Italians have a great word that encompasses four of our five senses (all but sight), and covers general sensory perception as well: sentire (to perceive). Marika and Francesca explain and conjugate sentire here. We’re going to talk about taste and smell, because these have to do with the real subject of this newsletter, the verb sapere (to know, or to give an impression, odor, or taste).
To talk about something tasting or smelling good (or bad) in Italian, we have to throw literal translations out the window (because no word really does the trick) and opt for a noun that can be either neutral—odore (odor), sapore (taste), gusto (flavor)—or specific—profumo (fragrance, scent), puzza (stink). The verb we’ll use will be one of two. The first, avere (to have), we use when talking about what tastes or smells good or bad, certainly of utmost importance when choosing a truffle, for example:
Il tartufo deve avere un buon profumo.
The truffle needs to have a good smell.
Caption 76, Tartufo bianco d'Alba - Come sceglierlo e come gustarloPlay Caption
Our second option is the all-encompassing sense word, sentire (to perceive), used when talking about our perception of a taste or a smell. Francesca had a smelly encounter with a dog and it came naturally to her to use sentire. It’s clear she’s talking about smell, not taste! She’s afraid she might be giving off a not-so-wonderful odor. Marika and Francesca assure each other:
Però la puzza non si sente. -Non si sente.
But you can't smell the bad smell. -You can't smell it.
Just as well [Good thing].
Captions 84-85, Francesca e Marika - GestualitàPlay Caption
We’ve been talking about the good or bad quality of a taste or smell. But if we want to describe the taste or smell in even more detail, then we turn to sapere, which, as we discussed in I Have This Feeling... Sapere Part 1, doesn’t always have to do with knowledge.
In this case the subject of the sentence is the food itself, or the situation if we’re speaking figuratively. These scenarios should help you get the idea:
You look in the fridge and open a jar of jam. Ugh!
Questa marmellata sa di muffa.
This jam smells like mold.
You made soup, but something’s not right.
Non sa di niente questa minestra. Ecco perché: Ho dimenticato il sale.
This soup doesn’t have any flavor. Here’s why: I forgot the salt.
You think someone is trying to give you a bum deal on a used car. You say to yourself:
Quest’affare sa di fregatura.
This deal smacks of a ripoff.
Later, when you’ve verified it was a bad deal, you can use the modo di dire from I Have This Feeling... Sapere Part 1 and say:
Mi sa che avevo ragione!
I guess I was right!
To sum up, remember that when sapere means “to know,” there will be a subject that’s a person (or animal), and what it is that the person knows, as a direct object.
Il gatto sa quando è ora di mangiare.
The cat knows when it’s time to eat.
But when sapere has to do with what something tastes or smells like, even figuratively, the subject will be the food or situation, and it will be followed by the preposition di like in the scenarios above.
And let’s not forget the modo di dire, “mi sa che/mi sa di si/no,” discussed in the I Have This Feeling... Sapere Part 1.
Now that you have some new insights on the world of tastes and smells, get a feel for how Italians talk about food by watching or re-watching Yabla videos on the subject. Truffles, wine, risotto, desserts: here’s the list. And if you’re planning on any wine-tasting, you’ll want to visit this quick WordReference thread.
And se te la senti (if you feel up to it)...
This example employs the different meanings of sapere. Can you tell them apart?
Lo sai che ho assaggiato la pomarola, ma sa di acido, quindi mi sa che non la mangerò anche se lo so che non mi amazzerebbe. -Sai che ti dico? Mi sa che fai bene a non mangiarla! Si sa che il cibo avariato fa male. Tutti sanno che la pomarola non deve sapere di acido, dovrebbe avere un buon sapore.
You know I tasted the tomato sauce, but it tasted sour, and so I guess I’m not going to eat it, even though I know it wouldn’t kill me. -You know what I say? I think you’re doing the right thing by not eating it! It’s well known that food gone bad is bad for you. Everyone knows that tomato sauce should not taste sour; it should taste good.