Italy

Here are some general tips that should apply throughout most of Italy.  Some of the comments are particular to Tuscany.  You can extrapolate.

Food and Drink

Italians eat a small breakfast  usually just rolls or croissants with coffee.  This meal is repeated as often as necessary throughout the morning.  They  take their main meal of the day at lunch, which starts at about 1:00 and lasts about 2 hours.  Many Italians go home for lunch and take a siesta after eating, which means that most shops, commercial establishments and all but the largest museums will be closed from 1-4.  Italian bakeries sell small pastries which make a good late afternoon snack.  Ice cream is also excellent.  Italians will have a light dinner at around 8:00 (although I’ve been told dinner time may be earlier in the cooler weather).

A full meal will consist of an antipasto (usually a plate of Italian cold cuts), a pasta, a meat course, and perhaps dessert.  Most Italians don’t eat all the courses, and you don’t have to either.  It is perfectly OK to have an antipasto and a pasta, or antipasto and a meat course.  Salads and vegetables are usually ordered separately, to be served either with (vegetable) or after (salad) the meat course. Desserts tend to be simple, and fresh fruit (if available) is often a good choice.  Don’t be afraid of the antipasto – Italian cold cuts are typically home made, cut paper thin, and delicious.  Meats and vegetables tend to be cooked a little too long, for California tastes, but the quality is very high.  Salads tend to be simple, and often are dressed at the table.  Pasta dishes tend to be smaller and lighter than their American equivalents.  Pizza is not considered a full meal and will often be available only in the evening.   Italians drink cappucino and café latte only in the morning.

Fish, outside of Florence and the coast, is not widely available in Tuscany, even less so in Umbria.  For centuries many of these towns were part of warring states, so long-range food distribution networks didn’t develop, and people ate mostly local foods.  Even today, when food distribution is excellent, many Tuscans prefer to eat the food of their community rather than strange “foreign” foods from other parts of Italy.

It’s hard to get a bad meal in Italy.  The exceptions, unfortunately, are Florence and Assisi, where there are many mediocre restaurants serving the tourist trade.   Try to avoid restaurants with menus in 4 languages.  Restaurants that are full at non-Italian hours (e.g., 6:00) are probably tourist restaurants and therefore not very good.  The quality of the food at most non-tourist-oriented Italian restaurants is so good that it’s rarely worth splurging on a really expensive restaurant – all you’re really paying for is the fancy plates.   At the end of the meal, you can linger as long as you like – you need to ask for a check (“il conto, per favore”)

The local wine is usually reasonably priced, pretty good, and well-matched with the local food.  Again, it’s rarely worth splurging on expensive bottles.  American sodas and some Italian brands are generally available, although they may be as expensive as the wine.  Tap water is safe to drink, but most Italians drink mineral water (either bubbly or non-) with their meals because it tastes better.  American-style cocktails are generally not available, except in expensive hotel bars.  Italians drink bitter aperitifs, which are an acquired taste.  After the meal, Italians sometimes drink grappa (distilled liquor made from grapes).  If the weather is warm, you might want to try lemoncello, a sweet, lemon-flavored liqueur served chilled.  It’s more alcoholic than it tastes, though, so be careful.

The following “Italian” foods are unavailable in Italy:

  • Pepperoni pizza
  • Spaghetti with meat balls
  • Espresso with lemon peel

Also, be aware that in Italy dipping your bread in your olive oil is only for coffoni (hicks).

Forget all the Italian you think you know from Starbucks. If you ask for a latte, you’ll get a glass of milk.  If you ask for a venti, you’ll get a blank stare, because venti means 20 in Italian.  The following terms are used:  café (espresso); doppio (double shot); caffe latte (coffee with steamed milk); cappuccino (coffee with a “hood” of steamed milk); caffe macchiato (coffee with a “spot” of milk).  Decaffeinated coffee is not generally available in Italy, but you can usually find herbal tea.

Coca Cola products are generally available in Italy.  Cheaper, and better, are Italian sodas.  The closest equivalent to 7Up is limonata (which means lemon soda, not lemonade). Also good is aranciata (orange soda).  Aranciata amare (bitter orange soda) is particularly refreshing on a hot day.

Fresh milk is not always available. Italians use UHT milk (pasteurized at ultra-high temperature) which is sold in boxes and doesn’t need to be refrigerated until open.  The taste difference for use in coffee and cooking is imperceptible, but those who like to drink fresh milk by the glass may notice a difference.

Hot chocolate is surprisingly good in Italy.  There are two varieties — liquido (thick) and solido (even thicker).

Gelato is excellent in Italy, and is available in a stunning variety of flavors.

Tap water is safe to drink in Italy, but bottled water tastes better. Many brands are available, bubbly and non-.

The official drinking age in Italy is 16, but the unofficial drinking age (for children eating out with their parents) tends to be lower. All our kids will get served, unless the parents say no.

“Vino della casa” is generally bottled wine in Italian restaurants, and is usually quite acceptable, not the rotgut carafes you sometimes get in French bistros.  We are in Tuscany, after all.  You only need to decide “vino bianco” (white) or “vino rosso” (red).  Rose wines are not common.

Bars in Italy serve coffee as well as liquor.  In fact, “bars” and “cafes” are equivalent.  There are no age restrictions on entry to a “bar”, as there are in the US.  Mixed drinks are uncommon, unless the sign says “American Bar.”

If you go into a cafe in Italy and ask for a “latte,” you will get a glass of milk.  If you ask for a “venti” you will get a blank stare, since “venti” means 20 in Italian.  “Cafe” is espresso; 1/2 inch of nectar of the gods (1/4 inch in Rome).  Italians put  2 or 3 sugar cubes in each tiny cup; that doesn’t mean you have to.  The “traditional” lemon peel is a Sicilian custom, not much seen in Tuscany.  “Cafe latte” and “cappucino” mean the same as they do in the US.  “Caffe macchiato” is coffee with a “spot” of milk. Cafe Americano is American dishwater, which they will serve to you shaking their heads.  Italians don’t drink any of the coffee with milk variations after noon.

Italians eat their main meal of the day (lunch) at 1:00.  Stores and museums, even some churches tend to be closed from 1-4, so you might as well eat too.  The exception is Florence, where the major museums are open continuously.  Stores reopen at 4 until about 7 or 8.

You can order meals by the course.  “Primi” is pasta (generally served in much smaller portions than in the US) and “secondi” is meat or fish.  You can order “primi” first, then see if you’re still hungry.

Fresh fruit in Italian restaurants tends to be served unwashed.  You will be given a small bowl of water to wash the fruit yourself.

Pizza is Neapolitan or Sicilian.  When I first went to Italy, in 1970, pizza was uncommon in northern Italy, but now it is ubiquitous.  Unfortunately, except in Rome (which has a large population of Neapolitan and Sicilian transplants) it is often not very good.  Eat at places advertising “New York Style” or “Chicago Style” pizza (believe it!) at your own risk.  A better alternative is focaccia, served in bakeries with a variety of savory toppings.

Tuscan bread is unsalted (some tax dispute).  You’ll learn to love it.

Local Customs

Although most Italians are nominally Catholic, they are not really that observant.  Many Americans are surprised to learn that the rate of regular church-going is higher in America than it is in Italy.

Nevertheless, Italians expect a measure of decorum and modest dress when visiting their churches.  If you go in the summer, and arrive dressed for the beach (tank tops, short shorts, flip flops) you will be turned away.  In the fall, this is less of a problem – jeans are OK, and long pants on women are generally preferable to short skirts.  Women wearing tank tops may be asked to cover their shoulders, but a scarf tied around the shoulders is sufficient.  Headcovering for women is optional, and men should remove their hats inside the church.  Taking pictures is generally OK (unless a service is in progress). Some of the artwork requires illumination — keep a supply of coins for the machines.

Enforcement of the dress codes is kind of spotty.  The Vatican is the worst – the junior Inquisitors who man the doors (and they are all men) seem to enjoy turning people away.  This is also true of Assisi, which is run by the Vatican.  I also noticed the fashion police at Siena’s cathedral (although, amusingly, they were selling paper hospital-type gowns to people whose clothing didn’t measure up).  At many of the churches in the smaller towns, they don’t care at all, but still, it’s best to be prepared.

Bars in Italy serve coffee as well as drinks, and often light snacks as well.  If you want cheap and fast, stand at the bar. Typically you will pay first.   It costs extra to sit at a table, but you can stay as long as you like, and you ask for the check when you want to leave.  Only Ugly Americans stand at the bar to order and then try to sneak their food to a table.

If you buy something from an outside vendor, bargaining is acceptable and generally expected.  If you buy something from a department store, don’t try to bargain.

Shopping

Shopping is awesome in Florence and pretty good in Siena too.  Silk scarves and ties are relatively reasonably priced, and make good gifts.  Leather goods can be good buys too, and Italian shoes and handbags are very chic.

Ceramics are very popular all over Tuscany.  Some of the larger stores will ship, but it is expensive.  We have generally been successful bringing well-wrapped objects home in our carry-on baggage.

