italymenuLucky for those of us who speak English as our native language, most menus in restaurants in Italy will have plenty of things that look completely familiar from the Italian restaurants you’ve eaten in back home. We all know what spaghetti, ravioli, lasagna, ragu and cappuccino mean. I always used to tell my Italian students that at the very least, they wouldn’t starve during their vacation in Italy. But you want to do more than simply “not starve,” right?

Here are a few tips for when you’re reading the menu in restaurants (and trattorias, osterias, etc.) in Italy:
For the most part, the Italians will think you’re strange if you’re pairing a sweet drink like Coca Cola with your meal, but my palate is used to the combination and I imagine yours probably is, too. So if you want your Coke with your meal, go for it. Just remember that if you want the diet version, it’s not called “Diet Coke” in Italy – it’s called “Coca Cola Light.” Also note that most places will serve your Coke in the can with an empty glass on the side – you’ll probably have to ask for ice specifically if you want it. That’s “con ghiaccio,” pronounced “gee-AH-chee-oh” with a hard G as in “girl.”
    Before I visited Bologna, I’d never heard of a piadina – but now I see them offered outside their traditional home. A piadina is a great lunch alternative to a traditional sandwich (or “panino”). Piadina bread is like a tortilla, only a bit thicker and softer, and the piadina sandwiches are usually served warm. They can be served rolled, folded or open-faced and flat – you’ll know how to eat it depending on whether you get served a knife and fork with your dish or whether it comes half-wrapped in a napkin for eating by hand.

    When you’re looking at the menu for sandwiches (and piadinas), you may be surprised to find the word “insalata” included on the ingredients of many of the items listed. You may have learned that the word “insalata” means salad – but in this case, all it means is lettuce. So don’t worry that you’re getting an entire side salad stuffed into your sandwich along with the other ingredients, it’s just lettuce.
Vernaccia di san gimignano
    Wine and coffee may be the two drinks you think of first when you think of Italy, but there are plenty of beer drinkers here, too. For many people, drinking a beer with their pizza just fits, so if you want a beer with a meal you’ll be asking for “una birra,” pronounced OO-nah BEER-rah. And if you want one of the beers they’ve got on tap, you’ll ask for “una birra alla spina,” pronounced OO-nah BEER-rah AH-lah SPEE-nah.

    You may open a sandwich/piadina menu to find a dizzying array of choices, and you can certainly choose from among the ones already on offer. But don’t be afraid to “build your own” sandwich out of whatever ingredients you want, so long as you see them listed elsewhere on the menu. When I’ve ordered sandwiches this way, I’ve had waiters say that I’m ordering in a way that’s much more Italian – apparently the Italians don’t usually settle for what’s being offered, they want to create their own combination. And you know what they say: “When in Rome…”

    Having an espresso after both lunch and dinner is very common throughout Italy, but what specifically you order depends entirely on what you’re in the mood for. The traditional order is simply, “un caffe normale,” which is what we’d call a single shot of espresso, but the options are almost limitless. You’ve probably heard that Italians don’t generally drink cappuccino after 11:00am or so, but otherwise feel free to experiment with other coffee drinks after your meals (and of course, if you want a cappuccino after 11:00am, go for it!). You can read about most of the main options in this post about the different kinds of Italian coffee, which includes my new favorite – the Marocchino.
    This isn’t a menu-related item, but it’s a tip for eating out in Italy so I’m sticking it in here. Many foreign visitors to Italy complain that they feel ignored by the waitstaff after their meal, because they must ask for the check (“il conto, per favore!”) and sometimes even hunt down the waiter to get it. This is a major cultural misunderstanding, because to the Italians it would be rude for them to interrupt your after-meal conversation (or whatever) with the bill – once you have that table, it’s yours for the night.

Bringing you the check would imply that they’re trying to hurry you out, which they would never try to do. But if you are interested in getting out of the restaurant faster than the other diners might be and you don’t see your waiter anywhere, you can usually just pay at the cashier on your way out. Often they’ll just ask what you ate and tally up the total right there, though sometimes they’ll get the check from your waiter. In either case, you shouldn’t feel like you’re tied to your table until you get the check – you can take

Linguine con asparagi e cavolini 

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mappa regioneLake Como, or Lago di Como in Italian, is undoubtedly Italy’s most popular lake – and it’s held that title since long before the exceptionally hunky Mr. George Clooney bought his house on the shore of the lake.

In fact, although there are plenty of people each year who flock to Lake Como in the hopes of getting a glimpse of George (or one of the lake’s many other famous residents), the lakeside towns can’t blame their overflowing feeling on the local celebrities. Summers on Lago di Como have seen congested roads and tourist hordes for decades.

