Italy is a favourite tourist or permanent shift destination for those in search of a new career, love, a more relaxed lifestyle, or simply needing a change. We have all heard of pizza, pasta, and espresso, but there are many hidden treasures and dos & don’ts you may not know about the country where the “Dolce Vita” shines bright.When you hear “Italy”, you imagine yourself enjoying a breathtaking view, while sipping on a glass of red wine. Italian culture has taken over the world; you can find it from New York to Sydney to Tokyo, and everywhere in between.
But don’t fool yourself, it is impossible to know everything there is to know about this boot-shaped country.
There are numerous facts about its culture, climate, and food, which amaze newcomers and expert travellers alike. Allow me to share some with you.
Rome, Florence, and Venice are a must see, but don’t overlook smaller regional cities and towns.
These cities should not be missed, even if crowded with tourists year-round, but you will miss out on Italy’s astonishing rural areas, natural landscapes, and plethora of local delicacies if you do not wonder beyond the walls of these three iconic cities.
The boot-shaped country has very diverse climates: for instance, did you know that in the region of Abruzzo you will find Europe’s most southern glacier? It is found in the Gran Sasso d’Italia in the central Apennines and located at a height between 2,650 and 2,850 meters.
In the Dolomiti, a mountain range in Südtirol where my dad’s family is from, you can taste Italian cuisine with Germanic influences, while gazing at the pale limestone mountains.
Moving to Sardinia, one of Italy’s main islands, you can find some of the most pristine beaches, Budelli Beach, which, with its pink sand, is considered one of the most beautiful in the Mediterranean. This beach is considered such a gem that it cannot be visited but only gazed upon, from a boat at a distance.
Considering that Italy has over 70% of the world’s UNESCO World Heritage sites – 54 in total – you are guaranteed to be struck by culture wherever you turn. Did you know that the biggest and best kept Ancient Greek temple is actually in Sicily, not Greece?
There is no such thing as only one language spoken in the whole peninsula.
Due to its history, countless languages and dialects are spoken. All are different from the standard Italian language which originated in Florence. So different that, if you only understand standard Italian, you may not actually understand much of its population.
A 2015 research by the Istituto Nazionale di Statistica calculated that 32% of Italians speak both Italian and their regional language/dialect at home, while as many as 14% rarely speak standard Italian. As a matter of fact, each town’s dialect, even if only a few kilometres apart, can vary, some with crystal clear characteristics, others not so obvious. As an example, where I live the letter “s” is pronounced as an “s”; 3km away, it is pronounced as a “z”.
A number of these languages are registered by law, like Griko (a mix between ancient Greek and Italian spoken in the Salento region of Apulia), Ladin (a Romance language spoken in South Tirol) and Sardinian (a Romance language spoken in the island of Sardinia). Hundreds of other local variations exist and have been passed down orally through generations.
Italians are the most genetically diverse population on the European continent.
Greeks, Germanic, Scandinavian, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, and Austrians have all mixed with the local population. More recently, migration from Eastern European countries, as well as west and north Africa, are adding further variations to the Italian gene pool.
A study published in 2015, actually showcases how the genome in the Italian peninsula can be used to better understand the history of Europe and the Mediterranean Basin.
This diversity in the gene pool developed over centuries is as a result of invasions by foreign populations, who later settled in Italy, the country geographically placed at the heart of the Mediterranean trade routes.
Italian food as a single category exists only outside Italy.
Inside the boot-shaped country, there are numerous regional and sub-regional cuisines, with some dishes found only in certain towns, while existing in a variety of local versions.
Although the peninsula is rich in history, modern Italy as a unified state only dates back to 1861. This is one reason why the various regions of Italy, and sometimes even individual towns, jealously guard the distinctiveness of their culinary tradition, customs, and spoken language. As an example, traditional Tuscan bread is baked without salt—the result of an ancient (and now abolished) salt tax. Parma is the exclusive original home of both Parmigiano cheese and Prosciutto di Parma ham.
Climate and geography play a part as well: the north, more suited for dairy farming, prefers cream and butter for cooking over olive oil. And then there are foreign influences: Sicily and other parts of the south have taken on board Arab influences, such as a preference for spices and herbs, couscous, and oranges. Pizza is also said to have originated from middle eastern pita bread. Did you know that the discovery of the “New continent” named America after Amerigo Vespucci brought forth potatoes, tomatoes and corn: now essential ingredients of the Italian cuisine?
