I bet you have some ideas about what Italy is like – and what Italians are like. C’mon. Let’s hear some of them. You think they all have dark hair and dark skin. I bet you think Italy is full of loud, noisy people who use their hands wildly as they talk. That they eat pasta for lunch … and dinner.
I’ll be honest, I had some preconceived notions of what Italy and Italians were like too. Before my first trip there in 2008 I thought, “Will the men be yelling ‘Ciao Bella’ as I walk by?” I thought the Italians would mostly be dark – dark hair, eyes and skin. I thought there would be the “siesta” time every afternoon – everywhere.
But, I learned some things as I traveled through a few regions of Italy on that first trip. And I’ve learned a lot more about this gorgeous, diverse, intriguing and popular country as I’ve traveled there again and again. And as I’ve planned trips for my clients.
Today, along with my Italian friend, Agnese Sabatini, travel blogger at I’ll Be Right Back, I’m going to dispel some of these misconceptions about Italy and the Italians. And, we’re also going to share a few “myths” that are true. Although being Italy, there are always shades of gray!
First up are some of what Agnese sees and hears from her perspective as a Tuscan. And in her style, there’s a bit of sarcasm here:
Italians don’t drink cappuccino during (or after) a meal
Cappuccino is a hot drink made of coffee and milk, usually served with a creamy, milky foam on the top and, sometimes, with a sprinkle of cocoa powder. We know it’s very good, but this doesn’t allow you to drink it anytime you want. We most often drink in bars in the morning, at breakfast, usually accompanied by a cornetto. You may drink it during merenda (the afternoon break), but cappuccino was born for breakfast! Don’t be annoyed if you’re drinking cappuccino during or after lunch/dinner and some Italians look at you with a bewildered look on their face!
Not all Italians are loud and noisy
People always think that all Italians are very loud when they speak. It seems that we are always shouting instead of talking normally. Instead, you’ll be surprised to know that Italians are just like other people all over the world: some of them are actually loud – they have a naturally high, boisterous tone of voice – and some of them talk politely with a softer, quieter tone – they are shy and you must get closer to hear them. But, it’s true that most of us get loud during a friend’s reunion or some special event. And it’s certainly true that it’s very difficult to find a single Italian who doesn’t use their hands when talking!!
Italians don’t eat Fettuccine Alfredo, spaghetti with meatballs or canned pasta
Where the hell did these dishes come from? They were probably invented by some astute Italian who tried to fool Americans selling Fettuccine Alfredo and company as real and genuine Italian dishes. Well, they’re not! Millions of Italians (me included) have never had Fettuccine Alfredo (and who’s this Alfredo, by the way?) and find canned pasta simply disgusting. Sorry guys! You can find a special dish in the south of Italy which is made from pasta and small meatballs with tomato sauce, but it’s something that is eaten locally.
Italians rarely eat a countless-course meal
Outside Italy, people think that we all eat an antipasto, a primo, a secondo and a dessert every day, twice a day. Well, the fact that we have all these courses available doesn’t mean we take advantage of them every day! A four (or even more)-course meal is usual for big celebrations, such as weddings. Or it may be usual for Sunday lunch, when your grandma decides that you are underweight and that you have to eat a lot. But, on a daily basis, we usually eat one or two courses. When at home, Italians usually eat less. Maybe some pasta at lunch and some meat and vegetables at dinner. While at a restaurant the main combinations are antipasto/primo, antipasto/secondo, primo/secondo, antipasto/pizza. Those with a sweet-tooth will also add a small dessert. But c’mon, who doesn’t?
Not all Italian men are (predatory) Latin lovers
I’ve heard many times that people abroad think all Italian boys and men are real latin lovers. First: not all of them are beautiful. I really would like it, but the Italian origin doesn’t necessarily make you a god of beauty and attractiveness! Second: it’s true, some Italians can be quite predatory and try to get a girl in every way possible, especially at night in bars or discos. But not all of them are like this. Apart from the married/engaged/busy ones, many Italian men know how to be polite, romantic and kind. No need to be afraid of all of them!
Italians and the chicken: let’s make it clear
English-speaking countries seem to be quite fond of chicken. They could eat it every day and in every way! In Italy, we eat chicken of course, but it’s not used as a topping or a sauce on pasta, risotto, pizza or anywhere else. Never, ever, ever ask for a chicken risotto or a chicken pizza unless you want the waiter to go away in a huff!
