Key Elements of Italian Culture
...some of these are stereotypes/old-fashioned, but there's still some truth to them:
- Famiglia - Nothing is more important to Italians than family; it is not unusual to live very close to one's family, and to spend a lot of one's free time with them.
- Amore - The remainder of one's free time, of course, is spent chasing the opposite sex...and all the passion, romance, and drama that ensues.
- La Bella Figura - Italians are all about appearances; one of the highest praises is that one has a bella figura (beautiful figure, which includes how you behave as well as how you look). Brutta figura (ugly figure) is more than just ugliness: it's also appearing mean/unpleasant/greedy/impolite.
- Furbo - This word means "shifty" but also "crafty"; it illustrates that Italians are wary of untrustworthy people, but also admire it when they get around the law. This helps explain why Silvio Berlusconi was (relatively) popular despite his corruption (especially because he maintained a bella figura). Some say that tax evasion is Italy's true national sport. More on furbo at TheLocal and Rick Zullo.
- Campanilismo - This means "loving the Campanile" or town bell tower: Italians are loyal to their home town above all (after all, the nation of Italy is relatively new). Some say that Italy is just a bunch of independent city-states loosely bound together by soccer! The phenomenon extends even to food—only a handful of Neapolitan restaurants serve non-Neapolitan food, let alone non-Italian food. More info here.
- Religion - Almost all Italians are (at least nominally) Roman Catholic, and the pope (il Papa) is often on TV. However, Italy also has a high divorce rate and many people do not actively go to church. Also, lingering superstitions remain—especially in Naples against the Evil Eye (il Malocchio).
Distinguishing features of Naples' subset of Italian culture
(at right, corni and Pulcinelle in Christmas Alley)
- Italy in Technicolor - Many of the stereotypes of Italians (crazy driving, loud talking, big gestures, over-the-top emotion, etc.) are even more prevalent in Naples. Rick Steves writes, "If you like Italy as far south as Rome, go farther south. It gets better. If Italy is getting on your nerves, don't go farther. Italy intensifies as you plunge deeper." One good analogy for Americans is with Mexico: just like our neighbor to the south, parts of Naples can be dirty, lawless, poor, and corrupt...but also, like Mexico, Naples has warm-hearted people, delicious food (the birthplace of pizza!), ancient history, and beautiful countryside. Neapolitans sometimes say that their city is "a beautiful woman with dirty feet" or la città dalle mille contraddizioni ("the city of 1000 contradictions"). Amanda Ruggeri has a nice New York Magazine article that captures some of this.
- Historic Capital of the Mezzogiorno - Naples was once the capital of a separate nation (the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) in southern Italy, and is still considered the cultural capital of the South, or Mezzogiorno (literally "Mid-day"). They have an ongoing rivalry with/antipathy against their compatriots in the North, who stereotype them as being slow and lazy—not unlike Yankee stereotypes about Dixie in the U.S. Still, Neapolitans are proud of their long and proud history, which goes back to the Greeks and before. Ruled by multiple empires over the centuries—Greeks, Etruscans, Romans, Germans of the Holy Roman Empire, French of Anjou, Spanish of Aragon, etc.—the Neapolitans developed a "survival" culture that allows them to make the most of life, no matter what happens.
- Corno and Pulcinella - Especially in touristy spots like Christmas Alley, you will see a lot of what look like red chili peppers. Each is actually a horn, or corno, designed to ward off the Evil Eye and bring good luck (and hence is called a portafortuna, "bring good luck," not unlike a rabbit's foot in the U.S.). Pulcinella is a masked character who appears in old theater and puppet shows, who is known for being an unruly prankster. He is an unofficial mascot of the city, and you will find figurines of him (sometimes holding a corno) around town.S.S.C. Napoli - Short for Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli (Naples Soccer Sporting Society), the hometown heroes have an almost religious devotion in Naples. They play in the San Paolo Stadium in Fuorigrotta, and you see their light-blue banners and donkey mascot all over the city. It is a great experience to see Napoli play a home game.