Believe it or not, even though Italy is home to some of the best meat, fish and cold cuts dishes, historically it has been closer to the vegetarian world. According to the studies of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, it is certain that people of the peninsula were mostly vegetarian, starting from the ancient Romans. Up to the end of the 19th century, Italians fed on a diet based on legumes, vegetables, cereals and vegetable fats (such as olive oil), a diet that we today call Mediterranean.
Food is considered serious business.
So serious that I left this till the end, to make sure you read carefully, remember the rules, and try not to break them. Either that, or make sure you are clearly identifiable as a tourist.
Italians have strict unwritten cultural rules about what can and cannot be done; rules which usually end up confusing visitors and newly arrived expats wanting to live in Italy. I was born in Como, Italy, recently moved back and lived in Florence for 18 months; now in Venice for 18 months, and I must admit, I still struggle with the idea of no cappuccino after 11:30 and definitely no cappuccino with pizza for dinner.
But do not worry, we have you covered. By following these simple dos and don’ts, you will be able to avoid many tourist traps and sit at any Italian table like uno del posto (one of the locals).
Rule #1: Abstain from sprinkling Parmigiano Reggiano on your plate of steak, chicken, vegetables, potatoes and especially seafood.
The urge to drizzle what is arguably one of the best cheeses in the world on top of everything can be difficult to resist.
This hard cheese is famous for its strong taste, which can overwhelm certain dishes, that’s why its use should be limited to pasta and risotto. But remember, the “no-cheese-on-seafood” rule extends also to pasta and risotto. So next time you order a delicious seafood risotto or spaghetti alle vongole, make sure to skip the cheese or risk rather deadly looks from the locals.
Rule #2: Avoid drinking cappuccino or latte after 11:30. These two are considered breakfast drinks, to sip on while eating a cornetto or brioche at the bar and normally standing, not sitting at a table.
All Italians know the secret behind spotting a tourist: just look for whoever orders cappuccino after lunch or dinner, or who drinks their coffee before finishing the meal; that is definitely a tourist, or me, of course.
So, if you are looking to blend in, after midday order yourself an Espresso (50 ml of coffee), Ristretto (the first 15ml), Lungo (130 ml of coffee) or Corretto (depending on where you are, this is a ristretto, or an espresso with an added shot of Grappa, Anise, or other alcohol from the territory you are in). For your information Caffè Corretto actually means “proper coffee”.
If you must add milk, make it a Caffé Macchiato (an espresso topped off with a tiny head of frothed cold or hot milk) or even a Machiattone (something between a macchiato and a cappuccino) is available in some, but not all regions.
Rule #3: Nobody, but nobody even contemplates dinner before 19:00. It is important to know that start time increases to a later hour the further south your journey takes you.
Restaurants in tourist areas meet foreign needs but will rarely serve a hot dinner meal before 19:00. Italians dine out around 20:00, and even that normally starts with an Aperitivo and a chat.
In other words, if you wish to blend in with the locals, do not turn up before 20:00 and if you really want to enjoy the Dolce Vita try for 20:30 and start with a local drink.
If you are absolutely starving, start with an Aperitivo (finger food with mild alcoholic drinks such as Aperol or Campari Spritz), or even an Apericena (the same thing, but with more food choices and naturally, more drinks). If you truly want to go Italian and blend in with the locals, in Veneto ask for a Prosecco, in Tuscany a Chianti, Sicily a nice Chinotto or Marsala, a Mirto in Sardinia, a Montefalco in Umbria, a refreshing Limoncello in Campania.
Rule #4: Italian menus are divided into clearly defined courses: do not even consider switching them around.
• Antipasti: Bruschetta (grilled bread with toppings, the most popular being the one with fresh tomatoes and basil), grilled and marinated vegetables, cold cuts of meat, and cheese.
• Primi: Pasta, gnocchi, lasagne, risotto, or a hearty soup such as minestrone or Ribollita, a typical Tuscan dish.
• Secondi: Meat or fish, and occasionally a frittata (more or less, an omelette) or platter of grilled veggies.
• Contorni: Side dishes such as potatoes, grilled or fried vegetables, salad, beans and sottoli (vegetables under oil) or sottaceti (pickled vegetables).
• Dolci: Fruit, gelato, or delicacies such as Tiramisù, panna cotta or a cake. On this topic and to highlight “territorial variety”, I recently judged the Tiramisù Championships and there were over 600 officially recognised traditional Italian variations to the recipe.
• Caffè: It’s very common to finish your meal with un caffè but remember: No Cappuccino or Latte”.
• Digestivo: Traditionally the meal ends with an Amazza caffè (“coffee killer”), which can be a grappa, an “amaro”, such as the Amaro del Capo, or another alcoholic digestive, such as Limoncello.
Again, and this is something you will have no choice but to get used to: It all depends where you are in Italy. As an example, in Südtirol (Alto Adige), you will be trying one of the many Grappas, in Sicily, it will be a nice Limoncello, while in Sardinia, it will be a Mirto.
Rule #5: Regional specialties are a must try, but remember, some are only found in specific towns and at specific times of the year.
Roma is famous for its Carbonara, which is actually not an Italian traditional dish, but that is a different story, for a different day. Rome is also famous for Cacio e Pepe; Firenze for its Fiorentina (a T-Bone steak, traditionally derived from the “Chianina”, the largest and one of the oldest breeds of cattle in the world); Milano where mum’s family is from, you cannot go past Risotto allo Zafferano (saffron risotto) and parts of Veneto for its White Polenta e Bruscandoli. As an example, Bruscandoli are only available for 2 to 3 weeks every year.
If you do a bit of homework and discover the local specialties in each destination you visit, you will no doubt better enjoy your culinary adventure. Most of all, please remember that only tourist traps serve “standard Italian food”.
Rule #6: Nothing says “I am a local” more than doing a Scarpetta. This happens when you use your bread to wipe the sauce left on your plate.
In Italy, sauces accompanying your pasta or risotto will be thick and flavourful, so letting it go to waste is a shame and no real Italian seasoned pasta veteran would overlook such an opportunity.
Rule #7: In Italy, receiving the bill before you ask, is very rude. Once you are seated, expect the table to be yours for the rest of the night.
No one will rush you while you eat or when you are finished. You can find some Italians still seated at their table two hours after they’ve finished eating, enjoying their after-dinner drinks and chat.
In Italy, receiving your bill before asking for it is like being told: “Thank you for having chosen our restaurant, but now that you are finished, get out and make room for the next lot of clients”. Till you call the waiter and say: “il conto per favore”, you will not see the bill.
When visiting a country with an ancient culture such as Italy, cultural awareness is key to enjoying your stay. By following these simple, even if strange guidelines, you will blend in as one of the locals in no time at all and better enjoy the Dolce Vita Italy is all about.
How to eat like a real Italian
Italians can be insufferable when it comes to food, complaining about everything from drinking Pepsi with dinner to mixing sweet and savoury or having fruit before the main meal. I often need to put up with my relatives telling me how Australian I am.
So, here are a few tips, but before we get in too deep, I want to clarify that, like in everything else, there is nothing standard when it comes to Italian eating customs, everything is regional.
Italians hit their local bar at least five times a week, enjoying a simple yet delicious breakfast, which usually consists of a cornetto, the Italian version of a croissant. A good cornetto should be crisp with a lot of puff pastry and a heady aroma of butter. Cornettos can contain pistachio, chocolate, crema pasticciera (a yellowish cream), jam, or a variety of local selectios.
Your average Italian does not sit down to enjoy their breakfast, preferring instead to devour their cornetto and chase it down with an espresso, while standing at the often-small counter, and proudly in your way. And remember: “You always finish with your espresso, never with food of any sort”.
It’s the main meal of the day and it’s often eaten at 13:00. If you are going to any restaurant open for lunch after 15:00, it’s likely to be a tourist trap. Italians don’t eat lunch at 15:00; this is their powernap (abbiocco) time before going back to work around 15:00, or reopening shop at say 16:00.
Blend in and go to an osteria if you want more elaborate dishes, or a trattoria for home cuisine style food; put in the classic Italian lunch order, a pasta primo, followed by meat secondo and a side (contorno). If you don’t want to look like a tourist, you are expected to order all three.
Most Italians end lunch with seasonal fruit, peeling every bit of skin off with a knife and surgical precision.
Again, you are expected to order three courses for dinner, although most Italians will also grab an antipasto and a dessert. When it comes to dessert, if you want to look Italian, never order a gelato in the restaurant; walk around the corner to a proper gelateria.
The alternative is to opt for a pizza and remember, everyone orders their own pizza. There is no small, medium, large, or stuffed crust just one dinner-plate-sized pizza. You can accompany any pizza with a tasty, local beer, but as an Italian will tell you “any red beer is best”.
Finish with an espresso. It is your fourth or fifth for the day and it is very late, but it is the Italian way. Oh yes, do not forget the traditional and often free digestivo to wash it all down and when offered, a good Italian never refuses.