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Understanding Italian Culture | Breaking the Ice and Saving Money

BREAKING THE ICE

The Italians are incredibly warm and friendly people who will try hard to communicate with you, but they can be a bit shy to start a conversation.  I have found many tricks to get an interaction going that often ends in a warm embrace.

The easiest way to break the language barrier is through pictures.  I always carry a small photo album with me filled with pictures from around my home town and lots of photos of my family and even my pets.  Sometimes I will just bring the album with me to dinner and set it on the table.  You never know who you might sit next to and it is a great conversation starter.

Italians love their children and I make sure to play with kids and smile at babies all the time.  I’ve kicked balls around the piazza and even strolled up and down the village square with a grandma proudly pushing her newest grandchild in a stroller.

They also love their dogs and if you are a fan go ahead and give them a pet.  Cats on the other hand are not considered pets and you will be looked at strangely if caught petting any of them (except in the Cinque Terre).

Sharing your food if you happen to be on a train or out for a picnic is a good way to create an impromptu feast and gain friends.

It is always hard to make the first move and there have been times I have shied away from an opportunity, but I always regret those decisions.  The times I have taken a deep breath and stepped outside of my comfort level are the times that have given me the best memories.

SAVING MONEY

There are a few simple ways to make your dollar go further in Italy without taking away any of the enjoyment.  Hotels often offer a so-so breakfast but what they don’t tell you is that you can skip it and save yourself as much as 10 euro per person.  Italians aren’t big into breakfast, but for half the price you can enjoy a cappuccino and croissant.  Lunches can be made from items bought earlier in the morning market or you can find a little pizza shop and get a slice to go or eat at the bar.  I usually wash it down with a gelato or caffe.  This way I can eat a nice dinner without the guilt.  Look for places to eat that are out of the main tourists areas, avoid places that advertise that they speak English and accept credit cards.   At dinner drink the house wine ‘vino di casa’ which is good.  Split or skip the secondi course, which is always the most expensive.   Don’t over tip and don’t feel guilty about it.

Take advantage of the international calling cards if you need to call home and even better would be using just the Internet to keep in touch.  Using public transportation in the cities or even just walking versus taxis will save you a ton.  Walking is easy to do in Italy, even in the biggest of cities.  Most of the important sites are central and city centers have always been set up for residents to walk around easily.

Longer stays at your accommodations will often give you better prices as will paying in cash.  You also get to know an area and have a better chance of finding good deals and creating relationships with the locals.

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Copyright 2014   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Dining, Tips, Gelato and Coffee

DINING

In Italy, the food is an experience.  Lunches and dinners last at least two hours; you linger over your meal.  When you sit at a table, it is considered yours for the night.  A restaurant would be considered awful if it tried to turn tables like we do in the states.  The waiters are all ‘slow’ by American standards and they do not rush for anything (except keeping wine on the table for the locals).  Your waiter will only bring the bill when you ask for it, to do so before is considered rude.  When you are ready to leave, simply catch their eye and say ‘Il conto’ for the bill or make a motion of writing something out on your palm.  Many restaurants have a ‘pane e coperto’ charge (bread and cover) of a few euros per person and/or ‘servizio incluso’ (tips) built into the bill.  You will find both of these on the bill with the ‘servizio incluso’ usually on the bottom.  If that is not included in your bill, round up by a few euros (or less than half of what you would do at home).  I know it feels wrong not to leave a big tip for a great meal, we Americans are notorious for over tipping while some Italians never do.  Rarely I have run into annoyed waiters who were expecting me to tip like a typical tourist, but that reaction is not at all normal.  Another time I tipped an excessive amount because I had drank an excessive amount , and the owners made sure I left with a bottle of wine on the house.   An example for a meal that cost 37.50 would be to round up to 40.  Try to always leave a cash tip on the table, even if you are paying with credit, otherwise your server may never see the money.

