Immersing yourself in a new culture can be intimidating at times. Even the simplest things like learning how to get to and buy things from the grocery store take some getting used to. Add a foreign language to the mix and the first week in a new place becomes even more challenging (and exciting, depending on how you look at it!).
But if you are in the process of learning some Italian here’s a list of short, useful phrases and words that will both make your life a little easier when you are in Italy and put you further down the road of becoming a conversational speaker in Italian.
These aren’t so much direct translations of phrases like “How do I get to the grocery store?” or “Can I have two coffees, please?” You’ll learn those in the first week of Italian class, by necessity, or from a simple translator. Rather, these are other types of useful phrases–ones that you’ll hear from Italians in conversation. Some of them translate literally, but most do not and you’ll just need to become accustomed to them. But don’t worry, they’re very short! And my hope is that some of the descriptions below will help them stick pretty quickly in your brain!
1. Piano piano
“Step by step”
As we try to learn these new phrases, a great phrase to start off this list is this common Italian saying that’s very useful in reassuring someone attempting to do or learn something new. I like to think of it as meaning “step by step” or “slowly but surely.”
When I studied in Florence for 3 months in college, I remember my art instructor being the first person to say this to me and he said it repeatedly, emphasizing that if I keep practicing I would continue to improve. I heard it pretty often regarding my practice of the Italian language as well, and eventually I just adopted it into my response to the inevitable question, “How come you speak Italian?” I would explain that I studied in Florence, and while I don’t speak perfectly I continue to learn, piano piano. A good way to buy some understanding and patience!
When I first heard the phrase from my art teacher I was used to the word piano meaning “floor” (as in “this building has 5 floors”), so the expression originally kind of stuck in my head as “floor by floor,” you’ll keep advancing higher. But while it helped me get the basic idiomatic meaning, that way of thinking about it is not correct at all, because piano when used as an adverb means “slowly.” So the phrase more literally translates to “slowly, slowly.”
Bonus related phrase: Chi va piano va sano e va lontano. Check out our 10 Fun Phrases In Italian – Idiom Edition article to learn more about this related phrase with the word piano.
2. Non vedo l’ora
“I can’t wait”
A really useful phrase for expressing your excitement at meeting up with someone or going someplace new, non vedo l’ora literally translates to “I don’t see the time.” In that sense I like to think of it as you’re so excited for this thing in the future that you can’t even see the time separating then and now. But its meaning is really exactly the same as the phrase “I can’t wait” in English.
3. Meno male
“Thank goodness” or “Could have been worse” or “Fortunately”
While this phrase literally translates to “less bad” it actually idiomatically has different meanings of expressing relief depending on the context. As such there’s not an exact English translation to fit every case, and it’s a bit of a complicated phrase, but you’ll hear it fairly commonly and it can be very useful if you just use it for both “thank goodness” and “could have been worse.”
You’ll often hear it used as a sentence all by itself, or at the start or end of a longer sentence expressing what the speaker is glad for, just like “thank goodness” is used in English. Most often it’s used as a way of genuinely expressing relief, but sometimes there’s even a touch of irony or sarcasm thrown in given the context.
Here’s an interesting article about meno male in The Florentine, Florence’s English news magazine, that tries to explore this phrase more with some cultural perspective thrown in.
“If only” or “I wish” or “Maybe”
Similarly complex and useful is the word magari, which in its simplest meaning translates just to “maybe,” but with at least a slight connotation of “hopefully” thrown in. I feel this sense of hopefulness when I hear the word because other times you use magari, including by itself in a sentence, you’re expressing a strong desire like “I wish” or the even more strong “If only.” Just as those expressions are used in English, you can also use magari in Italian in a more tongue-in-cheek or ironic way. “Why don’t you throw away that receipt from last year, planning on winning the lottery with it?” “If only….”
5. Santo cielo
This is a really fun phrase for expressing exasperation or disbelief. You’re probably familiar with the word santo meaning “saint” from seeing it so often on the names of churches throughout Italy, and you may be similarly familiar with the word cielo from a religious context as it means “heaven” or more simply “sky.”
Put them together and you get “Saint heaven!” But much more fun to say in Italian! And possibly the most mild form of cursing you can conjure up (unless you count Mamma mia!).
6. Che schifo
“How disgusting” or “That sucks”
I lived with a host family for 3 months in Florence, and in the family were two sisters in their early 20s. One of the sisters loved to watch giallo television, or crime/detective shows, and the other wasn’t a fan. Whenever the non-fan sister was in the room while the show went to the inevitable scene with a cadaver or bloody body from a murder scene she would inevitably exclaim, Che schifo, or “How disgusting.”
7. Mettersi in tiro
“Dressed to kill”
What a great phrase to have at the ready when traveling around the fashion-forward cities of Italy. Notice that the first word is the reflexive infinitive of the verb, which we need to conjugate. Going out and want to talk about how you are dressed to kill? Mi metto in tiro. Talking about the gorgeous guy or gal on the street in the third person? Si mette in tiro.
The word tiro has connotations of being shot, or being in range of being shot, so the phrase is actually pretty similar to its English counterpart.
8. Prendere o lasciare
“Take it or leave it”
This is perhaps the least common phrase in this list–I’ve only heard it once or twice over the course of 5 months in Italy–but given its apparent utility in English, I think it could come in handy as a relatively easy phrase to remember in Italian as well. Plus, once you know it you won’t forget the meaning of these two verbs again: prendere is “to take” and lasciare is “to leave.” Notice how both verbs stay in their infinitive forms when used in the phrase. It’s a bit idiomatic in this sense, and the “it” seems implied as well.
9. Ci vediamo
“See you later”
While there are several good ways of saying goodbye in Italian, this is one of the best. It’s very inclusive, as you’re referring to both the person (or people) you are saying goodbye to and yourself. You’ll notice the conjugation and the reflexiveness are both in the “we” form, so the literal translation is more like “we will see each other.”
10. Mi raccomando
“Trust me” or “Be careful” or “Take care”
I saved this one for last because it’s a complex idiom, but one that you hear A LOT. It was also the last phrase on this list I really understood, because to my English ear it just sounds like “I recommend.” But you’ll notice it is reflexive to the “mi” pronoun, not what you’d expect if the speaker was making a recommendation to another person. So there’s something more going on here.
It turns out that the phrase likely harkens back to when raccomandare had a meaning more similar to its Latin origin of “to entrust.” While the grammar is still funny from that point of view, what we are left with is an idiomatic way of essentially saying “entrust me” that has just stuck.
It wasn’t until I brought it up to my Milanese friend Camilla that I actually started to understand this expression that I had heard so many times before. She told me that it’s often also said as a sentence unto itself when you are parting ways with someone. Mi raccomando, eh? In that sense it becomes more like a “Be careful” or “Take care” type of expression.
“Whatever” or “Meh”
The shortest phrase of them all, I’ve included this little bonus word because it’s not only fun to say as a sharp little one-syllable sound, but it’s also useful in daily life for all of the little decisions that you don’t much care about. This decision could go either way, it doesn’t particularly matter to me. Bo. Be as short as you can with the pronunciation and you’ll have it right.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these useful phrases in Italian! Spend a little time committing each one to memory and you’ll be that much more prepared to be conversational in Italian.
Have any thoughts or better explanations for any of these? Or have come useful Italian phrases of your own that we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments section below!