Italy is notoriously beautiful and a popular place for travellers to visit because it offers a peek into the old world in the most charming and romantic of ways. In Italy, it's impossible to ignore the Roman ruins, winding cobblestone streets with adorable florally-adorned terraces. Not to mention the stylish locals sipping bright orange spritz on beachside patios that make life seem so much more romantic!
There is immense pride in preserving culture here, and many people are still of the belief of repairing over buying everything new. They value craftsmanship, authenticity and quality. This can be said of everything from the shoes to the prosciutto. It's something splendid as many of us come from countries where even if it ain't broke, we're upgrading for the latest model. In Italy, the people know that the new school isn't always the best school.
If you've never been to Italy, it's easy to romanticize what you will find on your visit. While most of the stereotypes do ring true in some respect, we're here to also bust some of the more blanketed myths of Italian culture.
20 1. Myth: Every Meal is 5 hours long
It's true that most Italian menus feature an antipasto, primo, secondo, dolce and then a list of coffees and digestives at the tail-end. That said not every meal must be an ordeal. In fact, Italy might be the most accommodating country in its ability to provide exactly what you need in the moment, as long as you are in the know.
In addition to plentiful regional street food options, there are also aperitivos and apericenas galore! Designed to ensure you have something good to eat all times (god forbid you should starve), the aperativo is served between 5-7pm each day where you can find all kinds of nibbles (salumi, pizzette, olives, chips) alongside your cocktail order. Apericena is more substantial with pasta dishes and bruschetta on offer. The point is, there is something for everyone and you don't need to stuff yourself to the brim (however tempting it is) at every meal.
19 2. Myth: All Italians are loud
If you don't anger them, they're usually pretty quiet!
All joking aside, most Italian people are scene-making adverse, so they are often soft-spoken. The goal of most Italian people is to fit in where possible and keep a low profile. You'll rarely hear a local complaining at a restaurant or making a scene at a shop, it's just not part of the culture no matter how 'hot-headed' they tend to be portrayed in pop culture.
The loudest you will ever find an Italian is around the lunch or dinner table with their family. In that case, wine is flowing and festive spirits are high. Since local gatherings tend to be quite large - it is easy for the volume to increase a few notches.
18 3. Myth: The Men gawk at women all day long
It can be off-putting to come to Italy with the perception in your mind that men will be overbearing and chase you around all day long. It can make you wary of any friendly male locals and cause you to avoid eye contact with everyone you pass in the piazza.
Local men are romantic, passionate and definitely appreciate the beauty of a woman but the stereotype that men of all ages deadpan stare or are out catcalling at every female they cross paths with is simply false.
To be more accurate you may find that gawking in Italy isn't gender-specific at all. If you insist on standing out in an audacious manner like wearing the wrong footwear for the season or (ironically) being too loud in English, just about anyone will examine you from head to toe for clues about where you are from. In most cases, it's not predatory or (that) offensive.
17 4. Myth: Spaghetti and Meatballs
It's just not done in the motherland. It is rather an invention of the immigrants who arrived in the USA from 1880-1920. In Italy, meatballs are called polpettes and are a stand-alone dish served as the secondo where the spaghetti would be reserved for the primo piatto.
The polpettes are usually no larger than a golf-ball and can be made of anything from turkey to fish and are often covered with a savoury yet simple sauce. You will not find giant meatballs smothered in cheese on top of pasta in a proper Italian kitchen unless it is a tourist trap establishment.
16 5. Myth: Amalfi / Venice/ Florence / Rome /Pisa are the most crucial to visit
Not necessarily a myth but perhaps an inflated statement since these places have become overrun with tourism. Here, you're going to experience mainstream tourist-aimed experiences that take longer, cost more, and are crowded with people like you!
The local culture that you are seeking is more difficult to suss out in these spots. Restaurants are catered to your tastes (and your presumed fat wallets) and after a few days, it can start to be a bit of a drag to see English written everywhere.
With equally unique and visually stunning smaller towns like Alberobello, La Spezia, Perugia (it's Medieval!), and Padova - you will have the opportunity to authentically immerse yourself in the culture at a fraction of the cost and since the locals will be happy to have you spread the love more evenly.
15 6. Myth: Pickpockets will steal everything you love
Pickpockets are a thing in Europe, it's true.
A number of travel websites are right to advise you to take precautionary measures from avoiding train stations at night to stuffing cash in various compartments of your bags. Another way to avoid this altogether is by doing your best to behave like a local.
If you start whipping out your iPad to take photos of the Colosseum and leave your purse hanging open, it's possible you could attract some prying eyes (and hands).
As long as you're not oblivious or dripping in diamonds (or both!), the odds of someone picking your pocket are slim. If you're feeling nervous about it avoid touristy hubs and attractions to diminish the odds even more!
14 7. Myth: Everyone In Italy Is really dark and hairy
This is just straight up FALSE.
The people of Italy, much to the shock of many, are not all toting thick upper lip caterpillars and screaming across the street with their flailing hairy arms. Those from the Northern and far South regions have been known to have golden blonde hair and light eyes. You can even spot gingers who look more like Vikings walking about speaking fluent Italian because, well, they are Italian!
Due to the close proximities to many fairer nations and historical immigration of Nordic people, you will find lighter and fairer people than the stereotypical portrait would lead you to believe.
13 8. Myth: Casual cappuccinos
Ah, the cappuccino! The gift that Italy graciously gave the world when they decided to combine beautiful coffee with frothy hot milk for our pleasure. BUT (and it's a big but) where you are able to order cappuccinos at your free will at places like Starbucks at home, you will garner quite a stern (or straight up disgusted) look from any barista in Italy if you plan to do so after 10am.
The reason for this is that cappuccinos, with the heavy dose of foamed milk, are expressly (NOTE: I refrained from making the espresso joke we all wanted me to make here) a breakfast beverage because they fill you up. If you should want a coffee in the afternoon a caffè or espresso is the norm.
If you really, really, really want a cappuccino, you can order a macchiato which is essentially a baby-sized (and therefore socially acceptable) cappuccino.
12 9. Myth: Everyone in italy smokes
In the past, they were known for the dirty habit and often portrayed in pop culture as such. The truth is since 2005, Italy placed a ban on public smoking which has greatly reduced the number of smokers even if 20% of the population hasn't been able to kick the habit.
Even with these recent laws, smoking isn't as stigmatized as some places like say Boston or Toronto so there aren't clear-cut boundaries where smoking people must stay. It may seem to the untrained eye that everyone is smoking but realistically they are just scattered around and visibly not ashamed of their habit.
11 10. Myth: They Will Like Your Cooking
They may... but likely will not.
It doesn't matter how well-meaning (or delicious) your macaroni and cheese / quesadilla / pasta / Shanghai noodle stir-fry is. They will inspect it, interrogate you on the ingredients used, smell it, and then after tasting, they will tell you exactly what they think of it.
Beware if you are planning to prepare an Italian meal for an Italian, it's better to order from the nearby Osteria and pass it off as your own, Mrs. Doubtfire style. Honestly don't even try to prepare it yourself unless you're 1. Italian or 2. studied Italian cooking as a professional chef, anything else just won't do.
Now... here are 10 things that are cento percento TRUE:
10 100% True: Family comes first
Family is the most important thing to Italians.
Being with family, eating with family (every day), talking with family, hugging and kissing your family regularly - this is all part of the culture. Family also extends beyond the people in your immediate household and is often quite a large network of people whom you willingly go out of your way for with no questions asked.
Even if it's a third cousin twice removed, family is family. You will know this if you've ever attended an Italian wedding or Baptism. If anyone tries to tell you that family isn't that important in their Italian family they are either lying or not Italian. There are no other possible explanations.
9 100% True: Bureaucracy is a nightmare
The bureaucracy in Italy can seem like an exaggeration or even a running gag until you've touched down and experienced it for yourself. It is often described as an incredibly inefficient, passive-aggressive, nail-biting experience and it is every bit of these things and more.
For starters, you don't get stamps at the Post Office, you get them at the Tabacci. If you should go to the Post Office afterwards you will wait among a crowded, hot and sticky room full of people and when you get to the window they will close their window and tell you to wait some more. In most matters of bureaucracy in Italy, they seem farcical at best.
8 100% True: "Mamma mia!"
This is a thing they really say. If you say it, they will comment on how you sound just like them! Of course, you will have to say it as they do with the correct intonations and inflections. Also, the timing and context are very important.
It is likened to the expression of 'oh my god', usually with a negative connotation (versus the popularly portrayed positive exclamation). It quite literally translates to 'my mother' which, given the important and revered matriarch who holds a holy spot in the Italian familia, it is more than apt.
7 100% True: Fashion game is on point
The way Italians dress can be described simply in two words: always elegant.
You don't have to be in the streets of Milan to pick up on the national obsession: it's fashion. Italians take immense pride in their appearance and in a very understated, yet ultra cool way. Women of all ages will wear sparkly Plimsoll sneakers with skinny jeans and a breezy linen top or maybe 6-inch flaming red pumps (with the exact same outfit) while peddling through the piazza with their groceries! No problem.
Italian men also relish the importance of style and can often remember the donning of their first dress shirt when asked. Manscaping is very common and hair will often reflect the trends you see in the latest volume of Vogue Italia. They aren't ashamed to make an effort and will likely be ashamed if you don't.
6 100% True: Italian eggs/ olive oil / gelato are the world's best
In fact, most produce is impeccably more tasty than other parts of the world but these three categories deserve stand-alone honours. If you've ever cracked open an egg from Italy, there are no words to describe the colour of the yolk.
It is impossible to replicate these masterpieces of Italy which can frustrate even the most masterful chefs in major metropolises like NYC or Toronto when trying to replicate the fresh tagliatelle of Emilia Romagna. Eggs matter.
Olive oil is an absolute staple in Italy and even your 'made in Italy' olive oil at home has nothing on the farm-fresh variety which is usually harvested and produced in fall each year.
Gelato is an international obsession, many foreigners claim to live off of it alone when visiting and it's not hard to see why. Simple, traditional flavours like fior di latte and crema seem uncannily sumptuous by comparison to our basic vanilla.
5 100% True: Nutella is holy
It is not just made in Italy, it is absolutely revered in Italy. Very few locals can resist that super smooth chocolatey, hazelnut spread and very few try to! It's considered appropriate at absolutely any time of day whether it's the filling in your bombolone for breakfast, the topping on your crostata or just straight up out of the jar with a spoon.
Nutella first hit the shelves in 1964 and has since grown to be a national treasure. Its 50th birthday was even commemorated with a 0.70 euro stamp in May of 2014 featuring the iconic jar.
A birthday party on May 17th was officially declared as Nutella day. We hear it got a little nutty...
4 100% True: Crazy driving
Italians in their natural habitat appear to have a death mission when operating their vehicles as they whip around, hardly signalling and barely stopping at every given opportunity. We're not sure if it's due to their obsession with motorsports or that they feel more nimble in their teeny tiny cars.
In any case, it can really jolt you out of your relaxing holiday when you realize that absolutely every single person in Italy drives this way. Well better buckle up because as they say, when in Rome...
3 100% True: Hanging laundry is everywhere
It seems weird to hang your underwear out of your window where all your neighbours, visitors, common strangers, heck even the mailman can see it but it is just how (much of) Europe rolls. It can be quite an adjustment at first, heck I remember feeling really timid about hanging my clothes outside the first couple of times and even tried to dry my unmentionables with a hair dryer instead!
The truth is, much like the crazy driving - it is so normal that people don't even bat an eyelash about it. At least it makes for some charmingly authentic looking photos back home when you show your friends and family that some things simply haven't changed at all in the old country.
2 100% True: Espresso is a way of life
Big coffee isn't normally available so we'd like you to meet little coffee or caffè.
Espresso is fantastic because in Italy it's an anytime social event can be as quick as a hello and goodbye or a lingering catch up with a dear friend. Unlike our beloved USA diner culture, coffee is never served with the meal but at the very end to aid with digestion and give a bit of a pick me up if you've eaten too much (as is usual).
If you really want to kick your metabolism into high gear you can order a caffè corretto (correct coffee) which is a shot of espresso complete with a splash of digestive like grappa or sambuca.
1 100% True: Italians communicate without words
This worldwide conception of Italians is historically and factually accurate. Whether it's with a glance or with a hand gesture, Italians can say whatever it is they need to say without using many (if any!) words. For example, the diagram above usually accompanies a question like 'what do you want' or 'what are you talking about' in a sort of scolding tone (without any verbal tone at all!). Taking the index finger to touch the thumb together (like an 'ok' configuration) and drawing an invisible line across the air symbolizes perfect!
Like, this pasta/pizza/wine/view of the mountains is perfect (with just one swift hand movement). There are at least 15 more gestures like this that are all widely understood by Italians. If you really want to blend in - it can help to know a few!