Viva Italiano! 🇮🇹
Updated: Jun 6, 2022
One of my favorite destinations is Italy. For me, personally, Italy is hard to beat. I am in love with their culture, their language, their style, their attitude, their food, their coffee, their wines, their music, their opera, their ancient history, their renaissance history, their architecture, their landscapes, their beaches, their sunrises, their sunsets, their passion and their love of life itself. YOU name it; I ❤️ Italy! That being said, trying to blend in with Italians is sometimes a challenge and, at least for me, a learning process. It seems that with every trip, I learn something new. What to do, what NOT to do. What to order, what NOT to order. What to wear, what NOT to wear. How to do it, how to order it, how to wear it. In this blog, I will share some of my insights and tips regarding Italian culture which I have picked up from my several visits to that BEAUTIFUL country.
As I start MY every day ... Coffee, first!
I am not sure if I would consider coffee or wine Italy's national drink. But, one thing for sure, is that for Italians, coffee is NO JOKE! It is a serious business and they do it better than anyone. Whereas in the US, we order all types of coffees at all hours of the day, whatever we are in the mood for. In Italy, it is not the case. For example, there it is not customary to order a cappuccino after 11 am. Cappuccino is considered exclusively a "breakfast coffee" to be ordered only in the morning. After 11 am they drink straight up espressos or double espressos, for the most part. If you REALLY INSIST on adding milk to your coffee after 11 am, then a macchiato is, reluctantly, acceptable.
Another useful coffee tip, particularly for Americans, is that an Americano is not always an Americano! In the USA, when ordering an Americano, I expect a shot (or double shot) of espresso diluted a bit with hot water. I have ordered many Americanos in Italy, with that same expectation, but have been served filtered drip coffee instead. Italians sometimes think that by "Americano', we mean an American-style drip coffee. So, if desiring an Americano, it is helpful to clarify your expectation.
Italy is chock full of coffee bars scattered throughout the cities. Italians will belly up to the bar, order a coffee with perhaps a pastry or petite sandwich, consume it while standing at the bar, and then move along. If you order coffee and expect to consume it sitting down at one of their tables, which some Italians do, then expect an upcharge. Prices for table service are traditionally higher than eating at the bar. Additionally, table service is often slow and lackadaisical. Perhaps that is why many Italians just chug their coffee and move along. You certainly don't see Italians sitting down and consuming American style breakfasts with eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, and the like. So, short of going to a tourist hotspot, you may need to rethink what and how you eat breakfast in Italy.
Let's move on to Lunch ... or Dinner
On our many trips to Italy, we have gotten into the habit of ordering pizza, with some wine of course, for lunch. The pizzas in Italy are phenomenal and meant to be individual pizzas (10-12") ... made for ONE person. They typically are thin-crusted and most commonly baked in wood-burning pizza ovens. They are very short on toppings, typically only one or two toppings, but the ingredients are extraordinarily fresh. This makes for a VERY FLAVORFUL and light pizza, which is probably why an individual can eat a 10-12" pizza on their own! When reviewing the menu for the MANY pizza topping selections, note that peperoni (with one P) and pepperoni (with double P) are NOT the same things. Peperoni is Italian for peppers! I can attest to this from personal experience as I ordered and expected a pizza with pepperoni (sausage) slices and ended up receiving a pizza loaded with only peppers ... but it was very tasty, nonetheless.
I also advise you not to succumb to the pressure of hosts that are relentlessly trying to lure you in and recruit you to their restaurants. This happens at all hours of the day and evening. You will typically find them in popular, tourist-heavy locations and the food is most often below average quality. The "specials" are at best mediocre "tourist menus". Although the hosts come on very strong, resist the urge to sit down! Much better and more authentic places await. Ask the locals, and try to seek out authentic dining. You will be happy that you did!
Authentic restaurants, typically, will get crowded in the late evening hours, for that is when the locals dine. They commonly eat dinner at 8, 9, or 10 pm. When you find an authentic restaurant, expect that there will be a "sitting charge" which typically includes the bread. Regardless of whether or not you want bread, asked for bread, or eat bread, it is part of the "sitting charge"; no point in debating that with them. In Italy, olive oil for dipping your bread isn't customary, so don't expect olive oil to be offered alongside the bread. That is an "American-Italian" tradition. A waiter will, however, typically ask if you would like water, for which there is ALWAYS a charge. They will bring bottled water, not tap. Your options will be sparkling (gas) or still (no gas). Ice is not served with water.