It stands to reason that if so many people are heading for Lake Como, there must be something there worth heading for, right? The answer is a resounding yes. There are lots of reasons Lago di Como is incredibly popular, not least being its stunning views and gorgeous water. The towns which dot the lake’s shores are picturesque and charming, and each one of them feels like it could be home to any number of the rich and famous set. Summers find these towns brimming with not only overseas visitors but also floods of tourists from northern Europe, particularly Germany and the United Kingdom, while weekends throughout the year tend to be when residents of nearby Milan take the time to get out of the smog-filled city. In other words, while the winters are certainly slower, there isn’t really a time of year when Lago di Como is deserted.

Of course, lots of savvy travelers read about the crowds and take that as an invitation to avoid the lake altogether. This is a reasonable reaction, and while the crowds will be big enough for some people to never make the journey to Lake Como, it’s really a shame to never lay eyes on it. So if you’re one of those people who’d like to take in the natural breath-taking beauty of Lago di Como without getting swallowed alive by big bus day-trippers, I’ve got some budget hints for you below so that you can still make the trip without needing a trust fund to do it.

Lake Como is easily identified on maps of Italy by its shape. You’ll find it in Italy’s North, in a part of the Lombardy (Lombardia) region that’s known as Italy’s lake district, and it looks roughly like an upside-down “Y.” It’s the third-largest lake in the country, behind Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore, and although it’s narrow enough that you can see across it easily it is one of Europe’s deepest lakes. Lago di Como has glacial origins, and it’s known as a pre-Alpine lake because of its location nestled among the pre-Alps.

These are some of the better-known towns on Lake Como:

  • Bellagio – This beautiful town sits at the intersection of the three branches of Lake Como, and it’s a great base from which to explore the lake. Bellagio benefits from the lake’s overall temperate climate, so it’s nice to visit year-round, although it’s decidedly more popular (and way more crowded) in the summer. This isn’t a town that has a ton of budget options, especially if you’re hoping to sleep in a room overlooking the lake, but if you’re willing to stay a bit further from the center of the action you can find good deals. This is the town where George Clooney’s villa is, so be on the lookout for star sightings!
  • Como – The town of Como, from which the lake gets its name, sits at the top of the lower-left arm of the upside-down “Y” of Lake Como. It’s the biggest town on the lake, being home to more than 80,000 people – so you can imagine how crowded it can get in the peak of the summer high season! Despite its size, you’ll find it to be charming and romantic (especially when it’s not so crowded), and because of the plethora of transportation options it’s also a good base for seeing the lake and the region. Como is a popular day-trip from Milan, and due to its size you’ll find a wider range of accommodation choices than you might in smaller lake towns.
  • Menaggio – Menaggio is a small town on the western side of Lake Como, in an area which was under Roman rule around 200BCE. Visitors today can see what remains of the medieval city’s former walls, but for the most part Menaggio is seen as an incredibly charming lakeside village that serves as the perfect backdrop for romantics and honeymooners. The town’s population swells in the summer months, and it’s considered a resort town, but it’s also a popular destination for budget travelers because the only hostel on Lake Como is in Menaggio.
  • Tremezzo – Like the other towns on this list, Tremezzo is primarily known as a lakeside resort town. It lies on the western side of Lake Como near Menaggio, and across from Bellagio. Tremezzo has its fair share of lakeside villas, like many of the towns along the lake do, but it’s particularly well-known for the gardens which come with those villas. The best-known villa in Tremezzo is Villa Carlotta, which was built in the 17th century and boasts an elaborate and beautiful Italian garden. The villa is now a museum, and visitors can tour both that and the gardens themselves.
  • Varenna – Set on the eastern side of Lake Como across from Bellagio, the town of Varenna is noted for its more rustic appeal. It’s a bit less polished than its upscale neighbors across the lake, but that’s part of what makes it special – and just because it’s been called “rustic,” don’t expect this town to be any less beautiful. Varenna is home to several gorgeous lakeside villas, extravagent-looking gardens, and a nice array of restaurants and shops (many of which have lake views). The town’s tiny population grows exponentially during the summer, but in the off-season it remains blissfully overlooked by day-trippers who head for Bellagio and Como by the bus load. Do note that because of the geography of the town, most of the accommodation options require a bit of an uphill walk away from the lake – but that means you’ll be rewarded with great views in the end.
Now, for those of you who are – like me – unwilling to fork over all of my hard-earned money for one night in a luxury lakeside villa, but who don’t want to forgo the pleasure of visiting the lake, there are a few things you’ll want to think about.
  1. Consider doing the lake as a day trip instead of an overnight venture. This does mean that you’re giving up on the kind of early-morning or late-evening peace and quiet that generally comes to towns that are popular with day-trippers, but it also means that you don’t have to even look at the high prices the hotels in those towns charge. And if you’re staying in another city within a reasonable distance – say, Milan – for any length of time, you can even make a couple day trips out to explore different shores of the lake and different kinds of towns.
  2. Planning your Lake Como trip for the slower season can save you a bundle, especially in the most popular lakeside towns. Yes, they’re going to be relatively busy all year long, but Bellagio in January is going to cost far less than Bellagio in August. And if you stay in one of the lesser-known lakeside towns instead, you can save even more in the slow season. The good news is that because the lake’s weather remains pretty moderate year-round, you’re not likely to be subjected to biting winds and torrential rain if you’re visiting in the winter. It’ll obviously be chillier than in the summer, but it’s unlikely to be downright miserable the whole time.
  3. Just as visiting in the slow season can save you money, avoiding the most popular towns can, too – and that’s going to be true almost any time of the year. Instead of setting up camp in Como or Bellagio, find a quieter and smaller town on the other side of the lake and see if you can’t get a better deal on a room. No matter where you stay, you can always visit the bigger and more touristy towns because they’re all relatively close by – but this way you’ll avoid paying through the nose just to say you’re in a hotel in Como.
  4. Choosing a hotel that’s not right on the lake can usually save you quite a bit, as it’s the lake view that those lakefront properties are charging an arm and a leg for. Most of the towns on Lake Como have a central area that’s just a short walk from the lake itself, so you’d still have easy access to all the perks of the beautiful scenery – you just might not have them right outside your hotel room window. But unless you’re planning to spend the bulk of your vacation in your room, the view from the balcony probably isn’t worth what they’re charging for it.

