Do you know how to get an Italian to shut up?

According to a joke that’s as old as the ruins in the heart of Rome, you have to tie an Italian’s hands behind their back. 

Italian culture, such as the use of one’s hands to convey many complex messages in a matter of seconds, has always fascinated people around the world. We’re often portrayed through the lens of romanticism and grandeur. 

A rich and complex history? Check. 

A plethora of pasta, pizza and many other treasured dishes? Double check. 

Music, art and style up the wazoo?  Triple check. 

However, with that being said, much of Italian culture has been twisted and morphed into something else entirely via stereotypes and mainstream media.  Not to say that none of it is true, but it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between what’s genuinely Italian and what’s been exaggerated over the years.

Think of it like purchasing a Gucci or Dolce & Gabbana product, is it the real deal or a knock off? 

In this article, we will explore six common expectations about Italian culture and contrast them with the reality, providing a clearer picture of what life is really like in Italy.

Andiamo! Let’s go! 

Family 

Expectation:

We all sit down at the dinner table, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives, to share a big feast more often than not. Plentiful plates of pasta are passed around and bottles of wine are uncorked and guzzled down amidst the cacophony of conversation. 

True or false? 

Reality:

Maybe it’s not as extravagant as the movies make it out to be but the prioritization of family is absolutely true and one of the reasons why Italians tend to live longer. Family and friends' ties play a huge role in our lives. Personally, I cherish the time spent with my family and friends, often meeting at Antica Roma, the neighborhood's best pizzeria in Rome.

Family gatherings are not just about the food, but about the connection and support we provide each other. I make it a habit to see my family at least once a week for dinner or some kind of social occasion.  

Food

Expectation:

Italians have a deep appreciation for good food and often enjoy cooking and sharing meals with family and friends. They also tend to be peculiar about the way something is cooked and prepped. 

Reality:

Very true! 

Italians and French are often noted for their love of discussing food, even while eating. In Italy, special occasions such as birthdays and name days (onomastici) are celebrated with elaborate meals. Just a few weeks ago, my family and I celebrated my brother’s name day at Antica Roma (surprise, surprise), chatting away for three long hours and enjoying the pleasant evening breeze on a summer’s day. 

The passion for food in Italy is not just about eating but also about the joy of sharing and experiencing it together.

Art and Culture

Expectation:

While in Italy, you’ll be surrounded by art, music and fashion on every corner.  

Reality:

Absolutely true. You can often find street performers, ancient ruins and shops with the latest goods and services right next to each other in various parts of the country. 

Italy is a country that celebrates beauty in all its forms. However, it's important to note that oftentimes it’s more about beauty than efficiency. We love boasting about our cultural and artistic heritage, but there are challenges in preserving it, and practical aspects like transportation and public services, especially in the south, can be problematic. 

Despite these issues, the appreciation for art and culture remains deeply embedded in Italian society.

Mafia Mania

Expectation:
Almost everybody in Italy has some ties to the mafia and if you have your own store, you’re paying a “protection fee” to some shady looking people in trenchcoats on a weekly basis.

Reality:

This stereotype is, as you may have guessed, largely exaggerated. While the Mafia is a part of Italy's history, it does not define the everyday life of most modern Italians. The vast majority of Italians live their lives completely detached from organized crime. The focus and fascination on the Mafia stems from the media and often overshadows the reality of a country rich in culture, innovation, and community spirit.

That’s not to say I don’t love The Godfather or Goodfellas, but I’m not going to be sending you a fish wrapped in newspaper if you leave a negative comment below this article.

Or am I? 

Over-the-Top Expressiveness

Expectation:
Italians are loud, proud and use their hands at every given opportunity to express themselves.  To really fit in, you better start working on your gestures! 

Reality:

Italians are known for their expressiveness, but the portrayal of us as constantly loud and overly dramatic is an overgeneralization. Expression varies widely across different regions and individuals. While some Italians are indeed very animated, others are more reserved. For example, I definitely use my hands quite a bit and I can be loud but my friends from the north and the south are definitely a bit calmer in conversation. 

It must be the Roman heritage running through my veins… or the three cups of coffee I’ve had since 6 a.m. 

The richness of Italian culture includes a variety of communication styles, all contributing to the vibrant tapestry of Italian society.

Pizza and Pasta

Expectation:

Every Italian is a pizza and pasta expert and/or snob, because every household has their own variety and these two dishes are available all over Italy. 

Reality:

While pasta and pizza are indeed iconic dishes in Italian cuisine, they are just a part of a much broader culinary tradition. Italian food is incredibly diverse, with each region offering its own specialties. From the seafood dishes of the coastal areas to the hearty meat based dishes of the inland regions, Italian cuisine is varied and rich. Vegetables, legumes, and cheeses also play a significant role in our diet. The focus on pasta and pizza in popular culture overlooks the vast array of other delicious and nutritious dishes that Italians enjoy daily.

Pizza and pasta can be found almost anywhere, especially in the touristy spots, but many Italians have vastly different staple dishes than you might expect. 

Don’t Let Someone’s Else’s Expectations Determine Your Reality

Hollywood’s (and the mainstream media’s) representation of Italian culture and language tends to fluctuate between romanticized depictions of Italy's beauty and cuisine and negative stereotypes related to crime and excessive use of one’s hands. While some elements are based on cultural truths, many are oversimplified or exaggerated for dramatic effect. 

It's important to recognize the diversity and complexity of Italian culture beyond these common stereotypes.

Italian culture is rich, multifaceted, and deeply rooted in history, art, and tradition. By understanding the reality behind the expectations, we can appreciate the true essence of Italy and its people. As we continue to explore and celebrate Italian cultural traditions, let's remember to look beyond the stereotypes and embrace the authentic beauty and diversity of Italian life.

As the Italian proverb goes, "La vita è bella" – Life is beautiful.

Embrace the journey of learning and discovering Italian culture in all its genuine and captivating forms.

Written by Luca Lampariello

This post contains affiliate links, which means I may earn a commission if you make a purchase through these links.


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  • Great article Luca! Really enjoyed it. I appreciate this reality check about Italians, from an Italian.

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