Upon reviewing their menu, you will find an initial section titled 'Antipasta.' That is essentially their appetizers. Next will be 'Contorni.' These are typically pasta side dishes. In Italy, pasta is NOT an entree. It is a small side dish meant to either accompany or be eaten prior to a fish or meat entree. (You will also note that Chicken Alfredo is NOT to be found. This, too, is an American creation and not an authentic Italian dish.) The meat dishes in Italy are delicious. They have excellent beef, veal, and pork dishes. The fish is extremely fresh and typically served as whole, grilled. That means that the head and tail are usually intact and you will need to filet it yourself.
Time for Dessert!
While restaurants do offer a selection of desserts, we often elect to forgo that option and instead walk around the town a bit (to 'burn off' our meal, lol!) until we happen about a gelato shop (gelateria). Gelato in Italy is iconic! Names like Grom, Amorino, and Giolitti offer amazing gelato and should not be bypassed. But, if those names are not available where you are, then there are tips to look for to clue you into quality gelato. Look for stainless steel vats, as opposed to plastic or cardboard, within which the gelato is housed. Look for gelato that is NOT decoratively heaped up, but rather is flush with or submerged within the steel vat. Most importantly, look specifically at the color of their pistachio gelato. Do not buy there if the color is bright green or lime green. For great gelato, the color of the pistachio gelato should be dull green, almost brown and muddy. If you see that color, then that place serves GREAT GELATO! When ordering gelato you will PAY FIRST. The information you need to tell the cashier is whether you desire a cup (coppetta) or a cone (cono). Next clarify the size as small (piccolo), medium (medio), large (grande). Then pay and take your receipt to the servers at the gelato counter who will scoop you the goods! The servers expect that with a small you will select one flavor, with a medium you select two flavors and with a large you select three flavors. So, depending on which size you chose, communicate your flavor(s) to the servers. That rule holds for both a cup and a cone. Then ENJOY!!! There is nothing like authentic, creamy Italian gelato.
Parla Italiano! ... or at least fake it and try
It has been my experience that Italians love it when we try to speak their language. They don't get offended by tourists who attempt to speak Italian but fail to sound eloquent. Italians are enthusiastic, supportive, and seem to simply embrace the attempt. I usually try to order in Italian and find that they are very patient and happily clarify pronunciations. I have actually learned a lot this way. Of course, it is helpful to go there knowing a few basic expressions such as hello (ciao, buongiorno), good evening (buonasera), good night (buonanotte), thank you (grazie), you're welcome (prego), please (per favor), sorry/excuse me (scusi), do you speak English? (parla inglese?), yes (sí), no (no), goodbye (arriverderci), one (uno), two (due), three (tre), wine (vino), beer (birra), coffee (caffé). But when in Rome, do as the Romans do ... or at least try. Try to speak and learn! It makes traveling to Italy that much more fun!
Lastly, buckle up and drive
Driving in Italy is a lot of fun and a true experience. Of course, no need to have a car in the big cities. In fact, there, it is more headache and chest pain provoking then what it is worth. But, driving in the countryside, in Tuscany, between cities, along the sea and the like is a true pleasure. Italians know how to drive and they drive fast! But more importantly, they respect the unstated but expected rules of the road. They drive in the RIGHT lanes and only use the LEFT lanes to pass. So if you are a tourist, dilly-dallying in the left lane, they WILL climb your bumper, honk their horn, and maybe even gesture at you until you move out of their way. But there is a very simple fix to that. Stay in the right lane unless you are quickly passing another car, and then reclaim your place on the right. Another nicety in Italian driving is that there are very few traffic signals. Most intersections are dealt with by roundabouts. I love this because it keeps traffic moving. GPS navigation is also generally great throughout Italy. We have navigated many dirt paths through olive groves and vineyards that actually showed up on our GPS navigator!
Italian life is really quite fun, exciting, charming, and romantic. They certainly know how to live life fully. They value relationships and quality time spent with family and friends. They value quality over quantity when it comes to clothes, food, wine, and coffee. They love the arts and beautiful architecture. For these reasons, I think we would all benefit to have a little Italian in us!