Land of saints, poets, heroes and navigators, Italy‘s traditions are rooted in an ancient faith. Scars attest to a long struggle for freedom, but the people remain appreciative of life‘s finer things: art, architecture, cuisine, wine, fashion, design, opera and sultry siestas. Italophile Stendhal noted the Italian predeliction for the “art of being happy“, something that continues to infuse the modern Italian psyche, despite tumultuous politics and economic uncertainty.
Economy and Government
Italian politics has long had a reputation for its passionate and precarious nature. Elections in April 2006 produced a victory for a centre-left coalition under the leadership of Romano Prodi, former EU commission president and Italian Prime Minister in 1998. Prodi’s second stint as Prime Minister, however, was short-lived. Having won the closest election in postwar Italian history, Prodi stayed in power for less than two years, as his unpopular coalition government was forced to call for early elections. In April 2008, media magnate Silvio Berlusconi became Italy’s Prime Minister for a third time, claiming a resounding victory over Rome Mayor and Democratic Party leader Walter Veltroni. Unable to promise an “Italian Miracle” with regards to the economy, Berlusconi and his conservative coalition have remained popular. Veltroni resigned his post as opposition leader in February 2009 after his party suffered defeat in regional elections in Sardinia.
On the international stage, Italy participated in the US-led military coalition in Iraq, amid much public controversy, a decision that Prodi reversed when he withdrew Italian forces in 2006.
At home, Italy’s economy has been facing increasing difficulties, with rising inflation and the impact of fierce international competition on the medium-sized family-owned companies that make up the bulk of its manufacturing industries. In 2008, Italy officially plunged into a recession. The country’s public debt, estimated at approximately 105 percent of GDP in 2008, and a fiscal deficit of over 2.8 percent of GDP in 2008, signals a tough economic outlook for the country for at least the next few years.
Protests against public spending cuts and pension reforms have been vehement. Meanwhile, Fiat and Alitalia struggle to survive in the increasingly competitive transport market.
Film, Fashion and a Fabulous Life
Italy has long enchanted and inspired the world’s imagination. As travel writing’s grande dame Jan Morris once observed: “For a thousand years and more, it has been one of the most interesting corners of the earth – not always admirable, but never boring.” Indeed, even the peninsula’s missteps such as Caligula’s cruelties, Christian persecution and the Medici poisonings are the stuff of legend. But Italy is most famous for its sumptuous lifestyle, and rightly so.
One film personifies the country’s modern character best: Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. This 1960 feature captured the glitterati’s nightlife in its heyday. As Anita Ekberg frolicked in the Fontana di Trevi, an icon of excess was born. The title – translating as “the sweet life” – passed into everyday English, as did “paparazzo”.
Of course, most Italians do not live silver-screen-style, but most try to infuse a little glamour, a little Good Life, into ordinary existence. Extra virgin olive oil, fresh-baked breads and fine wines are staples. Shoppers select farm-fresh produce among the overflowing stalls in outdoor markets. Pastry shops wrap cakes in lavish paper and ribbons. The sight, the smell, the texture and presentation of food is vital.
The same care translates to fashion. Cashmere, silk and leather hold sway here. Brand names are coveted (and copied frequently by knock-off artists). Through make-up and grooming, the average Italian strives for high style daily. Such bella figura – good showing – is only gracious, they believe. Who wants to look at an unkempt person?
People promenade in the evenings, seeing and being seen. Long, languid lunch breaks are common. And the whole country heads to the seashore or mountains for six weeks each summer. Italians, as the cliché stresses, work to live, rather than living to work.
The formula is not without problems. Passion collides with the Catholic Church’s ban on birth control. Governments rise and fall with bewildering regularity. Protests frequently freeze a nation already burdened by Byzantine bureaucracy.
Yet western civilisation still eagerly takes cues from this small country. Perhaps, as Morris notes, “the world recognises in Italy an essential idea of beauty: beauty of landscape, beauty of learning, beauty of art, beauty of human romance and affectition.”
Italy, the Bel Paese
Bel Paese is an affectionate term for Italy, drawn from a book by the abbot Antonio Stoppani (1824–91) and borrowed by the Galbani dairy in 1906.
