Through our best features and essays about Italy, we bring some of the place—and some of the people—to you.
One of the most famous lines from Giuseppe Verdi’s Attila opera occurs early on, in the prologue, when a Roman envoy proposes the division of the empire to Attila the Hun: Avrai tu l’universo, Resti l’Italia a me, he sings. You may have the universe, but leave Italy to me.
When the opera was first performed in Venice on March 17, 1846, this line was met with cheers. No wonder: Italy, as anyone familiar with it knows, is a universe unto itself.
It is impossible to tell just one story about Italy, and somehow harder still to capture the feeling of being there. But in the past decade, our writers have done their best. They’ve cycled the sun-soaked towns of Puglia and dived deep in Genoa for l’unico vero basilico al mondo—the only true basil in the world. Some have slipped into hidden ateliers in Naples for a tailor-made suit. Others have visited Calabria to cook like their grandmothers.
Like so many of you, we return to Italy, again and again. But in a time when we can’t readily hop on a plane and visit the country, it is our hope that these stories help take you there. Happy reading. —The Editors
Food and Drink
Into the Vines: The Story of Sicily’s Top Winemakers
Why we love it: Gabrielle Hamilton had us at Blood, Bones & Butter, her raw and honest memoir that traces her love affair with cooking. In the following story, she layers her beautiful prose onto Sicilian vineyards and admits that even she—a famous chef in New York City—sometimes gets intimidated by wine.
From the story: “Can you imagine the wine made by a man who loves the local, plain Sicilian village girls with moustaches, who drives the tractor, who stays up until 2 o’clock in the morning harvesting? Can you imagine the wine made by the man a few mountaintops away who just hooked and released a 30-pound tuna, who has stunning ripe, pregnant fruit literally weighing down his vines and a staff that dates back generations to tend to them? Or the wine from two friendly brothers who rake everything into pristine stainless steel tanks, flanked by computers and powerful cleaning hoses and glass beakers, with a few slices of soppressata and fresh bread spread out on the table amid the notebooks? To finally meet these people is to finally understand that what is in the bottle is a direct expression of who puts it in the bottle.”
Where to Find Italy’s Best Bolognese
Why we love it: Any Italian worth their salt will know that ragù is only paired with tagliatelle. This is one of the many maxims that writer David Farley learned on his quest to find the best Bolognese sauce in Italy (which, it turns out, is in Bologna).
From the story: “How anyone started eating the tomato-laced meat sauce with spaghetti instead of the long, more rectangular tagliatelle is anyone’s guess. The first published recipe for ragù with tagliatelle appeared in 1868. An 1891 cookbook opened the door to lasagna and other maccheroni (handmade pasta). But if you were sitting across from a guy named Serrazanetti, which translates as “testicle crusher” in an old Emilian dialect, you’d obey his rule of Bolognese.”
In Milan, Pastry Chefs Are Reclaiming Italy’s Traditional Christmas Cake
Why we love it: Ahh, panettone: The fruitcake we all love to hate on. But writer Serena Renner’s dive into the Milanese bakers reviving the 15-century bread is a sweet reminder to set our preconceptions aside. She practically dares us not to crave this new panettone, a version that’s “pillowy and sweet, laced with high-quality vanilla, raisins, and chunks of candied citrus.”
From the story: “The industrial panettone that most of us have come to know, and regift, grew out of a rivalry between two Milanese bakers, Angelo Motta and Gino Alemagna. ‘At the beginning of the 1950s, there was a panettone, either Motta or Alemagna, on every Italian Christmas table,’ says Stanislao Porzio, author of Il Panettone, the most complete book on the subject. ‘The Italians divided their loyalties between the two companies as if they were choosing between two soccer teams.’”
The Untapped Region Where Italy’s Oldest Culinary Traditions Live On
Why we love it: When asked by her cab driver why she’s visiting Umbria, writer Lindsey Tramuta struggles to articulate her curiosity—at first. But as she travels through the countryside, meeting the olive growers, winemakers, and truffle hunters guarding an ancient way of life, she paints a picture of the simple, yet rich, Umbrian life. By the end of her visit, her reasons are clear.
From the story: “A silence fell across the group as we stared at the family land—a patchwork of 4,000 olive trees, vines, and prairies—as though to embed the memory of the sight forever. Elisa pointed out nearby towns and the long-lived olive trees within view, some nearly 100 years old.
‘Like this one,’ she said, turning her heels in the damp earth and directing our attention to one such relic looming large behind us. Dangling from half of the branches were black moraiolo olives, one of three varieties grown in Umbria. The trunk was thick and strong but faded in color in some spots and covered with moss in others, visibly marked by nature’s wear. ‘It’s rare to see such trees,’ she said, breaking the collective silence. ‘There’s usually a deep frost every 30 years that kills them off.’ This one had held on.”
This Might Be the Best Reason to Visit Rome During Spring
Why we love it: Susan Van Allen’s meditation on Rome’s artichoke obsession reads, at times, like a bodice-ripper (see excerpt below). There’s drama and history, forbidden love, and ultimately, a deeper connection between woman and vegetable—in this case, served in all its fried, flowery glory.
From the story: “As I peruse the menu, Augusto D’Alfonsi, the restaurant’s owner for 40 years, approaches my table, holding up the pride of Rome’s spring season: an artichoke. ‘This is a gift from God,’ D’Alfonsi says, stroking the artichoke’s stem as though it’s the thigh of a lovely signorina. ‘Carciofi, carciofi...,’ he sighs: car-CHO-fee, car-CHO-fee. Inspired, I order an antipasto of carciofi alla Giudia, an artichoke that has been flattened and deep-fried, transformed into a crisp, golden flower.”
The One Place You Need to Try Italy’s Special Sauce
Why we love it: There’s pesto and then there’s pesto. Writer Colman Andrews goes to the ancient Italian city of Genoa to taste the real thing, and he brings back a recipe that we can recreate at home. Buon appetito, quarantiners!
From the story: “Though now found everywhere in Italy (and the world), pesto all but defines this ancient metropolis. Thus the Genovese are simply safeguarding their patrimony when they announce, as they do rather frequently, that the only basil fit for pesto is that grown on the Liguria coast or in one of the urbanized agricultural communities that surround the city—Prà, Pegli, Palmaro, and Voltri—or in the backyard gardens or window boxes of Genoa itself. It’s a question of soil, climate, and farming methods, they say—of what the French call terroir. What comes out of the ground here is l’unico vero basilico al mondo, the only true basil in the world.”
Arts and Culture
Are We Loving Venice to Death?
Why we love it: Writer Anya Von Bremzen travels to the northern Italian city to suss out the realities beyond the alarming headlines. What she discovers about sustainability and responsibility in the “flickering dream of a city” will have you booking your next plane ticket.
From the story: “‘The Venice of to-day,’ wrote Henry James back in 1882, ‘is a vast museum . . . and you march through the institution with a herd of fellow-gazers.’
Ah, Henry, Henry. If you only knew.
A century and a half after James wrote those words, some 30 million visitors overwhelm La Serenissima each year. Its resident population meanwhile has shrunk to fewer than 53,000, from a peak of 175,000 in 1951. Mammoth cruise ships damage its centuries-old foundations and its fragile lagoon, and there is even talk of putting up permanent turnstiles for Piazza San Marco, Italy’s most iconic square. And yet there I was last fall, trundling a suitcase into a ‘real,’ living, uncrowded Venice.”
Dance of the Spider Women
Why we love it: In a forgotten corner of Italy, a mystical musical tradition called pizzica lives on. Legend has it that the music originated with women who had been bitten by tarantulas and would dance in circles and stomp their feet until the “episode” subsided. Writer Laura Fraser travels to Salento for the story and comes away “bitten” by the sights and sounds of the Notte della Tarantula—Night of the Tarantula—festival.
From the story: “The road that runs down through Salento, a region in the heel of Italy’s boot, is almost completely deserted at night. I am driving to a folk concert with two Italian friends, and we pass only a few sleepy villages, many gnarled olive trees, and scarcely another car along the way. When we reach the town of Alessano, situated a few kilometers from the point where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet at the tip of the peninsula, we park on a narrow cobblestone street. No one is out, and the air is dry and hot. The place seems scrubbed bare of inhabitants. We trudge up a hill, round a corner, and then—a blaze of light. Before us, the central piazza is packed with thousands of people. The crowd stretches from the town’s ornate neo-Gothic church to the clock tower, everyone staring up at the brightly lit stage.”
