Ciao, Signorina?


“Signorina?” I say.  My wife and I are in an airport restaurant in Venice, waiting for a friend to arrive. We have an hour or so to kill.  There’s no better way to do that than by eating.

I’ve ordered the pasta; my wife has the prosciutto and mozzarella.  We need some bread. Well, my wife needs some bread.

She shakes her head. “You really should call her signora,” she says.

I thought I knew the difference. In the case of a girl, or a possibly unmarried young woman, you deploy the -ina. In the case of not a girl, not a young woman, marital status unknown, you lose the diminutive.  But what’s young? For a year or so, at a bar in my wife’s home town, I called the young woman who made my cappuccino signorina. That seemed to work okay. She looked like she was in her mid-twenties. No one corrected me. (Maybe they were just being polite.) One Monday morning when I placed my order, she held out her left hand and announced she had become a signora. From that point on I thought: Okay, now I get it.

In American English we make the Miss/Ma’am distinction. But when we do, we make it loosely. I’ve been in restaurants before, waited on by an obviously not young woman, maybe married, maybe not, maybe married a couple times, maybe even she’s seen a few of her adult children married a couple times, and some guy needing a coffee refill lifts his cup and says, “Excuse me, miss?”  And I think, You dope, she’s no miss. Okay, he’s just being respectful; just slightly off, I think, with respect to age.

Anyway I guess I’m the dope now.


I stab a couple garganelli.  Go figure. At an airport restaurant they serve garganelli with a bolognese sauce. The pasta and sauce are not only not terrible; they’re actually quite good. And Parma prosciutto. And buffalo mozzarella. Wonders do not cease. On their part it’s a matter of self-respect. When they serve you pasta, they serve you pasta they could eat.


So on my part, as a matter of respect and self-respect, I want to get things right. Signora, not signorina. Please, some bread?

During a few idle moments, waiting for bread, I consult my Google and find my way to the Accademia della Crusca. Founded in 1583, with the encouragement of a guy named Cosimo de Medici, this organization paved the way for Florentine Italian becoming the dialect of choice 350 years later. In 1612 the Accademia published its first dictionary of the Italian language.

It just so happens the Accademia della Crusca publishes a linguistic Q and A column, a sort of Dear Abby for those with questions about style and usage. The signora/signorina issue requires a 1250 word disquisition.  And they lay down the law: “In definitiva, nella maggior parte dei contesti nell’uso allocutivo è oggi consigliabile rivolgersi a una donna con signora e non con signorina.” So we are advised to use signora. With this proviso: “nel caso di una persona molto giovane (intorno ai 20 anni), in contesi informali la si può interpellare direttamente con il tu mentre in contesti più formali.” In informal contexts, with a young woman up to age 20 or so, informal usage is acceptable. Tu and signorina.  Otherwise it’s lei and signora.

The first time I came to Italy, a few months after we got married, my wife and I and her cousin were on a train. It was an old local train, hot and crowded. I had an aisle seat. A couple nuns boarded the car we were in, came down the aisle in our direction.  Thinking I would be a gentleman, I stood and, offering my seat, said to one of the nuns, “Signora?” My wife’s cousin made a face and burst out laughing. Wrong female term for a woman in that line of work. I learned a new word that day. Suora for nun.

The waitress brings the bread. She must be over 20. She is not wearing a wedding ring. The context is somewhere between informal and formal. I get it now. In Italian, if you don’t know someone, you default to more formal usage.  Remember your manners. Signora, thank you for the bread.

When we leave, we’ll say arrivederla (formal, one person), not arrivederci (formal, two people), and definitely not ciao’ (that’s informal, y’all).


Calamari and Seppia: Happiness Plural


Is there a more guilty pleasure than a fritto misto (frittura, as they say here)? You can see what you’re eating, sort of–rings of sliced calamari, curled shrimps, spongy scallops, a stray chunk of fish, and, if you’re lucky, some thinly sliced or shredded zucchini–all lightly covered in a crispy brown batter, lightly salted.

