Map: Italian in Europe

Welcome to La prof’s blog, originally developed as a companion to  Piazza Nostra: The Italian Learning Experience, the introductory language textbook and interactive website.

In this blog we’ll explore various facets of Italian language and culture. (For a visual introduction to the language, take a look at the map above. It shows the percentages of populations in Europe who speak italiano– la bella lingua.)

Entries in this blog will provide brief tastes of the incredible “embarrassment of riches” Italians past and present have contributed to the world.




“The 20 Italies”– Introduction to Italy’s 20 Diverse Regions

Satellite image of Italy in March 2003.

Image via Wikipedia

The Italian peninsula is roughly divided into 3 major sections: Northern (l’Italia settentrionale), Central (l’Italia centrale) and Southern (l’Italia meridionale or il Mezzogiorno). Due to its geographic position, each of these sections has been formed and influenced over time by dramatically different peoples and cultures: the North by France and Austria, the South by Spain and Muslim nations, and the Center by the Catholic Church and independent city-states like Florence and Pisa. And the two major islands– Sicily, near Africa, and Sardinia, across from Rome– have been invaded and settled by such diverse peoples as the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Normans, Arabs, Genovese, Pisans, and many, many more….

In fact, even though Italy is smaller than California, it has an incredible diversity of history, culture, language, and cuisine. It is so diverse that it’s often referred to as “the 20 Italies”– because there are 20 regions that make up the country, and each is unique.

While there are many resources available on the Internet, in libraries, and through films to help you become familiar with this rich living heritage, below you will find a few links to help you get started.

The Understanding Italy site has a convenient clickable map featuring the regions. So, for example, if you’re interested in learning more about Calabria or Liguria, just click on that part of the map and you’ll find a quick overview of that region. And, if you click on the navigation bar on the left, you’ll see which regions are associated with which section of the country. (This is important to know, as there is some talk about a proposal to official divide Italy into 2 or 3 separate countries….)

The well-known Frommers Guides provide an overview of the regions most popular with tourists, and which they feature in their tour books.

If you’re a “foodie,” you might want to learn about the different regions through their cuisine. The Life in Italy website has a quick, clear overview of such famous dishes as Risotto Milanese, Polenta, and more. (The link opens to “Italian Regional Specialties: the North,” but you can find the dishes for other regions by clicking on the other “Italian Regional Food” buttons in the left navigation bar.)

Finally, for a fun, offbeat introduction (in Italian, but with photos) to such Italian cultural icons as the cities of Roma, Milano, Como, Perugia, and Padova, you can check out the travels of a Moka (the quintessential Italian coffeepot). The website “Una moka in giro per il mondo” shows the fearless coffeepot enjoying  il Colosseo a Roma and other beautiful places both famous and infamous. (Just click on the hot button that has the city you’re interested in, and you’ll see all of la Moka‘s stops!)


Use these and other resources to learn about the regions and cities your assigned family has a relationship with. Please use the “comment” feature on this blog to share what you’re discovering with the rest of the class– particularly if you find some good websites or other resources about Italy and its regions.

Buon viaggio e buon divertimento!

La cucina italiana– Italian Cuisine: Regional specialties

Troffiette with genovese pesto.

Image via Wikipedia

Traditionally in Italy one says buon appetito! before beginning to eat a meal. This courteous wish for one to enjoy their meal can be literally translated to mean “have a good appetite.” But even if you aren’t hungry, you’re guaranteed to enjoy the dishes before you. This is because Italian food is prepared to be both delizioso to the mouth and appealing to the eye. (In fact there’s a famous saying about food and its presentation: anche l’occhio ha la sua parte! Food is not just for the stomach, but for the eye as well!)

Two of the hallmarks of Italian cuisine are elegant simplicity and high quality. Regardless of location, the freshest ingredients are prepared in such a way as to retain their natural qualities, especially appearance and fresh, distinctive taste. This means that the cooking techniques are usually very simple, and preparation time is relatively short.

