American culture is filled with misconceptions about what it really means to be Italian, and has essentially created its own subculture of false italianità (Italianism) – consisting mostly of excessive amounts of muscles, gold jewelry, and bad manners. The truth is, those things couldn’t be further from what true Italian culture is all about.
I have (obviously) been Italian all my life, but after traveling and living in Italy for more than a decade, I’ve realized that these days, being Italian seems to be more a state of mind than an actual heritage. Each time I merely mention having lived there I get the same reaction: “Oh my God, I just loooooove Italy so much.” Just about everyone has either been to Italy and adores it, or dreams of vacationing or living here. And I get that reaction from all walks of life – it’s one of those rare topics that seems to transcend age, ethnicity, and financial status. Being Italian is often associated with belonging to the “coolest” (and best-looking) of all ethnicities – although with each passing generation, its authenticity in America is so greatly diminished and misconstrued.
Over the years, upon consistent reflection of this intriguing phenomenon, I’ve learned to separate various groups of Italophiles in my own mind:
The first is made up of those people who have that one great-grandparent who immigrated from Italy in 1905, and – although equally of Polish, Irish, and German decent – (ex)claim themselves as Italian to everyone they meet, despite their measley 25% bloodline connection.
Disclaimer: Don’t get me wrong, 1/4 Italians, we’re happy to have you, and honored you choose us as your go-to nationality. Go ahead, keep making your “dago red” in the garage all winter long (while wearing your “I have roots in the boot” t-shirt), but please have the decency to accept that those of us who grew up in real Italian households – or who now have their own real Italian households – cannot be fooled by those stronzate. While you were out during high school getting hammered (sporting your “Italians do it better” t-shirt) I was home around the dinner table with my nonni (grandparents), cracking walnuts and polishing off my homemade red mixed with gassosa (Sprite).
The second level is reserved for those fortunate enough to have traveled or studied in Italy, who upon return from a magical Mediterranean getaway or limited time abroad, desperately try to reproduce a bit of that dolce vita by way of a fancy local perfume, a handmade ceramic, or a bottle of specialty olive oil. While a genuine appreciation for Italy’s fine cuisine and design aesthetic is a great start, all the overpriced wines and restaurants on Earth (or even Clooney’s fancy espresso machines) can’t afford you the education of either growing up with or living amongst true Italians, which brings me to the third group…
Even if you’ve never once set foot in Italy, you automatically earn an honorary place in this group if you: a. had an immediate family member who spoke broken Italian at home; b. regularly assisted in the preparation of fresh pasta in a basement; or c. ever took a nap on a plastic-covered couch.
Finally, the fourth group is made up of freaks like me, who have really taken their fascination to the extreme, and actually decided to make a life in this crazy, amazing country. This choice affords a knowledge by default that none of the other groups can have: a thorough understanding of the modern Italy of today – which has its own unique wealth of information to share. So, if you want to do as the real Italians do, start with these suggestions:
1. Live and breathe (and eat, duh) food. If you don’t appreciate food, you can’t be Italian – and if you’re Italian, it’s impossible to not appreciate food. The obsession is so profoundly woven into society’s fabric that it’s impossible to ignore. Italians don’t even realize how fixated they are with food in its purest form; they analyze it, dissect it, savor it, interpret it. It’s the only thing they actually care to be anal retentive about. In Italy, you find yourself inadvertently talking about it before a meal (Cosa ci mangiamo oggi? What should we eat today?), during a meal (Mamma mia, quant’è buona questa ricotta! Wow, this ricotta is so good!), and after a meal (Abbiamo mangiato così bene, ci dobbiamo tornare. We had such a great meal, we have to go back.). Per l’amor del cielo, spaghetti and meatballs and fettuccine alfredo do not exist in Italy; there is a digestive strategy to the creation of proper pizza dough, people; and no, you do not put parmiggiano cheese on seafood of any kind. If you don’t know these things, well then, just go back to the Olive Garden.
2. Get used to everything miniature-sized. Apartments, cars, desserts: it all looks like it’s been shrunken down by Wayne Szalinski’s laser beam. Not that I’m protesting, since I’ve always been a fan of small things – but it can get a little ridiculous after you’re forced to reorganize your home after any significant purchase or shopping spree. It’s like playing a never-ending game of Tetris (and I freaking hate Tetris).
3. Invest in clothing. This is not the country of 80% off red tag blowouts, or buying as many TJ Maxx fashionista finds as your paycheck will allow. This means making less, more significant purchases and having a smaller wardrobe. Almost everyone really cares about how they look, and knows basic styling rules. And when in doubt, wear black: by no means is this color reserved for old Sicilian women in mourning, anzi, it’s the preferred go-to hue of anyone who wants to look elegant, stylish, or just snello (slim). Bonus tip for women: never underestimate the power of black eyeliner. I’m not talking about exaggerated, Snooki-style eyeliner – I’m talking tasteful, but ever-present, like a tattoo you’re never seen without. A face-full of colorful makeup is uncommon, and mainly reserved for puttane (the real ones, that is). Not a look you want to go for.
4. Be a clean freak. Obsessive compulsive much? Not in Italy. It’s common practice for everyone’s house to be practically spotless – and very rare to come in contact with a zozzone who doesn’t keep a tidy home. I’ve always said, for the first few years of my life I was convinced my Nonna’s mappina (slang for dishrag) was an extension of her hand.
5. Learn the art of lingering. You know what Italians find hilarious? The fact that when Americans invite people to a party or gathering, they set an end time to the event: “Join us for Billy’s birthday party, this Saturday from 2-4pm!” That is unheard of in Italy – not only because they find it incredibly rude to actually tell guests when to get the hell out, but really, what’s the hurry? Isn’t this supposed to be your free time? For a long while, I had to fight the feeling of “imposing,” and often ducked out of many an Italian festa way early; I just couldn’t relax after that second or third hour. But whether it’s a lengthy lunch, a cornetto stop after an already long night out, or yet another cigarette after that last dose of grappa – Italians are really good at wasting time and letting the good times roll on and on (and on). After all, this is the country that made the dolce far niente famous. Take a lesson, and learn to chill out.
6. Be cautious. Italians aren’t exactly the world’s biggest risk takers – actually, you could say they’re a little bit cagaroni (someone who literally craps their pants out of fear). Sorry, ragazzi, but history itself confirms this (when in doubt, the Italians aren’t usually on the front lines, and side with the winning team). They don’t appreciate deliberately causing themselves harm, whether it’s by binge drinking, skydiving, or leaving the house without a scarf from November to March.
7. Pay in cash. I think my grandfather, Papa Guy, was most likely the only man in town who bought his cars entirely in cash. And even nowadays, Italians aren’t big on debt. What many Americans see as easy access to things they can’t afford, the Italians see as a terrible burden to be avoided as much as possible. In general, accumulating cash is still a preference to riskier investments, with a general public not very interested in the stock market. Italians are all about putting their money in real estate, often purchasing apartments for their children to help give them a head start in life. In fact, some of the most anziani (oldest) generation still don’t even trust the banks – that’s why, in some apartments, it’s not uncommon to find hidden stockpiles of cash saved over a lifetime in wall-mounted safes.
8. Accept the unacceptable. Because of their ever-changing politicians and lax regulatory system, Italians are forced to accept a series of impositions that go beyond any logic or reasoning. Consequently, that rassegnamento (giving up) tends to spill over into other aspects of their lives. I think they just feel hopeless about their government and economy, like they’ve seen it all at this point. There’s a new tax on baby formula? Um, ok. People have decided it’s ok to push their grocery store shopping cart through the rest of the mall? Sure, why not. That guy missed his exit and is backing up on the highway? Alrighty then, go right ahead.
9. Know how to ask for (and receive) favors. Italians are experts at tit-for-tat, and they have certain unspoken expectations when it comes to lending a hand. Whereas we Americans accept a special favor or even a job lead with nothing more than a simple, “thank you,” there’s a little more to it in Italy. Proper appreciation for significant help from someone can take many forms, depending on the level of assistance obtained (from a bottle of wine to a more costly item, or gesture of equal weight). No one will admit it, of course – but the important thing is that you give more than just a “grazie.” One could call it bribery; they simply call it gratitude.
