My English-Italian dictionary kept letting me down, just when I needed it the most—in front of menus in northern Italy last month. My Italian was good enough that I knew trofie was not truffle, as someone at the table had suggested, and to glean from the waiter that it was in fact a kind of local pasta. I had to order it to understand the narrow, twisted shape of the noodles.
Common food words like pasta, pesce, prosciutto, and limoncello are easy enough to translate, but how does the novice find meaning in the likes of imbrogliata di carciofi? It turns out to be young, spiny, Ligurian artichokes fried gently in oil with garlic and parsley, then smothered with scrambled eggs and sprinkled with grated Parmigiano. But good luck understanding the waiter's attempts to explain that. The only thing I understood was Parmigiano.
I recently acquired a book that would have made my Italian travels much more gastronomically satisfying. The Slow Food Dictionary to Regional Italian Cooking contains all the Italian food words that your pocket dictionary is too small to include—as well as some that are so obscure they probably wouldn't make the cut even if space were no issue, such as roveja:
A small wild legume with a dark brown, reddish or dark green skin, which has been grown for centuries, first records dating back to 1545. Grown on the high slopes of the Monti Sibillini, it used to be, along with lentils, one of the [Umbrian] staples. Though it has almost disappeared from the table, it is highly nutritious and an excellent ingredient in soups and on bread. Ground into flour it can be used to make a type of polenta, which is traditionally served with anchovies.
I find information like this good to know, even if I never get around to using it.