As you may have seen recently via email, I was fortunate to be selected to speak on a panel at the New York Times Travel Show earlier this month with several other Italian travel specialist:
Kathy McCabe from the Dream of Italy magazine
Steve Perillo of Perillo Tours
Dominic Siano of Tour Italy now
In "How to Plan a Luxurious (But Affordable) Italian Vacation," Susan Van Allen, a friend and author of "100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go" and "Letters from Italy," moderated a panel of experts to help travelers enjoy Italian luxury without breaking the bank.
To be completely honest, I was very nervous beforehand. Though I've been leading tours for decades, that's different than sitting, facing a group of people you don't know at all, and hoping they're interested in what you're saying!
I ended up being very surprised though, because the other panelists didn't have a lot to say and ended up taking notes on what I was saying (!). In particular, I talked about the kind of experiences that a travel specialist can arrange for you through the people they know in Italy that can really add a sense of luxury to your experience even without an over-the-top price tag.
Whether you plan it into your budget or not. Whether you bring a big enough suitcase or not. Whether you set aside time in your itinerary or not.
Shopping in Italy is kind of inevitable.
You may end up with a suitcase full of gourmet goodies or wine bottles (here’s how to pack them), housewares or high fashion. But first you have to navigate the cultural nuances of shopping in Italy.
Opening and Closing Times
Shops open on the later side, often around 10 am. Most non-chain shops, boutiques and handicraft shops close for an extended lunch from 12:30 or 1pm to 3 or 4 pm. In small towns, absolutely everything will close.
In major city centers, most things stay upon through the lunch break. Stores, even in smaller towns, are open later to compensate, usually till around 7:30 or 8 pm.
Trying Things On
When you arrive, you must say hello (buongiorno during the day and buona sera in the afternoon) to start a respectful relationship with the shop keeper. Otherwise they will find you very rude.
You, on the other hand, might find it rude when salespeople come into your dressing room while you’re trying things on to help you squeeze into a tight pair of jeans. Salespeople in Italy are very hands on, but it is just because they are passionate about helping you find something you like.
Buying and Exchanging
Commas replace a periods on price tags, and tax is already included. You can’t pay anything that is less than EU10 or 20 Euros with a credit card. Always bring cash with you for the smaller purchases.
Credit cards are not widely accepted, but bring your passport or another photo ID if you plan to make a large purchase with your credit card. Many stores will send you away if you are not able to provide photo ID with your credit card.
Be very confident before you purchase anything, because store exchanges essentially don’t exist.
After a meal in Italy, you may be offered the ubiquitous grappa or limoncello as a digestif. And if you eat Italian at in the U.S., you may find a dessert wine like Moscato on the menu. But like most things in Italy, the best treasures are local specialties.
I’m particularly fond of ending my meal with dessert wines called vini di meditazione, literally meditation wine, often called “a sweet wine for pensive moments.” Its the perfect way to contemplate the flavors of your meal, the meandering threads of long Italian post-dinner conversation, and your gorgeous surroundings.
Made for sipping slowly, these wines aren’t just sweet, they burst with aromas both strong and varied, due to their production from grapes that remain on the vine longer than most and a prolonged aging period.
One of the best things about these wines is that though they are typically saved for after the meal they pair with everything. Offer them with cheese instead of an aperitivo or prosecco. Or try them with spicy food, as they hold up excellently against strong spices and piquant flavors.
Since these wines can be extremely difficult to find in the U.S., they are definitely worth bringing home.
Here are some of my favorites:
Passito from Pantelleria The Passito from Pantelleria, with a nearly 3000-year history dating back to an ancient grape from Carthage, is one of the most famous vini di meditazione. Intense aromas of apricot and peach along with a thick fig taste make it the perfect pairing for the local fruits in Sicily, where the wine is produced.
Schiaccetra from the Cinque Terre When you hike the sentieri (mountain trekking routes) in the Cinque Terre and spy row after row of grape vines precariously ordered along the steep clips, you understand why Schiaccetra is so precious. Like many Italian dessert wines (passiti), Schiaccetra is made from raisinated grapes. The Schiaccetra from Buranco in Monterosso was served when the G8 summit was held in Italy in 2011.
Malvasia from Lipari Malvasia is a versatile grape cultivated all around the Mediterranean and fermented on its own or with other grapes, sometimes into the Tuscan Vin Santo. But the variety from Lipari, a Aeolian Island off of Sicily, is one of the most distinct, with an eerie orange flavor and incredible richness due to the volcanic soil in which it is produced.
Sagrantino Passito from Montefalco, Umbria For decades, the deep, inky purple Sagrantino grape was only used to make this passito, but in recent years the dry Sagrantino has become one of the most sought after Italian red wines. Unlike other passiti, the Sagrantino passito is a dark wine, with a thick syrupy look like blueberry pancake syrup.
Ramandolo from Friuli Venezia Giulia This unusual vino di meditazione is not nearly as sweet as its counterparts and has a color that verges more towards copper than the usually golden hue. Made from the northern Verduzzo grape, Ramandolo is reminiscent of an Austrian dessert wine due to the northern clime in which it grows.
Read more about my favorite Italian souvenirs in this month’s Little Black Book: