Survival Guide – Coffee

Coffee. Many of us are addicted to the stuff. The Italians however take coffee obsession to a whole new level, and sometimes it can seem as though there are as many types of coffee in Italy as there are pasta shapes – that’s a lot of coffee people! It can get confusing, especially as there is something of an unspoken etiquette surrounding the ritual of coffee… so here I am to demystify it for you (it’s OK, no need to thank me) with a few basic rules…

Good Italian Espresso

Good Italian Espresso

1. No milky coffee after 10am. The Italians drink cappuccino  or latte macchiato SOLELY before getting any food in their tummies. They will instantly realise that you are an uninitiated foreigner if you order milky coffee after your lunch. You will get looks of pity. Mixed with disgust.

2. You don’t need to order an espresso, just caffé. If you want something longer, you will have to specify. To the Italians, coffee IS espresso – it’s sous-entendu.

3.  Don’t sit down unless you plan on lingering over the newspaper. It’s pointless, and they will charge you extra. Yes, that’s right – you pay a supplement to sit.  Neck it at the bar.

4. Don’t mess with your coffee. A skinny caramel frappuccino is not just unheard of, it’s downright blasphemous.

5. Be aware of the difference between North and South, even in terms of coffee. Coffee south of Rome is thicker, stronger (in my opinion better) and served shorter, in boiling hot little espresso cups. The trick is to tip the cup to wet the rim slightly before drinking so you don’t end up with your lip stuck to the cup (lookin’ at you, Naples)…

6. Alcohol is ok at any time of the day if it is in coffee. A caffé corretto is a coffee with a shot of brandy, grappa or other spirit in it. I see people drinking these in the morning. I don’t know how they do it without feeling sick, but they do… Of course, any other alcohol during the day outside of lunch will get you labeled an alcoholic.

7.  Most Italians drink their coffee then pay. In tourist areas or in stations, airports etc you must get your receipt first. Don’t worry, you will know you got it wrong if they glare at you and yell “scontrino?!” or “ticket!?” so you can slink off to the till and pay. Don’t feel bad, it happens to the Italians too.

8. No coffee to go, unless you are taking an espresso to a colleague who had too much to do and couldn’t come to the bar. There is a reason there are no Starbucks in Italy.

9.  There is no such thing as filter coffee. An Americano here is an espresso with a load of hot water dumped on it.

10. Anything you hear contrary to the above is paramount to heresy and must not be repeated.

Now I’m off to get a coffee.

 

With love, from Italy


Survival Guide – The Aperitivo

The Italians call it happy hour, but it is unlike any happy hour any of us anglosaxons are familiar with. The drinks don’t cost any less than at other times, in fact they may even cost a couple of euros more… the difference is that you get fed! This can be anything from some salted peanuts and savoury nibbles (you wont get charged extra if this is the kind of aperitivo you get) to a full buffet spread with everything from cheeses and cold cuts to pasta salad to pizza to dessert. The second kind of apero is pretty much a Northern Italian thing (Milano!), so you can imagine my surprise when I went for a drink with the girls on Friday and was presented with a full spread!

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Now at this point I must state the obvious: this ritual is not about the drinks. It isn’t even about the food, unless you are a poor student with poorer culinary skills who exchanges aperitivi for dinner (ahem, me circa 2005). It is the social aspect of the thing. The aperitivo can last all evening  – on Friday we sat down at 8pm and got up around midnight… and we only had one drink. The waiters didn’t give us the evils hoping we would free the table… everyone was doing the same thing. Relaxing, chatting, catching up. Apero’s are how people catch up in Italy, the same way as we might catch up over a coffee. So if someone wants to have an apero on a school night… go ahead, you wont have a hangover! And you may just get to skip dinner and have a cheap night out too considering that the above cost just 6€!

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With love, from Italy


“Regù” Salernitano

No, not a mispelling. I really do mean Regù, not Ragù.

