The American Tourist in Italy

The American Tourist in Italy The American Tourist in Italy
Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday

It's June and well, summer is here, which usually means one thing: a family trip to Italy….at least that's how it was in my household growing up. If you are indeed off to "il Bel Paese" this summer to get a taste of "la dolce vita," let me provide you with some tips. Not only because I've been to Italy countless times as a "tourist," but having lived in Italy for five years, I can spot a tourist from about 5 meters away, yes I said meters. My friends and I would even have bets on spotting "the American" out of all the tourists around the city. I would always win.


First and foremost, when traveling to Italy, you almost have to forget what you know about Italian food or at least think is "Italian." Italian-American dishes are rather different than Italian dishes. In fact, it may come to a surprise to some, but the Italian cuisine is very simple and is not loaded with spices and garlic, like it is in America. In Italy, food is so fresh and full of flavor in itself, sometimes all you need is to add a touch of olive oil.

If you order a salad as an appetizer at the beginning of the meal, the waiter will probably look at you strange. Especially, if you ask for it with "Italian dressing"…which of course does not exist. Italians stick to simple extra virgin olive oil and vinegar, usually Balsamic from Modena and salt to dress their salad. Salads in their simplicity are eaten at the end of the meal to cleanse the palette. Oh, and, despite its name, a Cesaer salad is an Italian-American invention. Also on the appetizers menu, you will not find fried calamari with marinara sauce. For one thing, fried calamari is served as a second dish with a squirt of lemon. Furthermore, the term "marinara sauce" is the Italian-American word for a tomato sauce. If you ask for "marinara sauce" in Italy, they will give you a seafood based sauce…as the word "marinara" means "sailor style." By the way, don't dare asking for butter with the bread basket on the table, you will simply not get it.

Moving on to the first course, believe it or not, Italians do not eat pasta at every meal or every day. Pasta is often replaced by a risotto, minestrone or soup, or and even skipped completely. When eating long pasta, Italians never roll it with a spoon; it is considered ill-mannered and rude. The same rule applies to cutting long pasta with a knife. Italians also do not mix first courses with second courses. That's not to say you won't find meat in your pasta, as there are countless meat sauce recipes in Italy. You simply won't ever get steak with a side of pasta or risotto and certainly not a dish of spaghetti and meatballs…another celebrated Italian-American invention.

Lastly, if you want to avoid an Italian looking at you abnormally, ‘ixnay' on ordering a cappuccino after lunch or dinner—espresso or espresso macchiato, yes, cappuccino, no. Italians take their food very seriously. By now, you're probably rolling your eyes and think they're overdoing it a bit, call them crazy or weird, but let's not forget, for centuries, Italians have taught the world how to eat and the Italian cuisine is the most imitated in the world, period.


Speaking of teaching the world, we can't talk about visiting Italy without mentioning tourist fashion faux pas; a topic that hits home for me. I get it, it's hot, you're walking around all day, you're sweaty and feet are swollen…looking chic is the last of your worries. Wrong. You're in Italy! It should be the first of your worries. Fashion in Italy goes back centuries. From the Romans to the Renaissance, looking good is in our blood, there's simply no way around it. I'm not saying you have to look like Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in "Roman Holiday," although that would be so incredibly chic, but how about a little bit more attention to what you're putting on especially in respect to your surroundings. Europe in general is a "dress up" society. Women put on stilettos to go to the supermarket and men always wear a suit or jacket to go to work. As a tourist, that way of dressing is not practical, but in Italy there is an expression that I, still to this day, have difficulty in translating and it is "la bella figura." This means basically making a good impression and looking good, no matter what. So just think twice before you put on mesh shorts or denim cut offs if you plan on walking on Via Montenapoleone in Milan or visiting the Vatican in Rome. Additionally, you will notice, no matter how hot it is in the city and trust me it gets HOT, Italian women do not expose a lot of skin. In Italy there are two ways of dressing: city dressing and beach dressing. Skimpy tank tops, Daisy Dukes and flip flops are for the beach and beach towns. Besides, with the strict dress codes found in churches and museums, you will be denied entry and the "beach outfits" will get you nothing but a lot of dirty looks. It all goes back to the fact that it is a "dress up" society and looking good, always, is just who we are. Great alternatives to shorts are flowy sundresses and skirts, which will even keep you cooler in that Mediterranean heat.

Dos & Don'ts

So after covering food and fashion, there are just some basic etiquette dos and don'ts you definitely want to look out for while traveling to Italy, especially if it's your first time. The first one, and one of my favorite to tell tourists is, don't eat at a restaurant that has the menu translated in 14 different languages. While you may think "oh, how sweet of them," chances are the restaurant is a tourist trap—unfortunately taking advantage of people who don't know better i.e. the typical tourist. These types of restaurants are found in super-touristy areas of an extremely popular city. They are usually way over priced and the quality of the food is rather questionable. This is obviously not necessarily true for all restaurants that offer the menu in English, however when you see one in many languages, run the other way. You don't need to speak Italian to eat amazing food in Italy. Do a little research before traveling. Find out what are the traditional dishes of that particular city or what the region is famous for. Walk into a restaurant with a sense of adventure to explore and try new dishes that you probably will never find back home.

I'm sure you know many Italian words. Just walking into a Starbucks or opening a menu at any restaurant, you are immediately bombarded with Italian words. From ciao bella, buon giorno, arrivederci, to venti, grande, latte, espresso, macchiato, spaghetti, antipasto, gnocchi, the incredibly harmonious, romance language, that is just beautiful to listen to has made its way into the American culture. Although English is spoken in the large tourist cities, don't be surprised if it isn't spoken in the smaller cities and towns. However, with the help of a little phrase book, you will be appreciated for trying, unlike the French. Yet, remember, with the Italian language there is a formal and informal way of addressing people. So if you greet people you don't know with "ciao," they may look at you strange and consider it impolite. A good tip is to simply acknowledge them with "buon giorno" or "buona sera."

Yet if there is one piece of advice I can give you, it would be to relax, enjoy yourself and don't rush and try to cram 10 cities in 10 days. This is the country that is known for "dolce far niente," "sweet doing nothing." Not so sure how that mentality is working out for them now with the global financial crisis; but who cares. You're on vacation—get lost in Venice, don't buy counterfeit handbags in Florence and remember when in Rome, do as the Romans do! Buon Viaggio!