Frittura is so good; a guilty good food. Then again, just about anything fried tastes good, on account of the batter and the fry and the salt. My wife batters and fries zucchini flowers. They are beautiful, I love them, but I would also argue zucchini flowers have no taste. The fry is the thing that tastes so good.


Calamari, in their unfried state, on the other hand, can be a challenge. My mother-in-law used to stew sliced calamari with peas. It was a good dish. But you can cook calamari too long.  You may get a rubbery calamari ring that gives your jaws a workout.

seppia nobile

Now, seppia on the other hand. The above dish, from our lunch at Cozza Amara in Pesaro a few days ago, is trofelli (the local word for seppia) with leeks and pendolini (cherry tomatoes). Yes, lovely tentacles.  Yes, breadcrumbs, probably with a parsley and garlic and olive oil mix. You can pull a knife through the trofelli with ease.

Tender, I say to my wife’s cousin.

“Sono le seppie nobile,” he says.

Noble, and therefore soft? No, noble because in fact the squid is a creature with blue blood (hence, noble), as oxygen is carried through the organism by way of hemocyanin rather than hemoglobin. (According to my research, calamari are also such creatures.)

Anyway, at Cozza Aara the seppia are amazing. Later this week, up in Venice we will have them grilled. Again, tender and tasty. Unlike the calamari in fritto misto, fried and therefore delicious, the seppia are formidable all by themselves. Because of themselves.

Nevertheless, I would never forswear frittura. In which case, if there is one on the menu in Venice, which most certainly there WILL be…

Cassoni to go—che piacere


When I was in college, on many a drunken evening roommates and I ordered a thing called a “faz” from a local pizzeria. It was pizza dough loaded with a ghastly tomato sauce and grated domestic mozzarella, folded in half, sealed, and baked in the oven. When a faz arrived at your dorm room door, its gooey molten interior oozed out on your first bite. It was dangerous. Of course we scalded ourselves every time. To a nineteen-year-old, a faz was nothing if not delicious. Until recently I had blotted this culinary error from memory; now, having retrieved it accidentally, I wish it back to oblivion, where it belongs. Continue reading

Erbe in abbondanza


A staple at the table around here is “erbe.” Google Translate says erbe means “herb” in English. Google Translate is entitled to its opinion. The word erbe covers a wide spectrum of green stuff. (Plug “cut the grass” into Google Translate and you get “tagliare l’erbe.”) Continue reading

Piadina e Stracchino. Meglio di cosi?

piada stracchino

If you are eating in Romagna, you’re eating piada.  Piada is the standard issue flat bread they bring to the table, usually hot off the griddle. Each eating establishment puts its own thumbprint on their piada (aka piadina, the affectionate diminutive)–ranging from flaky (frolla) to brittle. Continue reading

Maltagliati, Ceci, Clams, and Porcini


This too we ate at Trattoria La Marianna in Rimini. It’s a soup made of maltagliati, clams, ceci beans, and porcini mushrooms. You can very easily use a variation on a theme on this soup (sans clams, for example, or hand-crunched tagliatelle in place of maltagliati) and be very happy. Continue reading

Poached Cod with What?


Who thinks of these things? In conversations I’ve had with Italians about talented chefs, they refer to “fantasia,” which  translates as something like “imagination.” This cod dish, served as an antipasto at Ristorante La Vela in Pesaro, is an excellent example. And as with most things on the table in Italy, particularly in my wife’s regions (Emilia-Romagna and le Marches), the guiding principle is simplicity. Continue reading

For Dessert? Baked Pears


This dish falls into the “life is short, eat dessert first” category. You could eat this dessert without feeling guilty. Poached pear and prunes.

We enjoyed this dish the other day in Rimini at La Marianna, a seafood trattoria. Pears and prunes are baked in red wine, with a couple cloves added. These looked like Bosc pears. They were baked whole, peel and all, then sliced for serving. We split one between us.

To add just a little guilt to this dessert, the pears came with a small dish of gelato on the side. The gelato was whitish–I’m guessing crema. My wife tilted the dish and drizzled a little of the wine-pear-prune sauce over the ice cream. She tasted it and gave it her O.F. (oh fuck!) approval.

Definitely try this at home.