Cheese jokes aside, everybody agrees on how beautiful (bel) and surprisingly varied the country (paese) is. Jutting into the sea, the coastline offers sandy coves and pinewoods, and inlets lapped by emerald water. Inland misty, haunting plains rise to form a wild and rugged terrain where even the snow struggles to settle. Frenetic cities contrast sharply with sleepy hilltop villages, where little has changed since the Middle Ages.
Against this backdrop are mapped the different lives, characters and dialects of this land’s inhabitants. For example, Sicilians tease the Milanese about their obsessive punctuality and efficiency. A Neapolitan might marvel over the rhythm, tone and humour in the lyrical chatter of the Venetians. And the Romans pity anyone unable to live in the Eternal City, the caput mundi – head of the world.
Pizza and Mandolins
Compliments can easily blur into caricatures – and Italy suffers its share of misconceptions. “Pizza, spaghetti and mandolins” is the tourist’s knee-jerk perception, jokes Paolo Villaggio in the Fantozzi film series.
Many Italian traditions – from wheezy accordions to checkered tablecloths and Catholic schoolgirls – are the butt of jokes abroad. A classic example is Dean Martin’s song That’s Amore, which distorts Italian phrases into clumsy immigrant English.
The macho Latin lover stereotype is best interpreted in Un Americano a Roma by Alberto Sordi. He apes the xenophile Italian who denounces his origins, but cannot tear himself away from his plate of spaghetti. Yet many long-despised traits have found new vogue: the country’s garlic-laden, healthy cuisine, the sensual fashion, family values, opportunistic economics and sense of melodrama. Never an easy study, Italy often eludes definition. But that’s the charm that leads artists and tourists back to her beauty again and again.
The 1948 constitution established 20 regions, although it was not enacted until 1970. Five of these (Sicily, Sardinia, Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Valle d’Aosta) have a special statute and enjoy greater administrative autonomy. The regions are subdivided into 95 provinces, which are themselves composed of districts, each headed by a Sindaco.
Food and Drink
Italian kitchens have produced some of the world’s best-known dishes. Yet the cuisine has no national flavour. Rather, it is a lavish buffet of regional recipes, precisely defined and fiercely defended by each province.
The overall theme is Mediterranean to the south, while the north reflects hearty Alpine menus. Naples boasts of its pizza and Umbria of its truffles, while the capital is disparaged for simple “peasant” fare.
Regional Specialities: from North to South
Cooking here is done with butter. A popular dish is fonduta, a melted cheese dip of milk, eggs and white truffles (tartufi bianchi). Typical of the region are cardi (chards), prepared alla bagna cauda, ie with a hot sauce containing oil, anchovies, garlic and truffles. Other dishes include agnolotti (a kind of ravioli), braised beef in red Barolo wine, boiled meat, fritto misto alla Piemontese and bonet dessert (a type of chocolate pudding).
Monferrato and the Langhe hills are also famous for their excellent cheeses, such as robiola, castelmagno and bra, and delicious wines: Barolo (used for braising), Barbaresco, Barbera, Grignolino, red Freisa wines, white Gavi and dessert wines such as Asti, still or sparkling (spumante), and Moscato.
Milan, where cooking is done with butter, gives its name to several dishes; minestrone alla Milanese, a soup of green vegetables, rice and bacon; risotto alla Milanese, rice cooked with saffron; costoletta alla Milanese, a fillet of veal fried in egg and breadcrumbs with cheese and osso buco, a knuckle of veal with the marrow-bone. Polenta, maize semolina, is a staple food in traditional country cooking.
Also worth trying are the tortelli di zucca (pumpkin fritters) from Mantua. The most popular cheeses are the creamy Gorgonzola, the hard Grana Padana and Taleggio. Panettone is a large fruit cake containing raisins and candied lemon peel and torrone (nougat) is a speciality of Cremona. Wines produced include Franciacorta (red, white and sparkling) and the red wines of the Valtellina and Pavia districts. The Valtellina is also renowned for its pizzoccheri (a type of large tagliatelle made from buckwheat) and its bitto cheese.
