How to live in Italy like an Italian

Updated: Jan 30, 2020

So, you’ve finally booked your dream vacation to the promised land of art lovers, foodies and fashionistas. You’re going to Italy, where civilizations have left their mark for millennia and the simplest plate of pasta can bring tears to your eyes.

Used my bestie's photo because I'm always too excited to eat pasta to remember to photograph it beforehand

Well, I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that all the postcard clichés –seaside villages nestled into the cliffside, bold Chianti wines enjoyed in the shade of a vine-covered trellis, sparkling red vespas buzzing down via del Corso, magnificent frescoes tucked into sundry cloisters (and, yes, I could just keep going on for the rest of this article) – exist for a reason.

Italy does have an ineffable beauty unparalleled by anywhere else in the world. Maybe it’s partly because Italy has more UNESCO world heritage sites than any other nation (53 thus far), which is insane for a country roughly the size of Arizona, especially given that the United States in its entirety has 23. Or maybe it’s the unique diversity of traditions, with each individual region inhabiting its own history and language. Or maybe it’s just the perfect glass of wine. Or the perfect pizza. Or the perfect gelato. I mean, let’s be honest, the volcano of Vesuvius is cool and all, but the real eruption you flew to Naples for comes from the wood ovens of the pizzeria. I get that. As much as I love Italian 14th century literature, it was my taste buds, not my prefrontal cortex, that compelled me to move across the ocean.

So that’s the good news. Italy is beautiful AF. The bad news is that the clichés exist because you will not be the first, or even millionth, person seeking a taste of la dolce vita. In fact, over 25 million tourists came to Italy in 2018. So while you will enjoy the stunning Renaissance architecture of Venice, you will likely do so flanked between cruise-goers armed with selfie sticks and ridiculously oversized hats, determined to conquer Instagram with the perfect filter of a Venetian gondola. And, living here, as sweet as this life can be, sometimes the sheer volume of visitors can leave me with an unexpectedly bitter sensation.

But I get it. I can’t blame the tourists for coming. I choose to live here for the same reasons they choose to vacation here. And, if I’m going to be completely honest with myself, a part of my bitterness is rooted in jealousy. And, yes, I know, that’s completely irrational. How can one be jealous of an entire peninsula? I mean, I’ve been jealous of my dog’s affection for my boyfriend. After all, no matter what I put in her bowl, my dog won’t dare touch a morsel until Andrea walks through the door. If we ever broke up, I’m seriously concerned my dog would pull a Ghandi and starve herself in protest. I’ve been jealous of my sister’s ability to wear purple. With her black ringlet curls and copper eyes, my sister looks downright regal in purple. My sister in a purple dress looks like she might as well be pouring wine into her embossed chalice, recounting stories about secret treasures and magical caves. I, on the other hand, look like a greasy fried-and-breaded eggplant from the I-94 Olive Garden. But how can I be jealous of a nation when I’m not even one of her 60,545,130 citizens? It makes absolutely zero sense, I know. But what can I say? Every time a pasty German in bulky sandals with white socks passes me under the portico I resist the urge to smack the gelato out of his hand and yell, “Back off! I loved her first.”

Anyway, the point is, if Italy in August was a melting gelato, tourists would be the ants. Italians claim that they abandon their homes in droves to escape the insufferable heat, but I think, somewhere deep down, they also just can’t bear to see another couple in matching khaki vests pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa with their hands.

Maybe mimes began by French tourists trying to take pictures with the Tower of Pisa (George Clerk/ Getty Images)

Which brings me to the point of this article in the first place: it doesn’t have to be this way. You can enjoy everything Italy has to offer without forcing Italians to throw up their hands and ask: “Ma che cazzo fai?!” (Granted, let’s be honest, they will probably throw up their hands anyway. Gesturing is the Italian upper body workout.) So here are some quick tips to travel Italy a bit more, well, Italian. Trust me, even the smallest effort goes a long way.

