How Basic Italian: Showed Me The Real Italy

Italy is a beautiful country with rich and fascinating history. Everywhere you look, you catch a glimpse of an ancient land, rich with culture and life. When Dan and I travel to Italy, we love to experience these historical landmarks that can be found at all the most popular tourist spots. But popular tourist spots also come with thousands of tourists, which means crowds. I can only take so much time in crowds – like 10 second to be exact. Not to mention you come home with all of the same experiences and memories as every other tourist in Italy.

While these historical sites are a must see at some point, my favorite way to experience Italy is to travel like a local and step away from the throngs of people. And a basic understanding of the language seems to always provide me with what I need to have just this sort of experience. It allows me to find my way around, meet locals, and of course find the secrets that aren’t in any guidebook.

In my previous posts, I talked about how learning some basic Italian phrases have kept me safe on my travels and made my days easier, and the specific words and phrases that allowed me to spend less time on the details and more time creating memories. Today we are going to talk about some of the Italian phrases that opened up the real Italy.  

Free prosecco and whiskey and lots of local advice…

Dan and I are both vegetarian, which was actually pretty easy in Italy. Everywhere you turn there are scrumptious salads, pastas, and pizzas with enough veggies to make a rabbit happy. When we were in Menaggio on Lake Como, we stopped to grab a bite at a local waterfront bar. Dan wanted pasta, but there was no vegetarian pasta on the menu.

This was no problem though, with some basic Italian!

Avete una pasta vegetariano?” – Do you have a vegetarian pasta?
And sure enough, they were able to whip up some custom vegetarian pasta. But as it turned out, they whipped up a little more than that, and brought us 2 pizzas and pasta – a little more than we ordered. Hey, our Italian isn’t perfect!

Even though the mix up was probably our fault with our limited understanding of Italian, they were so apologetic and brought us 2 free glasses of Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine)!   

View from our table at Jean Pedro's

View from our table at Jean Pedro’s

The food was absolutely delicious and super inexpensive, with a beautiful view over the lake. We asked the waitress, still embarrassed over the mix-up, “Come si dice ‘delicious’?” – How do you say delicious? – so we could compliment the food. She told us we could say “è ottimo” – it tastes great, or “è delizioso” – it’s delicious. Then we chatted in broken English/Italian. It turned out Italian was actually her third language. She was from Morocco and spoke 5 languages!

As we were leaving the bar, the owner, Jean Pedro, made a joke about the pizza  – we didn’t quite understand, but we smiled anyway – then in broken English, he asked us to sit down and have a drink with him. It turned out that he had opened the restaurant that week, and he wanted to christen his unopened bottles of Jack Daniels with some Americans, and we fit the bill. So we had a few shots with him and his staff while they chowed down on the extra mistaken pizza in the corner.

Over our next 4 days in Menaggio, Jean Pedro and his staff became our local friends, calling us over for coffee or a drink each time we passed by and to give us recommendations on making the most of our trip. It was just small, short interactions, but stopping to chat on the streets, or having someone call out “Ciao Lisa!” made me feel a bit like a real Italian.

The only Limoncino locals will drink…

In the Cinque Terre region, Dan and I spent a day sailing with a Father and Son from the area. After serving us what looked like homemade Limoncino, Valter, the father, told us we needed to find his cousin Eliseo back in town to get some for ourselves. Eliseo makes the best Limoncino and the only Limoncino the locals will drink. We of course had to follow through with the recommendation. 

Dan taking over the sailing for a bit.

Dan taking over the sailing for a bit.

Trouble was, Valter told us, “his store is in old town – it has tables and Limoncino on the wall”. This described

Our Limoncino from Eliseo – bottle 192 of 251

about half of the stores in the town. We found a store with the same bottles that Valter served us, walked in and said, “Ciao, cerco Eliseo.” – Hi, I am looking for Eliseo. The woman went into the back, and brought us Eliseo. When he learned his cousin Valter sent us, Eliseo welcomed us with laughter and tastings and a special bottle from his reserve batch.

So we took a bottle of limoncino, found some fettuccine that looked like the style Valter told us to get and went home to cook pasta with pesto. The pesto was a gift from Valter. It was his mother’s pesto he had on the boat. He told us that we had to experience true Italian pesto – that we would never taste a better pesto – and gave me the container with very specific instructions on how to properly use it. It was just another moment where we felt that we were seeing the real Italy.

A ride home…

In Italy one of our favorite things to do is venture as far away from the tourists and heavy traffic of the cities as we can get. One day, we took a long hike up into the mountains around Lake Como. The locals had told us it was a good day long hike that lead to a small town with a bus we could take back home. And this hike did not disappoint, giving us some of the best country views we had seen, and a trail we had to ourselves for hours.

The trail started here - at the top of a hill above our town.

The trail started here – at the top of a hill above our town.

The woods opened up at points to views from above, of gorgeous villas

The woods opened up at points to views from above, of gorgeous villas

We emerged from the woods into this tiny country town.

We emerged from the woods into this tiny country town.

There was a 15 minute detour that took us to this old settlement.

There was a 15 minute detour that took us to this old settlement.

The hike finished along this river which took us to a beautiful lake in Porlezza.

The hike finished along this river which took us to a beautiful lake in Porlezza.

When we arrived in the small town, the bus stop was a small sign, which indicated we needed to buy tickets before getting on…but no clear direction on where to get these tickets. But, after asking a few people “Dove sono biglietti autobus?” – where are bus tickets? – we were pointed to the “fioraio” – Florist – just a few blocks away.

We made it home safe and sound, and knowing just those basic Italian phrases and a few other words, allowed us to venture out of the tourist zone with confidence that we could find our way back.

These same basic phrases also allowed us to visit the market with ease, shop in local stores for food and basic goods. All around, having a rather small vocabulary was enough to create some amazing memories and stories, and live Italy a bit more like a local.

If you take some time to look through our Learn Italian pages, you will find a complete list of recommended phrases for travelers, as well as interactive flashcard sets.

What phrases have you used, while traveling, that made your trip unforgettable? Share your stories below, we’d love to hear them!

About Lisa

Hello! I am a behavior analyst and travel lover that has combined my two passions into one. The Tandem Traveler is my way of bringing behavioral teaching technologies into the world of language learning for travelers. I hope you like it!

2 comments on “How Basic Italian: Showed Me The Real Italy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *