"Non si può avere la botte piena, e la moglie ubriaca" is one of my favorite idiomatic expressions in Italian. It means: "You can't have the bottle full and your wife [nonetheless] drunk." In English, we would say, 'You can't have your cake and eat it, too.'
The expression came to mind last week when I found a great book: "The Streetwise Italian Dictionary/Thesaurus." It was published by McGraw-Hill in 2005.
Some of the expressions mentioned in the book don't ring a bell. But some you hear every day on any streetcorner in Italy.
Here are some of my favorites:
1. "Tanto fumo, e poco arrosto." Literally: too much smoke, not enough roast (meat). We might say, "All talk, no action." The book suggests: "A lot of show, but not much substance."
2. "Avere le lacrime in tasca." Literally: to have tears in your pocket. Meaning: to cry at the drop of a hat. I've actually never heard anyone say this in Italy, but the irony that's inherent in the phrase makes it sound very authentic for the Italian frame of mind.
3. "Fare forca/marinare la scuola." They both mean to play hooky from school. You will hear people in Tuscany say 'forcaiolo' to describe someone who's skipping out (useful expression when you're a teacher).
4. "Ogni morte di papa." Literally: once every death of a pope, i.e. rarely.
5. "L'abito non fa il monaco." Literally: The outfit does not make the monk. We would say, "Don't judge a book by its cover."
6. "Conosco i miei polli." Literally: I know my chickens (CIAO ANGELO!!). Sottointeso come: I'm nobody's fool. At least, that's what the book says. To be honest, I have heard friends use the phrase (i.e. Angelo!) to suggest knowing someone so well you can predict his or her ways. Perhaps Il Nostro Inviato would like to give his two cents.
I am still reading my way through the entries (the book runs 260 pages, including the index) so I will share other examples as I find them.
A tra poco!