- San Gennaro - A bishop beheaded by the Romans at the Pozzuoli Solfatara, this martyr (known as Saint Janarius in English) has since become the patron saint (or protetore) of Naples. Thrice a year his blood, preserved in silver reliquaries, "liquifies," which is considered good luck for the city (for example, his relics are credited with stopping Vesuvius from destroying the city). Also, every other Neapolitan male seems to be named Gennaro.
- Canzoni Napoletane - Neapolitan songs, such as O' Sole Mio and Torna a Surriento, sung in the Neapolitan dialect, many written for the still-active Piedigrotta Festival, are famous around the world, partly thanks to Neapolitan tenor Enrico Caruso, who sang these songs as encores after his performances. Learn more on the Italian song page.
- Camorra - The Neapolitan mafia is a loosely-knit group of families who direct a number of illegal operations in the region. Few people speak openly about the Camorra; hence the publication of Gamorrah, Roberto Saviano's tell-all book (followed by the movie Gomorra) was especially shocking.
...Rick Zullo has an entertaining post on other Italian regional stereotypes
Opening Hours in Italy
- ~8 or 9 until ~noon or 1 PM
- early afternoon riposo (spent relaxing/eating with family, Italy's twist on the Spanish siesta)...if an establishment advertises orario continuato ("continuous hours"), that means they don't take a riposo
- ~4 or 5 until ~7 or 8 PM.
- ...also note that many places are closed for at least part of August, and that many touristy places (e.g. many restaurants on Capri) are closed in the winter.
- (giorni) feriale or ⚒️means "weekday" but usually refers to Monday through Saturday
- festivo or giorni festivi or ✝️means means Sundays (and most holidays)...many smaller shops are closed on these days
- giornaliera means "every day"
- also note that most hours are posted in 24 hour clock so Lun - Sab 9-12 / 14-20 chiuso Mer means "Monday to Saturday 9 am to noon and 2 pm to 8 pm, closed Wednesday"
- don't arrive right before something closes—unlike American stores, most Italian shops will have the lights out and the door locked at the moment they are supposed to close
Reid's Italy has more info on opening hours in Italy.
Bars and Cafes
Caffè (Italian coffee) is one of the most important parts of an Italian's day—especially in Naples. This is usually at a bar, which means a coffee bar, not an alcohol bar (although some alcohol is usually available). Everyone has a favorite establishment; you can learn about some of them (such as Caffè Mexico) on the food page.
Different Places, Different Prices
Often baffling to Americans is that you pay a different rate if you drink at the bar vice sitting down. This is because if you sit down, you are served as you would be at a restaurant (a waiter comes to get your order, etc.) and thus you pay more for the extra service. In most places, therefore, it is brutta figura to buy at the bar and then sit down to drink—either buy and drink at the bar, or sit and wait to be served.
How To Order
Pay the cashier first. Next, go to the bar, give the receipt to the barista and tell him/her what you want. It is a nice gesture to place a 10 or 20 euro cent coin on top of your receipt as a tip. In Naples, you'll often be offered a small glass of water to cleanse your palate while you're waiting. Here is a list of the major types of coffee available:
- Caffè (espresso) - a shot of very intense espresso coffee (the default; if you ask for a Caffè or Caffè normale this is what you'll get) Simple variations include a lungo ("longer," less concentrated pull) or a doppio ("double" shot, usually costs more)
- "con zucchero" or "zuccherato" means with sugar—in some places they will pre-sweeten your coffee either on request or automatically (e.g. Caffè Mexico in Naples typically adds sugar by default); if you don't want any, ask for yours "senza zucchero" or "amaro"
- Caffè macchiatto - espresso "stained" with a small amount of foamed milk
- Cappuccino - espresso with a lot of foamed milk. Italians never have this after noon (and seldom after 10 AM). (Non si fa!)
- Caffè corretto - espresso with a small amount of liquor added (to "correct" the flavor!)