The Best Way to Explore Puglia, Italy’s Unspoiled Province
Why we love it: Paul Greenberg and his friend, David, cycled across Portugal in their 20s and around Crete in their 30s. In this story, they take their bikes to Puglia, where they roll through medieval towns, olive groves, and landscapes rich with red poppies and the scent of honeysuckle. Of course, they slow down to eat, too.
From the story: “Puglia is a place where roads have a tendency to end. Even the Romans brought the Appian Way only as far as Brindisi and then told their slaves to stop rolling boulders. “Lu sule, lu mare, lu ientu” goes the saying in one of the dozens of local dialects: the sun, the sea, the wind. These are the things that concern the Pugliese. These and an endlessly bountiful land. Imagine a terrain flat as Iowa’s but girded by beautiful seas and worked not by agribusiness but by families growing dozens of grape varietals, 200 kinds of figs, and more olives than you can shake a branch at. This sleepy, end-of-the-road quality has been Puglia’s defining characteristic well into the modern era.”
New Home, New Hope: How a Wave of Refugees Is Reshaping Sardinia
Why we love it: In Sardinia, where indigenous language and idiosyncratic culinary traditions remain, Chris Colin reports on how the island is being reshaped by the migrants and refugees landing on its shores. It’s at once a vivid portrait of place and a different sort of travel story altogether.
From the story: “The farmhouse in Nuoro was old and the wind-whipped olive trees were old. The wine bottles on the old windowsill were old, and the cat lounging below was not old but the dust on his coat was. The fading afternoon light made the hills an old orange, a hue that conveyed centuries, one generation after the next walking the same little road to the same little school, boiling pasta at the same fireplace, discussing their days at the same old dinner table. Soon the farmer who lived here was bringing me salami at one of those old tables. Nothing changes on this part of the island. Now that’s changing, the farmer said.”
How Archaeology Showed Me a Different Side of Italy
Why we love it: Writer Sara Button has been to Italy as several iterations of herself: as an insecure teenager seeing the country up close for the first time while on family vacation; as a curious study abroad student. As a wife, makeshift farmhand, and solo traveler. But in her mind, she returns there most often as an archaeologist. In this essay, she shares how digging in the dirt outside Orvieto helped her feel connected to the town’s past—and present.
From the story: “Once upon a time, summer for me meant the uncovering of ancient things. Bones and rocks and, if we were lucky, coins or mosaics or religious offerings. It meant long days under the sun, carting around wheelbarrows and perfecting our trowel technique. Back then, I was part of an international group of archaeologists and students working at a field school outside the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto. Most participants were Italian. Some, like me, were American; the few years I dug, there were small contingents of Dutch and Swiss, too. We’d work for four- or eight-week sessions to excavate a site hypothesized to be the Fanum Voltumnae—the most important religious and political sanctuary of the pre-Roman Etruscan civilization.”
In Naples’s Hidden Ateliers, Tailor-Made Style Survives
Why we love it: Tom Downey’s story about getting a tailor-made suit from Naples’s disappearing ateliers is about more than that: At its heart, it speaks to a place where there’s profound continuity in cuisine, coffee, shirts, ties, and suits—all thanks to the city’s reputation as a dirty and dangerous place, which has allowed it to avoid the whims and pressures of the tourist market.
From the story: “I started my hunt for Naples’s artisanal tailors by talking to the city’s taxi drivers. They were so acutely focused on fleecing me, I thought they might unconsciously reveal some local secrets. A working knowledge of strip joints and after-hours clubs is, of course, essential for any self-respecting taxi driver, but why would they know anything about bespoke suiting? Because, I learned after a few rides, many of them hail from the same place such suits are made, the back alleys of the Quartieri Spagnoli. It’s what Neapolitans call a popular (that is, working-class) district, situated right in the heart of the city.”
Family and Memory
How an American Learned to Summer Vacation Like a True Italian
Why we love it: For Lucas Mann, this summer vacation in Italy doesn’t involve the Colosseum, Pompeii, or the Vatican: It mostly consists of a bright beach in the mornings, two-hour lunches with his wife’s Italian family, afternoon naps, and dinners at 8 p.m., sharp. It’s la dolce vita, via the page.
