Piazza della Signoria in Florence

Common Idioms in Italian: A Beginner’s Guide

Welcome to the kaleidoscopic world of common idioms in Italian! Like the country’s renowned cuisine, Italian expressions are rich, flavorful, and reflect the deep-seated cultural heritage of Italy.

Embarking on the journey of learning Italian can be similar to crafting an Italian cheese recipe bubbling with diverse flavors. Just like how each ingredient contributes to the overall deliciousness of the dish, every idiom you learn adds depth and color to your communication.

These expressions, often having a different literal meaning, transform the language from mere words to a symphony of culture and humor.

Let’s embark on this linguistic adventure together, exploring some of the most common Italian idioms, popular expressions, and a selection of food-related idioms that will leave you hungry for more knowledge!

Food-Related Italian Common Idioms

Tutto fa brodo

Literally, it translates to “everything makes broth”. In essence, it suggests that every little bit helps, even if it’s as tiny as a crumble of Parmesan in your risotto. So, in your journey to Italian fluency, remember, every idiom learned enriches your linguistic broth!

Ha molto sale in zucca

The literal translation of this Italian idiom is “has a lot of salt in the pumpkin”, but don’t let that throw you off. This idiomatic expression is used to describe someone who is clever or intelligent. So if you have an Italian friend who is quite sharp and witty, you could say that she “ha molto sale in zucca”.

il pane e il burro

Native speakers will tell you that this translates to “the bread and the butter.” It is used to refer to someone’s basic income or livelihood.

Riscaldare la minestra

This idiom literally translates to “reheated soup”. It’s used when talking about something that is being repeated or a situation that’s being brought up again, especially when it’s unwelcome or uninteresting. It’s the Italian equivalent of the English expression “flogging a dead horse”.

common idoms for Italian - dishes spread out on a table

Most Popular Idioms in the Italian Language

Che palle!

Not the most refined idiom but you’ll hear it a lot on the streets of Italy. It’s a very common phrase used to express annoyance, something like “What a drag!” Think of it as the reaction you might have when your Italian boyfriend broke up with you right before your long-planned Italian vacation.

Bocca al lupo

“Into the mouth of the wolf,” is an Italian superstition for good luck. Yes, it might seem strange, but in Italy, wishing someone into a wolf’s mouth is equivalent to wishing them good luck! The response to this idiom is “crepi il lupo” or “may the wolf die”.

Ogni morte di papa

An idiom as rare as “every death of a pope” or in English, “once in a blue moon”. It’s used to describe something that happens very infrequently. So, if you think about seeing a unicorn in Italy’s premier fashion stores, it’s probably “Ogni morte di papa”.

Prendere due piccioni con una fava

The English equivalent of this idiom is “kill two birds with one stone”. It’s one of the most popular Italian idioms and is a widely used Italian expression. It means to achieve two goals with one single action.

Bene chi ride ultimo

This idiom has the same meaning in English as “he who laughs last, laughs best.” This Italian idiom means that the person who has the last laugh or the final victory is the most successful.

Other Unique Idioms

Hai voluto la bicicletta? E adesso pedala!

This Italian expression, which literally means “You wanted the bicycle? Now pedal!” is often used when someone finally gets what they’ve asked for but finds it not as easy or pleasant as they had imagined. It’s like craving that Italian recipe and then realizing it takes hours to prepare.

Avere peli sulla lingua

In English, it’s “to mince words”, but the Italian version holds a more vivid image: “to have hairs on your tongue.” This idiom is used when someone is not speaking directly or honestly, perhaps to avoid a sensitive topic, much like how one would carefully eat around a bubbling hot cheese pizza.

As for its opposite, “non avere peli sulla lingua,” or “to not have hairs on the tongue,” it’s best for describing people who do not beat around the bush.

ti sta a pennello

It means, “it fits you like a brush.” Your Italian friends may compliment you by saying this expression to let you know that whatever you are wearing or doing suits you very well.

Fa il monaco

“The clothes don’t make the monk”, or as we say in English, “don’t judge a book by its cover”. This idiom is a gentle reminder that outward appearance doesn’t define one’s character or worth.

Cane che abbaia non morde

A dog-eat-dog world can be a tough place. This idiom literally translates to “a dog that barks doesn’t bite”. It means that those who threaten a lot, usually do little. If someone is all talk and no action, this idiom can be used to describe them. It’s similar to the English idiom “his bark is worse than his bite”.

Stare con le mani in mano

Literally translated to “stand with hands in hand”. This idiom is used for someone who is not doing anything when there’s clearly a need for action. For instance, if your Italian girl friend keeps dreaming about speaking Italian but never practices, they’re just “standing with their hands in hand”.

Cervello di gallina

It might not be the nicest thing to say about someone, but this idiom, meaning “chicken brain”, is used for a not-so-bright fellow. If you meet someone who doesn’t understand the basic human irony of idiomatic expressions, this is the expression to use.

Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro

This idiom translates to “one pope dies, another one is made”. It’s used to mean that no one is indispensable. Much like the whole Italian political system or even the position of the Italian prime minister, when one person steps down, there is always another ready to take their place.

Avere la testa sulle spalle

An idiom meaning “to have one’s head on their shoulders”, used for someone who is sensible and rational. After reading this beginner’s guide, you’re definitely someone who’s got their “testa sulle spalle” when it comes to understanding Italian expressions.

Essere al settimo cielo

Translated literally, it means “to be in seventh heaven”. It’s used when someone is extremely happy or in a state of bliss. So, if you’re over the moon about your Italian girlfriend coming over, you could say that you’re “al settimo cielo”.

learning italian Idioms - Colorful Italian Street

Unlocking Culture Through the Italian Idiom

So, there you have it! A beginner’s guide to the vibrant world of so many Italian idioms. From food expressions that make your mouth water to popular sayings that pepper everyday Italian conversation, this guide is your stepping stone to mastering this beautifully expressive language.

Remember, just as you wouldn’t judge a woman by her outfit, don’t judge an Italian idiom by its literal translation. The charm of Italian idiomatic expressions lies in their ability to encapsulate culture, wit, and the charm of a language in a few words.

Craving more of this Italian linguistic feast? Learn Italian idioms with me. My name is Alice, and I’m the proud founder of Lingua Lunga. We are an online school committed to assisting you in mastering the Italian language—one of the globe’s most romantic and melodious tongues—while immersing yourself in its rich cultural tapestry.

Book a FREE call with me today.

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