Robert Aiudi wants you to know that if you want to order bowtie noodles at an Italian restaurant, you may have to ask for farfalle. Or maybe strichetti instead.
Aiudi, who goes online by the sobriquet the Language Chef, is on a mission to enable people not just to taste their meals in this foodie society, but to pronounce them as well. And perhaps know something about how they came to be.
“I listen to people’s conversations at the table” as they encounter, say, an Italian menu, Aiudi said during an interview on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program. “I can hear the guy on the date freak out: ‘Oh no, how do you say that?’ Or, ‘Let’s just have a salad. I know how to say that.’
“Everybody knows what arugula is now. Everybody’s eating polenta. Everybody’s eating specific cheese that comes from a part of Italy. Olive oil is on everyone’s shelf. There’s millionaires in Modena because of balsamic vinegar. Nobody has stopped to say, “Here’s how you pronounce it. So we’re comfortable eating it.’ But people are still nervous about pronouncing it.”
A speech recognition consultant by trade, Aiudi has been figuring out how to pronounce — and prepare — dishes from around the world since his early childhood in Middletown.
“Go outside and play with the boys,” Aiudi’s grandmother used to tell him as he watched her prepare native Italian meals.
“Nonny, I want to watch you cook,” Aiudi would respond.
So he’d stay and watch. And listen. His grandmother on his mother’s side hailed from La Marche (“It means marshes”), south of Venice. His other grandmother hailed from Abruzzo. He noticed early on that their dialects differed. So did the names of some of the food.
“God gave me this brain that picks up language easily,” he said.
He developed a love for language. He majored in languages at University of Connecticut, worked in a Chinese restaurant, picked up cooking and language tips in France, studied Mandarin at Yale, spent time in Japan, Italy, and Spain, and ended up speaking a dozen or so languages. And cultivating an interest in food. As a sideline to his day job, he created the Language Chef website with daily etymological and culinary tips.
He can tell you why bowtie pasta has the two different names, for instance.
In much of Italy, the pasta goes by farfalle because of its shape: the word means “butterflies.” In Modena, it goes by strichetti because of how one prepares the dough: the word means “little pinched things.”
The spicy lettuce we call arugula (and the British call rocket) borrows from the southern Italian pronunciation, Aiuidi said. “The standard word is la rucola in Italian. In the south the la becomes an ah,” and the hard c becomes a g.
“In the 1920s, when mass migrations of southern Italians came to New York through Ellis Island to New Haven, when a non-Italian speaker would say, ‘What’s that? in the open markets, a Southern Italian would say, ‘Oh, that’s arugula.’”
The Southern Italian influence also explains how apizza, the word for the thin-crust pie that Frank Pepe brought to these part, came to be pronounced “ah-BEETZ.”
The linguistic path of food can also reveal hints to its roots. Take cannoli, which comes from an Arabic word that means “tube,” Aiudi said.
“Sugar came through Northern Africa into Sicily. And there are several dishes in the Sicilian dessert lexicon that are actually Arabic names originally. Because the Arabs ran Sicily for hundreds of years,” he said. “They brought sugar. Several Northern Arabic recipes have dough that’s fried with sugar. They took a very Italian thing like ricotta cheese, put sugar in it; we threw in a few chocolate chips or candied fruits, and threw it into a tube.”
Aiudi, who’s 56, recently moved back to Connecticut (to Branford) from New York. He has a partner with whom he’s looking to expand the enterprise, including marketing an app for wine pronunciation.
Meanwhile, the next time you order some apizza topped with arugula — which you can do at some New Haven establishments — you can thank Aiudi for knowing what you’re talking about.
Click on or download the above sound file to hear the full interview with Aiudi on WNHH’s “Dateline New Haven.”