They say that traditional is best and that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and traditional Ragù Bolognese certainly isn’t broken but one of our friends, Domenico decided he was going to “fix” the recipe anyway, and change the name to make it all his own. You know what? I think that his version is even better than the original. Full of big beefy flavours, with the addition of red wine, funghi porcini, smoked pancetta and peas, served with rustic hand twisted fusilli instead of tagliatelle or tortellini… Look, I even go a pic of him cooking (red letter day alert!!!)

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His girlfriend Rosana also contributed with chicken in white wine and garlic, and fresh peas cooked with pancetta and dressed with olive oil.

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Another friend, Mariagrazia, cooked the best Caprese cake I have EVER eaten (and it is one of my favourite Italian cakes so I have eaten a good few of them). The perfect balance of moist and light, sweet and chocolatey. Stay tuned for the recipe, she has promised me she will tell me her secret!

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My contribution? Limoncello. Which, considering the amount of wine consumed by all – thanks Carlo and Isabel, for bringing three (three litres of!!!) different wines in the form of Montepulciano, Aglianico and my fave Primitivo – was probably not necessary.

Didn’t stop us finishing the bottle though.

Saturday night with good friends, good food and good wine. Can’t beat it. Thank you to all of my friends here for being so freaking awesome.

With love, from Italy


Wordy Wednesday – B for Bella Figura

Wordy Wednesday is back and as promised is sticking to the alphabet. Today I am going to attempt to explain the incredibly Italian concept of the Bella Figura (literally “good face”)

This is a phrase you will hear often in conversation. When used positively it is accompanied by smiles and immense enthusiasm “che bella figura ha fatto con quel regalo!” (What an impression she made with that present!) and with a look of disgust or disappointment when used negatively “non ha mica fatto bella figura, dicendo una cosa del genere” (he made a fool of himself saying something like that).

But what does it mean? Well it basically means encouraging people to look at you in a positive manner. The bella figura is something that encourages people to think of you as classy, intelligent, affluent, elegant, well read etc. Its opposite, the brutta figura is any action which makes you look foolish, boorish, slovenly, uneducated or the like. Basically la bella figura is about what other people think of you.

Of course this is important to people all over the world, but nowhere moreso than in Italy. The Italians care a great deal about what other people think of them. This is why they are always immaculately dressed (see survival guide 2) why they rarely eat or indeed drink to excess (see survival guide 1) why they will never tell you their fancy dress was bought in the sale, why they name drop with abandon and why they work so hard to be fashionable in terms of dress, music, holidays, restaurants and bars and even, sadly, opinions in some cases. It is also the reason they work so hard in general.

In a sense the obsession with the bella figura is positive – it limits offensive behaviour and pushes people to better themselves. However it often gets taken too far, and people can be seen chasing after an ideal which does not exist and is a construct of society, never letting their hair down and forgetting what makes them happy in exchange for what they think society wants them to do. And yes, Italian society can be more judgemental than say British society, but that is partly because everyone is so busy watching themselves that any behaviour outsite the norm from others becomes almost an insult to them. I would say to the Italians yes, fate bella figura, it is important… but don’t forget who you are, and remember that there is more than one way of making a positive impression. Oh and one more thing: other people don’t care nearly as much as you think they do. They have their own lives to worry about. If they don’t have anything better to do than worry about someone elses bella figura that’s not your problem.

With love, from Italy


Pompei

I live half an hour from Pompei… but had never visited the site. I know, I know… R is worse than me though – he has lived here all his life and had never been! It turns out that he had not appreciated exactly HOW important the site was… and although I was less surprised by it, I was amazed at the sheer size of the place – it is enormous! Enormous, and eerily beautiful. Obviously, we took lots of photos… which speak for themselves.

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With love, from Italy

 


Bologna

I am in Bologna for work and realised too late that I need a wifi code for the internet if I want to write a proper post… The b&b owner has left, so I’m stuck… I primise I will post wordy wednesday as soon as I can get a stable connection…

With love, from Italy


Survival guide – the Dress Code 1

Or… how not to stand out like a sore thumb on holiday in Italy.

