50 Things Italians Do Better
Americans are amateurs when it comes to these things.
Whether zipping around in a Vespa or relaxing during apertivo hour, Italians just have a way of doing things that seems at once more casual, classy, and cultured than Americans. From delicious cuisine to eye-opening coffee to some of the most sumptuous, stylish, and best-made footwear on the planet, Italians are just better at creating some things than most of the world. Here are 50 ways they excel.
If you’re going to buy a pair of leather shoes and want to be sure it’s they’re the absolutely best, you know you’re checking for that “Made in Italy” tag on the label—and for good reason. The country produces not only the finest quality leather in places like Florence, but it boasts a level of craftsmanship you’re going to have trouble matching anywhere else. Brands like Paul Evans (pictured: see here to browse their terrific wares) demonstrate how great it is when tradition, quality, and an obsession with detail combine in a pair of fine leather shoes.
The pair you see here—the Dean Chelsea boot—was hand-crafted by master artisans at a factory in Naples, Italy, from the highest quality calfskin leather. It was Blake-stitched for incomparable durability, flexibility, and comfort—and then hand-painted for a truly stunning, smooth finish.
Italians are so good at this, they have an expression for it: Dolce Far Niente, the art of doing nothing. It’s taking the world at a more leisurely pace, enjoying a drink at a café or doing some people watching. Just taking in life without feeling the need to Instagram it or make it some self-improvement exercise.
Cooking a Steak
Bistecca fiorentina is the definition of simplicity: A thick T-bone steak, flavored with some olive oil, salt, and maybe a bit of rosemary or lemon and just briefly grilled. It’s juicy and delicious and keeps the focus on the meat itself, as a great steak should.
From Sardinia to Calabria, Italian beaches are some of the best in the world, and there are many of them to choose from, whether you are seeking the endless sandy stretches of Sardegna or a tiny private beach of your own. (For true privacy, head to Spiaggia di Guvano, a seriously clandestine shorefront: Clothing is entirely optional.) But keep in mind that Italians see the beach as social hour, so there’s a good chance you’ll make some new friends while you’re getting a tan.
Sipping Standing Up
While Italians are great at relaxing, when it comes to enjoying coffee, it’s not an activity they do sitting down. Most cafes will have stool-free counters where you just sidle up, order your coffee, and sip it while standing. It’s surprisingly leisurely and satisfying to feel the caffeine hitting while you’re still on your feet. But it’s also a better deal: a cornetti, or standing coffee, is generally cheaper than one enjoyed sitting down.
All that olive oil and vegetables clearly does the people of Italy good. According to the Bloomberg Global Health Index, Italy is the healthiest country in the world, with an “excess of doctors” and the average life expectancy pushing into the eighties.
Italians put their money where their mouths are when it comes to cultural consumption. The government actually invested almost €300 million to give every Italian teen a €500 credit to spend on books, theater, concerts, movies, museum visits, or any other cultural experience. It’s no wonder the country produces some pretty creative people.
Like so many aspects of Italian dining, coffee is taken very seriously—essentially black, no sugar—with an attention to every element, including the quality of the beans, the grind, and the presentation. An espresso in Italy is something to be savored and pondered over, not tossed into a to-go cup and chugged on your way to work.
Maybe it’s because of all those scenic stretches, but Italians own the road when it comes to cycling, with Italians winning more World Cycling Championships than any other country excluding Belgium. The country hosts the annual Giro d’Italia and is home to two of the most prestigious and historic “Monuments” races, in Milan–San Remo and Giro di Lombardia.
These guys can also do skiing better than most, thanks to the country’s natural terrain. Whether it’s Alpine skiing through the Apennine Mountains or cross-country skiing across northern Italy, this country is home to some great skiing destinations and some great skiers.
Italians are masters of the elegant indulgence. Rather than the overflowing, creamy Coldstone monstrosity Americans are partial to, Italians do their cold treats much classier. Gelato is refreshing, generally fruit-focused, and served in a simple cup or cone, perfect for enjoying as you stroll city streets—especially in warmer weather. (And unlikely to stain your clothing.)
Italian restaurants usually don’t give away their bread the way we do in America, and for good reason: The bread is better in Italy. A basket off fresh focaccia with a healthy pour of oil and vinaigrette is one of life’s unrivaled joys, and is well worth paying the extra euro or two.
What Italians won’t charge you extra for is tips. (They’re paid a fair wage.) Unlike the 20%-plus madness of the U.S., tips in Italy are usually a few coins, if anything. At most you might be expected to tip 10% for exceptional service.
Creating Wild Sculptures
This country has no shortage of artists, but some of its coolest art can be enjoyed outside of museums, in the form of unusual sculptures that fit into the context of their environment. That includes a wild new sculpture of giant hands in Venice’s Grand Canal, the sunken Christ of the Abyss under the ocean in San Fruttoso, or a giant skeleton in Foligno.
