Another 24 Great Italian Idioms to Help You Sound Even More Like a Local

Updated on February 7, 2020
Jerry Cornelius profile image

I like variety—so I love travelling, exploring and writing fiction and non-fiction on a daily basis.

What do all those Italian idioms mean?
What do all those Italian idioms mean? | Source

Trying to get to grips with learning Italian can be tricky – especially when the locals will often use idioms as a shortcut to describe a person or situation.

Italian idioms, like any locally-based sayings, can be confusing and are often not meant to be taken literally, and as such, their meaning can be less than obvious.

The Problem With Idioms

Common English idioms such as ‘Biting off more than you can chew’, ‘Costs an arm and a leg’ and ‘Fit as a fiddle’ might make complete sense if you have been brought up on the rain-swept streets of Manchester, but if you are not a native of an English speaking country such as the UK you are really going to struggle making sense of ‘Pulling someone’s leg’.

So it is in Italy, idioms may cause confusion to the non-native speakers, because even if you have successfully learned Italian to the degree were you feel confident in in general conversation, because you did not grow up in Italy, you may have missed these common phrases that the locals use.

Here are few well-known Italian idioms that you may come across in your interactions in Italy, hopefully this will help you recognise what they mean, and maybe you can throw couple into the conversation yourself.

He is all pepper!
He is all pepper! | Source

Food, Food and More Food

Capita a fagiolo

English translation: Happens at the bean

This is an expression that is used when something happens at exactly the right moment, it is believed to come from when poor Italian workers would come in from the fields just at the moment when food was being served, which might’ve consisted of a simple dinner of beans.

I frutti proibiti sono i più dolci

English translation: Forbidden fruit is sweetest

This expression comes from the irony that we often want what we cannot have, and what we want is often ‘off limits’, so we desire it even more.

Ha molto sale in zucca

English translation: Has a lot of salt in his gourd

This phrase emanates from the fact that a gourd (the English name used for typical large, fleshy fruits with a hard skin, some varieties of which are edible such as pumpkins) is sometimes used to represent a person’s brain or head. So in this idiom, ‘Ha molto sale in zucca’ refers to a person who is intelligent and possesses common sense, in other words they have a good head.

È tutto pepe!

English translation: He is all pepper

Pepper, as we all know, is used to spice up dishes and bring out the best of the flavour. So this phrase, when used about a person, means he or she is full of life, has a vibrant personality and are good to be around.

Hats, Dresses and Trousers

Attaccare il cappello

English translation: To hang up one’s hat

This idiom basically means to retire or to give up doing something, usually due to some good fortune such as marrying a rich wife/husband. Historically it may come from when the workmen finished work for the day and would ‘hang up their hat’ as they prepared to rest for the evening.

Ti sta a pennello

English translation: Fits you like a paintbrush

This often used to compliment someone on what they are wearing or are trying on in a clothes shop, meaning it is a perfect fit – or in other words it looks like it has been painted onto your body.

Calare le brache

English translation: To pull down one’s pants

This idiom means to ‘give up’ or ‘back down’.

Let’s say bread for bread and wine for wine
Let’s say bread for bread and wine for wine | Source

Birds, Dogs and Vino

Avere un cervello di gallina

English translation: To have a hen’s brain

Usually an insult, this phrase describes someone who acts stupidly or is not very intelligent and compares their brain with that of chicken which has quite a small one and is therefore believed to be less intelligent - If there are any smart chickens out there please don’t write in to complain!

Cane non mangia cane

English translation: Dog does not eat dog

This the opposite of the English idiom ‘Dog eat dog’, in that this Italian version refers to a code of conduct amongst one’s own peer group, so for example, a thief will not betray another thief, a schoolboy will not tell on a classmate etc.

Of course if the situation is reversed then ‘Cane mangia cane’ or ‘dog eat dog’ applies in Italy too.

Diciamo pane al pane e vino al vino

English translation: Let’s say bread for bread and wine for wine

This idiom basically means, let’s do some straight talking and say it as it is. The nearest English equivalent would be ‘Let’s call a spade a spade’.

Love, Anvils and Chestnuts

L’amore domina senza regole

English translation: Love rules without rules

This equates to the English idiom ‘All’s fair in love and war’. In other words, in the pursuit of love there are no rules.

Trovarsi fra l’incudine e il martello

English translation: To be between the anvil and the hammer

This is used to describe a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ type of situation, as when you are faced with two equally unpalatable choices. The English equivalent might be ‘Between a rock and hard place’.

Non mi rompere i maroni

English translation: Don’t break my chestnuts!

