Regional Differences in Italy

(*Update* Due to a bit of “controversy” over this post, I now feel compelled to make the following disclaimer.  The purpose of my blog is to inform and entertain.  In no way do I endorse the stereotypes which are presented below but in any case I think it’s useful to identify them if our goal is to undo them.  Indeed, I did not invent them myself, but have learned about them by speaking with Italian friends and acquaintances.  Please read this article in the jovial spirit in which it was written, and I apologize to anyone who takes offense with some of the content, as that is clearly not my intention.  However, beyond this disclaimer, I have decided to otherwise leave the article in its original form.  Grazie.)

We all have our preconceived images of Italy and Italians, usually based on what we’ve seen in movies and TV programs. If I say “Italian person” what image comes immediately to your mind? You might visualize the good old “pizzaiolo” with his Italian flag apron and big black mustache who sings “’O Sole Mio” while sliding another pizza pie into the oven. Or you might picture Don Vito Corleone sitting behind his desk on his daughter’s wedding day, granting “favors” to friends and business associates. In any case, you will have plenty of stereotypical examples to choose from, most of which have over-represented only Southern Italians—and not in a positive or realistic way.

It’s a common misconception among foreigners that Italy is more or less a culturally unified country with a homogeneous population. This is absolutely untrue, especially when you compare Italy to the much larger United States where the language, food, and social protocols are basically identical from coast to coast.

In Italy, you can make the first general distinction simply by dividing the North from the South. I’ve heard it said that in the North, the citizens are hard-working, prosperous…and maybe a little boring. Meanwhile the Southerners are loud, lazy, and devoutly religious. True? Well…

“For every church in Rome, there’s a bank in Milan.”

Or so goes the old saying, just before the Roman jumps up and says, “Those polentoni in Milan, they don’t know how to live! All they care about is making money!” Then the Milanese, if he’s following the stereotypical script, will retort, “Those lazy Romans, they never want to work! They just want to eat, drink, and waste time…and avoid paying their taxes!”

regional differences in Italy

Can you name them all?

Well, who knows if these snapshots are still accurate (if they ever were)? Certainly not me, the straniero, who is just too fascinated by the whole country to recognize the distinction between the two “extremes.” To me, they’re all Italian. But then again, when we look a little closer, some differences appear, even to the foreign eye.

North versus South

Shall we draw an imaginary horizontal line just north of Rome and make some general observations about regional differences in Italy? It sounds like I’d be setting myself up to be the target of more scorn, since this is a hot topic and almost everyone has his or her strong opinions. (Umberto Bossi, are you reading this?) I’m sure I’ll be vilified and called all sorts of names. Great—let’s get into it then!

In the North, the only thing colder than the weather is the temperament of the people. While in the South, they heat up faster than a microwave oven.

In Torino, they let pedestrians cross the street without fearing for their lives. In Napoli, they put an imaginary target on their chests and step on the accelerator.

In the North they produce cars. In the South, they steal them.

In Bolzano, you might hear somebody wish you, “Guten Tag,” while in the center of Palermo the streets signs are written in both Italian and Arabic.

In the North, you’re considered punctual if you arrive within 5-10 minutes of the appointment time. In the South, you’re considered punctual if you arrive on the same day.

La Famiglia

What about our vision of the big, loud family, complete with the old nonna dressed in black who makes the sign of the cross while simultaneously rubbing her good luck charm every time that one of her nipotini sneezes? South only? Could be. But the truth is that family roots and origins are indeed still valued throughout the country. It doesn’t really matter which part of the country you come from; if you’re Italian you can be 100% sure that whatever you do, your family will always stand behind you.

Yes, there's comedy to be had in this discussion.

This might be part of the reason for which Italians are considered “mammoni” by the rest of the world, which outside of Italy, sounds like an insult. Call someone a “Mamma’s Boy” in Texas and you’ll get punched in the face before you can finish the sentence. Among Italians, it can even sound like a compliment. It means that you revere your own mother “only” a degree less than Mother Mary herself—and for that you should be highly praised.

Specific Stereotypes

OK, enough generalities. Let’s get down to some specific insults. In the Southern U.S. we have a comedian named Jeff Foxworthy who made his entire career by applying the following formula to his fellow southerners:

You might be a redneck if…

Examples: You might be a redneck if… You refer to the fifth grade as “my senior year.” You might be a redneck if… At a party, you introduce everyone to your wife and sister—and there’s only one woman with you. Etcetera.

Borrowing this scheme and applying it to Italians, we can highlight a few regional differences in Italy that foreigners might not be aware of.

You might be Veneto if… you drink like a sailor starting at 8:00 a.m. every day. They are probably the only ones that drink a caffè corretto (coffee with liquor, usually grappa) in the morning. They blame it on the cold. I guess I would, too.