1. Dressing

While Italy is the mecca of Gucci and Prada, most Italians dress quite simply. A pair of clean, neutral sneakers (i.e. black, gray, navy or brown...white can work too, but I have no idea how people get them to stay white) or an unassuming slip-on will be comfortable all day and blend in perfectly. As for clothes, make sure they’re clean and well-fitted. Keep the colors simple and understated too; Italians tend to choose one or two hues that go together. If your outfit is too busy, you will definitely stick out.

More than anything, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that your clothes look clean. The standards of cleanliness here are (sometimes obsessively) higher, and even the smallest stain or tear will not go unnoticed. One time I had the faintest smudge of dirt on my shoe and three people kindly pointed it out to me (so that I could run home and change? Try to get it out in the bathroom? I’m not sure, but it was obvious that they wanted to help me avoid making the dreaded brutta figura, or bad impression).

As for things to avoid, don’t show white socks, especially with sandals. In fact, don’t wear socks with sandals at all.

(***Also, not a faux pas, but since we’re already talking about tourist outfits I just have to ask: what’s with the oversized hats? How do you get them here? Do you wear them on the plane for eight hours? Do you bring a separate hat box in your luggage? I’d imagine you can’t fold them in your suitcase or they’d be totally squashed. Furthermore, I’ve never seen anyone in the US walking around in a giant floppy hat. What do you do with the hat for the other 364 days of the year? Seriously, if you know the answer, please message me. The mystery has been relentlessly consuming my thoughts since summer began.)

2. Paying

Speaking of the bar, provide exact change whenever possible. If you have a five-euro bill and ten cents, and the coffee is €1.10, put down the bill and the dime. And you put the money down on the counter, not in the cashier’s hand. Usually there's a tray in front of the cash register where the money should go. The cashier will then take the payment from the tray and then place the change on that same tray, kind of like a bank teller, if anyone remembers what those are. Your hands should never touch.

Oh, and don’t tip. Tipping is not a custom here. It’s not rude or anything (and in tourist spots they might even expect it), but it’s just a bit odd and not particularly welcome. Some even see it as quasi colonialist, a way of culturally imposing the American way of life on the rest of the world. So just hold onto your change for the next coffee.

3. Speaking

This one goes out to all my American brothers and sisters. We are loud. I had no idea how loud we were before living here. We’re loud when we’re happy. We’re loud when we’re angry. We’re loud when we’re ordering. We’re just plain loud.

There are a lot of interesting sociological theories on why Americans tend to be louder. For example, some have argued that we’re a more individualistic society that awards the loudest, most noticeable person. (I personally think it might be connected to the fact that American cities are larger, and therefore more anonymous. I don’t care if everyone in a bar in Chicago can hear my story about getting drunk last night, because Chicago has 3 million residents and therefore I probably won’t see any of these strangers ever again.) No matter what the reason, Europeans tend to find it distracting and disrespectful. So, when traveling in Italy, speak more quietly and you won’t have to put up with all the side-eye.

4. Don’t try to out-Italian the Italians

This one truly baffles me. But it’s definitely a thing, which is that non-Italians, or second, or third, or fourth generation Italian-Americans, will take enormous pride in all things Italian. Which, you know, sure. Cool. I know a weirdly extensive amount about Russian hermits, which I do take a strange and paradoxically shameful pride in. One of my best friends is an amateur historian when it comes to the 10th Mountain Division of the US Army, and will proudly ramble on for hours about how their innovative tactics under "the brilliant direction of Major General Hays" helped win WWII. We all have our esoteric and illogical topics of sheer geek-level obsession.

The problem arises when an empty pride -- pride without the bolsters of any actual knowledge or appreciation of Italian language or culture -- festers into arrogance. That's when you end up with tourists "educating" anyone who will listen about the best Italian gelato, because they spent a summer in Florence during university, or because they have a Sicilian grandmother.

