weather icon Partly Cloudy

Before you can taste it, you have to say it

It’s not exactly earth-shattering news that we tend to struggle with the pronunciation of words of the culinary persuasion. The tomato/tomahto debate, after all, became part of the lore in 1937, when the Gershwins’ “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” was introduced in the film “Shall We Dance.”

But like seemingly everything else in the past 70-some years, things have gotten a whole lot more complicated, with increased sophistication in dining leading to a flood of unfamiliar words creeping onto menus on all levels. Twenty years ago, who would have thought that a fast-food chain like Jack in the Box would teach a generation how to pronounce ciabatta (cha-BATTA)?

Andre Rochat, chef/owner of Alize at the Palms and Andre’s at the Monte Carlo and a native of France, says the mangling of his mother tongue bothers him, but only sometimes. And after a few decades in the United States, he thinks he understands the reason.

“The thing is, in this country, young people in school don’t learn a second language,” Rochat said. “Like my grandkids; they have French one year, and the next year, they don’t teach French. So I think that’s the biggest problem. And I think when people travel, they don’t try to learn about a country they travel to.”

And sometimes people think they understand how to pronounce a word — because that’s how Mom and Dad and all the kids in the neighborhood said it — but in fact they’re mistaken.

“They don’t finish a lot of the words,” lamented Gino Ferraro, owner of Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar. “We have a server with a great sense of humor. They’ll ask for cal-a-MAR. He’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have that on the menu.’ ‘Yes, you do.’ ‘Can you show it to me? Oh, cal-a-MAR-EE!’ ”

“The second generation of American-Italians, I think they don’t pronounce that,” said Ferraro, a native of Italy. “Manicotti, they called it manicott. It’s bad. It’s offensive to Italians who know the language. It’s written in Italian on the menu. The Italian language, all you do is read it as you see it, instead of abbreviating everything.”

Does any of it really matter? Well, a broad swath of Americans may feel silly pronouncing crepes the correct French way (kweps), instead of in the more Americanized fashion (crapes), but who among us hasn’t snickered at the guy at the next table who calls tortillas tor-TILL-as instead of tor-TEE-as?

In the interest of snicker reduction we asked a cornucopia of local restaurant workers to share with us the most commonly mispronounced words they encounter. Here’s what they told us:

■ Aioli: ay-OH-LEE, not i-olly

■ Beurre blanc: burr-BLAHNGK, not berry-BLANK

■ Bruschetta: broo-SKEH-tah, not broo-SHETTA

■ Chipotle: chi-POHT-lay, not chi-POT-LEE

■ Coulis: koo-LEE, not KOO-liss

■ Creme Anglaise: krehm ahn-GLEHZ, not cream ang-LAZE

■ Creme Fraiche: krehm FRESH, not cream FRAESH

■ Edamame: ed-dah-mah-MEE, not eda-MAME

■ Etouffee: ay-TOO-FAY, not eh-TOOF

■ Filet mignon: mihn-YON, not mig-non

■ Foie gras: fwah grah, not foy grass

■ Ghee: ghee, not jee

■ Gnocchi: NYOH-kee, not ga-NOCHI

■ Gyro: YEER-oh, not GY-ro

■ Haricots verts: ah-ree-koh VERH, not harry-cots verts

■ Merlot: meer-lo, not mer-lott

■ Mole: MOH-lay, not like the animal (or growth)

■ Pho: fuh, not foe

■ Pinot noir: pee-no NWAHR, not peanut nore

■ Poivre: PWARH-vff, not POY-vra

■ Prosciutto: proh-SHOO-toe, not pros-KEUTO

■ Quinoa: KEEN-wah, not KEEN-o-a

■ Sommelier: sum-ul-YAY, not som-LEER or summer-LEER

■ Vichyssoise: vee-shee-SWAAZ, not vee-shee-SWA

Alex Taylor, owner of the itself-often-mispronounced Due Forni (DUE-eh FOR-knee) on Town Center Drive, has another one.

“The mini-French pancake blini, pronounced like the Champagne cocktail Bellini,” Taylor said. “Although both are fantastic with caviar on a Sunday morning.”

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at
hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.