No, Non è Fica o il Pene in Pubblico

March 20, 2012

Words are all we have.
~Samuel Beckett

Did I say that right?

Just a slight variance in intonation can lead to a near scandalous difference in linguistic meaning, often making proper enunciation vital. For instance, fico is an Italian noun, which translates in English to that sweet and succulent fig. Diction demands this word be pronounced in a distinctly masculine way so that it finishes with a marked and unequivocal o. Be wary, since if lazily uttered like figa or fica then you have slangily yet openly referred to vagina or vulva…a bilingual blunder.

Similarly, the next time you peruse a menu at that trendy trattoria in Rome, New York or home, and that primo piatta of penne yanks your chain, take care how you address the waiter or hosts. Penne is the plural form of the Italian penna, derived from the Latin penna (meaning “feather” or “quill”). Tubular, diagonally cut penne are produced in two main variants: penne lisce (smooth) and penne rigate (furrowed), the latter having ridges.

In the Italian tongue, a doubled consonant (here “nn”) significantly affects pronunciation. In phonetics, this is referred to as gemination — when a spoken consonant is pronounced for an audibly longer period of time than a short consonant. The effect is to shorten the preceding vowel and lengthen the consonant itself. With lengthened stops, the obstruction of the airway is prolonged, somewhat delaying release. Thus, the word penne should be pronounced as pen’-neh or ˈpe(n)-(ˌ)nā. In the International Phonetic Alphabet, long consonants are normally written using the triangular colonːas in penne [penːe]. This seemingly subtle difference in pronunciation may be difficult for English speakers to appreciate and reproduce, however to Italians the difference is quite patent and even affects meaning.

Also, do remember that the letter “p” in English is often aspirated, resulting in an extra puff of air along with the pronunciation of the consonant. This never occurs in Italian.

Although the unsophisticated often fail to discern the difference between correctly pronouncing the double “nn,” Italian ears definitely do. If pronounced as pene without shortening the first vowel and lengthening the consonant “n,” you are referring to the word penis. So, be a touch couth and avoid ordering penis at the table.

PENNE RIGATE WITH SAUSAGE, TOMATO & CREAM

1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 lb Italian pork & fennel sausage, uncased and crumbled

3 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
3 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1/3 medium carrot, peeled and finely shredded

One 28 oz can of San Marzano tomatoes, chopped (retain juice)
1 T tomato paste
1 small rind of parmigiano-reggiano
1/4 C dry red wine
1 t red pepper flakes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bay leaf
Bouquet garni of fresh parsley, thyme and oregano sprigs

3/4 C heavy whipping cream

1 lb penne rigate pasta
Fresh basil leaves, whole or chiffonaded
Parmigiano-reggiano, freshly grated

Capers, rinsed and drained (optional)

Using kitchen scissors, chop tomatoes while still in can.

Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then add sausage and cook, stirring to break up large chunks, until meat is browned and just cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer meat to a bowl lined with paper towels using a slotted spoon and set aside.

Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook the onion, stirring some, until softened and translucent, about 5-8 minutes. Add garlic and carrot, sauté and stir occasionally another 1 minute or so.

Stir in the tomatoes with juice, tomato paste, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper, rind, red wine, bay leaf and bouquet garni. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 30-40 minutes. The sauce will thicken to a porridge consistency. Remove and discard the rind, bay leaf and herb bundle. Adjust seasoning to your liking.

Add enough cream and bring the tomato sauce to a simmer, stirring, then add drained sausages for a few minutes to heat. The sauce should be pinkish in hue.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large, heavy pot of generously salted boiling water according to directions until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water, then drain pasta in a colander. Add to the tomato sauce in the Dutch oven and toss to coat, adding pasta water if necessary to moisten.

Serve with grated parmigiano-reggiano, basil leaves and optional capers.

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