You might be Friulano if… in your region it “pluv simpri” (piove sempre; always rains) and everyone south of you is a “terrone.”

You might be Napoletano if… a red light is seen as an invitation to step on the gas, and a helmet is only useful at the soccer stadium (OR per compiere scippi; purse-snatching). In fact, in Napoli they’ve outlawed the use of the casco because they don’t want the street criminals to disguise themselves this way.

You might be Romagnolo if…you believe that Karl Marx had some pretty clever ideas.

You might be Piemontese if… you are false and courteous.

You might be Ligurian if… you are very tirchio (cheap/stingy) with your money.

You might be Toscano if… at least every third word is a “moccolo” (a type of profanity; moccolo in Tuscan dialect, “bestemmia” in Italian—an insult or blasphemy addressed directly to God.) Or as the saying goes, “Maledetti Toscani, con l’inferno in bocca e il paradiso nelle mani.” (“Those damn Tuscans, with hell (profanity) in their mouths and heaven (artisan skills) in their hands.”)

You might be Sicilian if… you have at least one relative in the Mafia. It also means that you are omertoso, meaning that you don’t talk to the authorities, especially when it comes to denouncing offenses.

A few more? Why not!

Calabrians: People from Calabria are considered mistrustful and stubborn and keen to flaunt their assets.

Northern Italians

And in the North, too!

Milanese: People from Milan are known for being arrogant, cold, and efficient workers.

Romans: two adjectives are often attributed to people from Rome: noisy and “burini” (“cafoni” in Italian; or boorish/rough/uncouth in English)

Sardinians: They are said to be proud farmers and stubborn as their mules—and they don’t like “foreigners.” Which is to say other Italians.

Is that all?

Well, that’s all that I have to say about it from a foreigner’s perspective. But there’s a more serious (negative) side of this conversation, too, which involves separatism, racism, fascism, and several other types of isms. However, I’m not sure that I’m the person to introduce this subject. Italiani, would any of you care to speak up on this?

A slightly more positive spin on this topic is the idea of campanilismo. I say “slightly” because even this admirable sense of hometown pride has its downside. It maintains feelings of being Roman, Florentine, or Venetian…and inhibits feelings of being Italian. (Except every four years during the World Cup.)

At this point you might be forgiven for wondering if Italy, as a country, suffers from an acute case of multiple personality disorder. One thing’s for sure: you can never get bored with Italians. When you think you’re among a homogeneous group of “Italian” friends, have a little fun with them. During a polite dinner conversation, just throw out a sentence that raises one of the following questions: “Which region has the best food?” or “What’s the best soccer team in Italy?” or “Which political party do you support?” And then stand back (at a safe distance) and watch the fireworks!

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Comments

  1. Thanks for a thoroughly enjoyable read. Indeed Italy is a mosaic, and always has been. Ask an Italian to describe himself, and he’ll talk about his region first, not the country as a whole. Even though Italy has been unified since the nineteenth century, old suspicions prevail, and regional prejudices remain.

    • Ciao Adri, thanks for your kind words! Yes, this phenomenon never ceases to amaze me. As an American, you could drug me, blindfold me and plop me down anywhere in the US and I wouldn’t even know that I’ve changed cities. Yet in Italy, towns only 10-15 miles apart have a different language, food, traditions, and character. Never boring, that’s for sure!

      • strongly disagree. If you land in Lafayette, Louisiana, or El Paso, Texas, you can get a real culinary education. Or Cedar Key, Florida

        • Hi Randall, thanks for your comment. I’ve never been to the towns that you’ve mentioned, although I’m aware that there are small pockets of regional cuisines in the US that have their own wonderful unique character. But I contend that these are the very rare exception and really only accessible to locals in the know or die-hard “foodies” on a mission. I maintain that the standard US fare is a lamentable roster of one unremarkable restaurant chain after another. I’m not sure how long you’ve been living in Italy, but from what I’ve seen personally, there’s really no comparison when it comes to food.

          • Zenobi antonio says:

            I would only agree for the Italian food …

          • I think that the US definitely has regional differences in language, in religion, in levels of education, in attitudes toward family. As a kid in a military family, I grew up all over, which meant I spent a lot of time not quite fitting in. There are differences is the States and definitely in Italy. Once i told a Italian friend that a clerk in a store was not very helpful. She said, “She is from the South, she is not trying to be rude, she cannot help it.: I love everything about Italy, but I am particularly fond of the Veneto. Many sweet and beautiful memories there.

