How to Savor Italy the Italian Way
So you want to visit Il Bel Paese (“The Beautiful Country”), “the Boot”, the land of statues and pizza, the birthplace of the Renaissance, Galileo, Da Vinci and Pavarotti. Italians are known as a passionate and vibrant people, and their rich culture retains a number of important traditions and customs dating back centuries. We have a few insights that might help you if you’re wondering how to blend in or just appreciate the differences on your next trip.
Value quality over quantity
This perspective goes for both food and fashion. Italians have an innate sense of elegant style that extends to their famously well-heeled wardrobe, as well as a taste for the finer accoutrements of life. Just look at all the high-end brands Italy gives the world: Armani, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Ferrari, Ferragamo, Bvlgari and more. When in Italy, you may want to try and emulate the natural, effortless chic style of the locals. The important thing is to focus on understated and timeless luxury, and to look like you’re not even trying – a certain studied nonchalance captured by the word sprezzatura.
But nowhere is the quality-over-quantity issue more essential than when it comes to Italian cuisine. Very different from the traditional food experiences you will find in the US, the classic meal in Italy takes time and great care with the freshest ingredients. Italians love spending hours at the table with family and friends, sharing wine, food and stories. Slowing down to savor the flavors and socialize is an important part of the real Italian experience, and what’s on the table is always a big part of the discussion.
The local food movement is nothing new
Forget your one-stop-shop mega stores. Italy’s cities and towns are overflowing with local markets and specialty suppliers, so don’t miss out on the opportunity to buy local as the Italians have been doing for centuries. You can still drop by a salumeria, like a delicatessen, where a variety of cooked and cured meats, as well as cheeses and other prepared foods are just waiting to be taken on a picnic in the nearest piazza. There’s also the fruit and vegetable shop (frutta e verdura) where it is expected that you will let the vendor collect and bag what you require instead of just rummaging through the beautiful produce yourself. For breads, cakes and pastries, you can spend time browsing the selections at the panificio (bakery) and pasticerria (pastry shop). And don’t forget to check out the daily or weekly street markets, which can be found in every town and sometimes more than one in different piazzas. Even the supermarkets will have less processed foods than you find sold in the US, and many of the products will be fresh and local. And while we’re at it, you mustn’t forget to indulge in Italian gelato from a gelateria!
Embrace the aperitivo
This aperitivo is based on the Italian concept that a little pre-dinner drink with lights snacks stimulates the appetite before dinner. It’s also a great way to relax and unwind after a workday. This wonderful food and drink ritual is most popular in northern and central Italy, especially in Milan, the birthplace of Campari liquor, which is the king of aperitivo cocktails. Campari’s bitter bite is an acquired taste, but after a few sips and paired with the complimentary bar snacks, the sensation is quite nice. Some bars and restaurants will stick with simple nuts, olives and chips to go with your drink, while other establishments will go all out with a food buffet including sandwiches and pastas. It’s generally expected that you will not make a full meal out of the buffet, but simply use it to get those gastric juices flowing and take some time to socialize with friends. The Italians have cleverly devised yet another way to take a moment out of your day to push the pause button and enjoy time with good food and good friends – which brings us to our next point…
Appreciate the beauty of life
Even when life’s not perfect, Italians know how to appreciate simple pleasures and take joy from sometimes unexpected moments. You will find that the country’s inhabitants aren’t in a big hurry like many Americans, especially when it comes to getting to the office (of course these stereotypes don’t hold as true in busy cities like Milan). Appointments are more flexible, and you may find longer lines at the post office or train station, maybe even a transportation strike. But the locals wouldn’t let that ruin their day, or at least they’ve become accustomed to the system such as it is, and in fact are able to find the silver lining with experienced practice. Put another way, don’t let life’s downers get in the way of appreciating its special moments. As previously mentioned, Italians take more time for meals, stretching dinner out well past the time the food has been cleared away, and lingering over an after-dinner caffé or limoncello. But more than relaxed meals, Italians know that life’s happiest moments should be savored as they come, such as the flaky crust of your cornetto as it melts in harmony with your petite morning cappuccino, the smell of a new genuine leather bag, or the romantic glint of the sunset over the rolling Tuscan landscape. Well, you get the idea.
And don’t forget: when you find the beauty in life, let it be known. Italians are quite fond of using exclamations such as bellissima! (very beautiful), che bello! (how beautiful), or che bellezza! (what beauty). So when you take a luscious bite of a slice in Rome, you might find yourself saying, “Che bella pizza”. If you’re a female traveler, it’s hard to go without hearing the infamous Ciao, bella! at some point, and males even use Ciao, bello! to greet each other in the streets. In Italy, la bellezza è la vita.
Don’t hold back
Italians tell it like it is, so don’t be surprised or offended by any bold or personal comments made by someone you’ve only just met. Just appreciate the refreshing honesty and freedom to really say what you feel. As we’ve said, aesthetics are important and people are just as likely to give you a compliment as give you wardrobe advice or comment on your weight. But this famously blunt candor of the Italian people comes from a caring place and can even make one feel more at home. Also known for their romantic and passionate natures, if you see Italians seemingly yelling at each other, it doesn’t always mean they’re fighting, only that they might be on to something about the value of good old-fashioned cathartic communication. Maybe the freedom to openly express and vent their emotions as vocally as they wish is part of the secret to finding that silver lining we mentioned earlier. When in Italy, we hope that you will really engage with the locals and discover the warmth and welcome of this wonderful nation, as well as revel in its limitless beauty and timeless elegance.
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