Because of the country’s location and history, the cuisine varies dramatically from north to south, east to west. For example, the cuisine of the north is characterized by less use of tomato sauces, pasta, and olive oil, because these types of ingredients do not grow well locally (they need more heat and sun) and there is a strong influence from other countries, like France, which have their own distinctive culinary traditions. So northern dishes use more cream-based sauces (which means more butter, cheeses, or lard in the recipes), and rice or corn. In the north you will therefore find that the majority of primi piatti are not la pasta but rather il risotto and la polenta. And many main dishes– i secondi piatti— feature the diverse wild game found in the plains and mountainous regions of nord Italia. To find out more about northern Italian cuisine, click here.

L’Italia centrale is the part of the peninsula that has provided what the rest of the world considers “real” Italian food: cured meats like il prosciutto, sumptuous olio d’oliva, rich, intensely flavored cheeses like il parmiggiano-reggiano, and fresh, brightly flavored sughi al pomodoro (tomato sauces). For secondi piatti one finds either locally caught seafood in the coastal regions on both the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, or simple but savory beef dishes, such as the world-famous bistecca alla fiorentina. Exploring the culinary cuore (heart) of Italy is a treat, so click here.

L’Italia del sud is renowned for its excellent crops of durum wheat– the essential ingredient of such popular dishes as pizza, foccaccia, and countless varieties of dried and fresh pasta (there are over 165 documented; to find out the various forme— types– click here. Also check out the national pasta museum in Rome). The best olive oil and tomatoes come from southern Italy, because of its abundant sun and unique soils, with the rugged terrain providing a home for flock of sheep and goats, which provide both meat and milk (for cheeses) in a variety of dishes. Since so much of southern Italy is surrounded by water, i frutti di mare (literally fruits of the sea; seafood) play an important role, with anchovies, clams, mussels, tuna, sea urchins, and shrimp being particularly prominent.

The ancient Greeks settled in Sicily and southern Italy, and so there are many Greek influences in the local cuisine. Sicily also had a strong Arab presence for many centuries, so “exotic” spices such as pepper, saffron, clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg are often added to sauces and desserts. Lamb, goat, rabbit, goose, and turkey are popular in main courses, and in the desserts one can find many of the south’s famous agrumi— citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons– as well as pistachio and sugar cane, which were all also introduced to the region by the Arabs. Not surprisingly, la Sicilia is famous for its rich, complex sweets, ice creams and pastries.

Taking a totally different direction, southern Italy’s other large island– la Sardegna-– is known for its hardy but austere cuisine. Seafood abounds in the coastal areas (the aragosta— lobster– is so famous that Europeans fly to the island just to eat it fresh), but the real cucina sarda is represented by the rugged, mountainous spine of the island, where Sardinian shepherds watch their flocks from neolithic nuraghi (Stone Age ruins) and farmers fight with the harsh conditions to produce heavy, robust wines and intensely flavored produce, like cactus pears, artichokes, zucchini, and more. Roast suckling pig (la porchetta), lamb, and goat are the main meats, and a bewildering array of home-made breads— some so thin that they’re called carta di musica (sheet music) and others so ornately formed and decorated that they are proudly displayed in churches and holiday parades– are other staples of this simple island fare. A virtual trip to the cuisine of l’Italia del sud — also known as il Mezzogiorno (land of the noonday sun) can be found by clicking here.

For an overview of general similarities and some regional differences, with links to each region and cuisine summaries, click here.

ITAL 1 Students: Explore the cuisine of your Italian family’s regions by clicking on the appropriate links. Copy and bring to class at least one recipe from each region– selecting them from different courses (i.e., l’antipasto, il primo piatto, il secondo, il contorno, il dolce, ecc.)– so that your group can begin to develop a possible menu tradizionale for the course final’s festa in piazza.

La cucina italiana– Italian cuisine: Il caffè

A very nice Italian coffee on the island of Mu...

Image via Wikipedia

The word cucinain Italian has several meanings. For example, it can refer to the act of cooking, or the place where you do the cooking– the kitchen. But most importantly it means cuisine, that is, the distinctive combination of ingredients, flavors, and preparation that expresses the personality and history of a people.

Not surprisingly, Italy’s cuisine is one of the most diverse and recognized in the world, and some of its terminology has penetrated and been adopted into virtually every language on the globe: spaghetti, ravioli, lasagna, and pizza being just a few examples. Such global phenomena as the ubiquitous coffee chain, Starbucks– modeled on the quintessential Italian institution and la seconda casa degli italiani (Italians’ second home), the caffè-bar–has made cappuccino, latte, and venti the “lingua franca” of the caffeine-fueled set.