            • Hi Colleen! Yes, regional differences in the US certainly exist, but I guess my point was the differences are MUCH less than in Italy. Especially when it comes to languages. In the US the word “dialect” refers to regional accents with a few idioms thrown in. In Italy “dialetti” are quite often completely separate languages. However, I don’t mean to imply that the incredible degree of homogeneity in US is necessarily a bad thing–indeed, it’s a real strength, as we all consider ourselves simply “American” and we have a sense of being connected to one another from coast to coast. Ciao!

    • Gene Pascuzzi says:

      Buon Giorgno Rick, I am a first generation Italian. My Father. Mother, and oldest brother were from Soveria Mannelli, Provincia de Catanzaro, Calabria. In my family we followed a lot of the customs that you have described and have to nod my head yes yes.I have visited Italy north and south. Being Italian I agree, we are often stereotyped but so is every other ethnic group. I thoroughly enjoyed your blog. So much of what you say is generally true, not necessarily in the present but in the past. Verified : Calabrese soni capi tosti (Calabrese are hard heads)but they have always welcomed me with open arms when I’ve visited. When I visited my parents’ hometown for the first time in 1948 I introduced myself as being of Italian descent and the gentleman knowing now that my parents were from his town, responded “Non si Italiano, si Soveritano”. I think if your not Italian and have not been a part of the culture you might think otherwise. An interesting point is when I have talked to non-Italians, they all have or would like to visit Italy. There are definitely distinctions between the various regions of Italy. By no means am I offended by your blog because I feel what you were trying to convey.

      • Ciao Gene! Thanks so much for the great feedback. I love stories and I appreciate the one you shared. My grandmother’s side was from Calabria, provincia di Cosenza. My grandfather’s side was from Abruzzo-Molise (back then it was one province) and when he’d get mad at my grandmother he’d always cite her calabrese stubbornness.
        Thanks again for reading and for your great comments. Ciao!

  2. Thanks Rick…sure makes life interesting doesn’t it?

  3. If you like the above, take a look at Bruno Bozzetto Youtube channel which describes the differences between Italians and other countries.

  4. Sorry Rick but… no, no, no and no! Rome is not the South and it never will be. You forgot to add Central Italy, which is not only a pleasant middle ground the two rivalling Italies but is home to… well, Rome.

    Anyway, we’re used to people not caring about us and arbitrarily lumping us together with either the North or the South… ;-P

    • Ciao Claudio! Yes, I’m sure you’re right–any time you start lumping groups together you’re bound to get into some trouble. ;) I was just commenting on some of the popular stereotypes/misconceptions, but I don’t claim that they are accurate or that I agree with them. In fact, I love Rome and the pleasant middle ground that you mentioned. And I thank you for pointing it out! Ciao!

  5. I’d like to add just another thing – if you told a young Italian that he or she is a “mamma’s boy”, well, I’m afraid that the response would be much like the one you’d get in Texas: a bleeding nose. And, judging by the uproar caused by that minister who called uni students “bamboccioni”, I guess this is not a silly assumption!

    Oh, I just reckoned that we Romans have an (unjustified) reputation for being loud, warm and expansive people; I believe the reverse to be true as a good chunk of us is way grumpier (and, let’s not forget: foul-mouthed…) than your average Italian.

    • Well, I think we all agree that stereotypes only get us so far. Again, I’m not endorsing them, but the fact that they exist suggests that there might have been some truth to them at some point in history. As far as the difference between “bamboccioni” and “mammoni,” I’m afraid that my Italian isn’t good enough to distinguish the subtleties. I’ll have to ask my wife about that one. And finally, regarding language subtleties, I always hope that my tongue-in-cheek humor is somewhat detectable to non-mother tongue English speakers. It’s all just in good fun.

  6. Bamboccioni was just a linguistic invention of Padoa Schioppa, then minister of economy. It just means young people who have not really grown up, who cannot face reality as adults and mature people. Another stereotype with some truth in it. )(

    • Hi Enzo, thanks for clearing that up for me. I don’t want to get too hung up on these stereotypes, but they’re certainly out there. But I’m not astute enough to observe them for myself, so everything that I’ve learned, I’ve learned from Italians. Thanks so much for your comments.

  7. Anna Cafaro says:

    all the previous being said… caro Rick, it’s dangerous to play with stereotypes especially if they are old and picturesque!

    • Ciao Anna, it seems you’re right–it is “dangerous!” But then again, I’d rather start a lively conversation than be the 900th blogger to write a post on, “The Top 5 Gelaterie in Rome.” Ciao!

  8. Hey rick tks for the insight which I knew but it makes me laugh every time I can just picture the dif types of personalities out there.

    • Thanks Roberto! Yeah, I think it’s important to laugh at our differences. As long as it’s in good fun, then it can help us understand one another better. Ciao!

