. Before that, different regions of Italy were parts of different kingdoms. And even within each region today, multiple dialects are spoken. Some of these dialects evolved on their own from Latin and were influenced by the languages of the kingdoms. For example, Naples was under French and Spanish rule, so the Neapolitan dialect, coming from Latin, was influenced by these other languages. The Italian language today is based on the Tuscan dialect and the writings of Dante, so if your family hailed from Tuscany, it may be easier for you to find recipes; however, there are also other dialects in Tuscany beyond standard Italian. Also, the same word may mean something different in different dialects. Or the recipe may have different names in different dialects. Like the fried bow knot cookies served at Carnevale and Christmas called chiacchiere, cenci, cartellate, galani, bugie, frappe, donzelli, crostoli, farfellate or guanti. Also, sometimes there is no word in Italian for the dish because it exists only in the particular region from where it comes—so there is only a dialect name for the dish. As you can see, dialect poses a challenge in finding recipes.
- Oral history—The majority of immigrants to the United States were from Southern Italy. Southern Italy had a predominantly oral tradition for recipes. Yes, there were Italian cookbooks prior to the late 1800s when the immigrants arrived. However, cookbooks in Italy were mostly written by the wealthy for the wealthy, and most were about the cuisine of Northern Italy. Cookbook writers and food historians often quote Pellegrino Artusi as the father of Italian cooking. However, his 1891 cookbook, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well), has only a handful of recipes from Naples and Sicily and none from the rest of Southern Italy, so I say it should not be used as the only/primary authority when discussing the cuisine of Italian Americans, who are predominantly Southern Italians.
- The recipes don’t exist—Historically, recipes were written differently from how they are written today. They were written more as a process and didn’t always include amounts. People learned cooking skills from other people in their families, as normal everyday tasks, and these were not written down. They were shown to each subsequent generation. So recipes for particular dishes from your family may not even exist. Which means YOU are the guardian of the recipe for future generations, and that is a beautiful treasure that you can pass down to your children and grandchildren.
- Cuisine in Italy has evolved—Just like you rarely see turtle soup and mutton here in the United States, the cuisine in Italy has evolved through the changing times, two World Wars, and the technological revolution. For example, Mussolini added soy flour to bread just like you find in bread in the United States today! The wheat for Barilla pasta is grown in the United States, Canada, and Eastern Europe. Some of the cattle used to make cured meats in Italy is actually raised in Argentina. In many ways, the recipes your grandparents and great-grandparents carried with them are the only documentation of the foods of Southern Italy prior to mass migration in the late 1800s! So if a person from Italy tells you that what you cook is not Italian food, educate them otherwise.
- Cookbooks don’t have them—Remember how excited you would be when a new album came out from your favorite musician? You’d listen to the popular tracks and the rest were just crappy songs that would fill up the album? Unfortunately, the same thing happens with cookbooks. Contemporary publishing is much more about the bottom line than it is about information. And cookbook authors might publish cookbooks with some traditional Italian recipes but then make up recipes using Italian ingredients to fill their cookbooks. So a lot of tradition doesn’t exist in contemporary cookbooks. It exists in your recipe box!
Now that I’ve explained why it’s so hard to find recipes, I’m going to give you some tips on how to find your cherished Italian family recipes.
- Add a vowel. Look for nuances from your dialect. My family is Neapolitan. The Neapolitan dialect leaves off the final vowel sound, as I suspect other Southern Italian dialects do too. So you may want to add a vowel. How do you do that? Try a, e, i, o, or u. It’s most likely not a “u” unless it’s a Sicilian or Sardinian dish, as those dialects often have words that have a “u” sound. In Italian, words that end in “e” and “i” are probably plural. So if you are looking for a food that is plural, like cookies, you may want to look for a word ending in “e” or “i.” If you are looking for a singular dish, try “a” or “o.” Prosciutto is prosciutt. Pasta is bast.
- Pay attention to the sounds of your vowels and consonants. In dialect, the consonants can have different sounds. For example, in Neapolitan, a hard “c” can sound like a “g.” An “s” can have a “z” sound. A “ti” can sound like “d.” An “ie” can be “ee.” As in casatiello, pronounced gazadeel. Let’s take another popular example. Mozzarella, pronounced like mutzadel. An “o” can sound like “oo.” Double “z”’s can sound like “tz.” “R” can sound like “d.” Taralli or tadal or dadal? Both the “t” and “r” in this word sound like “d.” Pasta e fagioli becomes basta fazool. How? “P” can sound like “b.” The “a” in pasta is left off. The “e” sound is added to the “bast.” And “gio” becomes “zoo.” Due to different dialect, sounds may be different. For example, take the pasta, cavatelli. In Naples, this is pronounced “gavadeel.” South of Naples and Sicily pronounces “ll” like “dd,” cavateddi. It takes some trial and error, but when you see the words in writing and you sound them out, you will get it.
- Look in cookbooks or on blogs whose authors come from the same region as your family. Sometimes regions overlap with dishes, but chances are, people from the same region cooked the same dish. Now, just because a cookbook might have a recipe for “pasta e fagioli” doesn’t mean it is done the same way your family did it. If you remember that your grandma used a particular ingredient, please do it the way your family did it. Remember you are guarding a treasure, handed down through oral history!
- Look for a key ingredient. If you can’t find the recipe by name, look for a key ingredient. And remember, the ingredient may also be a dialect word, so pay attention to the sound and spelling of the ingredient. For example, in Neapolitan, we pronounce “chicory” as “cigoria” even though it is spelled “cicoria” in Italian.
Finally, here’s a list of Italian foods written phonetically in dialect and in Italian to help get you started in your search!
Bagna cauda–bagna calda—”hot bath”, Piedmontese olive oil/anchovy dip (The Italian word for “hot” is calda, so I think “cauda” is the dialect pronunciation of this dish.)
Basta fazool—pasta e fagioli—bean soup
Caglietta, caliette—caponet—Piedmontese cabbage rolls
Calzonetti—calcionetti—fried ravioli from Abruzzo
Capuzel, gabuzel—capuzzelle—lamb’s head
Carteddate—Cartellate—fried cookies from Basilicata & Puglia
Cavazoon—calzone—chickpea-filled pastry from Abruzzo/Molise
Cuccidata, cucciddata, cucciddatu–buccellati—Sicilian fig cookies
Curzetti/corsetti—Corzetti, Croxetti—Ligurian pasta
Dadall/tarall—Taralli—ring-shaped cookie or biscuit
Farsu magru—falso magro—a Sicilian rolled meat dish
Gabagool—capocollo—cold cut made from pork
Grostoli—crostole—fried bow cookies
Mudica/mudrica—mollica(crumb)/briciole di pane/il pangrattato—Sicilian breadcrumbs
Neppetelle—nepitelle—Calabrian Easter cookies
‘nzogna—sugna—Neapolitan for lard
Pizza fritt/bizza fritt—pizza fritta—fried dough
Pizza gran—pizza grano/pastiera—Neapolitan Easter wheat pie
Pizzagain, pizzagaina—pizza chiena, pizza ripieno—Neapolitan Easter pie
Purpette/porpette—polpette—Neapolitan for meatballs
Reegut/reegoat/recarta—ricotta—cheese (I think the “goat” pronunciation is the Italian word with a South New Jersey accent.)
Scrippelle—crepelle—crepes from Abruzzo
Sfingi—sfince—“sphinx”, Sicilian St. Joseph’s Day cream puffs
Struvula—struffoli—Neapolitan honeyed dough balls
Dina M. Di Maio is the author of Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People.