Amazing Style Items You Didn’t Know You Needed
You may own a great pair of Chukka boots. Or a stunning pair of wingtips. Or a pair of gorgeous double-monk straps. But what if we told you that you could have all three—and in one amazingly stylish shoe? Well, meet the Heston Double Monk Strap Boot from Paul Evans. This unique pair of shoes is built by hand of full-grain Italian calfskin leather at a factory in Naples, Italy. It includes a matching leather sole, leather lining, and the company’s signature Blake construction for maximum comfort, durability, and flexibility. In other words: Expect to own them forever.
Italy is mad about football (what you may refer to as soccer), and the Italian national football team has won the FIFA World Cup a whopping four times—second only to Brazil. Kids start learning how to play by the time they can walk, and an estimated 4.4 million Italians take part in the sport, according to a survey published by Italian National Olympic Committee.
So, it’s actually called apertivo in Italy, and, as you’d expect, it’s much classier and smarter than the sloppy “happy hour” we celebrate here in the States: A leisurely late-afternoon drink (whether a Negroni, glass of Pinot, or an Aperol spritz) enjoyed with complimentary snacks—sometimes merely olives, often something more elaborate. It all feels very civilized and will give you the sustenance to enjoy your evening before a late dinner.
Here’s just a taste of Italy’s tailoring roster: Ermenegildo Zegna, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Fendi, Brunello Cucinelli, Kiton, Missoni, Etro, Brioni, and, of course, the king of all things suiting, Giorgio Armani. If you’re looking for some seriously well-crafted digs, book a flight to Milan—stat.
Specifically, Italian suits are simple—they’re notable for their absence of pocket flaps, vents, and trouser breaks, with higher buttons than average and a nice slim silhouette. Like with so much that’s great about Italy, simplicity rules in their suit design as well.
Burying the Dead
Some of the best views you can find in Italy are in its cemeteries. In coastal cities, these are often placed on hilltops overlooking the ocean, with lovely garden paths and lush flora. But even those underground—and a bit creepy—are worth a special visit.
Home to brands like Fiat, Lamborghini, and Maserati, Italians know how to get you moving quickly and in style, hitting ridiculous speeds in breathtakingly beautiful automobiles. Sure, they’re some of the priciest cars you can find, but even if you take one of these fine machines for even just a spin, it’s bound to be a life-changing experience.
Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael, Caravaggio. This is a country that produces some of the greatest painters of all time—who also tend to only go by one name.
Putting Dogs to Good Use
Sure, dogs can be trained to sniff out bombs and conduct water rescues, but there may be no better task set before these creatures than the all-important act of truffle hunting. The Lagotto Romagnolo breed of dog has been trained to find this delicious fungus and through various tour groups, visitors can join them in their hunting expeditions.
The cafe macchiato, an espresso with a dab of foamed milk on top, is just the kind of simple perfection that the Italians know best. The name actually translates to “stained coffee,” but it certainly won’t leave a stain on any experience—especially if it comes at the tail end of a lengthy meal.
The roe of grey mullet or Bluefin tuna, salted and cured, might not sound like much, but it’s a delicacy in Italy (referred to there as bottarga) and, like truffles, is the kind of delicious wonder that, once you try, you’ll ask yourself where it’s been all your life. Sadly, like truffles, it’s not cheap.
Turning Three Ingredients Into Magic
Is there a more versatile food than pasta? With just flour, water, and eggs, Italians have created a universe of dishes and styles. According to the Encyclopedia of Pasta, there are 310 specific forms known by more than 1,300 names, with wide variation from one region to the next. From amateur home cooks to celebrity chefs, it’s a dish anyone can make and give their own twist.
Cookies soaked in coffee and surrounded with sweet mascarpone cheese seems like a pretty weird idea for a dish, but tiramisu is completely delicious—and doesn’t even require any baking. Or two flavors of ice cream sculpted together with fruit in the middle? Or a pastry tube filled with sweet, creamy ricotta? Italians know how to get creative with their desserts.
Please. Enough said.
There’s a reason “romance” came from “Rome.” The Italians are masters of elevating a date into an unforgettable night. The language is excellent for conveying quiet sensuality or impassioned emotion. Whatever the situation, when it comes to setting the mood, Italians have it down pat.
While Italian is ideal for romantic language, it’s perhaps even better when used in anger. Shifting from a musical, sensual rhythm to more staccato but no less passionate, angry swearing in Italian is something to behold.
This bone-in veal shank is cooked low and slow until the broth-infused meat is basically falling off the bone (the word ossobuco actually means “hollow bone”). It’s hearty comfort food, yet tastes luxurious on the tongue.
All that coast leads to some killer seafood. Don’t pass up a chance to try some local clams, anchovies, or calamari.
Sure, the catcalls can be pretty obnoxious if you’re not in the mood, but it’s hard to find a place where you’ll hear more effusive compliments and encomiums to your looks, dress, and general vibe than in the streets of Italy.
Italy is home to 10 active volcanoes, including perhaps the most famous volcano of them all, Mt. Vesuvius, as well as UNESCO World Heritage Site Mt. Etna in Sicily (the second-most active volcano in the world). Most of these offer stunning vistas with high-adventure tours available for those looking for an explosive experience.
