No matter where I am in the world, I have a shelf devoted to books about Italy. Which may be why, although I started out this post planning to write a gift guide — something I do everycouple of years — I found that everything that came to mind to include was… a book.
While that partly speaks to the fact that I’m a nerd bookworm, it also speaks to something else: whether you’re interested in fiction or memoir, food or art, ancient history or World War II, there are a number of compulsively-readable books about Italy out there these days.
What is my bar for “compulsively readable”? In the last three years, I’ve gone through two transatlantic moves. Each time, I’ve had to winnow down my library. Most of the books on this list are ones that I found myself re-buying after my last move. That’s how much I couldn’t live without them.
So. Here are the books about Italy I’ve sometimes bought not once, but twice — and the person on your gift-giving list (other than you!) who might like them best.
The best book about Italy for the one on your list… who, faced with a table of magazines at the doctor’s office, always reaches for the New Yorker.
Haven’t heard of Elena Ferrante? First, crawl out from under your rock. Second, run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore to pick up the first novel in her “Neapolitan quartet”: My Brilliant Friend.
The series pins down human emotions, flaws and foibles with such searing precision, it’s sometimes almost excruciating to read. On the surface, it’s about two girls who grow up together in the shadows of a working-class neighborhood in postwar Naples. And if you love Italy, especially the south or bella Napoli, it will give you a raw, intense look at a people and culture that tend to be stereotyped, not examined.
And yet, as in any true masterpiece, so many of the observations Ferrante makes apply far beyond the backstreets of Naples. For example…
I’ve been obsessed with Italy’s sagre since my first introduction to them. So much more than food festivals (though food’s a big part of it), these are celebrations of a local community, culture and cuisine. The particular foodstuff they celebrate completely ranges — anything from white truffle to chocolate to pumpkins to chestnuts to wine. And the best season for them? The autumn! Which is why I just wrote about seven of the best sagre in Italy in autumn — from a little town just outside Rome to Puglia to Piedmont — for The Guardian. Check it out here.
Want to know the weather in Rome, Italy? You could obviously just check out the forecast. (Not that that’s necessarily that reliable). But you’ve wound up here instead, so I’m guessing you don’t want to know the Rome weather coming up in the next few days — you’re looking further ahead and curious what, say, the weather in Rome is usually like a few weeks or even months from now.
Maybe you’re trying to decide when to come to Rome. Or you’ve already chosen your dates, and you need to know what to pack.
So: here’s what to expect, season by season, in terms of the weather in Rome. And what this means in terms of what to pack and prepare for.
(PS: If you are looking for the weather forecast in the near future, two of my go-to sites are Weathercast and Accuweather).
Weather in Rome in… summer (spoiler: it’s hot, and they’re not that into a/c)
This is when things get nice and sweaty. Temperatures peak in July — that’s when you’re looking at an average high of 88°F (31°C). (While the average low is a comfy 62°F/17°C, if Rome ever hit that temperature in July, I’m pretty sure it’s while I was sleeping). It’s also the driest month of the year, with less than an inch of average rainfall. August is about the same — plus you have the double-whammy of the uber-crowds and that it’s ferragosto (read: when many restaurants and shops close as locals, reasonably, flee to the seaside). If you can swing it, June is milder and less crowded, especially earlier in the month.
The sad news arrived this week that Italy is truly, finally getting its first Starbucks — which seems like the perfect time to talk about coffee in Italy. You know, Italiancoffee in Italy. What it is. How to order it. What the various kinds (macchiato, lungo, cappuccino, mamma mia!) really mean. And, naturally, where to find the best coffee in Rome (and beyond).
But first, let’s get one thing out of the way: what coffee in Italy is not.
How to know your coffee isn’t Italian-style
Italian coffee is not something you would mistake on the first sip for a weirdly hot milkshake. It does not require 10 minutes of you patiently waiting for a barista to make it only to then grab it to go and rush out the door with it in your hand as if, at that precise moment, the urgency of your situation suddenly became apparent. It is not served in a cup so large it could be mistaken for an army barracks stock pot.
And it does not in any way taste like peppermint, spiced pumpkin or like what would happen if you burned butter, added it to raw bitter greens, then boiled the two together. (Yes: that last point means properly-done espresso, from good-quality beans, does not have that burned, bitter taste that you get from a mug of classic Starbucks roast).<p?
Got it? Good!
Okay, fine, but what’s the big deal with Italian coffee, anyway?
You mean, why does Italian coffee have such cachet that leading coffee chains worldwide all give their menu items Italian names… no matter how American/British/fill-in-the-blank their drinks really are?
For one thing, because Italians invented coffee culture. No, they weren’t the first to harvest—or brew—the beans. But they were the first in Europe to open a coffee house (Venice, 1629), to invent the espresso machine (Turin, 1884) and to come up with the macchinetta (the stovetop percolator first produced by Bialetti, still the leading creator of the moka, in 1933).