Luckily for me, I’ve only witnessed this experience once, but it was one time too many. I was in Turin with a group of tourists and we decided to go to a polpetteria: a restaurant that specializes in meatballs. When our meatballs arrived, they were in shallows bowls of tomato sauce, and a woman scoffed: where was the spaghetti? She flagged down our waitress, who didn't understand the upheaval. "Did you want to order a pasta dish as well?" The woman then condescendingly explained that meatballs traditionally come with spaghetti. Any Italian would know that. When the waitress patiently explained that spaghetti with meatballs is an Italo-American dish, this woman insisted that she was wrong. After all, her Italian grandmother always served spaghetti and meatballs at family dinner in New Jersey. Exactly, replied the waitress. It was mortifying for all of us.

This is how you know that Lady was an American cocker spaniel and Tramp a German schnauzer

Moral of the story: don’t come to Italy on vacation and then condescendingly lecture Italians about Italian customs. This seems so obvious, but apparently enough arrogant halfwits do it that it merits being written down. So there it is.

5. Don’t mock Italians

Once again, this is the kind of tip that shouldn’t merit actually needing to be written down. But it happens often enough that my Italian friends asked me to explicitly inform readers that Italians don’t talk like Nintendo characters and they don't wildly wave their hands with every single word. I mean, okay, yes, they do wave their hands around, a lot, but those gestures actually mean something and there are centuries of history behind their meanings. It might seem funny to imitate Italian stereotypes, just like it might seem funny to walk around Texas in a ten-gallon hat shouting “Yeehaw!,” but locals tend to find it less funny. Fortunately Italians are too fashionable to ruin the slim silhouette of their outfit with a bulky concealed-carry.

6. Don’t exaggerate

As Americans, we love superlatives. If we enjoy a meal, we say it’s "awesome". If we like a person, we say that she's "the best!” If anything whatsoever happens, we basically flip the fuck out.

I like to think that this is partly because we are an optimistic society. We want each other to succeed and we want the world to be the best of all possible worlds (#Pangloss), and sometimes we try to compel the perfect world into being with positivity. Whenever I struggle with low self-esteem, I call my American friends for a pep talk, because they will tell me with complete sincerity that I am the most intelligent, talented, driven, funny, beautiful and kind person they’re ever met. Then they’ll say the exact same thing to the next person who calls, but whatever, I’ll still take it.

Of course, we tend to exaggerate negatively too. If the line is longer than usual at the grocery store, we complain that we waited forever. If we step in dog shit, it’s the most disgusting thing to ever happen. These hyberbolic tendencies might make us overly sensitive, cortisol-driven nutjobs prone to temper tantrums and internet vomit in ALL CAPS, but they also make us fantastic storytellers. An American can make a trip to buy toilet paper sound like a perilous journey into the Temple of Doom. Maybe that’s why we’re so good at marketing – leave it to an American to make anything sound thrilling.

It was really just a rolling pebble.

For me, I find that this all-or-nothing rhetoric makes it difficult to describe when something truly does inspire awe, or to sound sincere when an ice cream genuinely is the best you’ve ever tasted. And it makes neutral adjectives sound so disappointing in comparison. If an American tells you that your performance was “fine,” you feel like you’ve failed. If you tell an American waiter the meal was “good,” he’ll ask you what was wrong. When the baseline is “amazing,” then "good" seems like a let-down, doesn’t it?

In Italy, however, and in most of Europe, “good” actually means just that. And “the best” is reserved for one singular entity – that which you sincerely consider to rise above the rabble. So before you call something unbelievable in front of your Italian friends, first ask yourself, “Is this truly so extraordinary it’s unable to be believed?” And don’t be afraid of calling something “good” or “typical,” as those are compliments. The response will probably be “grazie mille!”

Having "typical cuisine" in Italy is a point of pride for restaurants. It means you're doing it right.