Dinner service usually begins around 7:00pm and lasts well into the night.  If you want to dine with tourists, be there when they open.  Linger until around 8:30 and you will dine with the Italians.  Food is served in courses, but you are not expected to order one of each.  For example, I often order my own pasta (primi) but share an anitpasti (appetizer) and secondi (meat or fish dish) with my friend.  Just remember that the food will be brought out in order and if you skipped a course you will spend that time watching others eat.  I find I never go wrong with the house wine but if you want to try a bottle, ask the waiter what would pair well with your meal.  While you can’t always trust the bill you can trust them with their food and wine recommendations!  I personally find that you can never go wrong with the daily specials.  Italians eat with the seasons and chefs pride themselves in finding the best and freshest ingredients.  I will often go with their suggestions as well.  Europeans love fizzy water, so if you don’t want bubbles you must ask for ‘acua naturale.’

A few dining tips to make you look more like a local:

Don’t use a spoon to twirl your pasta and NEVER cut the noodles with a knife.

If cheese or other toppings didn’t come with your dish then it was not meant to go with it.  It is considered insulting to add anything to a dish that the chef prepared as they pride themselves in knowing exactly what ingredients pare with each dish.

By all means, use your bread to sop up the extra sauce.  This is considered a great compliment to the chef.

End your meal with an espresso (you can request a decaf).

Take your time to enjoy the meal, each one is an adventure in itself!

I caution everyone to pace themselves or you will find yourself groaning in bed with an overfilled stomach.

COFFEE

It’s the only place on earth that is more crazy about coffee than Seattle.  For about one euro, you can get a teeny cup of pure heaven.  It’s probably the easiest thing to do in Italy.  Head right into any bar and ask for un caffe.  You might be asked to clarify that you want an espresso and not an American cup of coffee.  Just use your fingers to show a tiny cup and they will understand.  Watch the locals.  They pour in about as much sugar as coffee and sit stirring it for some magical amount of time, then sling back the liquid in one sip and out the door they go.  This is not a Starbucks society where you savor your espresso or even take it to go.  I also love my morning cappuccino (which I do take my time with) but only tourists drink them after 10am.  Some bars have you pay first and then take your slip to the counter while others do the opposite.  If you are unsure just watch how everyone else is doing it and copy.  It is a courtesy to leave a small coin to ‘hold the paper down’ for the server.  You will also pay more for your coffee if you sit down to drink it, about twice as much as the same cup enjoyed at the bar.  The cost can be well worth it if you’ve found a cozy little spot for people watching.  The bars usually have quick and easy snacks as well; panini’s are a favorite type of sandwich and great for on the go.

GELATO

Italian ice cream is another national addiction, and a personal one.  I challenge anyone to beat my consumption record:  6 double scoops in one day!  Just remember that not all gelato is created the same and if you aren’t careful you could end up disappointed.  Follow my advice below and you are sure to never go wrong.

There are a few important things to look for when choosing a gelateria.  Only places that make their gelato fresh each day on the premise are legally allowed to display the sign ‘fatta in casa.’  This is a good start but that is not all you want to watch for.  A long line is one of the best signs of great gelato.  If you see more Italians than tourists, even better.  Italians tend to avoid tourists at all costs but will stand shoulder to shoulder with them for a good scoop and you know that your gelato will be worth the wait.  If all looks well, step inside and make sure that the gelato is in metal containers and not plastic ones, this will confirm that the ice cream was made in smaller batches and of a better quality.  The final check is in the gelato itself.  If you notice tons of bright unnatural colors run away.  Banana will be your gold standard.  If it is gray you have found the perfect spot, if it is any shade of yellow don’t waste another second there.  Gelato should be made from fresh ingredients with the primary concern being taste not color.  Be wary of any shop that has a big area with table and chairs.  While we are used to this set up, in Italy gelato is meant to be consumed on the go and a gelateria trying to encourage you to stay is focused on tourists.

No day is complete without gelato and there is no reason to feel guilty.  Gelato’s fat content is at least a third less than our ice cream because it is made from milk and not fresh cream or butterfat.  Ordering gelato is similar to getting your coffee.  Most places have you buy your gelato ahead of time and the cashier will give you a ticket to take to the counter.  Take your time looking around while you decide, but for the server’s sanity make sure that you are ready with your order when it is your turn.  You will be ignored if you do not have a ticket.  If you are having trouble getting his attention just hold your ticket like a torch and push your way to the front.  Be exotic and try different combinations; everything is good.