- Caffè del Nonno - "grandpa's" creamy, partially frozen coffee; great on a hot day
- Caffè freddo - iced ("cold") espresso, also good for hot days
- Caffè shakerato - espresso "shaken" with shaved ice and sugar
- Caffè sospeso - "suspended" coffee, a cool Neapolitan tradition where you pay for a poor stranger who can't afford a coffee, Wikipedia has more
Different Timeline, Different Pace
Most Italians don't even think to start eating until 8 PM, so most restaurants don't open until 7 or 7:30. They stay open quite late-—often until midnight. Note that for Italians, eating is a social event, so they don't expect the food to arrive quickly. Similarly, you have to ask for the bill (il conto)—they would consider it rude for the waiter to bring it without being asked (as it implies that he is trying to get rid of the diners). Thus, a full Italian dinner can be a several-hour affair. If you are pressed for time, tell your waiter and he should be able to accommodate you.
Types of Restaurants
Not all restaurants are "ristorante". Here is a list of eating establishments and what to expect at each:
- Ristorante - traditional, somewhat fancier, full-service restaurant
- Pizzeria - what it sounds like—usually cheaper/less fancy than a restaurant although many of them are also full-service restaurants
- Osteria (Hosteria) - literally a "pub," but usually it's a less fancy eatery
- Taverna - literally a "tavern," but like Osteria often means a less fancy place to eat
- Trattoria - a home-style restaurant
- Enoteca - a wine bar; many of these have (sometimes substantial) food
- Tavola Calda - a "hot table," a take-away fast-food place where the dishes are already prepared, sitting on a hot plate
As one American told me when I arrived, "There are two kinds of water here: with gas and without. You won't like the kind with gas at first, but you'll get hooked."
- Frizzante / gassata / con gas = sparkling water
- (in Naples, you'll often get Ferrarelle; I've never been a huge fan of it since it's not very bubbly, aka leggermente effervescente, so it tastes a bit "flat" to me...even though my heart is Neapolitan, I'll take a northern San Pellegrino every day!)
- Naturale / liscia / senza gas = still water (no bubbles), although usually still bottled mineral water (if you want tap water, you have to ask for "acqua del rubinetto" but you might get some strange looks, since nobody drinks that in a restaurant)
- Nobody serves beverages with ice (ghiaccio)
...also note that coffee is usually only drunk after dessert, and for most meals (except breakfast) it is brutta figura to get a cappucino. After coffee you might have digestivo ("digestive" drink) like a limoncello.
How to Order
A traditional Italian meal starts with Antipasti (appetizers), then Primi (or Primo Piatto, a first dish of usually pasta), then Secondi (or Secondo Piatto, usually seafood or meat), then Insalata (salad), then Formaggio (cheese), then Dolci (dessert), with various beverages (wine, sparking wine, coffee, limoncello, grappa) in between. Of course, you don't have to have the whole nine yards—it is perfectly acceptable to just have a pizza, for example (especially if you are at a pizzeria!). To ask what the waiter recommends, ask "Che cosa consiglia?" See Italian Food Words for useful information when deciphering menus, and this great video from Kylie Flavell on how to order.
It is not necessary to tip in Italy like it is in the US. In most cases, the service is included in the bill (as servizio or coperto). If you had good service, however, it is entirely appropriate to leave a small tip (from a few euros to "round up", up to around 10%). Katie Parla has more here and here (and explains
Italian Media in Naples
See the Naples Media page for information on newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations in Naples.
To learn more about Italian culture, check out the following:
- Italian Language page of Wikinapoli (especially the sections on Italian gestures, music, and proverbs)
- Speak the Culture: Italy by Andrew Whittaker is a good, fairly comprehensive guide to Italy and its regions
- American Linda Falcone has a bunch of articles in the English-language, Florence-based The Florentine, full of delightful insights on Italian culture and language, such as why it's more important to not look greedy than to not be greedy, why the only certainty is how food is cooked, why in Italy one can be happy but not do what one wants, why one can never make steadfast plans, and why everything "depends" on the situation instead of being certain. Her columns are collected in two books, Italians Dance and I'm a Wallflower and If They Are Roses.