The country is also full of some impressive caves, including the largest accessible cave on Earth, according to the Guinness Book of World Records (the 850-meter-wide Grotta Gigante). But there are an estimated 35,000 caves and cavities throughout the country, of all sizes to appeal to all skill levels.
Use The Restroom
Italian bathrooms are often home to that “extra toilet” that can confuse Americans: the bidet. While the idea of having a downtown rinse after visiting the restroom seems kind of strange to those in the U.S., but a century and a half ago, washing your hands also seemed pretty weird. Once you use one, you’ll realize Italians have had it right all along.
Reinventing the Hybrid
Italians are known for fine sports cars like Fiat and Lamborghini, but they are also leading the way in stylish hybrids. Models like the Ferrari LaFerrari (okay, not a great name) and McLaren P1 demonstrate that cars can be fast and sexy and also energy efficient. It’s something Americans are still learning.
Make Scary Driving Look Totally Normal
Speaking of driving, anyone taking to the streets in Italy for the first time will probably be surprised by (1) the narrowness of the roads and (2) the speed at which Italians take them. Driving here is not for the faint of heart, but even if you feel slightly terrified while driving through Italy, you have to be impressed with how casual the drivers are as they take hairpin turns and pass you at incredible speeds.
If you order a Coke in Italy, you might be surprised to get just two or three ice cubes in your drink, rather than filled-to-the-brim ice like Americans tend to prefer. This is deliberate and has good reasoning behind it, considering that the extra ice dilutes the drink and leaves the bottom third of it a bit watery when you over-ice.
Filling Awkward Silences
Anyone who watched the second season of Master of None knows this word and what a perfect, and pleasant-sounding space filler it can be in conversation. Meaning some version of “well,” “so,” or “then,” it’s rarely necessary in a sentence, but somehow always feels like the perfect flourish.
Leather Wallets and Purses
It doesn’t stop at shoes. When you’re looking for a place to store your money (that, granted, will cost you a bit of money), then the shops of Florence are an excellent bet. You’ll find expertly made purses and handbags that can fit a surprising amount of things as well as wallets with fine detail and an impressive stretch that lasts years longer than anything else you might find.
Speaking of Florence, the city is known not only for its leather, but for its paper: High-quality stationary and envelopes, watermarked, marbled, and made with such care, you’ll only want to write the most important and elegant things on it. Maybe a romantic note to a lover or warm letter to a friend you haven’t spoken to in years. Or maybe just copy some verses of The Divine Comedy and leave it at that.
Writing About Hell
Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote his Divine Comedy back in the 14th century, but it’s still shaping our view of life, death, and the afterlife today. The work’s Inferno cantica takes us through the circles of hell and all their unpleasant horrors, but in such impressive prose that he makes a heaven of hell (to borrow a phrase from another hell-focused poet).
Making Horror Movies
Maybe it’s the legacy of Dante, but Italian filmmakers know what to do with blood on screen. Classic horror directors like Dario Argento and Mario Bava made shocking movies in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s that nonetheless had a craftsmanship to the way they made blood splatter. Films like Black Sunday and Suspiria—which is getting a remake this year from Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino (pitcured)—are still influencing filmmakers today.
Speaking of classic genre movies, it took Italians to help shape our view of the Wild West. Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with their iconic scores from Ennio Morricone, were beautiful, brutal, and groundbreaking at the time they came out. Their influence is still being felt.
Making Art-House Movies
Alright, Italians are just great at making movies: Bicycle Thieves, La Dolce Vita, 8 ½. Each of those classics is so rich in detail and rewatch-ability that you could teach an entire film course on any one of them—or maybe just a handful of their scenes. The Italians know how to capture a sumptuous or heartbreaking or romantic moment on screen better than perhaps anyone else in the world.
Italians aren’t just great at making artsy stuff—they can do trashy as well as anyone out there. For an example of this, look no further than Italy’s bizarre game show Ciao Darwin, which is so bonkers you have to see it to believe it. The thing is more like a dozen game shows all crammed into one. It starts with competing teams of 50 players each and whittles them down through competitions ranging from skill competitions, obstacle course, Fear Factor–style challenges, and a fashion show—each episode clocking in at around three hours. It’s very un-PC but ridiculously entertaining and “only in Italy.”
A visit to Italy will have you feeling instantly close to complete strangers, thanks in part to how they greet one another—with the double kiss on your cheeks. Going cheek-to-cheek, first at the right, then the left, it’s an intimate but friendly way to greet one another. Unlike in the U.S., men are also happy to show affection to one another, walking arm-in-arm or putting arms around one another. This is not a place that’s uptight about touching.
When it comes to their government, Italians are quite fickle. Since the fall of Mussolini after World War II, the country has had 65 governments, and doesn’t look like it’s about to slow down.
From three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his bunga-bunga parties, to the Five Star Movement Founder (and comedian) Beppe Grillo, this is a country that likes its politics with a bit of color. Opinions vary about these leaders’ effectiveness and impact, but you can’t deny that they are hard not to watch.
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