In fact, the Italian talent for taking the most basic of ingredients and turning them into a fine art is evident even in the humble cup of coffee. To see exactly what they do with it and what your basic options are when you order one, check out Italian Coffee 101— an introduction to the pleasures of una buona tazzina…. You can also follow the adventures of la moka che gira il mondothe little coffee pot that travels the world or explore the emerging field of l’arte del cappuccino: transforming the foam on a cappuccino into an artist’s canvas. (And for those of you who already know italiano: here’s a website dedicated to the history and evolution of il caffè nella società italiana, which traces its progression from outlawed devil’s brew to daily essential.)

Enjoy the wonderful world of il caffè italiano, and stay tuned for more on la cucina italiana!

Feste Italiane: Ognissanti and “il giorno dei morti”

Graveyard from Moggio Udinese around the churc...

Image via Wikipedia

Italy is a country with a long and rich religious and civic history, and a large variety of feste —  holidays– to prove it. Many of its holidays and traditional celebrations are rooted in Christian beliefs and practices that go back for a thousand years or more. In fact, before Italy became a nation in 1861 (buon compleanno Italia!– questo è il tuo 150esimo anniversario!)– it was common to celebrate a bewildering number of public holidays, most of which were based on il calendario dei santi. (For an experimental saints’ calendar in inglese, click here.)

Two holidays which bear a resemblance to the American observation of Halloween and the Latino celebration of “el dia de los muertos” are the Festa di Ognissanti (All Saints Day) on November 1 and il giorno dei morti (All Souls’ Day) on November 2.

The Ognissanti celebration honors all of the saints and others who exemplified their faith in life and in death. It was officially established around 741 CE (the Common Era; that is, after Christ) by Pope Gregory III. And it was apparently at the request of monks from Ireland that the date for the holiday coincide with the great pagan observance of Samhain— the ancient new year celebration of the Celts. The Pope agreed, as Samhain represented a profound period of human and spiritual union, when the past, present, and future of individuals and their community symbolically became one when the spirits of those past walked again among their living legacies. What better day, then, to honor and remember the sacrifices and achievements of the Christian saints, who represented human examples of eternal life and divine grace?

On Ognissanti families gather to attend a special mass, and then enjoy a leisurely lunch together. These lunches feature traditional desserts–i dolci dei morti— most of which are biscotti shaped like bones. Some, which look like finger-bones, are even called dita di apostolo the fingers of the Apostle. These dolci are made of marzipan– a sweet, decorated  almond paste. In Sicily special pupi di zucchero are also created for the holiday, each a miniature work of art representing the famous knights of the heroic Renaissance poem, Orlando Furioso.

Around 1000 CE a second celebration focusing on the earthly — not saintly– dead began to be celebrated in France. Soon it too became adopted by the Catholic Church, and so the observation of All Souls Day was established on November 2. On this day Italians return to their home towns and visit the cemetery to pay their respects to deceased family members and other loved ones. They clean the grave sites and leave spectacular arrangements of beautiful flowers– mostly chrysanthemums, the flowers of the dead– as pensierini (nice thoughts or mementos).

A new culinary and cultural twist indicates that gli italiani— especially Tuscans, apparently– are increasingly interested in the American celebration of Halloween, no doubt due in large part to the influence of TV and film. So decorations, costumes, and cries of dolcetto o scherzetto for gifts of candy are now in evidence in the first days of November.

Most recently, in 1922, November 4 was recognized as the Festa delle Forze armate italiane, the day when soldiers who had died in World War I– la prima guerra mondiale— are recognized and celebrated. Since then it has become the Italian equivalent of Memorial Day, commemorating those who lost their lives in war. The most famous ceremony on this day is held in the heart of Rome, at the Altare della Patria, where an eternal flame and round-the-clock guards protect and honor the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (Click here for a 360 degree view of this impressive monument, which joins the modern commercial Rome of the Via del Corso with the ancient Rome of the Foro Romano.)

La piazza: The “Swiss-army knife” of Italian culture

View from the Piazza del Campidoglio

Image via Wikipedia

Just as the secret to understanding contemporary American culture can be found by haunting its mega-shopping malls, the essence of Italian life and thought can be found in the piazza.

