French & Italian Menu Translation Made Easy

After spending years learning the language, I’m pretty comfortable with menus in French and I’m rarely in for any unpleasant surprises when waiters bring me food anymore. But on my trip to Italy, I was completely baffled when handed an Italian menu, scarcely knowing stinco from souris d’agneau. Stinco I Iearned the hard way: a Fred Flintstone-sized hunk of roasted veal knuckle was plunked down in front of me, after a hearty pasta course, and there was no chance of leaving until I finished it off. All of it. And you might want to be careful ordering souris d’agneau in France, since a ‘souris’ is a mouse, which doesn’t sound as appetizing as lamb shank, which is actually what you’d be ordering.

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So I carried along Andy Herbach and Michael Dillon’s Eating and Drinking in Italy on my trip. Although I need little help deciding what to drink, many times I was stumped when presented with a menu. Luckily I had slipped this slender guide into my pocket, which is one of the most appealing features of these guides, so one could discretely refer to them without looking like a total rube.

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These guides are inexpensive too, and the Paris menu translator has everything from pibales (small eels…ew) to pithiviers (puff pastry filled with ground almonds and cream…yum).

It’s rather difficult to find a good, comprehensive, and compact menu translator, so most people resort to tearing pages out of their guidebooks, which are rather broad-based don’t get into the nitty-gritty of the difference between congre (big eel) and colin (hake). Then they end up facing a heaping platter of something they’d prefer not to encounter either on sea or shore. Another bonus is both books also have loads of information about European dining customs, like never filling a wine glass more than halfway full in Paris, as well as restaurant suggestions and the Italian guide has brief descriptions of the regions of Italy, and what to order when you’re there.

Both are highly recommended, so much so that I plan to take their Berlin Made Easy guide with me on my trip this winter, so I end up with gegrillt jakobsmuscheln instead of gekockten aal.

Eating & Drinking in Paris (Menu Translation Guide)

Eatingi & Drinking in Italy (Menu Translation Guide)

7 comments

  • OTH, food here is so localized that you may have to ask which animal species a dish comes from. Or there are generic names that don’t adequately address the identity. Stinco here is generally pork shank and yes, it is huge.
    I once desperately asked everyone at the meat counter what species of animal exactly was castrated to make “castrato” and only one gentleman was eventually willing to answer that it was sheep. The women avoided me there and throughout the store. In a meat counter that included horse, ostrich. lungs, spleen, halved heads of various creatures, it seemed worth asking.
    Some Sunday lunch one could be at a countryside family trattoria and see a dish not written anywhere and not used outside that town. And then you say, “Mi butto.”

  • That’s funny, because last night at a dinner party, the conversation turned to what is a ‘poule’ (versus ‘poulet’, or chicken) amongst the French folks. The host had used one to make the stock.
    I was asked how we say that in English, and I said it was called a ‘capon’, although I doubt few people in the US know that when they buy one.

    So I looked it up when I got home and a ‘poule’ is actually a stewing hen, but some thought is was a castrated male chicken. That’s why menu guides are a necessity…so we can tell if what we’re eating’s been castrated or not.

  • looks like i gotta catch up on ur archive.

  • That seems like such a personal question to ask an animal, although maybe not, since you are about to have him (it) for dinner….

    I find it helpful to have an Italian-speaking mother along to translate the menu.

  • Oh goodies of books you have here. A capon is un coq, or chapon in French (what you ask if you need to buy one at the butcher’s) La poule is female and le coq is male. French made easy, as we love our female/male differences, don’t we?

  • David, you were meant to be impressed by the poule. When a dinner host serves a soup made from poule, they have been thoughtful enough to choose the bird specifically with the idea of making the most flavorful soup they can. The poule, being an older bird (the oldest I have used is 2 years), has a much better flavor for soup.

  • Best you rely on a reputable menu translator – some of the local translations can be downright hilarious… Two years ago in Munich one of the dessert options was listed as Kaiserschmarrn – and translated as “Emperor’s nonsense”! Oh no, I ain’t taking no nonsense from no emperor…

    (It’s actually pancakes, torn into strips and sprinkled with sugar before being served with an apple or plum sauce…)