I notice that, with food, the Italian expression for a certain flavoring is preceded by the word "al" (or "alla", or whatever gender/ quantity is appropriate):
- I biscotti al cioccolato
- La torta al limone
- Il pane alla banana
- il risotto ai funghi
These translate as "the chocolate cookies" "the lemon cake" "the banana bread", and "the mushroom risotto".
Since we've been taught right from the first lessons on Duolingo that "A" means "to" (most of the time) and "a + il" is "al": "to the", then I find it hard to understand why the word is needed there; at all.
Does one ever say: "La torta limone"? How does "al" make everything correct?
I can see that the word "di" (of) isn't the best choice, as that sort of implies that the entire finished item was made from one ingredient.
Un biscotto di cioccolato (a cookie (made) of chocolate) would have to be chocolate; in the shape of a cookie, only, since you'd never get the texture of a cookie from (mostly) chocolate, or cook it the same way.
"Da" (from) is slightly better from an English point of view, but I get the impression that "da" is often more about movement in Italian-- from one place to another-- rather than "made from" (di).
Similarly, un biscotto con cioccoltato (a cookie with chocolate) implies that the chocolate is separate from the cookie, unless you specified "un biscotto con il gusto di ciccolato" (a cookie with the taste of chocolate), which is awkward and overly long, anyway.
There are other foods and flavors that don't follow the "rules":
La zuppa di cipolle (the onion soup), La crostata di pesche (the peach tart/ pie).
Clearly, the soup also contains stock and spices, and perhaps other vegetables and/or flavorings, while a tart/ pie has a crust and the peaches have sugar and spices added, most times.
So why are these "di" and not "al"?
The use of the preposition a for indicating a flavour was borrowed from French sometime in the 1800s, and has been used ever since.
French á la ... turns into alla ... (or al, allo, ai, agli, alle, according to the following noun).
il gelato alla fragola → strawberry is the flavour (more than an ingredient)
la torta al cioccolato → chocolate is the flavour (more than an ingredient)
The same preposition is also used for indicating a style, or a cooking method:
ragù alla bolognese (Bologna style sauce for pasta)
pollo al forno (cooked in the oven)
Instead con ... is used when the base ingredient is followed by a second ingredient:
il risotto con i funghi → rice is the base ingredient, mushrooms are a second ingredient.
il pollo con i peperoni → chicken is the base ingredient, peppers are a second ingredient.
gli spaghetti con le vongole → spaghetti are the main ingredient, clams are a second ingredient.
In several cases, both con and a can be used, because the second ingredient can be understood as a flavour of the base ingredient:
il risotto ai funghi
il pollo ai peperoni
gli spaghetti alle vongole
Lastly, di ... is used if mentioning the main ingredient:
lo sformato di patate → potatoes are the main ingredient
la zuppa di piselli → peas are the main ingredient.
Some recipe names may not fully comply with this scheme, but a large majority of them do.
Does one ever say: "La torta limone"?
No, a preposition must stand between torta and limone. Since lemon is a flavour (more than an ingredient), it is torta al limone.
I see. this explains la pizza alla diavola. For march19 and Christmas my fam has sawdust pasta. la pasta di San Giuseppe. Good to see that alternative names/considered both a falvour and ingredient. so something like la pasta alla Bolognese, can be di Bolognese? wait Bolognese is made of many things, alle Bolognese? Seeing how it gets it flavor from the Bolognese it's suited for alla. At the same time the main ingredient is the Bolognese, plus the name/place of origin so it could be di Bolognese also. right? or am I way off?
In recipe names the preposition a also has a further meaning, that is "in ... style".
The recipes labelled alla diavola (e.g. pollo alla diavola) owe this name either to the traditional cooking method, which used to be done on an open fire or charcoal (reminiscent of the classic iconography of devils in hell, amidst flames, whence the name alla diavola), or to a hot/spicy seasoning with unground pepper, chili and/or paprika, or sometimes both to the cooking technique and the seasoning. Nowadays, most alla diavola recipes have maintained their original name, but the cooking is no longer done on an open fire.
In a similar way, anything alla Bolognese is in Bologna's cooking style, so it can only be alla (not con la, nor della).
Thanks Civis. So in case of 'zeppole di San Giuseppe'(one of my fave desserts) we're using 'di' because it is about him, of Saint Joseph/about Saint Joseph on this day?
The preposition di can express several types of relation ("made of...", "belonging to...", etc.).
In this case, whatever is di San Giuseppe (i.e. frittelle, bignè, zeppole, etc.) expresses a relation with the celebrations held on St.Joseph's Day (March 19th).
You can exhaust yourself in the etymology, the endless reasons, the history. Or you can roll with the punches and say "biscotti al cioccolato."