In fact, in his international best seller, La Bella Figura, journalist Beppe Severgnini summarizes la piazza italiana as “a tool with more cutting edges than a Swiss-army knife” (93). That is, it embodies all of the varied histories, passions, and complexities of il Bel Paese itself. The piazza provides not only the stage for contemporary daily life, but also the living presence of the past and an anxious communal groping into an increasingly uncertain future.

The piazza is also a microcosm– the world in miniature– of the community it anchors. It is the center of civic identity, as can be seen in this 360 degree view of Piazza della Signoria, the heart of Florence’s famous city-state and host to not only Renaissance soccer games, but also assassination attempts, vandalism, drunken tourists, expensive bonfires, and famous autos-de-fè (public burnings, the most famous of which was of that terrifying priest, Savonarola).

Like all Italian cities, Florence has a wealth of different piazze— all with a different layout, look, atmosphere, and history. Here’s a quick “mini-tour” of some of the most famous: famous piazze in Florence. (ITAL 1 students: Read at least one of the short  “full story” entries so that you can get an idea of the complexity and variety of history and experience Italian piazze exemplify.)

There are also many other piazze italiane famose throughout the country (Severgnini mentions that there are at least 14,000 piazza historic centers), some of which are listed in Wikipedia and linked below.

These piazze illustrate how each Italian city square contains not only the civic and religious essence of its community, but also its distinctive commercial, political, occupational, theatricalsexual, sentimental, and therapeutic personality. (Click on the hotlinks to see videos illustrating the things you will see, live, and– usually– enjoy nelle piazze italiane.)

As Severgnini summarizes, “It’s the piazza of memory, for those who are leaving, and of welcome, for those arriving. Its therapy is serenity recaptured…. and it’s even more instructive when Italians are taking a stroll. Look at the way they move and greet one another. Their striking naturalness prompts you to act like them. People come here to see and be seen, which is why they are happy to return the smiles they expect…..” (98-99).

Stories Behind Italian Surnames

Cicero Denounces Catiline

Image via Wikipedia

Like most cultures, Italians use not only a first, or personal name for individuals– il nome, or baptismal name–but also a last name– a family name or surname, called il cognome. (Unlike many Latino and North American cultures, however, middle names are rarely used.)  According to the “Italy World Club” website,

The Italian word “cognome” comes from the Latin “cum nomine”, something that accompanies the name. In antiquity no surnames were used, then for the first time in ancient Rome the use of the “tria nomina” for the citizens was established. As an example, the three parts in “Marcus Tullius Cicero”, consisted of “Marcus” – the prenomen, or individual’s name; “Tullius”, the nomen identifying the gens or family, and the cognomen “Cicero” which was a kind of nickname to identify the individual still further.

Although this practice was apparently lost during the Dark and Middle Ages, it was revived in Venezia (because the addition of a second, family name, helped to avoid confusion) and eventually by the end of the 15th century not only the nobility but also common people used two names. Thus the practice spread from ancient Rome, to Venice, to the rest of the Western world. Today, according to some sources, there are over 350,000 Italian last names and about 7,000 proper or first names currently on record.

Italian Surnames: Ethymology and Origin

In many cultures– and this is true of Italian culture as well– there are some basic ways that family names have evolved, and therefore can be categorized today. The most common way was to attach to the individual name the name of a parent– usually the father. This type of last name is called a “patronymic,” based on the Latin word pater, which means “father”– examples of this kind include Andre di Gregori, in which the “di Gregori” indicates “son of Gregorio.”  Another common origin was based on where the person or family lived or originated from (this type of surname is called a “toponymic)”– for example, Giorgio Napolitano indicates a family origin in Naples. Family names based on occupations— such as Farmer, Miller, or Baker in English– are also common, as are family names based on nicknames highlighting the appearance or personality of an individual– such as Bassi (short) or Volpone (wily old fox)– which attached to them and was later passed down to their descendants. Finally, another category is for last names based on the fact that the child was a foundling and left at a religious institution to be baptized and raised.