This is a phrase you might come across when someone is really annoyed with someone else – this is the ‘clean’ version. The more vulgar version substitutes the word ‘chestnuts’ for a part of the male anatomy, usually accompanied by two handed pointing south gesture – but of course, you wouldn’t use that version in polite conversation. It basically means 'don't annoy me!'.

The dress does not make the monk
The dress does not make the monk | Source

Monks, Comedies and Kilos

L’abito non fa il monaco

English translation: The dress does not make the monk

In English we might say ‘Clothes make the man’, but this idiom is more like ‘Clothes don’t make the man’ , and so means we should not judge someone simply on the way that they dress – maybe a more similar idiom in English might be ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’.

Fare troppi atti in commedia

English Translation: To make too many acts in a comedy

The phrase might be used when someone trying to do too many things at once. In many theatrical productions there are just 3 acts, also in comedies, so to have too many acts means there is too much going on. In English we might say that a person is ‘wearing too many hats’ or ‘spinning too many plates’.

Fare il chilo

English translation: To make the kilo

This phrase is used to say that we have eaten too much, at lunch for example, and now we need to take a rest or nap (to aid digestion, of course).

Peter, the Mother, the Father and the Moustache

Si chiama Pietro e torna indietro

English translation: Its name is Peter and it comes back

This is an odd one, and makes no sense at first glance. You would use this phrase when lend something to someone, it works because in Italian ‘Pietro’ (Peter) rhymes with ‘indietro’ (back), so it’s a bit like saying ‘Its name is Zack and I want it back’.

This is a well-used in idiom, and just to confuse matters, people will often shorten the idiom and simply say ‘Si chiama Pietro’ (Its name is Peter) when lending out the item, assuming the borrower knows exactly what they mean.

Tale madre, tale figlia (or) Tale padre, tale figlio

English translation: Such mother, such daughter (or) Such father, such son

More or less the same as ‘like mother, like daughter’ or ‘Like father, like son’ in English.

Farsene un baffo

English translation: To make a moustache of it

Often used when you don’t make a big deal of something or something doesn’t bother you at all – like a moustache doesn’t bother you when it’s on your face, it’s just there and you don’t even think about it most of the time.

Fallen from the clouds
Fallen from the clouds | Source

Clouds, Misery and Soup

Caduto dalle nuvole

English translation: Fallen from the clouds

This phrase means to taken completely by surprise, usually by some bad news. In English we might say ‘Taken aback’, as in the example: ‘She was taken aback when she heard of Tom’s sad demise’.

Mal comune, mezzo gaudio

English translation: Common bad, half rejoice

This phrase essentially asserts that ‘misery loves company’; so if everyone is in the same bad situation it only feels half as bad as it would have if you were suffering alone.

Tutto fa brodo

English translation: Everything makes broth/soup

This expresses the sentiment that everything can add up to something worthwhile; such as donating to a charity or volunteering for some local organisation – small gestures that can make positive difference – just like when you add several different ingredients to a soup to make it taste good.

Big shot
Big shot | Source

It Is What It Is, Even for Big Shots

Alla come viene, viene

English translation: It comes out as it comes out

This means ‘It is what it is’, and is usually used when a situation or something is less than satisfactory, but it seems there is little that can be done about it.

Un pezzo grosso

English translation: A big piece

This means the same as ‘Big shot’ or ‘Big wig’ in English, and is used to describe someone who has power or influence.

© 2020 Jerry Cornelius


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    • Jerry Cornelius profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerry Cornelius 

      6 months ago

      Thanks, JC. hai ragione!

    • JC Scull profile image

      JC Scull 

      6 months ago from Gainesville, Florida

      Great article...

      La lingua più bella di tutto il mondo.

    • Jerry Cornelius profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerry Cornelius 

      6 months ago

      No, problem, happy everyone is enjoying this topic.

    • RidaeFatima021 profile image

      Rida Fatima 

      6 months ago from Pakistan

      thank you for sharing such an interesting article.

    • besthometuition profile image

      Pioneer Home Tuition 

      6 months ago from Dehradun

      Such an interesting article, I would like Italian language.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      6 months ago from UK

      These are fascinating phrases. I would like to travel to Italy and learn Italian one day.

    • Jerry Cornelius profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerry Cornelius 

      6 months ago

      Thank you, Lorna. Really happy you enjoyed it and it brought back some good memories.

    • Lorna Lamon profile image

      Lorna Lamon 

      6 months ago

      Such an interesting article Jerry and even after living in Tuscany for three years I still struggled with some Italian idioms. Luckily the Italian family I lived with were great teachers and it was a lot of fun, particularly for them. An enjoyable trip down memory lane.


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