Not only is Prego a brand of spaghetti sauce that North Americans buy at the grocery store, it’s also a very useful but sometimes puzzling Italian word.
Its standard meaning is “you’re welcome”, which doesn’t seem so puzzling at all. Its life partner of course, is “grazie”, which means “thank you”. No problem there.
The tricky part comes when you walk into a pizzeria or a ristorante and someone asks you, “Prego?” Hmm…Am I welcome? I don’t know – you tell me! What they really mean though is, “How may I help you?” or “May I take your order?”.
It might also be used in the sense of “after you” or “go ahead”, when holding the door for someone, or if someone has mistakenly interrupted you in a conversation. (Although I’ve heard many an Italian conversation be carried out successfully with both people speaking over each other!)
Last but not least, your friendly Italian host might motion to a table laden with Italian delicacies and tell you, “prego”, hoping that you’ll sit down, relax and feel comfortable enough to help yourself!