Odds are you have not heard of Morellino di Scansano (a very drinkable red wine from the Maremma region of SW Tuscany) nor of Nero d’Avola (a great red from Sicily, particularly the western region around Trapani and Marsala). And I could win money betting you’ve not heard a peep about Nerello Mascalese (a characteristic red from Sicily). These are all comfortably drinkable red wines. None of these names are the popular types you’ll find in guides to Italian food and drink — not Chianti Riserva, Rosso di Montalcino, Brunello, etc. Nope – these are just great local wines you can discover here, the first two in Siena. The Nerello I’ve only seen in Sicily. All have good color and body and have about 12.5 to 13% alcohol content. Prices can be as low as 5 Euros for a 1.5 liter bottle IN SICILY, but more likely 4.50 to 6.00 Euros a 750ml bottle here in Siena. With some looking around you should find the first two for sale at some specialty shops in north America. Try them — you are in for a treat. A note on the grapes. The Morellino (“dark hair”) is a localized variety of the Sangiovese grape, the main grape used in Chianti wines. To my taste, Morellino is less astringent and easier on the palate than many Chiantis. The Nero’Avola is, I believe, an ancient local cultivar found only in Sicily. And the Nerello….well, that remains a Sicilian mystery for now, but if you can find it, it is a nice drinking wine.
Italian wines imported to north America are not usually cheap, certainly not good ones. This is also true here in Italy. The high value of the Euro vs. the Dollar is one reason, but even without that, well-known wines can be quite costly here. There is not really a decent Brunello di Montalcino to be found in Siena for less than 24 Euros, about $30.00 US, and up (way up). Lower cost Chiantis and generic Sangiovese reds can be much less, but quite variable in quality. One little known option is to ask at the local deli for Vino da Tavola, table wine. Not all delis have this – but it is worth asking. If they sell wine this way, the clerk will disappear into the back room and return a few moments later. You will take home a liter of very drinkable red in a screw top bottle for about 3.00 Euros. “Una bottiglia di vino da tavola con tappo per favore….”
Italy is famous for its biscotti, cantucci and so many other delictables. However, the cookies in the supermarkets are not bad either. While browsing for just the right thing the other day we found what we wanted, a package of Galleti con granelli di zucchero (Mulino Bianco brand). These are just shortbread type cookies sprinkled with large sugar crystals. But they are pretty good ones, with less fat than is typical in cookies in north America. What was pleasantly mind-boggling was this — on the side of the box, nicely written out for the customer, was a note to this effect: “like these cookies? Here is the recipe, you can make them at home…” and it gave the full recipe. A great counter-capitalist touch. Grazie to Mulino Bianco!
Hill towns in Tuscany, ribollita soup, great wines….I’m convinced already and we are just getting started!
As the joke goes: if you speak three languages you are trilingual, two languages, you are bilingual, one language, you are an American.
With dedication you can change this and to get the most out of a visit to Italy, some ability in Italian can be quite rewarding. Of course, learning Italian or any language well takes years. But learning enough to be able to travel freely, including non-touristy areas, is nicely liberating. There are classes and self-study groups in almost every north American community and in many other parts of the world. Italian speakers and language-learners are the largest non-English language group in Australia, for instance. Argentina, Venezuela and even Brazil have very sizable Italian speaking populations.
In my town in Oregon the Parks and Recreation department sponsors non-credit Italian classes which are very popular. You can also find cd’s and self-teaching books in any bookstore or library. To make progress, though, it is best to get together with a group (and ideally at least one native speaker). Here’s what has worked for Anne and me: First, find a group or some like-minded learners. If you cannot find an ongoing class, locate a teacher or at least a native speaker willing to help. Begin work on simple vocabulary and everyday expressions. Start learning basic verbs, present tense of course. Enlarge that to the simple past and then the “ongoing” or imperfect past. You can put yellow stickies on the wall next to things whose name you are learning — by our aprons hung on the side of the fridge is a sticky saying “grembiule” — but now I remember the word for apron!
Repetition — you need lots and lots of it. Speak aloud and work on correcting your accent and intonation pattern by mimicking your teacher, your native speaker helper, or your cds or tapes. Gradually, a few weeks to a month or two, you will be able to converse on basic topics. Talk to yourself in Italian as you drive, or work in the yard, or take walks. Have lunch once a week with a couple of fellow-learners and speak only Italian. You are on your way!! Of course you have to go to Italy to put all this to use — more about that in other posts and in some of the links I’ll post.
There are dozens of books and audio sets. Of these, my personal favorites are:
Teach Yourself series (UK originally, US dist. McGraw-Hill) Improve your Italian — 2 cd set with book of same title (by Sylvia Lymbery) ISBN 0-07-143085-7. Book alone: ISBN 0-07-143084-9. There is also a beginning set in this series.
The same Teach Yourself paperback series has two other v. good titles: Italian Verbs (Maria Bonacina, ISBN 0-340-86698-5) and Italian Grammar (Anna Proudfoot, ISBN 0-07-141993-4).
Michele Thomas has a self-teaching set of cds that make getting started quite easy. His manner is a bit off-putting to me, but his additive method (start with one verb and a noun or two, and add to this) works. Don’t have title or ISBN but a Google search will find this quickly.
For a small travel-sized dictionary I like Langenscheidt’s Pocket Dictionary — Italian. It has a durable yellow plastic cover, and really fits in jacket pocket or small bag.
A great monolingual dictionary (for when you have progressed a bit in the language) is Lo Zingarelli Minore published by Zanichelli (ISBN 88-08-09026-4). This has thousands of illustrations to help clarify things, and even colored squares showing common and obscure color names. Not pocket sized, needs to sit on your bookshelf.
Perhaps you’ve learned some, or speak, Spanish? Having a bit of Spanish will appear to be helpful initially, but I’ve found you have to suppress Spanish and basically submerge and forget it — otherwise it hinders you. The verbs that are similar are different enough that they will throw your Italian off, and there is so much in Italian that is just not like Spanish at all. Remember, Italian came first and Spanish is the language that developed in one of Rome’s far-flung outposts!
In boca al lupo!
- Italy in Mind
- The Palio of Siena
- The Bay of Naples
- Rome and its Ancient Port, Ostia Antica
- A Wolf, a Walk and Many Wildflowers
- Visiting the Contrada of Val di Montone
- St. Catherine of Siena
- An Adventure in Murlo
- A Walk in the Montagnola Senese
- Discover these! Little known Italian Red Wines
- Table Wine, Vino da Tavola….