Most Common Italian Last Names

I 40 cognomi più diffusi in Italia are listed below, beginning with the most common in the nation (for a list of the top 200, click here; if you click on the last name, it will take you to a colored map showing concentrations of the name nation-wide):

1.Rossi               2.Russo               3.Ferrari               4.Esposito               5.Bianchi

6.Colombo         7.Romano           8.Ricci                   9.Gallo                  10.Greco

11.Conti            12.Marino            13.De luca             14.Bruno                15.Costa

16.Giordano      17.Mancini           18.Rizzo                19.Lombardi          20.Barbieri

21.Moretti          22.Fontana           23.Santoro            24.Caruso             25.Mariani

26.Rinaldi          27.Martini             28.Ferrara             29.Galli                  30.Leone

31.Serra            32.Conte              33.Villa                  34.Marini                35.Ferri

36.Bianco          37.Monti               38.De santis          39.Parisi                40.Fiore

Italian Heritage? Find your roots through exploration…..

If you’d like to investigate where people with the same last name live in Italy, click here. On this site you can find the last name you’re interested in and click on the word “Italy” (found in  the fourth or “Location” column of that entry). This will take you to a map of Italy, which graphically shows the occurrences of that surname throughout the country. Another way you can look up the geographical association of people with the most common Italian surnames is by città, provincia, and regione; just click on the hotlink here to start exploring!


Select un cognome for your Piazza Nostra character from the resources above. Be prepared to explain the origin and geographical associations of your character’s names (both first and last), and why you chose them.

Traditions and Trends: I nomi italiani

Collage of 20 famous Italians

Image via Wikipedia

The immortal Italian lovers Romeo e Giulietta of Verona lived and ended their lives because of the reality behind the often-quoted Shakespearean question, “What’s in a name?”

Many human cultures consider a person’s name not just a simple identifier, but also a label, a destiny, a source of power and perhaps even danger. It represents a way to connect the individual to the vast chain of family, friends, mentors and significant others who have gone before, while reaching blindly into the promise and hopes of the future. So choosing a name for a new member of the family is an important social, psychological, and symbolic task.

[Speaking of reaching back into history… the collage here depicts famous Italians. Do you recognize the names and contributions of any of them?]

So what are the most common Italian names, and what do they mean?

According to the Italian National Statistics Institute (ISTAT), the 20 most common first names of Italians 40 and over are:

Maschili Femminili
Anna Maria

But in 2009 ISTAT conducted a survey of baptisms, to see what current trends are for naming Italian babies. Results for the top 20 are below– and the results clearly indicate how extremely conservative (or lacking in originality, as some critics say) Italians are when it comes to providing their offspring with their social and personal identities:

Maschili Femminile

To discover the origin and meaning of any Italian name– including your own– just click here and look for the name alphabetically, then click on the English version of the name. This will take you to a page dedicated to information about that particular name, including popularity of the name in different countries of the world.


Using the information above, select an appropriate name for the Piazza Nostra character you are creating as part of your Seconda Fase project. (Remember, this character is NOT a member of your Italian family– that will come later. This character is just a friend or acquaintance, someone who lives and works in Piazza Nostra.)

Unique Regions = Unique Cities, seconda parte


Coat of arms of the House of Visconti, on the ...

Image via Wikipedia

Three other major Italian cities that often don’t make it on the usual tourist circuits are Milan, Naples, and Palermo. But each represent significantly different histories and cultures that set them apart not only from each other, but from the more well-known “big 3” introduced in the previous post.

Milano in northern Italy occupies a strategic location of straddling the Po Valley, the gateway to the peninsula once one has crossed the forbidding ridge of the Alps. First settled by Celts (Gauls) around 400 BCE, who took the territory from the Etruscans, and who, in turn, had it taken away from them by the Romans. It’s lively history includes not only the warlike Longobardi tribe– which gave the region of la Lombardia its name– but also the great Renaissance warrior families of the Sforza and the Visconti. Today it has been taken over by the fashion industry, the Italian stock market, manufacturing, and the powerful political party, la Lega Nord, members of which advocate for a division of Italy into at least 2 separate countries– North Italy and South Italy. The hard-driving reality of this, the second largest city of il Bel Paese, is expressed in the contemporary song “Poveri bambini di Milano” by Francesco Guccini.

