These lessons are great reminders of what’s important in life.
Whether it is to bounce around the vast coastline, tour its metropolitan staples or to find hidden gem spots that are yet to be overly populated, it’s obvious why Italy is one of the most popular travel destinations year after year – from this July to September alone, the country was expecting 2.2 million North Americans to touch down. SI Swim cover stars Kim Kardashian, Ciara and Maye Musk along with Gwyneth Paltrow, Mariah Carey and Madonna were just a few of the many celebs who lived la dolce vita this summer by indulging in the amazing cuisine and being spoiled with the gorgeous scenery.
And let’s not forget its people, passionate and emotive, for they are the true essence and reason so many return. Italians love life and value every minute. Though I am American by citizenship, my blood is 96% Italian (thanks AncestryDNA), and I have been lucky enough not to just vacation there, but have lived there with my family from a month or two at a time to six when I studied abroad in the Eternal City.
There is a difference between spending a week or two as a tourist and really immersing yourself in their culture and customs. Knowing even a few rules the natives live by will go the distance during your travels, and some may even be things you carry on once you are stateside. Below are some of the most important lessons that have become a part of who I am, and when I start to fall into old ways, it’s back to Italy I go for a quick reminder.
Food is no laughing matter
Italians take their cibo very seriously, so if you expect to make any special requests to a dish, forgettaboutit! This list could go on and on, but here are the crucial factors that can make or break a meal: The quality of the ingredients is always superior no matter where you are. The time of year matters for certain ingredients – buying fresh tomatoes before May and after October is sacrilegious — but the holy grail is that pasta is al dente, period. Under no circumstance should cheese ever be sprinkled on top of a pasta dish with fish; carbonara is solely made with egg and cheese, no cream; salad is for after the meal to digest, and above all, dessert is not for sharing – get your own. In fact, Americans love to order multiple plates to put in the middle of the table to have a little taste of everything, which leaves many waiters confused and asking how many portions. Oh, and leave the spoon for soup or something other than twirling spaghetti.
Meals should not be rushed
Italians walk to their own (very slow) beat, especially when it comes to mealtime when they savor every last bite. Even when you want a quick dinner, that will put you at a two-to-three-hour timeframe. Lunch is also not something to overlook and eat fast, but a chance to step away from work to take a necessary break over a delicious meal and wine. Aperitivo is also a form of a meal when friends meet a couple hours before dinner for snacks and cocktails.
Sundays are for la famiglia
If you live near your parents and grandparents, Sundays are all about family. No matter the time of year, both lunch and dinners are spent together and include even longer meals that go from antipasto (starter) to primo (pasta) to secondo (main course). Once you are done eating and during the time before dinner, families will all gather around the TV to watch whatever sporting event is on or will spend quality time reminiscing and learning from the older generation. A necessary nap is worked in as well, but it doesn’t get more quality time than this.
Table talk doesn’t mean on the phone
Once seated at the table, it’s time to enjoy each other’s company and not check in with others who are not there. Despite trying to take cues from cousins and friends, I’m always guilty of having my phone out and checking it multiple times throughout the meal.
Every region has the best food
There are 20 regions in Italy, and each one is as famous for their local cuisine as their artwork and artifacts. For example, Emilia-Romagna is where to find the best Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Parma ham, balsamic vinegar and pasta bolognese. Lazio has Pecorino Romano, Romanesco artichokes and the trifecta of pasta carbonara, amatriciana and cacio e pepe. Abruzzo, which is where I have been going since I was 13, has saffron, arrosticini, torrone nougat, spaghetti alla chitarra, and my favorite, timballo. The other 17 are just as unique and delicious, but whatever you do, always say wherever you are is the best.
Wine is holier than water
Good vino doesn’t need to be costly. In restaurants, ordering the table wine can introduce you to some local vineyards that are just as good and inexpensive. White wine is to be drunk in hotter temperatures or a chilled rosato, and red is for winter. Ask for red in summer, and they may look at you like you have three heads. Whites are for anything involving fish or lighter dishes while red is for meats and heavier meals. When eating pizza, always opt for bubbles whether it is a prosecco, Franciacorta or beer as wine can be overpowering to the pie. And to finish a meal, always take a digestif like limoncello, grappa or amaro, but make sure you sip it and don’t shoot it – I learned the hard way!
Ordering a cappuccino after dinner will break the waiter’s heart. Capps are for breakfast only. A caffè is not a cup of coffee but an espresso, and a latte is just steamed hot milk, so make sure to order a caffè latte if you want the caffeine. A caffè Americano is espresso with water to give you a larger cup and is as close to a good old cup of joe. Italians probably consume at least three caffès a day from when they wake up to after every meal and in between. I have made the mistake many times to drink it after dinner and have stayed awake well past my bedtime. It is no joke! And if you make it at home in a Moka pot, only clean it with water, never soap. As for the concept of an espresso martini, they are coming around to the idea.
Work stays at work
During the pandemic, it was a big adjustment for many to work where they sleep. When it’s time to go home at the end of the day, work stays at the office. For most, there are no after-hours calls, last-minute emails or late meetings to be had. Even on vacation, it’s frowned upon to check in as it is time to recharge. And yes, August really is when most have dedicated weeks off, if not the whole month.
After family and food, football, or as we call it soccer, is held in the highest regard on all levels from local to the national team. Never has a country come together more than when it is to cheer on the Azzurri soccer team in the Euros or World Cup. Sadly, Italy did not qualify for the World Cup in Qatar next month.
Health is wealth
Italians take their health very seriously. According to the World Health Organization, they have the sixth-highest life expectancy in the world. Their diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, lean meats and foods without preservatives, certainly helps keep ailments away. And then there are the quirky rules I have learned to love, the top two being: one, never go outside with wet hair as you will catch a cold, and two, as soon as the temperature goes below 70, it’s time to bundle up. Italians may well have figured out how to master this thing called life. Prego!