This post is brought to you by the COSI’ blogging troupe, who has joined forces this month with another powerhouse expat group, “Italy Roundtable.” To read their takes on the theme of “authenticity,” kick back with a nice glass of wine and browse the links below:
- Georgette of Girl in Florence
- Pete of Englishman in Italy – “How Authentic an Italian are you?”
- Rick of Rick’s Rome: “The Authentic Italian Culture Debate”
- Maria of Married to Italy: The fear of the fake: What “authenticity” means to a foreigner in a strange land
- Gina of The Florence Diaries
- Misty of Surviving in Italy
Italy Roundtable members:
- Melanie – Everything Is Authentic
- Jessica – Where is this “authentic Italy” everyone’s looking for?
- Gloria – The odd woman out’s view on “authentic Italy”
- Rebecca – Italy Roundtable: Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro
- Alexandra – Art and Travel: the authenticity of seeing art in person
- Kate – On being authenticated
- Michelle – Living Authentically: How Italy Forced the Issue
Have something to share on authenticity in Italy? Use the hashtag #COSItaly to join the conversation!
40 thoughts on “How To Be An Authentic Italian (in 9 simple steps)”
Number 5 is so true. When we are at friends house Mrs S will tell me we are going now, please grab our coats. This really means I have at least another 30 mins while they all say goodbye to each other and make arrangements for the following week. It is the same on the phone, the actual conversation might take 5 mins followed by 10 mins of Ciao, a presto, baci, si si domani etc
Ugh, I know – the goodbyes are always endlessssss.
I love this post: you’ve pretty much described me perfectly! The only point I don’t fulfill is the one abut cleaning the house, but I guess I’m the exception to the proves the rule: I’ll blame it on living abroad for so long 😉
Grazie mille, thanks for reading!
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Great post! I like how you identify the various groups of Italians in the US, you summed it up quite well.
Thanks very much, glad you enjoyed it.
Hey, I think we’re on the same track here, although you explained things much better with your examples. I laughed out loud when I read “napping on a plastic couch!” (Although to be fair, it was a plastic “covered” couch. The fabric beneath the plastic was exquisite, if I remember, even if it only saw the light of day on Christmas and Easter.)
Haha, you’re right! But any true Italian-American knows what the plastic is about – case in point. 🙂
Sometimes as kids we weren’t even allowed to sit on the plastic!
Haha, that’s really some tough love, nonna-style!
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Absolutely adore this post and your examples ring true. I too have napped on a plastic-covered couch (such a shame in winter) and I also totally have become obsessed with food. All we talk about is food, what we ate before, what we are going to eat. I am 100% in that category. Also the part about lingering, as Pete brought up is fantastically true! Lunches are never less than three hours and you would never ‘kick out’ guests. I still have yet to make fresh pasta in basement though but I am open to anything ;-).
Grazie! All in good time, Georgette. 😉
Caspita! You’ve described me pretty well-except for the clean freak part. My family makes pasta, vino and salsa together in the basement and talk about food the whole time! Even the nipotini! I love the line ‘if you don’t know this just go back to the Olive Garden’! Ciao, Cristina
Many Americans think the Olive Garden is the real deal, ha. Thanks so much for reading, Cristina!
What’s so funny is how some of these thematic points are true but SHOULD be conflicting, like being clean and cautious (you are describing ME!) but then lingering and dealing with the unacceptable. How can a clean freak type A deal with people just hanging around in my house until… wait, am I internalizing much? 🙂
Haha, you’ve just touched on a defining cultural point I totally left out here: complete and utter contradiction!
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Loved this post! These help me understand my boyfriend more and more 😉 About the annoying groups of people who think they are real Italians – I am not even American but I know what you are talking about! I met some American exchange students back in uni in London, and they really called themselves German, Swedish, Italian or whatever their great-great-great-great grandparents were – something I had never hard of in my entire life and it just made my brain to crack into pieces. They were so proud to call themselves European yet had no idea that there is a country called Finland in Europe (where I happen to come from). Ugh! Hope they left England with a slightly more open mind!
