Slang and modi di dire (expressions) are an integral part of any language and might be even more prominent in Italian than others due to the diversity of the country’s regions. The seasoned traveler to Italy should indeed recognize that crossing from Lombardy to Tuscany, you can hear both accent and dialogue change. This change is much more drastic than say, taking the train from London to Liverpool!
In this post, we’ll be exploring both popular and unusual slang and expressions used in some of our favorite places to give custom tours: Rome, Florence, Naples, and Milan.
The dialect of Rome is referred to as romanesco and is probably one of the most notorious for its use of slang. An interesting fact about the Roman accent and dialect is that it was the one chosen to dub the street cat, Thomas O’Malley, in the Italian version of the Disney movie “The Aristocats”. The cat from the wrong side of the tracks, speaks like a Roman! Here are a pair of our favorite Roman expressions:
Pettina’ le bambole
Literal translation: to brush dolls’ hair
What you use it for: since brushing the hair of dolls is essentially a time-wasting, fruitless activity unless you are a three-year-old child, you can use this in a similar way to “twiddling thumbs” but often in a sarcastic rebuttal.
Example: Your partner comments on how clean the floor is and you can respond “mica sto a pettinà le bambole” (it’s not like I was home twiddling my thumbs all day!)
Omo de panza, omo de sostanza
Literal translation: a man with a belly is a man of substance
What you use it for: basically works perfectly for your trip to Italy because it can be used as an excuse to eat multiple gelatos a day. It’s actually an expression that rings true not only in Rome, but in many cultures throughout history as those who had power and were wealthier tended to be able to indulge in life’s luxuries like food, wine, and doing nothing all day!
Example: Your travel buddy reprimands you for ordering two plates of pasta for dinner. You respond with a mouth full of bucatini, “omo de panza, omo de sostanza” and proceed to order seconds.
Want to get to visit Rome with some inspiring locals showing you around? Get in touch with our team here to start planning your trip.
Slang Expressions in Florence
Moving to Florence, we are now at the origins of the standard Italian language and so does that make Florentine slang technically the official slang of Italy? That’s to be debated, but this gorgeous city on the Arno has its share of oddities, and here are two examples:
Fare una bischerata
Literal translation: to pull a (insert the name of a not-so-bright friend or foe)
What you use it for: the word bischerata derives from a family name which was Bischeri. They were a rich Florentine family that essentially lost all of their wealth by making stupid decisions during the Renaissance, thinking that they were being sly. You can use this expression in a joking, friendly way but if said forcefully, it can also be quite an insult.
Example: Your friend absent-mindedly locks his bike to a parked truck and five minutes later watches it being pulled down the road, you say to him “hai fatto proprio una bischerata!”.
Star coi frati e zappar l’orto
Literal translation: to stay with the monks and hoe the vegetable garden
What you use it for: to describe someone who is indecisive and tries to side with everyone in order to be diplomatic.
Example: Your best friends are arguing about who is a better cook and you tell them that they are both very good. One of them could say to you “ma stai sempre coi frati a zappar l’orto!”.
To tour Florence with your own local private guide, check out our Florence & Tuscany tours page.
Expressions Local to Naples
Now let’s take a quick look down South, to the city of Naples and the home of pizza. The dialect, Napoletano, is infamous for being difficult to understand, and often even native Italians who are not from the Naples area, have a hard time. If you studied some basic Italian before your trip, you might also find yourself scratching your head while walking the streets of Naples when you hear these expressions:
Fa’ a ricotta
Literal translation: to make ricotta cheese
What you use it for: when someone lounges around all day for many hours because making ricotta is a time-consuming process that requires you to sit around and wait for the curds to drain. Could be similar to the English expression of someone being a “couch potato”.
Example: You go on a business trip and call your husband to see what he’s up to. He responds by saying that he’s “vacuuming”. When your colleague asks what he’s doing you say “fà a ricotta”.
Gesù Cristo rà o ppane a chi nun tene e rient
Literal translation: Jesus gives bread to those without teeth
What you use it for: to comment on how luck happens to those who aren’t able to take advantage of it. Isn’t it ironic, in the words of Alanis Morissette.
Example: You win a trip to the Maldives leaving the next day but you don’t have a passport so your exasperated friend would exclaim, “Gesù Cristo rà o ppane a chi nun tene e rient!”.
Last but not least, welcome to Milan, the land of fashionistas and the sophisticated Milanesi. They may walk the walk but we can assure you that they also talk the talk. The dialect, as the people, is called Milanese, and here are two expressions from the fashion and design capital that are sure to have you laughing:
Brutt in fasa, bel in piaza
Literal translation: Ugly in swaddling cloth, good-looking in the piazza
What you use it for: Let’s just say that Italians have a way of turning negative thoughts into positive ones with their charming way with words. While thinking that a baby may be ugly they spin a brutally honest saying into something nice and say to their friend that the baby is guaranteed to grow up and become extremely attractive in the piazza eventually doing a catwalk.
Example: You and your friend go see your cousin’s new baby and once in the car, your friend turns to you and says “brutt in fasa, bel in piaza” and you pretend to be offended for your cousin even though you are secretly thinking you’d never seen such an impressive uni-brow before.
Ma va a ciapaa i ratt!
Literal translation: Go chase mice (or rats)!
What you use it for: this one is a funny way to tell someone to bugger off. You are basically telling them to go occupy themselves by doing something useless, like catch rodents.
Example: Someone steals the parking spot you were patiently waiting for and then proceeds to argue with you about it for fifteen minutes in the middle of the street, at the end of the heated discussion you tell them “ma va a ciapaa i ratt” and drive away.
This was just an entertaining taste of what awaits when you travel with an attuned ear throughout the many regions of Italy. Part of the beauty of seeing the country with a private guide is that they have the time and knowledge to give you the inside information on what you’re hearing said around you. If you enjoyed learning some of the slang and expression used in Italy, be sure to ask for more linguistic tidbits on your next bespoke tour with us or during one of our day trips.