As in the Po Delta, the people of the Veneto eat polenta, bigoli (a type of spaghetti), risi e bisi (rice and peas), risotto with chicory and fegato alla Veneziana (calf’s liver fried with onions). The excellent fish dishes include shellfish, eels, dried cod (baccalà) and sardelle in saor (sardines in brine). Black spaghetti made with squid ink is a popular Venetian dish.
The most renowned cheese of the region is asiago. Pandoro, a star-shaped cake delicately flavoured with orange-flower, is a speciality of Verona. The best wines come from the district of Verona: Valpolicella and Bardolino, rosé or red, perfumed and slightly sparkling, and Soave, which is white and strong.
Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia
In the Alto Adige, canederli is a type of gnocchi (dumplings) made with bread and flour served separately or in a broth. Other specialities include gröstl (potato and meat pie) and smoked pork served with sauerkraut. There are delicious pastries, in particular the strüdel cake. Friuli is famous for cialzons (a type of ravioli), jota (meat soup), pork-butchers’ specialities (ham – prosciutto di San Daniele), fish dishes (scampi, grancevole – spider crabs), frico (fried cheese) and montasio cheese. Trentino-Alto Adige is an important wine-producing region: white wines include Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Müller-Thurgau and Riesling, while Pinot and Cabernet are two of the best-known red wines. Friuli produces white Sauvignon, Pinot and Tocai and red Cabernet and Merlot wines.
Genoa’s chief speciality is pesto, a sauce made with olive oil, basil, pine-kernels, garlic and ewes’ cheese. It is served with trenette (long, thin noodles) and lasagne (flat pasta leaves). Other dishes include cima (stuffed meat parcels) and the excellent pansotti (a type of ravioli) served with a walnut sauce. The delicious seafood includes buridda (fish soup), cappon magro (fish and vegetable salad) and zuppa di datteri, a shellfish soup from La Spezia, with which the Ligurians drink Vermentino or Pigato, strong white wines. Sciacchetrà is an excellent dessert wine from the region.
The region has a gastronomic reputation; its pork-butchers’ meat is the most famous in Italy: Bologna salami and mortadella, Modena zamponi (pigs’ trotters), Parma prosciutto (ham). Pasta is varied and tasty when served alla Bolognese – that is, with a meat and tomato sauce. Parmesan cheese (parmigiano), hard and pale yellow, is strong yet delicate. Emilia produces Lambrusco, a fruity, red, sparkling wine, and white Albano.
This is where Italian cooking was born, at the court of the Medici. The most typical first courses of the region are minestrones and soups, including the famous ribollita, and pappardelle, a type of lasagne. Florence also offers its alla Fiorentina specialities: dried cod (baccalà) with oil, garlic and pepper, bistecca – grilled steak fillets with oil, salt and pepper, fagioli all’uccelletto (beans with quails), or fagioli “al fiasco” with oil, onions and herbs cooked in a round bottle (fiasco) on a coal fire. Livorno produces triglie (red mullet) and cacciucco (fish soup) and Siena offers panforte, a cake containing almonds, honey and candied melon, orange and lemon.
Tuscan cheeses include pecorino and caciotta. Chianti (both red and white) is the most popular wine but there are other notable red (Brunello di Montalcino, Nobile di Montepulciano) and white (Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Vin Santo) wines.
Umbria and Marches
Norcia is the capital of Umbrian cuisine with the black truffles (tartufo nero) and pork dishes. The regional dish is the porchetta, a whole suckling pig roasted on the spit. Specialities from the Marches include vincigrassi (pasta cooked in the oven with a meat and cream sauce), stringozzi (a type of hollow spaghetti), stuffed olives, brodetto (a fish soup), and stocco all’anconetana (dried cod). The region is renowned for both white wine (Orvieto and Verdicchio) and red (Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno).
Rome produces many specialities, though sometimes accused of “crude cooking”: fettuccine or flat strips of pasta, spaghetti all’amatriciana (with a spicy sauce) or alla carbonara (with a creamy sauce), gnocchi alla Romana, saltimbocca (a fillet of veal rolled in ham and flavoured with sage, fried in butter and served with a Marsala sauce), and abbacchio al forno (roast lamb) or lamb alla cacciatora (with an anchovy sauce).
