Discovering the Meaning of an Italian Nursery Rhyme about a Cat, Cream and Cheese

Jeanne Klein wrote to me yesterday asking about the meaning of an Italian rhyme. While trying to answer Jeanne’s question, I thought it might be interesting to write about the process we go through when we work out the meaning of non-English rhymes. Italian rhymes can be particularly hard to decipher since there are so many Italian dialects.

Here’s what Jeanne wrote…

My ninety three year old mother is looking for an English translation for an old Italian rhyme said to babies (kind of like patty cake). Here’s what we have (probably misspelled)…

Mascha masilla,
Panna cazelle,
Panna ricotta,
Tofala botta!

Any thoughts?

Happy Thanksgiving

Jeanne Klein

I asked my colleague Monique of Mama Lisa’s World en français if she was familiar with this rhyme and here’s what she wrote…

It looks like this one I found on www.Filastrocche.it

Micio micello
Pane e cacello
Pizze e ricotte
Buffete botte!

So Mascha masilla would be Macia macilla = Micia micella = feminine for micio micello: micio is kid talk and means pussy cat, micello is a diminutive = pussy cat, little pussycat.

Panna cazelle may be pane e cacello = bread and cheese. But cacelle may be a dialectal form. Unless it’d mean panna e cacelle. Panna is milk cream, the type you get on top of the milk when you milk a cow then let the milk rest for a few hours. It’s delicious on top of a blueberry tart… and stays on your hips for months (at the least).

Panna ricotta: Panna = see above. Ricotta: I think you have ricotta cheese in the US, the word means “cooked twice”. So this panna ricotta may mean “cream cooked twice” – I’d chose this one – or panna e ricotta = cream and ricotta cheese. Otherwise, it might be pane e ricotta = bread and ricotta cheese.

Tofala botta = tofa la botta : tofa is dialectal form of standard tufa from the verb tufare that means to dive, to plunge, to dip. La botta may be a dialectal form of il botte that means a cask = “the cask dives” = “the cask sinks”.

This rhyme is sung while the kid is sitting on the adult’s lap and at the end, the adult spreads his/her knees and the kid “falls down” or “sinks”.

I can’t help more than that. Maybe an Italian person from the Regione this lady is from would know more.

Thanks for your help Monique!

I wonder if the last line could be reversed in English and changed to “Dive in the cask”. Meaning the cat is diving in the cask that the cream or cheese is being made in. That seems to make sense in the context.

So, putting that all together, you might get something like…

Macia macilla
Panna e cacelle
Panna ricotta
Tofa la botta!

Little Pussycat
Cream and Cheese
Cream and Ricotta
Dive in the cask!

If anyone can help out more with this rhyme, or can confirm the meaning in English, please comment below.

Thanks!

-Lisa

This article was posted on Friday, November 24th, 2006 at 12:43 pm and is filed under Countries & Cultures, Italian, Italian Nursery Rhymes, Italy, Languages, Nursery Rhymes, Questions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

13 Responses to “Discovering the Meaning of an Italian Nursery Rhyme about a Cat, Cream and Cheese”

  1. margaret panarese Says:

    I am trying to find the Italian Nursery rhyme about a king that had two sons and also three feathers was mentioned…my husbands father, was from Naples..and use to sing this song to my children.thanks…M

  2. Linda Says:

    Hi,
    My grandmother did this rhyme on our cheeks. She would stroke our cheeks while reciting the first three lines.
    For us, it sounded like this:
    Mane e macilla
    pane e cacilla
    Cacille e ricotta,
    At the end we would puff our cheeks and she would “pop” the air out of our cheeks. She said something that sounded like “A-Puppa da botta”.
    Well, since she and my mom are gone, I’m glad I found your scholarly research, since I had no idea, other than bread and ricotta, what she was saying.

  3. Gordon Tickner Says:

    My grandmother was from Minori and she used to play the cat, cream and cheese song/game with us. However, the way she said the words are not like any of those I have seen. If I can eventually remember them I will send them. Probably have to spell them as they sounded though. There was also a finger game and I think it went (sort of) itsa bitsa burra burits. Una preg…. cant remember any more, sorry. Anyone know that one?

  4. Lisa Says:

    Cheryl wrote:

    I have been on line trying to find a song my Great Aunt Concetta used to sing to all of the children….she turns 91 this Saturday. As she got older she forgot the lyrics and we all improvised ….so my version just consisted of “sounds like”. No one in my family knew it and no other Italians I asked knew it either. Micio Miagolio is the song!!! Although I am sure she used Musce Muscelli….I used to sing it Moosha Mishella…..haha!

    Similar to your site’s mention my aunt’s family immigrated from Naples in the early 1900’s as well. My children now sing my version, which I plan on correcting pronto!

    This is a great site, thanks again, and Happy Thanksgiving too :)

    -Cheryl

  5. Lee Says:

    My grandmother also sang this rhyme to us as children (early 1900’s- she was from Foggia, Italy near Naples) My mother sang it to my kids and I sing it to my grand kids. My daughter has been asking for a translation….delighted to finally see something here. We all sang it as we heard it and it came out as:

    Moosha Mishella
    Panne cacill
    Panne ricotta
    Poof e la botta

    Sit child on your knees facing you, take his/her hands and rub your cheeks and sing, then for last line, puff out your cheeks and take both his hands and botta (wham). We all loved that rhyme. So glad to find some info about it here. Thanks

  6. Rosemary Says:

    This sounds like a rhyme my father-in-law, who was from Abruzzi, would say to my sons as babies. But his was about a kitten that ate bread and milk and pear.
    As he slowly said the first three lines he would stroke their cheeks and on the last line he would pat their cheeks excitedly and rapidly.
    It went like this, with translation:

    Mangiato (What did you eat?)
    Pane e latte (Bread and milk)
    Ieri sera (Last night?)
    Pane e pera (Bread and pear)
    Micio, micio, micio, micio, micio! (Kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty!)

