Italy has gifted the world so many great things but what are the quintessential qualities of the country itself? From sociable swimming hubs to unfussy mealtimes and enviable urban spaces, we choose our 10 favourite traits that define an often misunderstood nation. For more on the best places in which to enjoy these experiences and many more, we suggest that ‘The Monocle Book of Italy’ be your guide.
Although the country is blessed with unspoilt and wild beaches, much Italian seaside life takes place at the bagni. These organised beach clubs cover a large portion of the coast and normally consist of a simple shack (often doubling as a restaurant and bar), some cabins to change in, and regimented rows of umbrellas and loungers. Most Italian families are habit-driven when it comes to holidaying and tend to return to not only the same bagno every year but also the exact spot – which is how summertime friendships are forged between umbrella neighbours over the years.
Plenty of people enjoy a glass of wine at the end of the day but in Italy this indulgence is codified into aperitivo. Far from being an encouragement to excessive drinking, it’s a way of “opening” somebody’s appetite for dinner, which is why glasses of wine or light cocktails are always consumed with a little snack on the side. The point of this daily ritual isn’t the wine but rather sharing it with a table of friends. Aperitivo comes in endless variants but, no matter where, the bars always come alive at sundown with chatter and the clinking of glasses. Cin cin!
Italian police officers often look as though they’re from another era. Their uniforms are based on old-school, shoulder-heavy suits and extravagant headgear. Each of the many units can be distinguished via its look: the Polizia Municipale can be spotted by their elegant white hats, while the Bersaglieri – a specialised infantry division – wear a wide-brimmed number with a cascade of black rooster feathers. These outfits work by asserting the authority of elegance rather than a more obvious intimidation, and they are impressive at gatherings and parades.
Since ancient times, Italy’s food markets have been the beating heart of the country’s culinary life. Every neighbourhood has its own mercato alimentare with stands of fruit, vegetables, cheese and meat proffered in a singsong sales pitch – a tradition upheld since the hawkers’ choruses arrived with the Arabs in 800ad. The birth of a united Italy brought with it a flurry of covered markets, which have maintained ties to the fertility of the peninsula – keeping alive the demand for organic ingredients that defines the country’s relationship with food.
For some, good service means a deferential attitude towards the customer but in Italy the practice tends to be slightly different. Of course patrons are polite but the main ingredient for great hospitality – or retail – is a friendliness that tends to put people on the same level. Service in Italy is about people’s joy of sharing what they know they can do best. There’s an understandable element of pride in recognising one’s own skills, expertise and knowledge. The best way to enjoy it? Trust the house. They’ll always bring out the best.
Italy is more than just good at food: it is obsessed with eating it, making it and producing it. It’s easy for everybody to eat well because excellent produce is available cheaply. The recipes that have made Italian food famous – pasta, pizza, soups and salads – are simple and inexpensive to make, turning gastronomy into a democratic exercise. Vineyards are also an integral part of the landscape. Every region has its own grapes and wine specialities, all of them ordered and consumed by knowledgeable patrons and everyday drinkers alike.
Italy’s fashion industry is a broad church, from prestigious and world-famous brands to a tight-knit network of textile producers and high-end manufacturers. This is a country that cares about its looks and knows how to recognise a good cut. Italian style is about bold choices and time-honoured classics that last a lifetime, with some extravagant details thrown in. But breezy, everyday elegance doesn’t need many trimmings: a linen suit, good shirt or sharply cut coat will do the job. Textures and fabrics are of the utmost importance.
Family still means a lot in Italy. And it’s not just about making time for parents and grandparents, although Sunday lunch at grandma’s is one of the many traditions aimed at getting people together around a table. That many businesses – from famous fashion houses to yacht builders and pasta-makers – are named after the family that still runs them says a lot about Italians’ commitment to keeping things close to home. Be it in a hotel or trattoria, there’s a high chance that the people who greet you at the door are working for their family firm.
Spend time among Alpine peaks in winter and lazily bobbing in the Mediterranean come summer, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that you had visited two separate countries. Though the placid waters of the northern lakes are just as Italian as the craggy bays of the south, there’s one thing that the landscape shares: even the wildest spots are never too far from a town. This densely populated land has made the most of its ability to coexist with nature, however extreme. So much so that you’ll even find settlements at the feet of active volcanoes.
Since ancient Roman times, Italian cities have been built to encourage conversation outdoors. Today the piazza is perhaps the most important building block of any city in this country. In itself it is nothing more than a paved space that is surrounded by buildings but, as the seat of commercial, religious and political happenings, it has always been much more than a large thoroughfare. There have been many changes since the times of Rome’s “forum” but architecture in Italy has kept a very close link to its civic, public purpose.
Photographer: James Mollison, Sara Magni, Eirini Vourloumis, Luigi Fiano, Felix Brüggemann, Elisabeta Claudia. Image: Getty Images.