Vegetables include carciofi alla Giudia, artichokes cooked in oil with garlic and parsley, which take their name from their origins in the Jewish quarter of Rome. Pecorino (ewes’ milk cheese), caciotta, ricotta and the famous white wines of Montefiascone and the Castelli (Frascati) will satisfy any gourmet.
Abruzzi and Molise
Among the pasta note maccheroni alla chitarra, made by hand and cut into strips. Latticini (fresh mountain cheeses) are popular.
Naples is the home of spaghetti, which is often prepared with shellfish (alle vongole). Trattorie and pizzerie serve costata alla pizzaiola, a fillet steak with tomatoes, garlic and wild marjoram, mozzarella in carrozza (cheese savoury) and especially pizza and calzone (a folded pizza), topped with cheese (mozzarella), tomato and anchovy and flavoured with capers and wild marjoram. The local mozzarella di bufala (buffalo mozzarella cheese) is especially delicious. Other specialities include cakes and pastries, often made with ricotta cheese and candied fruit. Wines from volcanic soil have a delicate, slightly sulphurous taste: red and white Capri, white Ischia, Lacryma Christi, Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo and red Gragnano and Taurasi.
Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria
Orecchiette con cime di rapa (pasta with turnip tops), rice with mussels (cozze), stuffed cuttlefish (seppia), the delicious oysters (ostriche) of Taranto and capretto ripieno al forno (roast kid stuffed with herbs) are among the typical dishes of the Apulia region. Wines include the white Locorotondo and San Severo and the rosé Castel del Monte. The specialities of Basilicata include pasta alla potentina and a range of lamb and mutton dishes, as well as a good selection of cheeses (caciocavallo, scamorza and ricotta), while Calabria is famous for its stuffed macaroni, pork and roast kid cooked on a spit. Red Cirò is the most popular local wine.
Specialities include pasta con le sarde (with sardines) and alla Norma (with aubergines, tomatoes and ricotta cheese), swordfish dishes and, in the Trapani region, cuscusu (couscous), a dish inherited from the Arabs and served with a type of fish soup. The island is rich in fruit (lemons, oranges, mandarins, olives, almonds), pastries and ices. The real Sicilian cassata is a partly-frozen cream cake containing chocolate cream and candied fruits. Other traditional sweets and pastries include cannoli (filled with ricotta and candied fruit), almond cakes and marzipan. The best-known wine is Marsala, which is dark and strong, but Malvasia and the white wines of Etna and Lipari are also delicious.
The island of Sardinia is famous for malloreddus (pasta shells with sausage and tomato), delicious lobster soup and pork cooked on a spit. Meals are accompanied by carasau, the local sheet-thin bread (known as carta da musica in the rest of Italy). The many cheeses include goats’ cheese, Sardinian fiore and Sardinian pecorino. Sebadas are round doughnuts which are fried and covered with honey. The best-known local wines are the red Cannonau and the white Vermentino.
Vegetarians (vegetariani) still draw confused looks. Be very clear: Non mangio la carne (I don’t eat meat).
Antipasti misti (mixed starters) often include marinated or fried mushrooms (funghi), sweet peppers (peperone), zucchini/courgette (zucchine), eggplant/aubergine (melanzane). Insalata mista (mixed salad) is another good bet: this dish may feature rughetta (arugula/rocket), chicory-like radicchio and sometimes corn.
Meat-free standbys include insalata caprese (slabs of tomato, bufala mozzarella and basil) and fagioli all’uccelletto (white beans) and bruschetta (pronounced “bru-SKET-ah”; tomato-topped toast).
Pastas showcase pomodoro fresco (fresh tomatoes) or pesto (a sauce of pine nuts, pecorino cheese and basil). Also look for spaghetti cacio e pepe (sheep’s cheese and pepper), penne al arrabbiata (fiery garlic-tomato sauce with pasta quills), ravioli ricotta e spinaci (ricotta and spinach ravioli, often served with butter and sage) and orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta, usually with broccoli).