GROCERIES AND MARKETS

You will be able to find little grocery shops in every town and even some larger more modern ones in the cities.  In the produce section there are a few different ways to handle the vegetables.  Sometimes the checker (or another employee) will select the produce for you, bag it and weigh it on the spot.  All you do is point to what you want.  More commonly, you will bag it yourself and then put your selection on a scale.  There will be about 100 different buttons with pictures of fruits and veggies.  Find yours and simply push, the weight and cost in Euros will be printed on a sticker you attach to the bag (make sure you aren’t LEANING on the scale when you push!).  Don’t forgot to wear the disposable plastic gloves, otherwise you will draw many disgusted looks from the local shoppers.

Every city, town and village has a market on a certain day and some are daily.  Go early to get the best choices and have the most fun with the pushy old ladies.  Markets aren’t limited to just produce; usually you will find trucks full of cheese and meats.  If you see someone selling Porchetta sandwiches get one!

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Daily Italian Doses | Suspended Coffees

This heart warming global movement started in Naples.  It’s simple – people pay in advance for a coffee meant for someone who can not afford a warm beverage. The tradition with the suspended coffees started in Naples, but it has spread all over the world and in some places you can order not only a suspended coffee, but also a sandwich or a whole meal.

Click here to read the full story.

Courtesy of Suspended Coffees

Courtesy of Suspended Coffees

 

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Copyright 2013   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Top Ten | Cheap Thrills in Italy

Who says you need to spend a fortune to enjoy yourself when traveling.  The following are my very favorite and very affordable experiences.

10.  Crossing the street.  If anyone disagrees with me here, they have obviously never tried to do so in Rome.

9.  Driving on the Autostrada.  The thrill goes both ways.  I can’t wait to get behind the wheel and out in the open.  It seems though, no matter how well I’m doing or how fast I’m going, some Italian is on my butt.

8.  Ordering an espresso (or two) in the afternoon.  I just can’t get enough of coffee in Italy and I find myself sneaking in and out of bars through the day indulging in my addiction.

7.  If coffee isn’t your thing, then I dare you to double down on gelato.  Ignore those raised eyebrows and go back for seconds or order a triple to begin with.  My mouth watering combo?  Pistachio, hazelnut and something chocolate!

6.   For you ladies wanting to live on the edge and believe in fashion at all costs, try an evening on the town in heels.  There is nothing more amazing or sexy than watching the Italian women strut along the cobblestones.  I have tried this myself and….well, not so sexy but I didn’t break anything.

5.  Passeggiata.  Probably my favorite time of the day, when the day trippers have gone home and the locals come out to catch up on the day’s news.  There is no better time to people watch and be watched!  Even in the smallest of villages, people can be found out and about during the evening right before dinner.  Couples holding hands, old women arm in arm.  Magic.

4.  Sagra.  These food centered festivals are everywhere, in every town or village.  Love garlic, cheese or olives?  You are in luck because there are a handful of places across Italy ready to celebrate.

3. Festivals.  Each and every town has some festival rooted in tradition that you can be a part of with the right timing.  The activities vary widely, from pushing wine barrels up the steep city center to decorating the ground with elaborate works of art made from flower petals.

Another perk to flirting: better prices

2.  Flirting.  It’s free and it’s everywhere.  The men in Italy love women and not just the Victoria Secret model women.  Feeling bad about the extra weight you can’t seem to get rid of?  Having trouble hiding the grey?  No worries!  Italian men are professionals when it comes to making a woman feel beautiful, any woman.  Flirting taken with the right frame of mind can be a great ego boost.  Of course, if they go too far I’m not afraid to let them know they’ve crossed a line.

1.  Battling the old women during the morning market.  You have to mentally prepare for this scenario.  They are plump and sweet on the bench in the piazza, but they are shrewd and as stealthy as any ninja at the vegetable stall.

travel

Sweet and innocent? Don’t be so sure

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Father’s Day Tribute | Travel Memories With My Dad In Italy

I couldn’t help re-posting for Daddy’s Day.

My dad is my great friend and to the disbelief of my old high school self, I have come to realize we are actually quite alike in personality.

Except at some crucial moments when we are traveling.

Over the last few years I have taught my dad the beauty and art of savoring the moment and throwing schedules to the wind.  My dad has reminded me that patience with family and a perfect packing job make for a better vacation.  Here is my list of favorite travel moments with him.  Some good, some bad and some utterly embarrassing.  Hey dad, this is pay back for grilling my boyfriends in the living room before they could date me.

10.  My parents met me in Rome after a cruise.  This was their first time ever in my favorite city on the planet and I couldn’t wait to make the introductions.  One of the first things I taught my dad was how to cross the busy streets; walk out with confidence while maintaining eye contact and never hesitating.  At his first lesson, I told him to stay close and do what I did.  When we got to the other side of the street he turned to my mom and said, “Our daughter has balls of steel!”

9.  I have driven a stick shift most of my life and usually have no problem, but on one particular day I was trying to get up a steep gravel road in our excessively weighted down sardine box of a rental.  I stalled half way up and couldn’t get the momentum back.  My dad saved the day, maneuvering that sorry car up the hill with gravel flying and smoke trailing behind us.  I am sure our hosts were wondering what they had gotten into watching our approach from above.

8.  Speaking of that cracker jack box of a rental, I had accidentally reserved an economy sized car instead of a compact.  Doesn’t sound too bad, right?  Not unless you want to take your luggage with you.  I stood in front of the car and fought back tears.  There was no way we were going to fit four adults, one child with her car seat and our luggage.  Then my dad started putting stuff together like a real-life game of Tetris.  The ride wasn’t the most luxurious but we didn’t have to leave anyone behind.  I know for a fact I could not have done that without him.

Well, hello again

7.  My dad has an uncanny sense of direction, maybe it was all the Boy Scout trips of his youth.  You can blind fold him, drop him in the middle of nowhere and before you can say Bear Grylls he will have found his way home.  Except in Italy.  For some reason his internal compass goes awry and I’m not sure if he would be able to find his head if it wasn’t attached.  Of course, we didn’t discover this until one fateful night in Rome when my dad was leading the charge toward the Spanish Steps.  Instead, we found ourselves repeatedly visiting the Column of Marcus Aurelius.  My dad commented that he didn’t realize Rome had so many relief style columns; I commented that I didn’t realize my dad knew how to read a map upside down.  Not the best night for the two of us.

6.  The issues with directions didn’t end there.  Originally, my dad was to be my co-pilot and right hand man in the car.  Nothing was farther from the truth and the tension came to a breaking point near Milan as I was demanding to know which exit to take for Lake Como.  He was utterly frozen and I was less than kind.  My mom decided to chirp in from the back seat (where her sole job was to entertain my daughter) and ‘help’ which only infuriated both of us more.  My dad balled up the map and threw it in her face, telling her where she could put it.  Mind you, this all happen in front of my four year old and the version found here is toned down for the sake of my readers.  The event made a lasting impression on my daughter, and to this day she will ask me to reenact the day Papa threw that map at Nana.

5.  For the most part though, travel with my dad has been bonding.  One of my favorite things to do with him is go for a morning cappuccino and then spend the rest of the day popping in and out of little cafes for our espresso fixes when my mom isn’t looking.

4.  Another great memory is cooking together with my dad after shopping in the morning markets.  Sometimes we would make nothing more than cheese and meat platters, other times we would go all out.  Once my dad made us steaks cooked over a centuries old hearth in a little villa in Tuscany while I put together a simple Carbonara.  Perfection.

3.  On that first trip to Rome, I took my dad into the Roman Forum.  I can’t explain how touching it was to look over and see him bent down on one knee and weeping over the site of Caesar’s cremation.  I knew then he wasn’t the average tourist.

2.  His love for Italy and travel in general started on that first trip and then blossomed even further when he returned two years later.  Watching him grow to appreciate and love the people and lifestyle of Italy was amazing.

Pants removal not required.

1.  I made sure my parents both traveled with their money belts containing everything of value safely tucked beneath the pants and safe from the fingers of pick-pockets.  They were instructed on the importance of use and what they should keep stowed inside.  What I forgot to mention, because the thought never ever even occurred to me, is that you do not need to remove your pants to access your money belt.  Yes, that’s right.  I happened to walk into the lobby of our hotel and found my dad in the corner with his pants around his thighs trying to pull a credit card out of his money belt.

Sorry dad, but this one was too good not to share.


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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Breaking the Ice and Saving Money

BREAKING THE ICE

The Italians are incredibly warm and friendly people who will try hard to communicate with you, but they can be a bit shy to start a conversation.  I have found many tricks to get an interaction going that often ends in a warm embrace.

The easiest way to break the language barrier is through pictures.  I always carry a small photo album with me filled with pictures from around my home town and lots of photos of my family and even my pets.  Sometimes I will just bring the album with me to dinner and set it on the table.  You never know who you might sit next to and it is a great conversation starter.

Italians love their children and I make sure to play with kids and smile at babies all the time.  I’ve kicked balls around the piazza and even strolled up and down the village square with a grandma proudly pushing her newest grandchild in a stroller.

They also love their dogs and if you are a fan go ahead and give them a pet.  Cats on the other hand are not considered pets and you will be looked at strangely if caught petting any of them (except in the Cinque Terre).

Sharing your food if you happen to be on a train or out for a picnic is a good way to create an impromptu feast and gain friends.

It is always hard to make the first move and there have been times I have shied away from an opportunity, but I always regret those decisions.  The times I have taken a deep breath and stepped outside of my comfort level are the times that have given me the best memories.

SAVING MONEY

There are a few simple ways to make your dollar go further in Italy without taking away any of the enjoyment.  Hotels often offer a so-so breakfast but what they don’t tell you is that you can skip it and save yourself as much as 10 euro per person.  Italians aren’t big into breakfast, but for half the price you can enjoy a cappuccino and croissant.  Lunches can be made from items bought earlier in the morning market or you can find a little pizza shop and get a slice to go or eat at the bar.  I usually wash it down with a gelato or caffe.  This way I can eat a nice dinner without the guilt.  Look for places to eat that are out of the main tourists areas, avoid places that advertise that they speak English and accept credit cards.   At dinner drink the house wine ‘vino di casa’ which is good.  Split or skip the secondi course, which is always the most expensive.   Don’t over tip and don’t feel guilty about it.

Take advantage of the international calling cards if you need to call home and even better would be using just the Internet to keep in touch.  Using public transportation in the cities or even just walking versus taxis will save you a ton.  Walking is easy to do in Italy, even in the biggest of cities.  Most of the important sites are central and city centers have always been set up for residents to walk around easily.

Longer stays at your accommodations will often give you better prices as will paying in cash.  You also get to know an area and have a better chance of finding good deals and creating relationships with the locals.

I’m obsessed with feedback, let me know what you think.

Love it??  Pass it on!

Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Top Ten | Travel Memories With My Dad In Italy

My dad is my great friend and to the disbelief of my old high school self, I have come to realize we are actually quite alike in personality.

Except at some crucial moments when we are traveling.

Over the last few years I have taught my dad the beauty and art of savoring the moment and throwing schedules to the wind.  My dad has reminded me that patience with family and a perfect packing job make for a better vacation.  Here is my list of favorite travel moments with him.  Some good, some bad and some utterly embarrassing.  Hey dad, this is pay back for grilling my boyfriends in the living room before they could date me.

10.  My parents met me in Rome after a cruise.  This was their first time ever in my favorite city on the planet and I couldn’t wait to make the introductions.  One of the first things I taught my dad was how to cross the busy streets; walk out with confidence while maintaining eye contact and never hesitating.  At his first lesson, I told him to stay close and do what I did.  When we got to the other side of the street he turned to my mom and said, “Our daughter has balls of steel!”

9.  I have driven a stick shift most of my life and usually have no problem, but on one particular day I was trying to get up a steep gravel road in our excessively weighted down sardine box of a rental.  I stalled half way up and couldn’t get the momentum back.  My dad saved the day, maneuvering that sorry car up the hill with gravel flying and smoke trailing behind us.  I am sure our hosts were wondering what they had gotten into watching our approach from above.

