It should be no secret to anyone who knows me well that I have an ever-growing, epic love affair with all things Italian. I can’t exactly pinpoint when it all began, but I do know it grows deeper every day the longer I live in Europe, befriend Italians in London or simply discover a decent Osteria in the city (my favourite is currently Osteria Basilica just off of Portobello Road in Notting Hill). Being a true American mutt who’s a bit cloudy on his exact ethnic roots, a large part of me has secretly (well, after this blog post very prounced) hopes I’m Italian.
Maybe it’s something in the air, the vino, or maybe it’s even in the water. Upon ordering tap water once in a café in Milan, I had a waitress inform me I should stick to “acqua naturale” in a bottle because the mafia was known to skirt taxes by dumping toxins and chemicals into the nation’s water supply. Whether that was fact or fiction, such colorful tales and exchanges are always abounding in Italy, and it makes my love affair with the nation that much more.
Maybe it’s the people. While I don’t necessarily fully agree or empathise or agree with such a notion, Italian men often justify their known, er, passion and aggressive nature (70% of Italian men admit to cheating yet the divorce currently sits at 11%) because of the all the beauty that is around them. They say they can’t help themselves when existing in cities and environments where everything is bursting at the seems with beauty. All promiscuity aside, they are on to something. From the people, cuisine, architecture, culture, fashion (I could go on), it does really seem to be oozing from the streets in Italy.
Anyone reading this clearly realizes I’m all aboard TrenItalia, but can you blame me? The French may have Paris, London may be having a moment, but the Italians always do it better. Their economy may be in shambles for the 40th time this decade, their government similar to an episode of Desperate Housewives (again, Bunga Bunga) and their locals lethargic from years of disillusioned social corruption, Italy still excels in all things sensory or aesthetic. All ethno-obsession aside, I thought I’d channel my Italimania through a few practices and manners I not only fully endorse, but are essentially Italian.
It doesn’t matter if it’s 8am or 8pm, espresso is always good option, and never off the table. It is not unusual to sip your way through 4 – 6 espressos a day. No matter where, with whom, or at what time, there’s no wrong time to refuel and recharge over a healthy dose of espresso. To that I say, salude.
As much as coffee is integral to day-to-day function in one’s quest for La Dolce Vita, there are still a few rules to how you approach your caffeine game. This includes any coffee pairing with latte (English translation milk), and this includes one of Italy’s greatest exports and defining innovations, the cappuccino. It’s simple. Cappuccinos include milk, and milk hinders digestion. If you’re playing it right, your meals and corresponding portion size should increase as the day goes on. It doesn’t take Galileo to figure out that milk doesn’t mix well with this mentality. Thus, order a cappuccino post 11am in Italy and you’ll quickly get a raised eyebrow, look of concern or shake of the head from your barista, and instantly out yourself.
For as delusional and adamant as I am in regards to supporting all things Italia, I do have to break rank when it comes to how Italians do breakfast. Mainly because Italians don’t do breakfast. Americans and English accustomed to a hearty start of Full English or even a simple scrambled eggs and toast will be hard-pressed to find any similar ticket in town. Trust me, I tried. After 8 days in Italy, yours truly was guilty of sneaking down to the McDonald’s inside a Palermo’s Stazione Centrale, seeking dietary reprieve in an Egg McMuffin and a hash brown. Sadly, my conquest was in vain and only met with the awkward options of a cheeseburger at 11am. No Buena.
However, the day must be started, and if you find yourselves in an Italian caffe, do as any good Italiano would do and order yourself a cornetto and cappuccino. It’s all about something sweet, light and flaky, paired with a jump start of espresso. Or do as I did, and find a great bed & breakfast (see photo and listing below)that serves up a fresh breakfast from a local farmers market.
While food and coffee are integral to the daily regimen of life, they are essentially the glue to the social fabric of society, and the means to have a conversation; another crucial variable of Italian life noticeable in less than 2 seconds if you’ve ever been to Italy or have any Italian friends. This in mind, there is no such thing as a “to – go” cup or takeaway dinner. One thing I delighted in when roaming the streets of Rome was the lack of Starbucks (I couldn’t find one), as most Italians might find the notion and fast food ethos to dining or grabbing a coffee as a missed opportunity to socialize. Coffee is meant to be drank at a counter, even if it is just for a spare 5 minutes you have on the run.
Yet another reason I swear I’m Italian, as we never ate in my household before 9pm. I have always been skeptical and passed silent foodie judgment on those who ate dinner between 5pm to 6pm, as I personally found it odd and a bit geriatric. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Milano or on the Amalfi Coast, dinner is usually served after 8pm, and can last well past midnight. You’ll notice most ristorantes and trattorias in any Italian city begin to start filling up no earlier than 8pm, and it’s not uncommon to be turned away at 10pm thinking you’ll score a late walk-in. In fact, most places I visited while in Rome, Sorrento or Sicily were most packed at 11pm. However, regardless of the hour, Italians make dinner not just a social staple, but also a mandatory each and every day.
If there’s one thing I love more than traveling, it’s traveling alone. From having the freedom to set your own itinerary, menu and last call times (I have a consistent tenacity for solo nightclubbing in new urban excursions), I find it most beneficial to hit the personal refresh button while on holiday. However, and with my words above in mind, the Italians will always find it strange, if not show all out concern, if you venture into a dining establishment alone. Yet, and to only further my case for traveling solo, you will find yourselves always making friends wherever you go in Italy.