Italy is one of the few places that you can still purchase fine embroidered handkerchiefs, the kind that only your grandmother and Linda use.

You can’t bring sausage or meat products into the US.  You can bring cheese in, but since much of it is available in the Bay Area, why bother.

Be aware that olive oil is pressed only once a year, in December, so if you go in the fall some small producers may be out of oil.

Driving

Driving in Italy is not for the faint of heart, but is not as dangerous as it looks.  Italians drive fast (after all, they’ve had 3 espressos since lunch), but they’re all paying attention.  I’ve noticed that the very young (under 18) and the very old (over 70) rarely drive, being chauffeured instead by their parents or their children.  Signage is good (at least in the countryside).  So try it, and release your inner Mario.

If an Italian driver wants to pass you, he will pull up very close behind you and flash his headlights.  This is not considered rude in Italy.  Please do not give him the finger (or even worse, the corne,or horns, a pretty serious insult in Italy).

The rule for pedestrians is – if you see them, you must stop.  So Italian drivers studiously avoid making eye contact with them.

Although Italians treat most traffic regulations, particularly speed limits and no parking signs, as mere suggestions, they scrupulously stop at all train crossings, and will wait patiently no matter how long the train takes to arrive.  I have no idea why this is.

Italy uses international driving symbols (pictorial), so if you’ve driven anywhere else in Europe you should be OK.

Every guide book says you need an international Drivers License, but we’ve been renting cars in Europe for years and never needed one.  (However, lacking a permit might prove tricky if you get stopped.)

Rental car insurance policies connected to credit cards exempt Italy.  I can’t imagine why.

Gas is incredibly expensive in Italy, but cars are gas misers.  Diesel cars get even better mileage.  So don’t worry about it.

Driving in the Italian countryside is not so bad.  Drivers are aggressive, but they pay attention. Beware of sheep.  Your biggest danger is other Americans who don’t know where they are going and make sudden moves.

Cars on the Italian autostrade (superhighways) tend to go very fast.  Shoulders tend to be much narrower than in the US, and are often nonexistent.  Speed limit is 130 kph (about 80); Porsches and Beemers go faster.  Toll roads are expensive, but well maintained.

Driving in the towns can be challenging. Streets are narrow and parking is difficult.  Park the first chance you get and walk to where you’re going. If it’s a pay spot (sometimes difficult to determine), pay or you will be towed.  Watch what others are doing (sometimes the parking meter is a machine on the corner that dispenses tickets).

Many cities, particularly in the north of Italy, have ZTL zones (zone of limited traffic).  Some are not well marked, but all are monitored by video cameras.  If you enter one of these zones without a permit, you will probably receive a 100+ Euro fine in the mail 6 months later.

Driving in Rome is a nightmare, unless it brings out your inner Mario.

Teenagers 14 or older can rent motorscooters in Italy.

Get a good map.  If you find yourself in Aquaviva, you are hopelessly lost.

Trains

Italian trains are good and reasonably prompt.  Their reputation for tardiness is only by comparison with Swiss and German trains, which you can set your Swiss watches by.  By American standards, Italian trains are modern, well-designed and fast.  Second class is fine for short trips.  Don’t take a lot of luggage, though – Europeans don’t, and the baggage holders are designed accordingly.

Tickets for the new fast trains that run up and down the spine of Italy between major cities are reasonably priced and can be bought on the Internet.  Electronic tickets (on smartphones) work in many cases.  Book early to get the best fares.

Health Issues

Italian pharmacists stock a full range of products.  Unfortunately, most have different names than their American counterparts.  If you have prescription drugs or over-the-counter-products that you use a lot, take your own.

Italian pharmacists are trained to give medical advice for minor ailments, and most speak some English, so if you have a minor ailment or insect bite, going to a pharmacy is a good first step. (Don’t worry, most of the scorpions will be gone by October.)

The quality of Italian public health care varies a lot by region.  In the best regions, care is top-notch and inexpensive (this is from first-hand experience).  Hospitals are utilitarian, however, and family is expected to bring most non-necessary supplies for the comfort of the patient.

Over the counter pharmaceutical products are readily available in Italy, but they have different brand names and sometimes different standard dosages.  Even the toothpaste brands are different.  The closest American-style pharmacy is likely to be in Florence.

Tampax is readily available, but other US brands are not

Money Issues

Based on prior experience,  Italy is well served by ATM machines and your US ATM card will work at almost all of them.  You will need a 4 digit, numeric PIN.  (European machines often don’t have letters on the keys.)  We have read that ATM’s connected to savings accounts may not work, and in fact opened a checking account for Tory prior to her European trip in 2001.