From the story: “We came to Italy not to gawk at the ancient, but to reach out, one last time, to the recent past. My wife had reiterated this every time we told friends about our trip, a weird, apologetic explanation for what seemed to everyone like a bit of a waste. We were traveling a long way to see something ostensibly common. Silvi is in the Abruzzo region, and though Abruzzo is as fertile and naturally stunning a region as exists in Europe, it’s hard to find someone out of the country who can say much about it. It is not a destination that international travelers flock to; it is simply a place where people live and, come June, where masses of city-dwelling middle-class Italian families converge to start a very particular routine all over again. The family’s routine was nonnegotiable.”
A Trip to Rome Brought My Mom Back to Life
Why we love it: Natalie Beauregard’s article doesn’t gloss over the doubts, fumbles, or miscommunications that are part of every trip. The story doubles back to revisit the Rome she’d experienced independently as a student, then alongside her visiting mother, then again, years after her mother’s death. Through food, wine, magnificent vistas, and giddy nighttime visits to piazzas, Natalie finds a sweet spot where time overlaps.
From the story: “I cried at the check-in desk when the British Airways woman told me that both of my carefully packed suitcases were overweight. I cried at the gate when I temporarily misplaced my passport. And I cried at my apartment on the outskirts of Trastevere when I had no idea where I was or how to get to my school. Then I called my mom. She told me to get a map and figure it out.”
Why Did I Bring a Teenager to Venice?
Why we love it: Most parents have the luxury of a long runway before meeting the challenge of parenting teenagers. Emma John, without the benefit of such conditioning, volunteers to take the 13-year-old daughter of a friend to Venice, which she herself first visited as a young teenager. The stage is set then for a story marked by layers of history and memory, but Emma’s delicious tone, sharp observations about tourism, and true warmth for her companion elevate the proceedings to something unpredictable. As the two wander the watery city, they are surprised to glimpse their own reflections in antiquated guidebooks, the canal waters, and each other.
From the story: “...For all of us, this was one of the most memorable trips of our lives, a heady cultural hit laced with an intoxicating freedom from normal parental controls, aided by some of the most eccentric chaperoning the city had seen. A twist of luck landed us in a 17th-century palazzo in the heart of Venice. The furniture, all antique, was defended against the arrival of a 13-year-old and two 11-year-olds with not-to-be-removed plastic sheeting, and the three of us slept together in an enormous four-poster bed. One night, as we slipped under the duvet, we heard a singing gondolier. With one mind, we leaped from the bed, threw on our shoes, and, led all the way by Annie, chased the sound down the alleyways of the San Marco district. Rushing onto a bridge, we watched the operatic operator glide beneath us. All four in our pajamas.”
A Quest to Cook Like My Grandma Led Me to an Italy Most Travelers Miss
Why we love it: Freda Moon’s story does not tell tales of Michelin-starred dining rooms or sumptuous hotel rooms, though her albergi and agriturismi sound divine. Instead, this piece is about people, real food, and finding raw beauty in rugged surroundings: On a journey to visit her grandmother’s Calabria with her husband and toddler in tow, she shows us the best kind of family travel, where one is both learning and teaching without trying too hard (and also eating extraordinary meals).
From the story: “That night, for our 10-year wedding anniversary, Tim and I sat outside in the albergo’s enclosed stone patio, where Gabriella cooked in the open kitchen and Luciana entertained Roxie. There was a warm, dry wind that made my skin feel as though it had been soaking in clay. There were fresh anchovies, clean and delicately seasoned, a fried doughnut filled with salty anchovy paste, bread topped with rosamarina—the spicy, briny newborn anchovies that had initially drawn me to Calabria—and a basket of fried zucchini flowers, the dish Grandma Maria made whenever we visited her during my childhood summers.”
Italy Up Close
Why we love it: Travel magazines often dispatch photographers and models to perfectly engineer a vision of a destination they’re covering—we’ve all seen the pretty young woman in a $1,200 sundress tossing a come-hither look over her shoulder as she walks down a sunny, cobbled street. Piero Percoco’s candid photos of Puglia residents enjoying summertime throw the idealized-travel trope aside and replace it with the real. Bravissimo!
From the story: “It was a certain type of noncommercial tourism,” says the self-taught photographer of documenting the quotidian details in his village, Sannicandro di Bari in Puglia. “Not just the postcard-perfect places. There are so many beautiful things that go unnoticed.”