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How to Look Like a Local in Italy
Ever been on a break to Italy and just wished you could be more like a local than a tourist? No more rushing out to the shops only to find they are all closed or inadvertently ‘queuing’ for a coffee at the motorway services for ten minutes only to be sent back to the till to pay by confused baristas. Italians seem to be born into a culture of totally effortless cool—never in a hurry, always dressed to impress, always in the right place at the right time.
This article seeks to even the ‘playing field’ so that the next time you are in Italy, you can be more like a local.
Of course, a lot of it comes down to culture; every country has its quirks, and Italy is no different. So, let’s take a trip through the Italian day to unearth those little-known gems of local culture that if you copy will help you be cooler, smarter and more local than a local. In order to do this, we will be moving through a typical Italian day.
Morning for Italians
Unlike in the US, or even the UK, where breakfast is almost a national institution (although I’m pretty sure the traditional English breakfast now only happens in cafes and hotels, superseded by half a slice of cold toast and some lumpy porridge for busy people with busy families), in Italy, breakfast is the least important meal of the day. A lot of Italians skip breakfast first thing in the morning, preferring to take a quick espresso or cappuccino at their preferred mid-morning bar, maybe accompanied by a pastry (often consumed whilst standing at the bar) such as a cornetto (like a small croissant) or a slice of crostata (a typical Italian breakfast tart).
For the foreign traveller on the first trip into the less touristy spots of Italy, you may be served coffee and cake for breakfast at your local hotel; this is considered perfectly acceptable by Italian cultural standards, though it can come as a bit of shock at first as you sit patiently waiting for the ‘real’ breakfast to arrive (reality check—it probably never will).
Midday in Italy
Although the (imagined) days of long, wine-enhanced lunches appear to be on the decline in Italy (Italians, like everyone else, have started to take work a little too seriously over recent years), they are still there in essence. Lunches tend to be lighter affairs these days, usually commencing at about 1pm. After lunch, especially away from the main tourist hubs and out into the countryside, afternoons still tend to drift into a dreamy state of ‘not a lot happening’ for a good couple of hours—the perfect time for a siesta (where it is often referred to as 'riposo' in the North and 'pennichella' or 'pisolino' in the South of Italy).
For new visitors to Italy, this is the time when it all goes ‘pear-shaped,' and they find themselves in a small countryside ‘ghost town’ where all the inhabitants seem to have disappeared, the shops are all closed and they can’t even get out of town as all the local buses and trains have stopped running. Best to go with the flow, be more Italian and take a nap. Things pick up again around 4pm.
Into the Evening
As the shops re-open post siesta and the people emerge to get some groceries or an ice cream or to go back to work, life comes back into your typical Italian town. By 7 o’clock, the bars are busy, especially in the summer when prosecco is the order of the day—an aperitivo ‘to open the stomach’ in anticipation of the coming dinner. In case a nibble is required in the meantime, however, little snacks of frittata squares, olives, crisps and little bowls of peanuts (with a teaspoon on the side to scoop out a hygienic portion—very civilised) appear on every bar counter.
Meanwhile, couples and families of all ages take a slow stroll up and down the main street, often arm in arm, stopping every few metres to pass some time with their neighbours. This is the pre-dinner ritual of the passeggiata. Not compulsory, but very Italian.
This is the part of the day when you need to be vigilant. If you rush in and out of the bars and shops, it will be immediately obvious to everyone that you are a straniero; literally a foreigner. So slow down, chill out and blend in; there is no rush to go anywhere during this part of the day.
Dinner, Italian Style
By 8 o’clock, the bars are empty, but the restaurants are filling up, as are the Italian family homes. Italian life has always centered around family, food and faith, and the kitchen table is the hub where everyone gathers for dinner.
Dinner (or la cena) in Italy tends to be a structured affair, especially in restaurants. A typical Italian dinner might consist of antipasti (cold meats and cheeses), followed by a pasta dish (anything from penne all'arrabiata to cacio e pepe, depending on where you are in Italy), after that maybe a meat dish of sausages or lamb with side dishes of roasted courgettes or a mixed salad. You may then have some fruit or cheese followed by a light dessert such as tiramisu (whose literal meaning is ‘pick me up’ on account of the caffeine content).
By this time, you may be feeling full—although Italian dinners are never rushed—so this consumption may take place over a couple of hours. To deal with this potential problem, you may be offered a digestivo (such as limoncello), which should help you deal with all that food.
Note: Of course, it is not obligatory to order all the courses in a typical Italian dinner; unless you are really hungry, you may be better off just ordering a couple of dishes.
Into the Night
After dinner, and especially in the summer, another stroll into the town might be required, a kind of passeggiata part two, to work off all that pasta. Maybe take a quick coffee, and later—there is no rush—a little more wine. Milky coffees such as cappuccinos are never drunk after dinner by Italians, so stick with espresso to be more local.
In the summer months, Italian towns tend to be awake until quite late. It is not unusual to see young children out with their families and playing with their friends until midnight in the town squares. After all, school has finished for the hot summer months and they can catch up on sleep at siesta time tomorrow, when the process starts all over again.
A Few More Hints and Tips to Help You Be More Local When in Italy
Here are a few more bonus tips to help you fit in when in Italy.
In some bars, particularly the ones that are in the service areas off a motorway (autostrada), you pay for what you want at the till first, which of course might involve looking at what is on offer and then trying to remember it whilst you queue to pay. Failing that, use a combination of pointing and gesticulating (all very Italian). Once you have paid, you may be given what you have asked for, but more likely you will just be given a receipt, which you will then need to take to the appropriate counter accompanied by more pointing and gesticulating.
Also, when it comes to bars generally, and especially in resort towns, you are likely to be charged more for a coffee (or any other drink), depending on where you drink it. Drinking your espresso standing at the bar is the cheapest (and the most Italian), but you will often be charged more for sitting at an inside table and even a little bit more for an outside table.
One final tip on coffee; if you want a milky coffee in Italy, ask for a ‘caffè latte,' and not just a ‘latte’ as you might do in Starbucks . . . in Italy, that would just get you a glass of milk!
Have you any tips about being more like a local and less like a tourist in Italy? Why not add them to the comments and share your experience of 'la dolce vita' in Italy.
© 2019 Jerry Cornelius