How To Be Italian: A Field Guide To Italian Life and Culture

Reading “How To Be Italian: Eat, Drink, Dress, Travel and Love La Dolce Vita” (Smith Street Books, 2021) is so immersive that you’ll feel like you’ve taken a jaunt to Italy. And if you are planning a trip to Italy, this book is a must-read before you go, even if it won’t be your first time there.  

In this masterful guide, Australian-Italian author, blogger, and food enthusiast, Maria Pasquale, distills the essence of the Italian lifestyle and culture, and captures it on paper in just over 200 pages. In doing so, she sheds some light on why Italy is perennially one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. 

Written during lockdown, the book couldn’t be more contemporary. But at the same time, it reflects Maria’s grounding in history and political science, and deep appreciation of her family’s customs and traditions. Her journalism background likely accounts for the quality of her writing: The book is neither too long nor too short, it is just the right length and offers just the right level of detail to make it eminently readable.

The best European tour my husband and I ever took was with a tour guide of Indian descent who had relocated to Paris to work and raise a family. Not only could she provide an insider’s perspective on culture and tradition but she was able to observe it with the eyes of an expat, keenly aware of what was different and distinct. Similarly, Maria’s bicultural upbringing afforded her a unique lens to see and understand Italy. Now living in Rome for more than a decade, she was raised by Italian parents in Melbourne, Australia, making her both an insider and outside observer.

The arc of the book


Author, Maria Pasquale
Author, Maria Pasquale (from HeartRome)

Accompanied by wonderful slice of life photography, the book is broken into nine different aspects that define being Italian: live, think, eat, drink, dress, travel, love, have fun and speak. 

The text is filled with terms and expressions that are unmistakably Italian: passeggiata, the early evening stroll; riposo, the traditional break taken after lunch, la bella figura, the importance of looking good and making a good impression; il dolce far niente, taking the time to slowly do the things you love (literally, the sweetness of doing nothing); and sprezzatura, the effortless elegance with which Italians carry themselves

The author puts each of these expressions in context, explaining their relevance, and also lists and defines them in the glossary. Each individual chapter is followed by a simple list summarizing its major points. Interspersed in the text, too, are interesting quotes from iconic Italian authors, artists, historians, designers and business people.

Understanding a lifestyle

Italian lifestyle is unique
Italian lifestyle is unique

Maria explains how family and friends are the seminal expression of Italian culture; relationships are lively and affectionate, most of the time, even though people complain. She acknowledges the role of population density in fostering togetherness, in a country where people are thrown together in close quarters with family and neighbors. While she draws a portrait of the typical patterns and rituals that define Italians, she acknowledges that generalizations are nuanced by people and place. She paints Italians as more moral than religious, 

Of course, as a travel enthusiast, I was especially interested in the chapter focused on how Italians travel. Maria refined some of my own impressions: Italians are probably more spontaneous than planful. With four weeks of annual leave, they also generally have more time off than Americans. Ever try to call an Italian friend or colleague just after a holiday? If the holiday fell on a Tuesday or Thursday, you may find that they’ve created a ponte (bridge), extending the holiday to a long weekend of three or four days. 

With its geography somewhat similar to that of California (although that state is about 1.3 times the size of country), Italians are likely to take to the beaches and lakes in summer and head to the mountains for skiing in winter. When it’s Ferragosto (August 15th), the last chance for a holiday before going back to work and back to school, every Italian seems to be taking their vacation at the same time. With its smaller size, a sophisticated system of fast trains, and the autostrada (toll roads), Italians are less likely to fly within the country than most Americans (or tourists).

Frecciarossa high-speed train pulling into Bologna
Frecciarossa high-speed train pulling into Bologna

The bottom line

Maria Pasquale has done a remarkable job in conveying the essence of la dolce vita—in shorthand. I highly recommend that you skim through this book before your next visit to Italy to better experience and understand the richness of Italian life and culture.

It is also likely to make you a more confident traveler with sprezzatura.

About the author: Maria Pasquale is the creator of the blog HeartRome, which has readers in 100 countries. This is Maria’s second book; her first was I Heart Rome, both books were published by Smith Street Books.

Buy the book on Amazon

Disclosure: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to at no additional cost to you.


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