Italy has only been a country since 1871. Before that, the boot-shaped peninsula was made up of separate territories such as the Papal States, the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Despite its young age – and its relative size – Italy has made a big impression on the international stage. We take a pitstop tour of some of the bel paese’s most memorable features.
Pizza may be one of Italy’s greatest success stories but there’s not actually one standard, national pizza recipe. Probably the most famous is the pizza napoletana with its soft, chewy dough and prominent crust. Neapolitan pizza-making is so unique it’s even been recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage. Meanwhile, Romans make their pizza flat and crispy, Sicilians go thick and fluffy, and Apulians fry small pockets of dough known as panzerotti.
The other headliner in Italy’s culinary line-up is pasta. Fresh or dried, stuffed or coated with sauce, each region has its own way of cooking it. Aside for countless different shapes and recipes, there is also a number of rules dictating what you shouldn’t do. For example, don’t eat pasta with chicken, don’t overcook it and definitely don’t use ketchup as a sauce.
Like yellow taxis and New York or red double-decker buses and London, Vespas are synonymous with Italy. Invented in 1946, this sexy scooter became an icon thanks to a number of appearances on the silver screen. After Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita toured Italy’s streets on Vespas, audiences couldn’t resist doing the same. Now, over 18 million models have been sold.
Italy’s first internationally recognised fashion show took place in Florence in 1951. These days though, Milan is considered Italy’s main sartorial hub and the city’s high-end shopping district, known as the Quadrilatero d’Oro, is home to some of the world’s biggest luxury brands. Prada, Gucci, Versace, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Valentino are all headquartered there.
Italy’s contribution to the art world is immeasurable. Works by Giotto, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Titian, Caravaggio and Bernini are among the most recognisable and most celebrated in the world. Not just limited to paintings and sculptures in museums, artistic wonders can be found everywhere in Italy – in churches, castles, historical residences – and in the architecture of the country itself.
Italy is the birthplace of some of the world’s most famous car brands, including Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Lamborghini and Maserati. Italian automotive design is coveted by petrolheads the world over for its beauty, exclusivity and performance. Take Ferrari, for example – the company began as a race car manufacturer in 1939 and is now the gold standard for aspirational autos. In 2012 they sold just 8,000 cars but made record net profits of €537 million (£484.5 million).
Italians like to let their hands do the talking and, according to one study, there are around 250 gestures used in everyday conversation. Swipe the fingers outwards from under the chin to say ‘I couldn’t care less’ or pinch the fingers together and move the hand up and down to say ‘what are you talking about?’
Football, or il calcio, is taken very seriously in Italy. Teams from the top league, Serie A, attract some of the world’s best (and most well-paid) players, while the national team, known as the azzurri, have won the World Cup four times. Their 2018 defeat against Sweden was met with disbelief and marked the first time in 40 years they failed to qualify for the tournament.
Amerigo Vespucci, Marco Polo, John Cabot and, the most famous explorer of all, Christopher Columbus, all hailed from Italy. The Italians played a big part in the Age of Discovery, exploring the world in search of trade, wealth and knowledge. Though Columbus was born in the Republic of Genova he sailed on behalf of Spain.
Yes, ‘gelato’ is the Italian word for ice cream but no, the two are not the same thing. Gelato is lower in fat, has less air in it and is served at a slightly higher temperature. As a result, the Italian treat is silkier, softer and more flavoursome. Italian gelato is literally the best in the world and you can even study it at university.