Or, as the owner of Caffè Sant’Eustachio in Rome once put it to me years ago, when I asked him why he thought not a single Starbucks had opened in Rome:
“Macchiatto, espresso, cappuccino — these are all Italian names. Why would we buy the American version of these drinks when we’re the ones who invented them?”
Want to know the best ways to explore Vatican City and get to know the Pope — beyond St. Peter’s Basilica? Check out my roundup of Vatican secrets in the August/September issue of National Geographic Traveler (…it’s the cover story!), from where to shop for papal socks to seeing the “other” Sistine Chapel. Not in the US? You can also check out a version of the piece online here.
When in Rome, eat Roman food. (Duh). But to have the best possible culinary experience, go a step further: have the city's most top-notch traditional dishes… at the restaurants that make them in the tastiest, most authentic ways. And it's not always easy to know where that is, since a trattoria that serves up only mediocre meat courses might make the best pasta alla gricia in Rome, while a restaurant usually better ignored might actually be the number-one spot for carciofi alla giudia.
Luckily, here's help! Here are six of Rome's must-eat dishes — and my favorite places for trying each one — in my first piece for the Travel Channel. (Stay tuned for more!)
This month, New York Magazine is taking a little trip to Italy, with stories every day on the trials, tribulations, myths and magic of la bella vita. I'm excited to be contributing ten (count 'em… ten!) different pieces throughout the month. I'll be updating this post with the links as they publish. Enjoy!
Why won't Italians have cappuccino after dinner? Plus: can colpo d'aria (a hit of air) really give you a neck pain? And does a digestivo really help you digest? I talk to doctors to get to the truth behind eight rules that many Italians insist you follow — because otherwise, you might getsickandDIE.
Want real Italian food? Skip these seven dishes. From spaghetti and meatballs to fra diavolo, some of the plates most beloved by Little Italy neighborhoods across America are all but impossible to find in the motherland. Here's why, and what to order instead.
Ah, Christmas in Rome! With the festive lights a-sparkling and families a-shopping, Christmas trees a-twinkling and nativity scenes a-…um, whatever nativity scenes do—well, it really is the most wonderful time of year.
Want to make the most of it? Here’s my complete guide to Rome at Christmas.
Buon Natale e felice anno nuovo!
Rome Christmas basics: what will be open, what will be closed, and other burning questions
In the short video below, I answer some of readers’ biggest questions about visiting Rome over Christmas.
One of the biggest Christmas traditions in Rome is la befana. She’s the figure you’ll see across Rome come the holidays—and with her hooked nose and broomstick, she’s often mistaken for a witch. Here’s what to know about la befana, and this super-sweet video, below (starring my favorite little adopted niece Roman friend), explores the tradition further.
If you’re going to be a guest of an Italian family for any holiday meals, or you want to cook (or eat) according to Italian tradition this Christmas yourself, don’t miss this post on how to have an Italian Christmas meal.
Want to know about New Year’s? These are some of the main New Year’s traditions in Italy. (Yes, my Italian friends really insist on wearing red underwear. So much so a [female!] Roman friend once even gave me red underwear as a gift… just to be sure I would).
If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.
‘Tis the season… for rain in Rome. (Ah, November!). And in a city where so many of the sights are outdoors, and so much is meant to be explored on foot, rain can feel like a real deal-breaker.
Sure: There are always the Vatican museums. And if you’re lucky, maybe you booked your Borghese Gallery or Palazzo Valentini tickets for exactly the day the skies opened up.
But let’s go beyond the obvious, shall we? Here’s what I’d call the perfect rainy day in Rome: an itinerary that hits up spots that are cozy, indoors, off-the-beaten-path, interesting — and located in neighborhoods that, while charming, aren’t so cobblestoned-street-picturesque that you’ll be upset to miss the chance to photograph them at their sunny best.
So get your umbrellas ready (and, by the way, one good thing about rain in Rome is that, as soon as it starts, umbrella-sellers pop up all over the city. So it’s okay if you’ve forgotten yours. Just, please, barter the sellers down to 2 or 3 euros for a small one; it’ll fall apart by the end of the day anyway!).
No matter where you’re staying in Rome, the neighborhood of Testaccio is easy to get to: You can take the metro (get off at Piramide, then walk five minutes) or a number of buses (including the 3 and 75).
Remember back… um… a while ago, when I said I'd be doing a series to answer those burning Italy- or travel-related questions in video form? Well, first (September) episode is above.
This is something I'll be doing every month, so before the next video launches on Oct. 15, make sure to send me your questions! Either email them to me (firstname.lastname@example.org), tweet them @revealedrome (hashtag #revealrome), or post them below here.
Thanks, and I look forward to receiving—and answering—your questions!