8.  Speaking of that cracker jack box of a rental, I had accidentally reserved an economy sized car instead of a compact.  Doesn’t sound too bad, right?  Not unless you want to take your luggage with you.  I stood in front of the car and fought back tears.  There was no way we were going to fit four adults, one child with her car seat and our luggage.  Then my dad started putting stuff together like a real-life game of Tetris.  The ride wasn’t the most luxurious but we didn’t have to leave anyone behind.  I know for a fact I could not have done that without him.

Well, hello again

7.  My dad has an uncanny sense of direction, maybe it was all the Boy Scout trips of his youth.  You can blind fold him, drop him in the middle of nowhere and before you can say Bear Grylls he will have found his way home.  Except in Italy.  For some reason his internal compass goes awry and I’m not sure if he would be able to find his head if it wasn’t attached.  Of course, we didn’t discover this until one fateful night in Rome when my dad was leading the charge toward the Spanish Steps.  Instead, we found ourselves repeatedly visiting the Column of Marcus Aurelius.  My dad commented that he didn’t realize Rome had so many relief style columns; I commented that I didn’t realize my dad knew how to read a map upside down.  Not the best night for the two of us.

6.  The issues with directions didn’t end there.  Originally, my dad was to be my co-pilot and right hand man in the car.  Nothing was farther from the truth and the tension came to a breaking point near Milan as I was demanding to know which exit to take for Lake Como.  He was utterly frozen and I was less than kind.  My mom decided to chirp in from the back seat (where her sole job was to entertain my daughter) and ‘help’ which only infuriated both of us more.  My dad balled up the map and threw it in her face, telling her where she could put it.  Mind you, this all happen in front of my four year old and the version found here is toned down for the sake of my readers.  The event made a lasting impression on my daughter, and to this day she will ask me to reenact the day Papa threw that map at Nana.

5.  For the most part though, travel with my dad has been bonding.  One of my favorite things to do with him is go for a morning cappuccino and then spend the rest of the day popping in and out of little cafes for our espresso fixes when my mom isn’t looking.

4.  Another great memory is cooking together with my dad after shopping in the morning markets.  Sometimes we would make nothing more than cheese and meat platters, other times we would go all out.  Once my dad made us steaks cooked over a centuries old hearth in a little villa in Tuscany while I put together a simple Carbonara.  Perfection.

3.  On that first trip to Rome, I took my dad into the Roman Forum.  I can’t explain how touching it was to look over and see him bent down on one knee and weeping over the site of Caesar’s cremation.  I knew then he wasn’t the average tourist.

2.  His love for Italy and travel in general started on that first trip and then blossomed even further when he returned two years later.  Watching him grow to appreciate and love the people and lifestyle of Italy was amazing.

Pants removal not required.

1.  I made sure my parents both traveled with their money belts containing everything of value safely tucked beneath the pants and safe from the fingers of pick-pockets.  They were instructed on the importance of use and what they should keep stowed inside.  What I forgot to mention, because the thought never ever even occurred to me, is that you do not need to remove your pants to access your money belt.  Yes, that’s right.  I happened to walk into the lobby of our hotel and found my dad in the corner with his pants around his thighs trying to pull a credit card out of his money belt.

Sorry dad, but this one was too good not to share.


I’m obsessed with feedback, let me know what you think.

Love it??  Pass it on!

Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Dining, Tips, Gelato and Coffee

DINING

In Italy, the food is an experience.  Lunches and dinners last at least two hours; you linger over your meal.  When you sit at a table, it is considered yours for the night.  A restaurant would be considered awful if it tried to turn tables like we do in the states.  The waiters are all ‘slow’ by American standards and they do not rush for anything (except keeping wine on the table for the locals).  Your waiter will only bring the bill when you ask for it, to do so before is considered rude.  When you are ready to leave, simply catch their eye and say ‘Il conto’ for the bill or make a motion of writing something out on your palm.  Many restaurants have a ‘pane e coperto’ charge (bread and cover) of a few euros per person and/or ‘servizio incluso’ (tips) built into the bill.  You will find both of these on the bill with the ‘servizio incluso’ usually on the bottom.  If that is not included in your bill, round up by a few euros (or less than half of what you would do at home).  I know it feels wrong not to leave a big tip for a great meal, we Americans are notorious for over tipping while some Italians never do.  Rarely I have run into annoyed waiters who were expecting me to tip like a typical tourist, but that reaction is not at all normal.  Another time I tipped an excessive amount because I had drank an excessive amount , and the owners made sure I left with a bottle of wine on the house.   An example for a meal that cost 37.50 would be to round up to 40.  Try to always leave a cash tip on the table, even if you are paying with credit, otherwise your server may never see the money.