7. Eat food as served

We Americans love sauces and spices, and few rules apply when it comes to zesting up your meal. Hot sauce, ketchup, oil, butter...if you ask for it, the waiter will gladly bring it over without batting an eye. Not in Italy.

In Italy, when you order a dish, it is presented to you as the chef intends it to be enjoyed. If you do order something that merits condiments (which is rare), the waiter will bring it out for you before the your order arrives, without you needing to ask. For example, if you order a salad, the waiter will place oil, vinegar, salt and pepper on the table before your salad arrives. If your pasta dish makes sense with parmesan (for example, if you order tagliatelle con ragu, AKA egg-pasta with meat sauce), the waiter will bring over parmesan. Honestly, this blew my mind as an American brought up on Italo-American dining, but not all pasta dishes are meant to be paired with parmesan. Nor do Italians add balsamic vinegar to a caprese. As for salad dressings? Not a thing. As in literally do not exist, there's no word for it. In short, if the waiter doesn’t bring it, it’s safe to assume that it doesn’t belong with the dish. And, yes, the kitchen will be indignant, or, depending where you are, downright horrified, if you add a condiment that doesn’t work.

This includes bread service. Bread before the meal doesn’t come with oil, or balsamic, or salt, or a sage-infused clarified butter. Eat the bread plain while waiting for your plate, or you use it after you finish your pasta as an edible sponge to sop up the last bites of sauce, literally wiping the plate clean (Italians even have a term for this, "fare la scarpetta"). No one will find it strange if you finish every drizzle on your plate. On the contrary, they'll beam with pride. (On the other hand, if you leave your plate unfinished, the waiter may very well ask if you're not feeling well...)

The only exception I can think of is red pepper flakes or spicy oil on pizza. You can absolutely ask to spice up your pizza.

Due to their bright color reminiscent of blood and fire, as well as their phallic shape, chili peppers represent strength and sexual virility in southern Italy. So go ahead and smother your pizza with tiny devil penises.

8. Don’t ask for modifications.

For the same reason you don't add sauces that aren't a part of the dish, you don't make changes to the recipe. The chef selected each individual ingredient to balance one another, and if you make a change you'll send everything into a spiraling chaos.

So, if there’s an ingredient you don’t like, the answer is simple: just choose something else on the menu.

9. Drink your coffee standing

An espresso is exactly that. Thirty seconds and it’s done. Stir your sugar, share a smile and a small joke with the old man in the coppola hat, and continue your day. Enjoying your tiny cup of hot concentrated deliciousness on your feet will leave you feeling even more energized to take on the day. And it's just so damn satisfying to shoot your coffee back with that unflappable head tilt that just embodies the sprezzatura of being Italian.

However, if the caffè ristretto is not your cup of joy, there are lots of other options at any bar. Even though there's no written menu board, every Italian knows the standards any barista worth her crema can whip together. For more about how to enjoy Italian coffee bar culture (yes, it's a culture), check out my other blog post dedicated solely to ordering your signature morning .

From Totò and Peppino in "La Banda degli Onesti" (The Honest Ones), a classic
Make sure to look at your espresso suspiciously before consuming it.

10. Italy is not your personal film set

While some deranged egomaniacs live for the flash of the camera, even I don’t want a giant lens shoved in my face at 7 AM while I try to lug my groceries home without my bra straps sliding down. And when I’m trying to get to work, nothing makes me want to join the Seventh-day Adventist Church more than some pasty family blocking Monday morning traffic to take a group photo, because it makes me whole-heartedly pray for the complete annihilation of humankind. The sentiment holds for climbing on top of Etruscan tombs or Renaissance monuments in order to get the best angle with your selfie stick.

Mona Lisa duckface

10. Remember Nicomachean Ethics

Lastly, if you truly want to immerse yourself and improve your experience in Italy, you need to learn how to adapt to something much more profound and enduring: Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Check out the next article to find out how Aristotle can teach you the Italian way of life . . .

*This post was revised on Nov 11, 2019, for general de-snarking purposes. Your welcome.

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