Chances are very good that you don’t need to be convinced to want to go (or return) to Italy. The country sells itself with its food, wine, history, fashion, and dramatic landscapes – what’s not to love?
A few friends and a co worker recently returned from (separate) summer vacations in Italy and my jealousy seeing their pictures is off the charts. Italy has had a special place in my heart ever since I was lucky enough to work in Rome for five months several years ago. Truly doing “as the Romans do” was by far one of the coolest experiences of my life.
Although I would hardly consider myself a Roman after five all-too-short months, I did learn a thing or two about Italian culture that you could easily incorporate into your next trip to the boot-shaped country to feel a little bit less like a turista and a little bit more like a local.
1. Pony up to the bar for an espresso and cornetto for breakfast
Breakfast isn’t typically a big meal in Italy. Most Italians are content with a coffee and cornetto, which is a pastry similar to a croissant. Instead of sitting down at a table, many eat and drink their coffee while standing at the bar, especially on weekdays before going to work. At most cafes you place your order at the register, pay, and then give your receipt to the barista. Bonus: coffee is cheaper at the bar!
A couple notes on coffee in Italy:
- Cappuccinos are only drank in the morning. If you want one later in the day, you can get one, but you might get a funny look when ordering it. My coworkers would make fun of me for getting an espresso macchiato (espresso “stained” with a little bit of milk) after lunch. The barista would always serve it to me with a wink and a smile.
- If you want a latte, be sure to order a caffe latte, otherwise you might end up with a glass of milk!
2. Take a passeggiata around the piazza
La passeggiata is an evening stroll around the town center, generally the main piazza before dinner. Its main purpose is to socialize and to see and be seen. Therefore, some may dress up for the occasion. Italy isn’t a fashion capital for nothing!
So pick a piazza to saunter around, people watch, and revel in “il bel far niente” or the beauty of doing nothing. Italians sure have life figured out, huh?
3. Enjoy an aperitivo
An aperitivo is like a happy hour, but WAY better because it comes with free food when you buy a drink! Bars that offer an aperitivo lay out a spread of food, some enough to seriously qualify as your dinner (another money saving tip!). That being said, it’s really meant to whet your appetite for dinner, not BE your dinner.
For one of the best aperitivo spreads in Rome and a lively scene, head to Freni e Frizioni in Piazza Trilussa in Trastevere. Salotto 42 is a much lower key, charming option to enjoy your pre-dinner drink and bites.
4. If you see gelato piled sky high, don’t buy!
Let’s be honest, there’s no such thing as BAD gelato, but some gelato is better than others. A good rule of thumb is to avoid the gelato that is piled up into a huge overflowing mound and that is an unnatural color.
Instead, go for the natural looking gelato and make sure to try a combination of at least two flavors while you’re at it. My favorite gelato in Rome is Gelateria del Teatro. Delizioso!
5. Scarpetta it up
One of my favorite words in Italian is scarpetta, which literally translates to “little shoe,” but it means to take bread and use it to soak up the sauce from your pasta. This isn’t something you would do in a super formal situation, but it’s totally acceptable at most meals. The sauce is so good in Italy, don’t let any go to waste!
6. Be aware of il sciopero
Il sciopero, or a strike, is not a word you want to hear. Unfortunately, strikes happen frequently with Italian transportation. The good news is that they are typically, if not always, announced in advance. It’s worth asking your hotel if they are aware of any local or national strikes that are scheduled while you are in the country.
When my friends came to visit me in Rome there was a trifecta of strikes – taxis, buses, and trains were all on strike on the same day when my friends were due to arrive into the city. This is extremely rare, but can happen. I heard some trains were running from the airport, but I didn’t know how infrequently, so I played it safe and called a private car to pick my friends up at the airport. Thankfully I knew about this in advance so I was able to avoid a crisis!
7. Get to know your vino
Italians learn wine from birth. It amazed me that they could simply glance at a wine menu and just know what the best wine on the list for the meal is. This skill takes years to learn, but below are four the Italian wine classifications. As you go down the list, the government regulations increase in regards to where the grapes are grown and the winemaker’s adherence to the specified production methods. You can use this cheat sheet to guide your choice of Italian wines:
- VDT – Vino de Tavola (Table Wine)
- ITG – Indicazione Geographica Tipica (Typical Geographic Indication)
- DOC – Denominazione di Origine Controllata (Registered Designation of Origin)
- DOCG – Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (Registered and Guaranteed Designation of Origin)
This article outlines all of the details of each classification if you’re interested in learning more: Italian Wine Classifications
If that’s too much information, the good news is that you have to try REALLY hard to have truly bad wine in Italy!
Other tips on Italy:
- Farragosto – There is a public holiday on August 15 and the country pretty much all goes on vacation throughout the month of August. If you’re in a major tourist area some things will be open, but not everything. Plan accordingly. I was forced to take at least two weeks off in August when I was on my project in Rome. They take their vacation very seriously!
- Restaurants – Please do yourself a favor and avoid restaurants with 5+ languages on their menus. Your time in Italy is too short for a bad meal! Walk a few blocks away from the main piazzas and find a restaurant with a menu only in Italian (bonus points if it’s handwritten!). Don’t worry, chances are very good that someone will speak English and they would be happy to help you select something to eat.
- Tipping – A lot of restaurants will charge you a coperto (table/cover charge) and/or a servizio (service charge). Tipping a few euros is fine for a meal (no more than 10%). In cabs, just round up to the nearest euro on the fare. As with any destination, I highly recommend looking up the tipping culture because it varies by country and sometimes even by region.
Have you been to Italy? Do you have any additional tips I may have missed? Please share them in the comments! Grazie mille 🙂