Now you might be asking yourself who the heck cares about dressing like an Italian, especially if you are just on holiday, and certainly you want to make sure that you are comfortable while travelling. Now hold that thought and consider:

1. Tourists are far more likely to be targeted by pick-pockets and petty criminals (as they are in all countries)
2. Italian stare for longer than the British or the Americans. It isn’t them being rude, “appropriate stare time” varies from culture to culture and here it is longer. If you want them to stare less, it is a good idea to blend in.
3. If you are a woman, unfortunately there is a misguided impression that foreign women are “easy”. Avoid unwanted attention by looking more like a local
4. The Italians dress well in general. Nothing wrong with picking up a few tips!

photo credit: ffela via photopin cc

photo credit: ffela via photopin cc

For this post I am going to cover the typical tourist dress code “errors”  - even just following these few tips should be enough, although the subject of fashion in Italy is of course far more complex than this!

1. Showing too much skin is a no. Yes you will see some women dressed skimpily, but not many and most of these will be very young – I am talking early twenties or younger. This doesn’t mean you can’t show off your legs, your arms, your cleavage or whatever else is your best feature, but just don’t try to show it off all at once, no matter how good a figure you have… simply because the Italians don’t tend to and you will stand out as a tourist immediately.

2. Baggy clothes are worn only by very few people. The Italians like to make sure they look elegant and are very careful about the fit of their clothes. They will often buy off the hanger then take the clothing to the tailor to be altered so that it fits perfectly. You certainly do not need to go this far, but I would suggest making sure that you are not wearing huge baggy tshirts, sweatpants or jeans with a baggy butt.

3. Jeans. Italians wear jeans all the time! I am not sure where this idea that they snub the denim comes from, but they wear jeans more than we do in the UK, in fact they are perfectly acceptable attire even for the office. This comes with three big caveats: the first is point 2. – make sure your jeans FIT. The second is quality. Good quality jeans in a dark wash look quite elegant. The third is footwear. You CAN wear sports shoes, but they must look NEW. Leather shoes are a far safer bet, moccassins are a good idea for men and women often wear boots over jeans in the cooler months, swapping them for sandals, pumps or ballet flats in the Spring and Summer.

4. Footwear – pretty much covered by the above, but one more point. Please be careful with the socks, and I’m not only talking the old socks n’ sandals combo (a sartorial sin in any nation) but also what socks you wear with closed shoes as well. The Italians want their socks to go utterly unnoticed and will wear them in the same colour as their shoes or trousers. It is a daily battle in our house to make sure R has the right socks for his outfit… drives me bonkers. Ah, and flip flops are for the beach only.

5. Bags. No bumbags/fanny packs. Please. Good quality leather or canvas bags don’t have to be expensive and look far classier… and more Italian. You can get away with a backpack, at a push, but it has to be in decent condition and only while casual clothing.

6. Bright colours. I break this rule constantly :) I love bright colours, and I really don’t care that the Italians don’t seem to. They like neutrals and muted colours. I wear these too, but I my favourite dresses are emerald green, watermelon, sapphire blue and scarlet in that order. Guess what though… whenever I wear these things all of my Italian friends have the same reaction Oh, che bella! Sei così… inglese! (Oh how lovely! You look so… English!)

7. Makeup, hair nails… grooming. Always done. Never overdone. Easier said than done! Italian women wear make-up every day but prefer to look as though they aren’t wearing any. They look after their hair and manicure their nails. The men do the same, aside from the makeup (well, mostly). And they all wear perfume/cologne…. they just don’t bath in it.

All of the above is a huge generalisation. There are Italians who are sartorial disasters. Italians who love bright clothing like me. Italians who wear too much make up or none at all. Italians who don’t give a monkey’s about elegance.  The above are guidelines, not rules… but you will look less like a tourist if you follow them! Any other tips? Thoughts? Experiences? Let me know :)

PS it is untrue that blonde hair marks you out as foreign… blonde or red hair is less common than brown or black here, but it is not so rare as to attract stares all by itself.

With love, from Italy