Not all Italians bargain for everything
Weeell, let’s say many of us like doing it. But we also know when it’s time to bargain and when the situation requires us not to do so.
Italians don’t use (fill in the blank) as a topping for pizza
We talked about chicken. Well, let’s be clear about this: nobody is allowed to put everything that comes to their mind on pizza. It’s true, pizza is made with ingredients that are actually good with a lot of other ingredients. But there’s a limit to everything! Pizza was born in the south of Italy (in Campania), and they usually eat it in its most classical form: tomato, mozzarella (sometimes buffalo-milk mozzarella) and basil. Across Italy, many versions of pizza have spread, and now you can choose among countless toppings. The most common ones are ham, wurstel, hot salami, anchovies, capers, olives, sausage, onion, parmesan, mushroom and so on, in many different combinations. Many of us also like to put different kinds of cheeses or pesto sauce on it. Even though Neapolitans (those from Naples) don’t always like it, you can use almost all your creativity when ordering a pizza. But there’s a limit to everything. So, please, don’t order a pizza with something like pineapple, avocado, cream, barbecue sauce, chicken (!!), ketchup or any stuff like this!!
Ketchup doesn’t count as a pasta sauce in Italy
Speaking of ketchup: never.ever.use.it.as.a.pasta.sauce. This is allowed just for eighteen-year-old guys who just started living alone and don’t know how to cook pasta. Or organize their grocery shopping.
If you want to use Italian food-related words, use them well
Pasta bolognese is not as common in Italy. You’ll probably read it somewhere, but mostly this is because we adjust our menus to foreign people. The Bolognese sauce is called this because it was invented in the city of Bologna. But all of us actually call it “ragù”. Ragù is something delicious, and it is perfect for pasta, lasagne, cannelloni and rice (risotto). If you use “ragù” instead of Bolognese, the Italians will hug you in disbelief!
Also, pepperoni don’t exist in Italy. When you order a pizza with pepperoni, you usually get a pizza with slices of spicy salami. However, peperoni (the right spelling is with a single p) is the Italian name of peppers or capsicum, which have nothing to do with spicy salami. In Italy, you can order a “Pizza con il salamino piccante”.
Last but not least…why do you insist on writing “panini” when you refer to a sandwich? Panini is the plural form of panino. So when you say, “I’d like a panini”, you are actually saying “I’d like sandwiches”.
Are you laughing? Surprised? I know I laughed my ass off when Agnese emailed me this list. So, here are some things I thought were true about Italy and the Italians before my first trip, but didn’t turn out to be so true after all (or maybe are just a little true):
All Italians are dark – dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin
Surprise! They are as diverse as Americans. Some are fair haired with dark eyes and skin. Some are dark haired with blue eyes and fair skin. Really, you’ll see a lovely mix of people.
Italian men are all attractive
Agnese kind of covered this, but I really did have a bit of that suave, Latin lover image in my mind. I thought all Italian men would be, well, hot. Boy, was I disappointed! To be honest, on my four trips to Italy, I’ve only seen a handful of Italian men that I thought were really that good-looking. But, I guess it depends on your taste in men.
Italian men are all going to cat call to me, “Ciao Bella”
Sadly, this did not happen. I thought it was me! But, because of their reputation, and being called out on it, Italian men have become a bit more reserved and more enlightened. So, they don’t call out so much any more. However, they will notice you and will look. And sometimes, they may politely say something complimentary to you. But, they won’t call out – at least not as much as they used to. Oh, and really, age doesn’t matter – young or old. The Italian men just notice beautiful women.
Italian men are mama’s boys so they live at home foreeevvverrr
Actually, this is more a function of economics. Italians, men and women both, usually live at home until they can afford their own place. So, this often means that they are 30 or older before this is possible. Italians typically enter the workforce a little later than many of their American counterparts, closer to 25. So, this explains a lot, doesn’t it?
