We just spent 10 amazing, romantic and unforgettable days in northern Italy. It was the first of many new experiences for the two of us – first time traveling across the Atlantic
ocean, first time in Europe, first time driving in another country, etc. We drove a total of 1400 kilometers, visited 14 towns/cities, walked an average of 9 miles per day, and consumed enough gelato to fill a Baskin Robbins.
When we weren’t stuffing our faces with ice cream, biscotti, wine, spaghetti, pesto, bread, cheese and cured meats, we were observing the culture and the world around us. Turns out there’s a lot we could learn from Italy.
- Affordable food and wine—ok, so the wine prices were actually more like highway robbery and I was the bad guy. Restaurants had house wine for $1-2 Euro/glass! At one restaurant, the half bottle of wine I ordered cost the same amount as a liter of bottled water – a whopping $3.50 Euros, not that I would ever drink a half bottle of wine by myself…
Breakfast was our cheapest meal of the day. We would get two cappuccinos and two cornetti (croissants), and consume them at the counter. Stuffed with chocolate, nutella, or fruit, the cornetti were just out of the oven and were buttery and delicious. We’d hardly talk to each other as we savored each bite and washed them down with delicious, foamy cappuccinos. Then we’d laugh uncontrollably when we’d get the bill: $5 Euro total. We’d be lucky if we got change from a twenty if this was what we ordered back home.
Lunch usually meant we were out exploring (read: walking) and our meal would be on the go. Sometimes we’d sit down for lunch, but often we’d be draw to whatever tantalizing creation was in a storefront window: Freshly baked panini with slices of mozzarella and pancetta…pizza or focaccia topped with olives and prosciutto…cured meats and cheeses hanging from the ceiling…It all came to less than $10 Euro per person and included a drink.
Dinner was the one time of the day where we spent more money on food…but mostly because Italians believe in eating 72 courses. See #2 & 3 for more deets on that!
Eating and drinking like this makes you realize how unnecessarily expensive stuff is in America! We visited a local grocery store and purchased giant jugs of sparkling water (frizzanti) only to learn they were .25c. Twenty five cents. But then again, why should water cost more than that?
- Paying restaurant workers a livable wage instead of tips. When I was a server ten years ago, I earned $3.65 per hour. Everyone in the industry told me it was normal because I’d make it up in tips. They failed to mention and I was too naïve to think about what would happen on those days I didn’t make it up in tips…the days when the restaurant was dead, when you got cut early, when after you paid out the bussers and dishwashers you were walking home with $20 in your pocket. Those were scary days and I was just a single person—I couldn’t imagine living off from that and having a family to support. But Italy gets it. Their tips are rolled into the price of your dining experience and in fact, it’s considered taboo to leave more than a 5% tip. We learned about tipping the hard way during our first dinner in Montecatini Terme, our home base city for the first half of our trip. We went took the funicular, this old, red railcar, up to the top of Montecatini Alto and stumbled upon the most adorable B&B that served dinner.
We were overcome by the charm of the restaurant, the glass jars of biscotti that decorated the tables and the smells and sights of everyone eating around us. So we did the full on “Italian meal” – antipasti, primi and secondi courses, complete with wine. Our bill came to $84 Euros (again, think of us laughing uncontrollably over the ridiculously low price). We read that if you had exceptional service, you could leave a Euro or two. So we left $90 Euro and walked out. A moment later, the owner of the restaurant came running outside, our six euros in hand, telling us, “You forgot your change!” We couldn’t believe it. “Welp, I guess the guidebook was right!” we thought. From then on, we didn’t try to tip again.
- Taking your sweet-ass time to eat a meal with someone you love. If you picture sitting down for a quick bite to eat in Florence or Venice, and being on your merry way, you better go to another country. Italians consider dining an experience, an experience you better have adequate time for. They want you to relax, enjoy delicious food and wine, digest, enjoy more delicious food and wine, talk to your sweetheart, look around, enjoy even more delicious food and wine, do even more talking. It was common for dinner for last 2-3 hours.
Often when we were eating dinner, we’d notice empty tables around us reserved for a few hours later. We’d witness the restaurant turn away patron after patron, saying they were fully booked. The go-go-go, make-as-much-money-as-you-can Americans in us couldn’t believe they weren’t seating people at those tables. Surely they could sneak a table in before the reservation? But that was the point – they don’t want to sneak people it, they don’t want to rush and they don’t want their customers to feel rushed. This concept took some getting used to. We found ourselves wanting the service to be faster and to just get our bill already so we could move on to the next thing. But by the end of the trip, I think we both realized how nice it was to slow down, actually taste your food and really enjoy the company of the person you were with. I wish we could this more back here in the states.
- Frequent reststops–with real food–on the Highway (Autostrada).
When we landed in Milan after an 8-hour red-eye flight, our adrenaline was pumping and we were eager to pick up our rental car. It took us about an hour on the Autostrada to realize just how hungry we were. Because we had no idea what types of restaurants were around us, we decided to pull into the next rest stop for some snacks, our expectations low. We were shocked to open the door of The Autogrill and find a full coffee bar, a sandwich counter, pizza, every beverage imaginable, candy, souvenirs, wine, beer, DVDs, CDs, etc.”Oh my god,” we said simultaneously as we migrated toward the sandwich counter. “Look at all of this foooood!”We ordered two prosciutto and mozzarella sandwiches and went to a nearby table to consume them. They were so fresh and real that the bread was still warm and our faces were dusted in flour. We said nothing to each other as we devoured our first Italian food, occasionally getting out an “Mmmm,” or a “Wow.” It was a religious experience. But we still weren’t convinced that all reststops in Italy were like this. Maybe we had just stumbled upon a large one? Maybe this was just a fluke?Not only were all reststops just like the first (some even larger than the first), but they were frequent on the highway, popping up about every 30-50 KM. Each came complete with a restaurant, as well as gas & diesel. I thought back to our pathetic attempts at rest stops here in Vermont. There are maybe 3 the entire length of I-89 and the only food they offer is junk from a vending machine and a few ounces of free coffee. And if you have to pee, you better do it while you have the chance or risk having to hold your urine for another 1-2 hours. Once again, Italy set quite the example to take after.
- Color coordinated driving signs. If you’re still reading this, you’re likely wondering why I’m now talking about driving signs and asking when I’ll get back to describing the food. Hold tight, partner. One of the most helpful things we discovered as first-time drivers in a country that spoke a different language was that the Autostrada signs were green and routes were blue. If at any point we got turned around, all we’d have to do was look for a green sign to get us back on the highway. This can be helpful when say, you’re approaching your 50th rotary in a 10 KM stretch. To avoid a National Lampoon’s European Vacation moment, Dan just followed the green signs to get us to the Autostrada. We probably went through 100+ rotaries on our trip and only messed up on two. As the Navigator, I was pretty proud of that stat! BTW, another helpful driving tip is to download Google Maps and use their “Offline maps” section. You select the region you want and can then get turn by turn directions without using data on your phone.
- Paying $1 for clean bathrooms. I dreaded the first time I had to pee in a public place in Italy, like the train station or a city center, thinking about how dirty and disgusting they would be. I was also pretty annoyed to learn I had to pay $.50 to $1.00 to use what I thought would be a gross “water closet”. But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the places that charged did so because they had staff on hand cleaning the stalls non-stop. As a result, I experienced some of the cleanest public bathrooms ever in Italy. I thought back to all of the nasty Starbucks bathrooms I’d used over the years, or urine soaked stalls at bars and restaurants. After a few days in Italy, I was happy to pay for a clean experience And speaking of bathrooms…many faucets there were operated by a foot lever – um, genius! Why don’t we do that?!
- Literally the freshest food you can imagine. Vermont really prides itself on sourcing local food whenever possible and supporting area farmers and their families in the process. Italy on the other hand, fresh and local is all they know and do. The basil in your pesto was picked and ground that day, the bread on your table was baked that morning and the prawn on your plate was caught that afternoon. Everything is fresh and it changes the way your food tastes. Eating simple things like a tomato salad, I’d think, “This is the best tomato I’ve ever had!”And it probably was. Lack of processed foods has to also be a contributing factor to why no one was overweight there. That and walking everywhere. Italy also proved that you don’t need to create elaborate, complicated meals. Meals with a few fresh ingredients were some of our favorites. We’re going to try to bring that concept back home.
8. Displaying love and affection, even for acquaintances. It’s well known that Italy is considered the romance capital of Europe. After spending an evening in a gondola on the Grand Canal in Venice, I can vouch for that. But what I didn’t know is just how affectionate Italians are to their friends and even acquaintances. Every meeting I observed came with an embrace, kiss on the cheek and huge smiles. One of my favorite memories of the whole trip didn’t even involve us. We were walking around Venice, stuffing our faces with fill-in-the-blank-snack-cause-it-had-been-two-hours-since-our-last-meal-and-we-were-fucking-starrrving, when I saw a woman with two young children approach an older man with a cane. I watched their interaction, trying to figure out how they knew each other. It felt like they were not family, but maybe neighbors, or someone she knew several years prior. The woman and the man hugged, and made chit chat. Then the woman introduced the man to her children, and this is where the man began to beam. He bent down to each of the young children, cupped their faces in his hands, kissed them, and told their mother what I can only assume was something like ‘they are so beautiful.’ He kept talking to the children, smiling and laughing, hugging their mom in the process. It was all so beautiful and so genuine.
Italians know what matters in life: It’s not work, it’s not expensive clothes and cars (though Milan could have fooled us), it’s people and the relationships you create that matter the most. And if you can find a few good friends to break bread with, a family to laugh and share memories with, and a partner to love and go on lots of adventures with, well then that’s… bellissimo.