  7. Darlene Says:

    This is similar to a game my father used to play with me when I was a child. I’m second generation Italian American. My grandparents also came from Abruzzi region. Now, I was never sure about the pronounciation and I have NO idea of the spelling. But I will spell these out phonetically as I heard them as a child.
    My father would play this with me when he had a bit of a beard, five o’clock shadow sort of thing.
    As he would say the rhyme, I would say it along with him and rub both my hands on Daddy’s beard.

    Mushat, Mushat,
    Comenyata sera,
    Puny pate,
    Puny pate,
    Mush, mush mush

    At the last line of mush, mush, mush, Daddy would rub his beard on my face. I was told that it meant roughly
    Mush cat, mush cat
    What’ll you have for supper
    Bread and peppers
    Bread and peppers
    Mush, mush mush.

    Only we pronounced it MOOSH and not MUSH. I know gatto is cat in italian. So I don’t know if I heard it wrong all those years or not. ANyone ever hear of this one?

  8. Tony Says:

    I accidentally came across this link when I saw this Italian rhyme discussion, which has been a discussion in our family and probably others for many years! My Grandparents on my Mom’s side were from Celenza Valforte, Foggia, Italy. I vaguely remember my grandma singing this rhyme in Italian, in which we would be asked to puff out our cheeks. Grandma would gently and lightly stroke both our cheeks. Then on the fourth line, she would tap both cheeks quickly which let the air out of our cheeks. I had no idea what she was saying, but, I absolutely loved it!
    My Mom used this same Italian rhyme on my daughter when she was a baby. I thought it might be too simple a rhyme for the newer generation so I was curious to see my daughter’s reaction to this simple rhyme. My Mom asked my daughter to puff out her cheeks, and then Mom lightly and gently would stroke both cheeks, which for a baby was rather soothing. But, on the fourth line My Mom would tap both cheeks and BAM!!! My Mom would emphasize the last line, something like “Poof Poof Poof a la botta”…..Let me tell you, my daughter ABSOLUTELY loved this! In fact, she would ask my Mom Over and Over and Over again to do this again. To see my daughter’s wonderful reaction to such a simple rhyme was Priceless!!! I guess it has something to do with the surprise element of the fourth line and/or the yet unknown Italian language, who knows. I only know it worked many times for all the little ones. I would think this simple Italian rhyme would be a hit with babies of all different ethnic backgrounds. FOR THIS REASON, I ASK THAT YOU OR SOMEONE ELSE PLEASE PROVIDE ME WITH THE ITALIAN WORDS (AND POSSIBLE MEANING) TO THIS ITALIAN RHYME.
    I know the Italian rhyme I’m referring to has to do with BREAD (pane). I remember being told it had something to do with making the bread, rolling the bread, baking the bread, and tapping the bread.
    The closest I’ve see to the rhyme I remember was from….” Lee -My grandmother also sang this rhyme to us as children (early 1900’s- she was from Foggia, Italy near Naples) My mother sang it to my kids and I sing it to my grand kids. My daughter has been asking for a translation….delighted to finally see something here. We all sang it as we heard it and it came out as:

    Moosha Missile
    Panne cavil
    Panne ricotta
    Poof e la botta

    Sit child on your knees facing you, take his/her hands and rub your cheeks and sing, then for last line, puff out your cheeks and take both his hands and botta (wham). We all loved that rhyme. So glad to find some info about it here”.
    Or. “Jeanne….Mascha masilla,
    Panna cazelle,
    Panna ricotta,
    Tofala botta

    Thank You Very Much…Ciao!…Tony

  9. Dave Says:

    My Grandmother also sang this song to us. She was form Campobasso. My version was: Moosha Masha, panna casha, panna ricotta, tofala botta, tofala botta

    I sang it to my girls and they sing it to their kids so I guess it keeps getting passed along……….

  10. Mike Says:

    I saw your web site and saw the Italian game my dad played with us. The “panne cazelle . . .” My wife has a similar game with words like: weeshe weesh, bocca da beesh, bocca da rhue, ta tina la goo. played on the child’s cheeks facing her. and at the end would gently pat the cheeks. I could not find a translation like the one posted for the ” panne” game. Can you help?

  11. Marie Says:

    I have been looking and looking for this little rhyme also. Finally! Thank you so much. It is a cherished part of my childhood and we still sing it to this day to little ones in our family.

  12. Linda Davirro Says:

    My gramma from Campodipietra in Campobasso sang the rhyme to us with our cheeks puffed up and . The endings were cut off so it made it hard to translate. My last living aunt always thought it had something to do with a cat and was a nonsense rhyme, though! It’s great to see so many interpretations. It’s something we want to keep passing on to the next generations.

    My gramma sang it to my ears (phonetic version) and my guess

    Moosha mashale, —heap up the mush
    Pane cashale, ——-bread and salt?
    Pane ricott, ——–bread and cheese
    To fa la bot. ——-I always thought the last line was Tutto la boc(ca) – all in the mouth

  13. Rosilyn Parrish Says:

    My father would pinch my cheek and this is what I heard. Spelling as it sounded
    Pa chicka Pa Pa
    If someone can help me I would love to be able to tell my two other sisters just what my father was saying. He has since passed and I have always wondered. His family was Calabrese.

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