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|| News Item: Posted 2006-01-25

Sports Shooter's Guide to Italy: Culture, Language and Food
By Michael P. King, Ohio University

(EDITORS NOTE: Please click on the following link to hear Michael's Podcast about Italy:

Photo by Michael P. King

Photo by Michael P. King

Neopolitan pizza margherita.
"You may have the universe if I may have Italy." - Giuseppe Verdi

I'm Italian.

I think "Buongiorno" is more eloquent than, "Hello"…
… I like my pasta al dente
…. and I tend to talk with my hands.

Alright, fine… I'm only a quarter Italian… but it's the part of my heritage I have always identified with the most. I studied the language and culture for five years and had a chance to visit a handful of Italian towns and cities. Italy and its culture are absolutely beautiful… Bella Italia... those of you traveling to the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino are in for a real treat.

But with any foreign assignment, I think it's important to be culturally aware and sensitive as "the guest." It makes communicating with the locals (and understanding them) easier, and it can ultimately help your photographic coverage. That's my mission with this article: to help you be culturally aware and comfortable so you can do your job better and have a great time, too.

The Culture and Daily Life
I will spare you a long, boring lesson, but it's important to know that history - the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance - shaped much of Italian and European culture (especially the arts and sciences).

The population of Italy is over 55 million. In recent years, immigration from several countries has been ballooning that figure. Roman Catholicism is the most popular religion with about 85percent of Italians claiming it as their faith, and around 30% are considered practicing Catholics. Fact: Vatican City is not a city at all, nor a district… it is a sovereign state, an enclave, really, within the city of Rome.

It's important, as with any culture, not to over-generalize people. Many of our preconceptions of Italian culture are based on media portrayal of Italian-Americans. Italians in many ways are as diverse as we are. Geographically, within Italy there are regions, and within the regions are provinces. Culture can vary widely among these areas.

The City of Torino is situated in northwestern Italy in the province of Torino, and is the main city of the region of Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian). The Alps mountain range is to the north and west. The hills of Monferrato are to the south. The Po River flows eastward through Torino. The region is both agricultural and industrial. Because of its geography, there is emphasis on nature preservation and enjoyment of the outdoors. Piedmont borders Switzerland and France so there are certainly some Swiss and French influences on the culture (read on).

Italy has several daily newspapers (daily newspaper = "giornale" in Italian). The Corriere Della Sera (Evening Mail), published in Milan, and the left-oriented paper, La Repubblica, of Rome are the leading national newspapers. La Stampa, is the "giornale" published in Torino. ANSA, a cooperative somewhat similar to The Associated Press, is the principal news agency.

Photo by Michael P. King

Photo by Michael P. King

Gnocchi al pesto with fagioli (beans).
Lunch ("pranzo" in Italian) is the most important meal in Italian life, and not just because it is the largest meal of the day. Usually after 1p.m., Italians will break from work for a few hours to go home, eat their midday meal and relax for a bit. It is not a fiesta or siesta… those are of Spanish origin. Just call it "pranzo."

Italians use the 24-hour clock, the Euro for money, and electricity is 220V at 50Hz. Ensure that your ATM card is linked to a checking or credit account. I had a rough time once when my card (linked to a simple savings account) was not recognized by any ATMs in Italy. It sucked.

A new smoking ban was adopted in Italy in 2005. Although it's not strictly enforced at all, look out for the no-smoking signs if you are a smoker. They look like American signs, often accompanied by "Vietato Fumare." The ban requires establishments to prohibit smoking unless they can provide a sealed-off smoking room with ventilation.

Vino: Italy is the second largest producer of wine in the world. Italian sparkling wine, depending on its pressure, is known as "spumante" (full sparkling) or "frizzante" (semi-sparkling). Piedmont is a major wine-producing region, so give the regional wines a try. Limoncello, a liqueur, is just plain tasty. Made from lemon rinds, alcohol, sugar and water, it is sold around 60 proof (homemade batches are often more potent). Moretti and Peroni are two common Italian beers. Wine or liqueur at the table is considered customary. However, as the legal BAC limit is just 0.05, and responsible consumption is valued. It's more cultural than legal, though.

I'll admit that I'm not too fashionable… fashion just isn't my thing. I may not be able to dress myself, but I do know that Italy is a center for fashion. Milan, about 86mi/139km east of Torino, is the second largest city in Italy and is considered a center for fashion and design. Auto manufacturing companies such as Alfa Romeo, and Bugatti are also found here. Via Montenapoleone is the center of Milan's fashion district. In case you go south to Rome, the streets Via Condotti and Via del Corso near the Spanish Steps are where many Italians and tourists, alike, choose to purchase their chic threads and treads.

