There are certain things everyone knows about Italy – home of pizza and pasta, site of the world’s greatest empire, icon of football, fashion, and fast cars – but Italy also has its mysteries. Discovering the truth behind some of them will not only make for a more informed trip, it may also save you some potential embarrassment and confusion.
The Real Italy Is Not Just the Holy Trinity
Rome, Florence, and Venice truly rank among the most incredible cities in the world, but don’t imagine that they represent typical Italy. Make time to visit the small towns outside the major cities. The same goes for Tuscany. Tuscany is a haven of picturesque medieval villages and impossibly scenic countryside, but venture to neighbouring Langhe and discover Alba and Asti, or head to the culinary heaven of Bologna. With fewer tourists to contend with, you can discover the real Italy at your leisure.
Football is a religion in Italy. Games are shown on Sunday, and the rest of the week’s television schedules are taken up with discussing it. Well, not quite – other programming includes plenty of semi-naked dancing girls and inappropriate nudity commercials. Formula 1 races are also considered a pretty high priority.
Queues are not really taken seriously. Lining up at a bakery or bank is considered more of a declaration of intent than anything else, so if you want to avoid being overtaken by somebody behind you, you’ll need to assert yourself.
Italian men devote a lot of attention to their dress and are more likely to be seen in leather shoes and well-cut trousers than in sandals and shorts. They tend to wear speedos on the beach, however, without fear of ridicule. On the subject of beaches, topless sunbathing is more acceptable in the north than in the south.
When going out at night, take care to dress up. Day wear is not considered appropriate in the evenings. But don’t wear purple, as that is considered unlucky and should never be worn to weddings. And while you are socialising, make sure you can handle your alcohol intake, as it is frowned upon to get drunk in Italy.
You are not expected to tip waiters, and it is considered offensive to tip somebody you know personally. (That said, you are expected to tip public restroom attendants).
Don’t sit down in an Italian bar. Even if your feet are killing you from climbing yet another church tower, resist the urge, and stand at the bar with the locals. If you do sit down, you will be charged at least double for whatever you consume.
Despite what you may have heard, you can order a cappuccino in the afternoon – but never after a meal. Some places may even refuse to serve it to you. To receive said cappuccino, you are likely to have to pay for it in advance so you can show the scontrino (proof of payment) to the bar staff. And while we’re on the subject of drinks, Italians do not use ice. If you ask for it, they will look at you as if you have ten heads and will then deliver a tiny saucer with a few cubes on it for the entire table.
Dinner is never served before 8. If you want dinner at 5, go to a pasticceria and order a hot chocolate and some pastries. If you’re hungry at 7pm go to a bar and order an aperitivo. And don’t expect to eat pizza at lunch time – it’s considered a dinner dish. When you’ve eaten, ask for the bill. In Italian eyes, putting a bill on the table before it has been requested is the equivalent of asking somebody to leave.
Italy is home to more than 100 different kinds of pasta, so it deserves a heading all of its own. If you are in a northern location like Milan, you never eat bread and pasta together, but you might in Naples, or somewhere else in the south. There is no such thing as Alfredo sauce in italy, so don’t ask for it. Parmigano cheese is only grated over pasta with either vegetable or meat sauce – not fish. (It is never used on salad or pizza). Chicken is not to be eaten with pasta – full stop. By contrast, pesto is only to be eaten with pasta – never with pizza, sandwiches, or Caprese salad.
Driving in Italy
Contrary to what you might have heard, driving here is not appalling and car hire in Italy can be a pleasurable experience (but you really need to keep your wits about you if you rent a car in Naples!). When you are on the autostrada, however, never drive on the left lane unless you are overtaking. Keep your left indicator on while you are in the left lane, and turn it off when you go back to the original lane. If you see somebody flashing their lights behind you, they want you to move to the right lane to let them overtake. Despite the cliched image of the Italian speed merchant, speed limits are strictly enforced by the police. You won’t be stopped, but a photo of you will be sent to the car owner, and if you speed while renting a car in Italy, you are liable to pay a hefty fine (in the region of €200 or more).
Aoife O’Carroll is a staff writer for Nova Car Hire, a convenient website for arranging car rental in 26,000 locations worldwide, including Italy.