Traveling south from Milano and passing Roma, one finds Naples, a city almost 3000 years old. First founded by the Greeks as Neapolis (the New City), today la città di Napoli is best known for its rich, scenic bay, its active volcano– il Vesuvio, which last erupted in 1944 and is most famous for having buried Pompei in 79 CE– and a high profile version of organized crime rivaling the Mafia. (Called la Camorra, it was recently represented in the book and film titled Gomorrah— thus earning a `death sentence’ for its author, Roberto Saviano.) Ruled in the past by Spain, Austria, and the Bourbons (a French royal family), Napoli is a lively and chaotic mix of charm and inquietudine (disquiet), beauty, rifiuti and porcherie (trash and filth– both literal and figurative, as the Naples trash crisis continues to resonate throughout Europe). In fact, you can feel the romance and energy of Napoli in such internationally recognized songs as “O Sole Mio,” ” Volare,” “Finiculi Finicula” and “Tu vuo` far l’americano” — songs that have so resonated with the world that they’ve become the only “Italian music” many non-Italians know.

Like Napoli, Palermo is almost 3000 years ago, originally by Cretans, then taken over by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans (aka the French), Spain, Austria and who knows who else. (The main reason for this “revolving door” of invaders is that la Sicilia— of which Palermo is the capital– is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, and thus of strategic importance for defense and trade in and around the Mediterranean basin.) As a result, the food, music, architecture, and culture of Palermo is clearly a fusion of different traditions, with a notably strong presence of Arabic and Byzantine influences. (“Byzantium” is another name for the Eastern Roman Empire, which ended in 1453 when the Turks captured Constantinople and converted the region from the Eastern Orthodox Christianity to Islam). Today you can enjoy both the brightly colorful, noisy mercato di Ballarò, the sometimes gruesome but poignant mummies of the Capuchin Bone Church, or the serenity and beauty of the Cathedral of Monreale— all in the same day! The incredible diversity of the city is best displayed in its lively street artists and the world-famous Opera dei Pupi, in which beautiful marionettes act heroic stories and poems from the Renaissance and more.

Hopefully Milano, Napoli, and Palermo will be added to your “must see” Italian tour list, for they represent dramatically different worlds– worlds essential to experiencing the heart and soul of “the twenty Italies.”

Italian culture and “le bandiere” (flags)

Banners of the Contrade sold before the beginn...

Image via Wikipedia

Italian culture is well known for its emphasis on the family– in fact, one’s personal identity is based largely on the family or “clan” one belongs to. The concept of family applies not only to blood ties, but also to bonds of obligation and loyalty, such as those between a lord and his vassals, or a patron and his client. This type of bond goes back to the very founding of ancient Rome, and continues today, in such contemporary organizations as the Mafia, with its padrino and those he protects and supports or assists.

The family or clan is not only bound to one another, but also to a place– and this is where flags become important. From medieval times, every powerful family or group had its symbol– a visual marker that communicated the family’s heritage, great deeds, and character. (Think of one of the early US flags, like the one that had “Don’t tread on me!” embroidered on it.) This symbol would be carved onto buildings to show who owned or sponsored (i.e., paid for) them, and would be used on flags as a way to gather the troops or demonstrate political influence– that is, to proclaim to everyone whom the protector of the person showing the flag was.

Today in Italy the tradition of family or clan flags continues, especially when a city or town celebrates historical events in a traditional festa. The most famous flag displays are the Palio of Siena, the Quintana in Ascoli Piceno, the Saracen’s Joust in Cortona, and Calendimaggio in Assisi. (If you click on the names, you will find youtube videos about these events and the importance of the flags.)

For a quick overview of the different flags used by each contrade or district of the city of Siena during the Palio, click on the Wikipedia link here. This site shows images of all 17 of the flags used to visually communicate the place and people of the various neighborhoods of the city of Siena, while providing information on the symbolism and history associated with each flag.


View the video clip for at least ONE of the events highlighted (i.e., the Palio, the Quintana, the Joust, or Calendimaggio) and then read about at least TWO flags from the Wikipedia entry above. Be prepared to share your ideas for the creation of your own “family flag” for the Prima Fase group project. [NOTE: If for some reason a link does not work, try to find an alternative by used the link title provided as the search term for a Google search. That way you will likely find a new resource to help you out.]