An Italian senator who compared the country's first black minister to an orangutan said he did a "silly thing" and offered to send her a bunch of roses.

Roberto Calderoli, a deputy speaker of the Senate who is well known for his racist and homophobic outbursts, said he was sorry for his "offensive remarks".

"I apologise to everyone," Calderoli told the Senate, adding however that he would continue to oppose the government for "encouraging illegal immigration".

Calderoli said he had called the target of the jibe, Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge, who is an Italian citizen of Congolese origin, and told her: "There were no racist insults in what I said".

Kyenge played down the row on Tuesday, telling reporters she did not want it to "get personal".

"The time has come in Italy for all of us to understand... the importance of words," she said.

The senator, a member of the anti-immigration Northern League party and a former government minister, once said that Italy "risks becoming a nation of poofs".

In other outbursts, he has also said Italy should not have a "tanned president" like in the United States and immigrants should "go back to the desert and talk to the camels or in the jungle with the monkeys".

The Northern League, a former coalition ally of ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, won four percent of the vote in parliamentary elections in February.