Portions in Italy can be more than generous, especially the farther off the beaten path (re: avoid tourist traps) you go. While many Italians and clichéd guidebooks will tell you a proper meal consists of a gut-busting full-course onslaught of an apertivo, primi, secondi and a dolce (dessert), this doesn’t have to be the case. While I had high ambitions to eat my body weight in homemade pasta at every Trattoria I came acros, I did find myself suffering from carb fatigue. By the time I reached Sicily, I was more than thankful the local cuisine was more diversified with selections of veal, fried lard and pig intestines (all fine delicacies might I add). For as much as I love pasta, I found that even in Italy there is a limit.
That in mind, one must realize that pasta is extremely filling, and to practice moderation when engaging a heavy-carb regimen is recommended. You also quickly understand why the Italian refrain from a massive breakfast or lunch because of the reserves needed for dinner. Furthermore, carbs aren’t the evil that far too many fad diets have accused them to be. In fact, they could be the secret to everlasting health and beauty. If you want any evidence at all, have a look at many Italian women strolling the streets of Rome.
Another of Italy’s greatest exports is also an essential pre-dinner apertivo to help jumpstart digestion. If one is going to indulge in all-out gluttonous expedition through Italian cuisine, be sure prosseco is the starting point of your journey. As with the cultural conventions behind sparking water, prosecco has bubbles, and bubbles allow gas in the stomach to move and settle, just in time to set the stage for the an all-out taste bud and gastrointestinal assault. Yet, all gorging aside, any reason to have a glass of fizz is reason enough to me.
This notion is something continuously debated (most recently in length by New York Times fashion subsidiary The Cut in an excellent series on all things Italian), but with this I say you have to go with your gut. Literally. If you go to any restaurant in Italy, the waiter will ask you for water “with gas” or “no gas.” Don’t pass on the gas. Sparkling water, like prosecco, and its corresponding fizzy effect actually helps relieve any pressure from an overindulgence of bruschetta, tagliolini, or any other carb you fail to resist (trust me, don’t even try. You won’t win). The jury, and by jury I mean actually medical professionals who certify these types of things, may still be out on this, but it my primary research proves the Italian custom correct. As they say, when in Rome, do as the……
Visit any part of Italy and you’ll quickly find souvenir shops hawking bottles of bright yellow liquor called Limoncello. What is it you ask? Well it can be a lot of things, but it’s mainly served in a chilled shot glass following a proper Italian feast to cleanse the pallet, help ease digestion and provide one last opportunity to toast those at the table around you. If sparkling water feels a bit to tame to ease the hunger pains you have after a feast, then Limoncello is your solution.
While as smooth and crisp as the Limoncello might go down, be sure to practice moderation in your social drinking. Where some may be accustomed to using dinner as a vehicle to get undeniably, fall-out-of-your-chair piss-wasted (we’re looking at you, England), most Italians will tell you to practice restraint when at any dinner table. They call it “Bella figura.” Many Italians will give you varying definitions on what this means to them, but at its core it implies maintaining grace, dignity and a sense of personal composure. It’s easier to spot “bella figura” in a caffe or restaurant in Rome than trying to deal with drivers on Italian motorways, but the essence is all there. However, if keeping a sense of suave and collected gravitas proves too challenging, follow the other golden rule of Italian social interaction.
That being: “if someone shouts at you, shout back.”
Italians are proud of being Italian, and they’re even more proud of speaking Italian. Given this, many Italians don’t know other languages outside the mother tongue, even in major city centres like Rome. However, there is one universal currency that will get you very far in any part of Italia, and that’s a smile. This is true even if you have absolutely no clue what is going on or what your server is saying. I collectively know abput 20 – 30 words in Italian, and often haphazardly resort to using Spanish when in a pinch when chatting with locals. However, my murderous pseudo-language and botching of the dialect may cause wincing and disgust in other parts of the world (we’re looking at you, France), when paired with a smile, most Italians will find it enduring for even trying in the first place.
I could write on Italy for days, and especially after this trip, my obsession with all things Italian grew deeper with every dish I ordered. I won’t say my experience rivaled that of something spiritual, waxing along the lines of “Eat.Pray.Love.” What I will say is that I am absolutely in love with Italy, pray that I get to go back again very soon, and plan on eating my way through the country all over again because there’s no wrong way to do Italy. As the Italians can attest to, no matter where you go, who you see on the street, or what your order, you’ll always be guiltlessly deluded by the beauty that seems to ooze from even the cracks. Yet, isn’t that was love is supposed to be all about anyway?
Rome: Portrait Roma
Located just steps away from bucket list favourites Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, Portrait Roma is a sleek, intimate boutique hotel that is a luxury oasis away from the tourist madness below. The staff is helpful, the rooms small but beyond accomodating, and the location as central as you can get in Rome, next to sleeping the Colesseo.
Amalfi Coast/Sicily: Sycamore Hill Bed & Breakfast
I wanted something small and local when staying in Sorrento, and I also wanted a stunning view. I got both when finding this incredible space on Airbnb. A family-owned estate that sits on a citrus grove and complete with a pool, it was surreal to awake every morning and have the view you see at the top of this post. Factor in a fresh-made breakfast each morning from the family who owned the spot, and you have the definition of rest and relaxation.
Sicily: Prince Armound’s Place
Given Sicily’s gritty, authentic reputation of being the heart and soul of the real Italia, I wanted something that echoed that but was still clean, safe and unique. What I found was this stunning apartment inside the former palace of the royal family who presided over the Kingdom of Sicilia. With stunning views of the Palermo Cathedral to awake to each morning and ceilings adorned with 300 year-old frescos, this truly regal location felt appropo for a Prince. Ironic because it was in fact the Prince of Sicily’s exact residence from 1730 to 1752. You can’t get more local, authentic and true to Sicily than that.
All photos courtesy of Glenn Ebert.