Italians are warm, friendly people and will welcome you, as a traveler, with open arms
I really thought this on my first trip to Italy. But, this isn’t the case. Now don’t get me wrong – the Italians are good people. They are courteous and polite. But, I was expecting to be their best friend from the get go. What I discovered as I observed them is that they are very warm and affectionate – with their family and friends. With those they know. If they get to know you better, they’ll be this way with you. So, on my fourth visit to Italy, I got to know the owner of the agriturismo I stayed at – twice. She became warm and friendly with me as we got to know one another. When I left there, the second time, it was with hugs and kisses. The Italians can be a bit reserved – at least until they’ve figured you out.
The Italians are always out socializing and so work very little
Now, I can’t say I 100% believed this, but I did hear it. Here’s the thing: the Italians are very social. Family and friends are important. And while work is important, they don’t live to work. Not that they don’t take their jobs seriously, because they do. It’s just not the center of their world as it often is for Americans. The other aspect of the work culture is they do take more breaks. So, instead of slaving away for a solid 8-10 hours a day, eating lunch at their desks, the Italians work a few hours, then take a break. They work a few more hours, then take a break. Yes, they take longer lunches, but the average work day is still about 8 hours. They just spread it out over a longer time frame. As a solopreneur who is in charge of her own schedule, I work like this. I take breaks every couple of hours, but I still work 8 hours a day, sometimes more. So, I can relate. It’s just a different way. But, it’s still just as productive, if not more so.
Shops close up for a “siesta” just like in Spain
This was something that I had heard about and read about before my first trip. What I found is that this is a partial truth. And the reality is – it depends. Some shops will close up for a few hours in the afternoon. Often it’s around 1pm. You’ll find this more in the smaller towns. And it’s more common the further south you travel, mostly because it’s hot there, especially in the summer. But, in the bigger cities, and in more “touristy” spots, some shops will stay open. So, it really depends. And, as a traveler, be prepared for shops, banks and other government offices to be closed at this time.
All Italians are fashionable and all of them wear Gucci and Armani
This is another partial truth. Italians don’t all wear Gucci and Armani and Prada and whatever other Italian designer you can think of. I mean, it’s expensive for them too! But, what I did notice is that all Italians are well-put together. By this I mean that they all seem to look good – even when they are out running. Their clothing is not coming apart at the seams and the colors are coordinated. Even when they are casual they look fabulous. It’s really unfair. The other point I want to make is that Italian women boldly let their undergarments show. Let me explain. I’ve seen women wearing white pants, skirts and shirts with black panties or bras underneath. And, it looks good! Why can’t I seem to get away with this? Sometimes I think it’s an attitude…
Nothing happens on time in Italy
Well, I wouldn’t say nothing. But the Italians don’t have the punctuality gene like some of their northern neighbors. It’s often a slower pace here and things simply happen when they happen. I actually don’t mind this as it makes me think less about looking at the clock and racing around and trying to get this done at this time. I simply let things unfold more organically while I’m in Italy. And, I find it quite relaxing.
Italy is all about history and historical monuments and art and churches
Italy is an incredibly diverse country. And yes, there are loads of churches. There are great works of art and architecture here. And there is a plethora of historical monuments here. But, there are gorgeous mountains in Italy. There are fertile plains. There are canyons and gorges. There are miles and miles of coastline filled with both rocky cliffs and sandy beaches. There are rivers and lakes. There are thick forests. There are rolling hills. Italy is an outdoor lover’s paradise. I’ve taken some stellar hikes here. But wait. There’s more! There are museums for science nerds – geology, physics, chemistry. Not all the museums are filled with art. There are museums and factories for those who love cars. Can you say Ferrari? There are festivals for food, wine, music, chess lovers. Yes, I just said chess lovers. Italy really is that diverse!
Italy is one big vineyard
I think I just made this one up. This one is mostly true. There really are vineyards just about everywhere in Italy. But, I’m not complaining!
So, do you feel like you know a little bit more about this popular country? Does it make you want to visit? Italy is definitely one of my favorite destinations in Europe! And it never ceases to surprise me and amaze me.
For those of you wanting more on Italy, stay tuned. I’m actually working on an ebook about Italy – a sort of guidebook – that I think many of you will like. It should be available by July 1. Keep checking in to the website for more information. I’m really excited about it!!
PS Another big thanks to Agnese Sabatini for her part in this post. Her website is only in Italian at this point, but she is planning to change this in the near future. She is a wonderful writer, very good photographer and has a great sense of humor. Follow her on Instagram or Facebook.