Photo by Michael P. King

Photo by Michael P. King

Linguine al pomodoro e parmigiano.
The clothing products to buy in Italy are leather and silk products like leather jackets, boots, and purses, and silk ties and lace gloves. Porcelain products (not toilets!) and cameo jewelry are also popular items to purchase. Price bargaining is acceptable with street vendors but not shop owners, especially in the big cities. It is okay to simply ask a storeowner if there is a discount. If not, accept it, move on, and don't be rude about it.

Cinema has always been popular with the Italians and they have yielded some great films, actors, actresses and filmmakers. Marcello Mastroianni, Sofia Loren, and directors DeSica, Fellini, and Tornatore to name just a few… they are all so talented. Some must-see Italian movies that will enlighten you to more Italian culture are:

La Dolce Vita (1960, a true classic)
Roma Citta Aperta
Ladri di Biciclette
Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (1989, a personal favorite)
La Vita é Bella (1997, three Oscars don't lie)

Despite his goofy smile and mannerisms, Roberto Benigni is outrageously funny in Johnny Stecchino and Il Mostro. The Internet Movie Database ( is a good resource.

Theft, specifically pick-pocketing, can be a problem for travelers in Italy, and with the world converging on Torino, I would expect such problems to worsen. In a town square, called a "piazza," street vendors can be very aggressive in selling their product. Public transportation also has its risks. Use common sense and don't make yourself a target. If you can, minimize the amount of money and photo equipment you carry with you when you're out on the town. Attempt to create the appearance that you know where you are and where you're going. Knowing the language helps, too… don't hesitate to firmly say "Vai via!" to someone hassling you. It means "go away." Another trick I've heard of is to carry the local giornale under your arm or place one on the dash of your rental car.

If you choose to drive a car in Italy, you will need an international permit, which you can get at your local AAA. A very comprehensive resource on driving in Italy is:

And for the record, F.I.A.T. does not stand for Fix it Again Tony. When translated it means Italian-made automobiles of Torino.

The Language
Italian, naturally, is the official language of Italy. Yeah, the English language is spreading around the world, and undoubtedly, there will be multilingual folks in Torino to help you, but you will want to know some of the language so you can get by on your own.

Here are two websites I found that offer great comprehensive lists of very basic phrases in Italian. These will be very helpful if you commit some to memory.

Photo by Michael P. King

Photo by Michael P. King

"Pranzo"... lunch... is a meal, but in Italy it is a way of life.
(You should be aware that there are formal and informal ways of speaking with people in Italian. This is explained on the first webpage. If you don't know the person, have just met them, or want to show respect and cordiality, you should use the formal version of the phrase.)

Here are some additional vocabulary words geared towards our line of work that you might find useful or just fun to know. Brand names (for example: Canon, Nikon, Fuji, and Kodak) remain unchanged. Since you are photographing winter sports which involve snow and ice, a few weather terms are included, too:

Note: A majority of Italians should be able to understand this standard Italian, even though they may use a northern, Gallo-Italic, or Milanese regional dialect in Piedmont.

Your gear:
the camera = la macchina fotografica (pl: le macchine fotografiche)
the camera body = il corpo (pl: i corpi)
the digital camera = la macchina fotografica digitale (pl: le macchine fotografiche digitali)
the film = la pellicola (pl: le pellicole)
the (roll of) film = il rullino (pl: i rullini)
the lens = l'obiettivo (pl: gli obiettivi)
the battery = la pila (pl: le pile)
it's broken (physically) = é rotto
it's broken (nonfunctional) = non funziona (pl: non funzionano)

Your photos:
the photo = la foto[grafia] (pl: le foto[grafie])
to take a photo = fare una foto
to take photos = fare fotografie
the light = la luce
terrible = terribile
great = fantastico
there is = c'é
too much = troppo
more = più
less = meno
I need = ho bisogno di…
it needs = ____ ha bisogno di…
red = rosso
green = verde
blue = blu
cyan = ciano
magenta = [rosso] magenta
yellow = giallo
black = nero
white = bianco
midtones = midtone

Your Computer:
the computer = il computer
the screen = lo schermo
the hard drive = il disco rigido
the discs/cards = i dischi / le memory card
the cable/cord = il cavo
the internet = internet
the electrical wall outlet = la presa [elettrica] a muro

Photo by Michael P. King

Photo by Michael P. King

Rigatoni all'amatriciana is just a bit spicy.
The Olympic Events (if differing from English name):
Alpine Skiing = Sci Alpino
Bobsleigh = Bob
Cross-country Skiing = Sci di Fondo
Figure Skating = Pattinaggio di Figura / Pattinaggio Artistico
Freestyle Skiing = Freestyle
Ice Hockey = Hockey Su Ghiaccio
Nordic Combined = Combinata Nordica
Short Track Speed Skating = Short Track
Ski Jumping = Salto
Speed Skating = Pattinaggio di Velocitá

The Weather = Il tempo
the snow = la neve
the ice = lo ghiaccio
It's cold! = É freddo!
the gloves = I guanti

Let's put it all together:
Where is the bathroom? = Dov'é il bagno?
Where is the ski jumping competition? = Dov'é la gara di salto?
I am going to the Riberi Media Village. = Vado al villagio media Riberi.
Is it alright to take photos here? = Si possono fare fotografie qui?
Take a picture of me! = Mi faccia una foto!
May I take a photo of you? = Posso farle una foto? (this is a formal phrase)
Where's the power outlet? = Dov'é la presa elettrica?
It's really cold. = É freddissimo!
There's too much cyan in this photo. = C'é troppo ciano in questa foto.
S***! My CF cards don't work! = Merda! Le mie memory card non funzionano!
The damn ref's in my way! = L'arbitro é in mezzo ai piedi!