Ps. I’m glad I came across your blog! 🙂
That is very true: everyone in Europe is sure to classify Americans as “American” and not the various ethnicities they claim to be. They’re keen to make the distinction that you are “American of Italian heritage,” and they are very correct to clarify that. Thanks for reading.
I love this topic and I think the COSI group has done an outstanding job with it BUT I am going to have to take exception with one of the comments. The “measly 25 %” which apparently doesn’t “qualify” you for an Italian in good standing did strike a chord. I am “only” 25 %, married to a 100% Italo Americano who just received his dual citizenship. Guess he is on the “Accepted” list. I grew up in the home of my 100% Italian grandmother, well she was born in Italy anyway. She was my anchor amidst a childhood of uncertainty – parents separating, getting back together, moving every few years or months. As an adult looking back I can see so many “Italian” influences in my life, from watching out for a draft so you didn’t catch a “colpo d’aria” or being completely unaware that another oil other than that made from olives existed.
This past summer, after 9 years of research, including stops at the Stato Archivio in Napoli, twice in Cosenza and twice in Acri (Calabrian towns for those who don’t know) as well as numerous inquiries at other places, we finally discovered that the town she was born in and lived for 4 years before emigrating to the U.S. was Santa Sofia d’Epiro in Calabria. In fact I was able to pinpoint the actual house she was born in and lived in. Caveat: Santa Sofia d’Epiro was founded by Albanian immigrants in the 15 century trying to escape the Turkish genocide. The language they spoke evolved into what is called Arberesh, and is an official Italian dialect. Since the women intermarried with Calabrian men I guess they would be considered only 50% Italian.
I truly don’t mean to be snarky and I think this article was particularly entertaining and spot on with many points, however I think you need to widen your perception of Italian American just a bit. In fact I agree that there are at least two diverse groups within this category and possibly more. It’s a favorite topic of mine at present. Buona Giornata!!
Thanks so much for reading and for your insightful comment. You are clearly an exception to my “rule,” which indeed is no rule at all, but merely an exaggerated (and hopefully humorous) expression of my personal experience. I grew up with a lot of people who fell under that first category – knew nothing at all about our culture yet claimed it as their own – which particularly unnerved me. You, on the other hand, clearly do not fall into that category. I’m well aware there are many sub-groups to my very limited and generalized ones. Thank you for highlighting just how impressionable and important the influence of the True Italian culture can be, even in small doses. I hope you will continue reading!
By the way, technically by my classifications, because of the influence of your beloved nonna you’re actually part of group 3. 😉
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I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Thanks for the laugh..I can so relate 🙂
Grazie mille! There are so few of us 🙂
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Incredibly true. I love the part about Italians being neat freaks. My boyfriend definitely fits in this category and its one of the aspects that I both love and hate about him. It’s rare to find a clean boyfriend but it’s also annoying when he nags me for leaving a sock on the floor? Great post!
Number 1 was hilarious! “go back to the Olive garden.” haha. I guess I belong to freak group number 4 too. Your list was bang on, especially 1, 4 and 8. Awesome post!
This was freaking hilarious. Vengo da l’Italia, da Brescia and much of this was accurate. Try being an Italian in Florida…ma va fa’n inculo! At the risk of soliciting, if you’re Italian, hit me up on Twitter @dennis_author
I loved this. Although, of course it generalises. I know several Italians who eat rubbish and don’t cook, or eat pasta pomodoro for every meal. 🙂 I remember when I first came and the Italians would be talking about dinner whilst eating lunch and it felt a bit TOO MUCH but now I do it too. :S
Bad manners are true.
We italians in italy recognize this flaw. Unfortunately is part of our culture (I despise italian culture) and attempting to be civilized is not spontaneous. I try to be civilized, but when I’m disttract, I go back to my uncivilized italian behaviour.
Muscle and gold jewerly on the other hand, aren’t part of italian culture. Italy is the european country with higher percentage of obese people. So no muscles.
Just found this post. Hit it spot on! Right down to the part about the Olive Garden.