  9. I’ve found most of these stereotypes to be grounded in truth, myself. Obviously, and as Rick points out, not everyone from a certain place behaves or thinks in the same way as others. I think people like to put on friendly faces and don’t really get into heated regional debates as much as it seems they did years ago, but the behavioral differences and mindsets are definitely there. It’s funny when I see transplanted northerners have panic attacks at how “slow and inefficient” people and things in Florence are. A Florentine would assume their city is efficient and fast paced…..compared to “the south”. It’s all just amusing. While I think there is a difference in various regions of the US with culture and accents, we can all understand our common language. The US doesn’t have “dialects” the same way that Italy or many European countries have. Sure, one can say perhaps New Orleans and pockets in Louisiana have their own language but otherwise it isn’t impossible to understand people in CA if you’re from MD, as opposed to someone speaking Neapolitan or Biellese.

    • I don’t know, Bellavia… when I lived in LA area, I couldn’t understand most of what young people were saying, especially Valley Girls. And I’ve had city friends ask me what West Texas or mountain Tennessee people were saying

      • I have trouble with certain accents, too, and of course there are a few regional words (pop vs soda, grinder vs hoagie etc etc) But as Rick said, in Italy, people’s regional dialects are often completely different languages. :)

    • Yes, that’s right. As I just commented to someone else, “dialects” in the US are merely regional accents with a few idioms thrown in, while in Italy they are actually separate languages. When Italy was “made” in 1861, only 2% of Italians spoke Italian. 100 years later, it had only risen to about 15%. Of course nowadays, 95% of Italians speak Standard Italian, but most still retain their local dialect, as well.

  10. When we travel outside of Italy we are all Italians. We know we are a SMALL Country but we know also that we are BIG. I feel proud to be Italian, many things comes from Italy that we see all over the world – Story, Culture, Fashion, Musicist etc. etc
    .

    • Zenobi antonio says:

      I fully Igree with Marilena…! I would even say that the story of the Mafia is a nonsense…

      • I have to respectfully disagree here. I know too many people affected by the Mafia (or the Calabrese ‘Ndrangheta) to say it’s nonsense. Why does one think so many buildings and infrastructure in the south are left to rot or have taken 30+ years to finish? A few of my students go to pick tomatoes in Corleone every summer to combat the mafia’s influence on agriculture, for “libera terra” Anyone interested in this problem should watch: http://youtu.be/UrXkZ7x4gbU

        • Yes, I disagreed, too. But now looking back on his comment, I think he meant to say that the stereotype of “ALL Sicilians being connected to the Mafia” is nonsense. If that’s what he meant, then of course I agree with him (and so would my Sicilian wife!).
          However I’m intrigued by the film trailer you attached. I’d like to watch the full documentary. Thanks so much for sharing!

          • zenobi antonio says:

            YES…I agree wi you…! What I desagree Is the described relationship between sicilians and the MAFIA . Now In sicily You have many people against MAFIA therefore the omerta’ it’s over for many people…

      • The Mafia is nonsense? I’m sure you must be joking…I believe the presence of the Mafia is very well documented in both Italy and abroad.

    • That’s seems very true, Tavella, and I’ve see this phenomenon a lot, also in other cultures. For example, when I lived in Orlando, there was a pub where English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish expats all hung out together, which (and I could be wrong) seems unlikely to happen in Great Britain. Outside of our home country, we appreciate how much in common we have with our countrymen–the similarities are stronger than the differences. Thanks for your comment…ciao!!

  11. Who said Italy was unified?:-)
    Great post, Rick!

  12. I remember always a old sketch of Paolantoni (a neapolitan comic actor) emulating a Lega’s politico, “non siamo noi ad essere razzisti… sono loro ad essere napoletani!”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QP8f7bDOcCA

  13. Daviduccio says:

    My superficial take on regional differences: Firenze was built by merchants who aspired to be emperors; Roma was built by emperors who aspired to be gods; Milano was built by Italians who aspired to be German.

  14. im ligurian and i hate the city of Genoa, they continuously they destroy the ambition of my city Savona with political and economical charge, an example: the regional governor ( genoan ) had banned 20 year ago, the grand prix of offshore boat with the pretext of noise pollution.
    and so on.
    this is Italy, a war all vs all.

  15. Ciao Rick, interesting post. See how Italians always stress the place they come from. I’m sure you can’t find two Italians who can agree on how to make tomato pasta sauce, even inside the same village. Individualism is the name of the game, plus a good sprinkle of campanilismo, which is played at the highest levels in Tuscany. Being Italian I find quite informative the way foreigners see us.
    Of course all these differences have historical reasons, and they still go on as a badge of belonging.

    • Thanks for your comments…it is always helpful for me to learn the insights of Italians and compare them to my observations. Seems to me that campanilismo has both positive and negative aspects. I have so much to learn still, but I enjoy the process and continually rechecking my conclusions. Grazie!!

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