Dinner service usually begins around 7:00pm and lasts well into the night.  If you want to dine with tourists, be there when they open.  Linger until around 8:30 and you will dine with the Italians.  Food is served in courses, but you are not expected to order one of each.  For example, I often order my own pasta (primi) but share an anitpasti (appetizer) and secondi (meat or fish dish) with my friend.  Just remember that the food will be brought out in order and if you skipped a course you will spend that time watching others eat.  I find I never go wrong with the house wine but if you want to try a bottle, ask the waiter what would pair well with your meal.  While you can’t always trust the bill you can trust them with their food and wine recommendations!  I personally find that you can never go wrong with the daily specials.  Italians eat with the seasons and chefs pride themselves in finding the best and freshest ingredients.  I will often go with their suggestions as well.  Europeans love fizzy water, so if you don’t want bubbles you must ask for ‘acua naturale.’

A few dining tips to make you look more like a local:

Don’t use a spoon to twirl your pasta and NEVER cut the noodles with a knife.

If cheese or other toppings didn’t come with your dish then it was not meant to go with it.  It is considered insulting to add anything to a dish that the chef prepared as they pride themselves in knowing exactly what ingredients pare with each dish.

By all means, use your bread to sop up the extra sauce.  This is considered a great compliment to the chef.

End your meal with an espresso (you can request a decaf).

Take your time to enjoy the meal, each one is an adventure in itself!

I caution everyone to pace themselves or you will find yourself groaning in bed with an overfilled stomach.

COFFEE

It’s the only place on earth that is more crazy about coffee than Seattle.  For about one euro, you can get a teeny cup of pure heaven.  It’s probably the easiest thing to do in Italy.  Head right into any bar and ask for un caffe.  You might be asked to clarify that you want an espresso and not an American cup of coffee.  Just use your fingers to show a tiny cup and they will understand.  Watch the locals.  They pour in about as much sugar as coffee and sit stirring it for some magical amount of time, then sling back the liquid in one sip and out the door they go.  This is not a Starbucks society where you savor your espresso or even take it to go.  I also love my morning cappuccino (which I do take my time with) but only tourists drink them after 10am.  Some bars have you pay first and then take your slip to the counter while others do the opposite.  If you are unsure just watch how everyone else is doing it and copy.  It is a courtesy to leave a small coin to ‘hold the paper down’ for the server.  You will also pay more for your coffee if you sit down to drink it, about twice as much as the same cup enjoyed at the bar.  The cost can be well worth it if you’ve found a cozy little spot for people watching.  The bars usually have quick and easy snacks as well; panini’s are a favorite type of sandwich and great for on the go.

GELATO

Italian ice cream is another national addiction, and a personal one.  I challenge anyone to beat my consumption record:  6 double scoops in one day!  Just remember that not all gelato is created the same and if you aren’t careful you could end up disappointed.  Follow my advice below and you are sure to never go wrong.

There are a few important things to look for when choosing a gelateria.  Only places that make their gelato fresh each day on the premise are legally allowed to display the sign ‘fatta in casa.’  This is a good start but that is not all you want to watch for.  A long line is one of the best signs of great gelato.  If you see more Italians than tourists, even better.  Italians tend to avoid tourists at all costs but will stand shoulder to shoulder with them for a good scoop and you know that your gelato will be worth the wait.  If all looks well, step inside and make sure that the gelato is in metal containers and not plastic ones, this will confirm that the ice cream was made in smaller batches and of a better quality.  The final check is in the gelato itself.  If you notice tons of bright unnatural colors run away.  Banana will be your gold standard.  If it is gray you have found the perfect spot, if it is any shade of yellow don’t waste another second there.  Gelato should be made from fresh ingredients with the primary concern being taste not color.  Be wary of any shop that has a big area with table and chairs.  While we are used to this set up, in Italy gelato is meant to be consumed on the go and a gelateria trying to encourage you to stay is focused on tourists.

No day is complete without gelato and there is no reason to feel guilty.  Gelato’s fat content is at least a third less than our ice cream because it is made from milk and not fresh cream or butterfat.  Ordering gelato is similar to getting your coffee.  Most places have you buy your gelato ahead of time and the cashier will give you a ticket to take to the counter.  Take your time looking around while you decide, but for the server’s sanity make sure that you are ready with your order when it is your turn.  You will be ignored if you do not have a ticket.  If you are having trouble getting his attention just hold your ticket like a torch and push your way to the front.  Be exotic and try different combinations; everything is good.

GROCERIES AND MARKETS

You will be able to find little grocery shops in every town and even some larger more modern ones in the cities.  In the produce section there are a few different ways to handle the vegetables.  Sometimes the checker (or another employee) will select the produce for you, bag it and weigh it on the spot.  All you do is point to what you want.  More commonly, you will bag it yourself and then put your selection on a scale.  There will be about 100 different buttons with pictures of fruits and veggies.  Find yours and simply push, the weight and cost in Euros will be printed on a sticker you attach to the bag (make sure you aren’t LEANING on the scale when you push!).  Don’t forgot to wear the disposable plastic gloves, otherwise you will draw many disgusted looks from the local shoppers.

Every city, town and village has a market on a certain day and some are daily.  Go early to get the best choices and have the most fun with the pushy old ladies.  Markets aren’t limited to just produce; usually you will find trucks full of cheese and meats.  If you see someone selling Porchetta sandwiches get one!

I’m obsessed with feedback, let me know what you think.

Love it??  Pass it on!

Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Red Velvet Biscotti Recipe

I made these for Valentines Day for the family.  They are delicious, best with a bowl of ice cream or a glass of dessert wine.  Definitely not something you will find on your trip to Italy.

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 – 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 jar of red food coloring (you will need 2 bottles if using the liquid kind you find at the grocery store)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 cup white chocolate chips

*Don’t freak out, there is no butter in this recipe*

Directions:

1. Heat the oven to 350°.

2. Mix flour, sugar, cocoa, food coloring, baking powder and salt.

3. Lightly beat eggs in a separate bowl, then add to flour mixture and mix until combined. I found this recipe was very crumbly, so I would not add the full 3 cups of flour unless it is really doughy.

4.  Fold in white chocolate chips.

5. Divide the dough in half. On a lightly floured surface, form each half into a log that is 3½ inches by 9 inches. Place the logs on a heavy-duty baking sheet.  Bake for 30 minutes or until the tops are set.

6. Reduce the oven to 300°. Let the logs cool (this is a crumbly recipe so the longer you let the logs cool the better and easier it will be to cut without breaking), then slice into 1/2-inch thick slices.  With this recipe it is very important to let them cool otherwise it will crumble when cutting.  Arrange the slices on baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, carefully turn the slices over, and bake for another 8 minutes.

7. Cool on a wire rack.  Store in an airtight container or freeze.

Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Things I love about Italy | A Valentine’s Day Tribute

I thought in honor of sweetheart’s day I would simply list the things that I love about Italy.  Here they are, off the top of my head and in no particular order.  Go ahead, I encourage you to make your own list and send me the link to include in a future post about our love affair with this amazing place!

  • passeggiata
  • house wine
  • pistachio  gelato
  • bells tolling in the morning
  • the sound of swallows in Siena
  • the smell of sunrise
  • the sound of silverware on china plates in the late evening from my balcony window
  • guessing how fast the car that just passed me is going
  • the thrill of a good parking spot
  • porchetta straight from the van
  • the click of high heels on cobblestones
  • a cool drink from a fountain when in Rome
  • the bored look of the officials after baggage claim
  • osso bucco in Rome
  • polenta served family style
  • giving exact change
  • cheek kisses
  • espresso shots
  • savoring a morning cappuccino
  • following my nose for dinner
  • old men on benches
  • marveling at what an ape can carry

    Courtesy of Italy from the Inside

Did I miss something?  Send my a link to your Things I love about Italy list.

I love feedback, so leave me comments!

copyright 2012  Andi Brown, Once in a Lifetime Travel

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