Italians have their way of saying, "Excuse me." If you learn but one "snippet" of Italian, learn the different contexts for the different "Excuse me" expressions. It's on the second basic-phrases website above.

The Food
Italy - the land of spaghetti and meatballs, right? You'll be pleasantly surprised to find how unlimited your eating options really are. Good, authentic food in Italy is worth its weight in gold. If at all possible, don't waste your time or money going to a fast-food restaurant… you will feel super-silly going to McDonald's… trust me. Grab your grub at the market, bar or panificio, or if you have the time, a sit-down trattoria.

We'll start with the two biggies: pizza and pasta.

There are two types of pizzerias. One, called "pizza al taglio" (literally "cut pizza"), sells pizza by the slice. The second type is more classic and enjoyable, with tables and chairs, serving individual-sized pizzas. Not all pizzerias are created equal, however. Word-of-mouth is usually the best advertising. Sometimes, the better pizzerias are found in residential areas or city outskirts.

Neapolitan-style pizza is a real treat. It is oven fired, featuring a light, airy crust, and is somewhat thin. Tomato sauce is usually more "tomatoey" than saucy, and the mozzarella is usually buffalo mozzarella. It's good stuff! Below are some very common varieties widely sold at all pizzerias, but there are several custom varieties, varying pizzeria-to-pizzeria, town-to-town, and region-to-region.

Photo by Michael P. King

Photo by Michael P. King

"You may have the universe, if I may have Italy.” – Giuseppe Verdi. Wedding photos commence in the garden of a hotel in Sorrento, Italy.
Pizza Marinara: tomato and garlic only.
Pizza Margherita: fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella, and a fresh basil leaf.
Pizza Napoletana: tomato, mozzarella, anchovies, and capers
Pizza Quattro Stagioni (four seasons): tomato, mozzarella, olives, mushrooms, artichoke, and ham.
Pizza Capricciosa (kitchen sink): just about everything mentioned above, and more.

Pasta, sometimes called "pastasciutta" in Italy, should be cooked al dente - literally meaning "a bit hard" and not sticking together. There are endless pasta shapes, so sauces are what I will focus on. However, gnocchi are worthy of mention, because they are technically not pasta. Gnocchi, usually served with a sauce, are very small dumplings made with potato, semolina and flour. Below are some sauces you can choose to go with your pasta, in increasing order of boldness. As with pizza, there are many variations.

Cream-base sauces:
-Alla Carbonara: bacon or ham/prosciutto, eggs, cream, and sometimes onions (knocks the socks off alfredo, which you will be very hard-pressed to find in Italy)
-Al pesto: crushed basil, pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan and/or aged pecorino cheese.

Tomato-base sauces:
-Pomodoro e parmigiano: most simple tomato sauce
-Alla Bolognese: tomato, beef, onion, garlic, and often some other vegetables
-All'Amatriciana: tomato, cubed pancetta (cured pork), olive oil, red hot pepper.
-Alla Puttanesca: tomato, anchovies, olives, capers, garlic, red hot pepper.

You would be remiss not to get a gelato at every chance… Italian ice cream is simply, the bomb. Caesar salad was not created by or for Julius Ceasar, and it is technically not Italian. Anise is sometimes used in Italian cooking. It has a taste similar to black-licorice. Some people like it, others despise of it. "Anice" is the Italian word; so don't be shy about asking if a dish contains it. The wide use and availability of fresh vegetables and fruits are really something to take advantage of.

Regional: In Piedmont, you can expect some regional specialties such as trout, risotto (rice), "pollo" (chicken), beef, and veal. You can expect beef to be safe and free from disease, as Italy has one of the lowest incidence rates in Europe. Peppers and artichokes are sometimes used in regional cooking. Gianduiotto is a world famous chocolate produced in Torino.

Conclusion: What I've written here, despite its lengthiness, can only guide you so well and it's really no substitute for real-life experience. If you can, in your spare time, try new things and meet new people if your desire is to really experience Italy. After all, as Mohandas Gandhi said, "A nation's culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people."

(Feel free to contact the author about the Italian culture, language and food. Michael P. King is an undergraduate student at Ohio University's School of Visual Communication. You can view his recent work at his member gallery: To listen to a podcast of this article:

Related Links:
King's member page

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