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Lombardy_in_Italylombardia_mapLombardy is one of the 20 regions of Italy. The capital is Milan. One-sixth of Italy's population lives in Lombardy and about one fifth of Italy's GDP is produced in this region, making it the most populous and richest region in the country and one of the richest in the whole of Europe.

Major tourist destinations in the region include the historic, cultural and artistic cities of Milan (which is Italy's second top tourist destination), Brescia, Mantua, Pavia, Como, Cremona, Bergamo, Sondrio, Lecco, Lodi, Varese, Monza, and the lakes of Garda, Como, Maggiore, and Iseo.

Lombardy is bordered by Switzerland (north: Canton Ticino and Canton Graubünden) and by the Italian regions of Emilia-Romagna (south), Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol and the Veneto (east), and Piedmont (west). Three distinct natural zones can be fairly easily distinguished in the Lombardy region: mountains, hills and plains – the latter being divided in Alta (high plains) and Bassa (low plains).
The most important mountainous area is an Alpine zone including the Lepontine and Rhaetian Alps, (Piz Bernina – La Spedla, 4,020 m), the Bergamo Alps, the Ortler Alps and the Adamello massif; it is followed by an Alpine foothills zone Prealpi, which include the main peaks are the Grigna Group (2,410 m), Resegone (1,875 m) and Presolana (2,521 m).

The great Lombard lakes, all of glacial origin lie in this zone. From west to east these are Lake Maggiore, Lake Lugano (only a small part is Italian), Lake Como, Lake Iseo, Lake Idro, then Lake Garda, the largest in Italy. South of the Alps lie the hills characterized by a succession of low heights of morainic origin, formed during the last Ice Age and small barely fertile plateaux, with typical heaths and conifer woods. A minor mountainous area lies south of the Po, in the Appennines range.

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Tuscany_in_Italytoscana_mapTuscany  is a region in Italy. It has an area of about 23,000 square kilometres (8,900 sq mi) and a population of about 3.75 million inhabitants. The regional capital is Florence (Firenze).

Tuscany is known for its gorgeous landscapes, its rich artistic legacy and its influence on high culture. Tuscany is regarded as the true birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, and has been home to some many influential people in the history of arts and science, such as Petrarch, Dante, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Niccolo Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Amerigo Vespucci, Luca Pacioli and Puccini.
As a result of this, the region has several museums (such as the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace and the Chianciano Museum of Art). Tuscany has a unique culinary tradition, and is famous for its wines (most famous of which are Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Morellino di Scansano and Brunello di Montalcino).

Six Tuscan localities have been designated World Heritage Sites: the historic centre of Florence (1982), the historical centre of Siena (1995), the square of the Cathedral of Pisa (1987), the historical centre of San Gimignano (1990), the historical centre of Pienza (1996) and the Val d'Orcia (2004). Tuscany has over 120 protected nature reserves.

This makes Tuscany and its capital Florence popular tourist destinations, attracting millions of tourists every year. Florence receives an average of 10 million tourists a year, placing the city as one of the most visited in the world (in 2007, the city became the world's 46th most visited city, with over 1.715 million arrivals).

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