Visa and Master Card are well accepted in Italy; American Express somewhat less so.  We have found them to be generally acceptable at hotels, museums, shops, toll booths, and gas stations along major roads.  You may need cash for smaller, family-run establishments, and for street markets.

Traveler’s checks are not generally accepted as cash in Europe, even if denominated in euro’s.  You have to go to a bank to exchange them, which given the limited banking hours and lousy exchange rates, is not the easiest way to get money.

American checks are not generally accepted, but in an emergency you may be able to get a fancy hotel to cash one.

Be sure to save your coins — in Italy, you will need them in unexpected places.  (For example, in many of the smaller churches lights are controlled by coin-operated machines.  You will also need coins to get a shopping cart for the larger supermarkets; you get it back when you return the cart.)

Credit card anti-fraud units may put a hold on your card at an inconvenient time, wondering who the heck is using your card in Italy.  We usually make a brief call to the credit card company informing them of our trip.  Those of you who travel regularly to Europe won’t have this problem.

Personal Security

Violent crime is rare in Italy, but petty crime (pickpockets and thieves who steal from cars) does occur, particularly in Rome and Florence.  Here are my suggestions.

Pickpockets are unfortunately common in many places frequented by tourists.  Women should carry their shoulderbags in front (be wary of thieves on motorcycles); some travel stores sell bags which rest flat against the body and can be worn under a jacket or sweater.  In bars or restaurants, don’t loop shoulder bags on the chair.  Men should consider putting cash and credit cards in different pockets.

Write down the credit card numbers and emergency numbers for replacing your cards and keep them in your suitcase.  The 800 numbers may not work in Europe; since the message giving you the alternate message will probably be in Italian, you may want to find out from your credit card companies what the European access number is.  If you have all your numbers, your stolen card will be cancelled immediately, you will not be charged (except for the phone call), and they will even send you a new card if you need one.

For the same reason, you should also photocopy your passport and keep the photocopy in your suitcase separate from your passport.

Outside of Florence and Pisa, there’s not much to worry about, except that I wouldn’t leave any items in the back seat of a car anywhere in Italy.

Go through your wallets before you leave.  Do you really need to carry all those credit cards?  2 cards, maybe 3, plus one ATM for each adult should be sufficient.  Husbands and wives should carry different cards, because if you need to report one stolen the bank may need to cancel both cards.

Once at the house or hotel, leave your passport in the room.  You won’t need it for any reason until you’re leaving (ATM’s have eliminated the old reason for carrying them, exchanging money).  And it’s a real pain to replace your passport if it is stolen.  If you’re not driving, leave your drivers license in the room, for similar reasons.

Photocopy your passport and your credit cards.  Write down the numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen.  Keep these documents separately from your actual cards or passports.

Don’t leave anything of value visible in your car.  In Florence or Rome, don’t leave anything valuable in the car, including the trunk. Period.

Small American backpacks are thief magnets. You have been warned.

I don’t like money belts or neck pouches, except in transit to and from the airport or on long train trips.  They are difficult to access.  I suggest keeping small amounts of “walking around money” in your pockets.   A small removeable pouch worn inside the pants and looped around the belt can be useful.

Don’t wear jewelry that looks expensive. Leave your actual expensive jewelry at home

Dress

Tuscany is relatively casual (think Napa Valley).  We did not encounter any restaurant, last time, that required even a jacket (of course, we didn’t frequent any restaurants that had separate olive oil menus). Women don’t wear stockings in the summer, even with close-toe shoes. Sandals are acceptable anywhere.

Italian women tend to wear more jewelry, and higher-heeled sandals, than American women.  That doesn’t mean you have to.

Italian women don’t wear shorts, except at beach resorts.

Our house has a laundry, but we have been unable to determine if they have a dryer (not a given in Italy). Pack accordingly — bring things that will line dry.

I personally think blue jeans are uncomfortable in the warm, relatively humid (but not NYC level) weather we are likely to encounter.  Besides, blue jeans dry on the line like stiff little boards.

In the Vatican, or in places operated by the Vatican such as the cathedral at Assisi, the clothing police will refuse entry to anyone wearing shorts, tank tops, or skirts above the knee.  They are notoriously arbitrary (the kind of folks who give the Catholic hierarchy a bad name), and even Josh won’t be able to argue them out of their decision once made. Elsewhere, clothing police are more sporadic, but in the larger towns (e.g., Florence or Siena) you may be refused entry if you are dressed for a day at the beach (short shorts, tank tops, flip-flops).

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