Italy, pizza, pasta and mandolin are the most typical stereotype of Italy. I like to read it as the description of a country where food and art are central elements of its culture. So much so that food becomes a touchstone to describe personal characteristics.
At the first place, just like the Neapolitan pizza and mandolin, goes the phrase: “Si’ ‘nu babbà’”, “You are a baba”, to describe a person who is sweet, precious, a treasure, the biggest compliment that a Neapolitan can do. This way of saying is also used to describe a person who excels in accomplishing something difficult and can also be used for objects that perfectly function. What is baba? It is a sweet, moist sponge cake, wetted with rum. When you sink the fork in the baba, you immediately perceive the sweet smell of sugar and the rum aroma. You bring the forkful to the mouth and on your lips you feel the softness of the leavened dough in rum soaking syrup. You cannot not appreciate it by slowly savoring it, you make it linger, as if to increase the pleasure and make it last as long as possible.
The comparison of people to baba brings to mind the distinction, written I no longer know by whom nor where, on the difference between “dry” and “wet” women in history of art. Of the first, we find examples in the portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci by Leonardo, in the Girl in Profile by Pollaiolo and, in more recent times, in many portraits by Modigliani. Of the second, we find examples in Klimt’s (red-haired woman) and Ingres’ women (The Bather and The Grand Odalisque). Neapolitans are fun and they refer to baba also to describe an unpleasant person: “Aje voglia ‘e mettere rumma, ‘nu strunzo n’addiventa maje babbà” (“You can put as much rum as you like but a jerk never becomes a baba”).
In contrast with this sweet compliment, is the Sicilian equaling someone who feels above everybody else to an artichoke, a “cacocciolo”. This saying has a double origin, one tied to artichoke cultivation and the other to society. For the first, feeling “cacocciolo”, artichoke, derives from when, after the harvest, some heads are left and they stick out over the plants. For the second, the artichoke allegory is used to describe the mafia family. The name “cosca”, to indicate a clan or crime family, is the same word as for artichoke leaf. Coscas form various circles, the outermost protecting the innermost from sight. Just like in the mafia cosca the real leaders are kept covered by low level criminals. Street criminals, those who, for example, go ask for “pizzo”, protection money, are those who end up in prison; visible to society, but with a limited knowledge of the organization. The more one proceeds toward the interior, as Dante’s Inferno circles, in the artichoke like in Cosa Nostra, circles are made up of less and less leaves until one gets to the heart, super-secret, whose knowledge and visibility is restricted and limited to few people.
Remaining within the plant scope, parsley has a double significance: a person who is everywhere, ever present in different situations and places, and a person who gets involved in all affairs. Still another significance is the comparison of a person with parsley in meatballs meaning to be meaningless and uninfluential just like the strong flavor of the meat mixture is not modified by adding parsley. We find this saying in Niccolò Tommaseo’s 19th century dictionary of Italian language: “Gli è come il prezzemolo nella polpetta, cosa o persona di più, che a levarla non guasta” which translates “Being like parsley in meatballs is that thing or person which is better to take out”.
Talking about meatballs, also these are element of comparison. Apart from meaning to score a goal in a soccer game, it is also synonym of scolding and a loving nickname usually given to a little girl, while making meatballs of someone means to destroy that person. It is a short step from polpetta to polpettone, from meatball to meatloaf. As a dish, Italian meatloaf is like a big meatball but in an oblong shape and made with the same ingredients enriched by a filling of vegetables, cheese, and hard-boiled eggs. When referring to a person, but also a movie or a book, polpettone stops being a delicacy and becomes a synonym of boredom and heaviness, maybe hinting to the difficulty of digesting such a rich dish.
Regarding boredom, pizza comes into play with the exclamation “Che pizza!”, “What a pizza!”, when one is in presence of a boring and long argumentation. Although it usually refers to a thing, it can be used also to describe a person. According to the Gruaro Pizzamakers Academy, (Accademia Pizzaioli) of Gruaro, near Venice, this saying derives from the fact that pizza, because of a short leavening time or poor quality ingredients, sometimes is hard to digest causing bloating and thirst.
A person remains like a salt cod, a baccalà, or a stockfish, stoccafisso, that is a salted and dried codfish, when someone is appalled or unable to act. This expression clearly hints to the extreme stiffness of the fish, whose name stockfish probably derives from the Norwegian stokkfisk or the Dutch stocvisch which both mean stick fish.
He who is hard headed or stubborn, in Catania, Sicily, is described as “*cchiu’ duru ro’ puppu”, “harder than the octopus”. This saying originates from a fisherman habit: when they returned from fishing, they bit the octopus head to give it a quick and less painful death, and then they bit it on the lava rocks to tenderize its meat, an effective method that allows to break the octopus sturdy muscle fibers. So being harder than an octopus means to have a head which so hard that does not break even if beaten against rocks. While the stubbornness meaning can be used for both men and women, saying that a man is an octopus means he has “long hands” in the sense that he touches a woman’s body beyond her wishes, probably referring to the long and clinging tentacles.
I end this first rundown of sayings connected to food with another mollusk, the mussel. An ugly or clinging woman is called a mussel, a cozza. The latter, because of the way a mussel clings to pier pilons or rocks, the first, the ugliness comparison, some suggest derives from the comparison with other beautiful shells like the clam or the sea snail, others connect it to the inside, others still to the fact that a mussel is a natural water filter and may contain pollution elements. To describe a beautiful woman, instead, it is used another food, but I will write about it and more in my next article.