Italy Gift Guide for the Italophile in Your Life

We all have an Italophile in our lives, right? Someone who embraces his Italian heritage, someone planning a trip to Italy in the coming year, or just someone who loves Italian culture so much she embodies it all year long.

Maybe it’s a friend or a family member, and maybe it’s you. Whoever the Italy-lover on your gift list is, I think I’ve got a good selection of gift ideas below to satisfy just about every Italophile.

Below, you’ll find sections about Italian edibles and things for the kitchen, household items, books about Italy, movies about Italy, travel items for people planning Italy trips, and even stuff for the younger Italophiles in your life – the kids. I’ll probably always be expanding this list, editing it with new stuff I find, so if you’ve got a suggestion for me please pass it along.

2bookcollageUpdated for the 2015 holiday season to include Italy Explained books!
Get copies of my ebooks – Italy Explained: Italian Trains and Italy Explained: Gelato – on the Amazon store.

Even if you don’t have a Kindle (or don’t know if your favorite gift recipient does), Amazon ebooks can be accessed via the Kindle app on all smartphones and tablets, can be read online, or even printed out.

Take my advice with you to Italy!

Travel Gear for Italy

Snow globes in Vatican City || creative commons photo by Cory Doctorow

Snow globes in Vatican City || creative commons photo by Cory Doctorow

For anyone who’s lucky enough to be planning a trip to Italy, there are a few gifts that are always welcome. Here’s a selection of my favorite Italy guidebooks and some of the travel gear I don’t leave home without, no matter where I’m going.

  • Rick Steves Italy – I’ve got a fangirl crush on Rick Steves, I admit it. And I’ve been referring to his Italy guidebooks for as long as I’ve been traveling in Italy.
  • Lonely Planet Italy – I typically buy the latest Lonely Planet Italy book along with the Rick Steves, because LP covers more of the country and in greater detail.
  • Language Learning CDs or Program – Two of the more popular programs for learning Italian at home are Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur. The approaches are different, so look into the styles before you choose. You may also want to see if your local library has copies you can test before buying (since they’re not cheap).
  • Italian Phrasebook – There are loads of Italian phrasebooks out there, but – personally – my favorite is this Rick Steves’ Italian phrasebook. It’s the perfect mix of genuinely useful and completely ridiculous. It’s a phrasebook you could find yourself actually reading.
  • Menu Translator – I’m sad to say my favorite menu translator is out of print (if you find a copy of The Hungry Traveler: Italy in a used bookstore, grab it!), but you can still find the Marling Menu Master for Italy. It’s a good substitute, and still widely available, which obviously gives it a leg up. It’s also small enough to fit in a purse, so there’s no excuse for not bringing it along when you go out to eat in Italy.
  • Moleskine Wine Journal – Give that oenophile in your life a way to track all the details of wines he or she loves, whether it’s at home or while wine tasting in Italy.
  • Purse Hook – I keep one of these in my purse no matter where I am, but they’re especially useful for all that outdoor-seating dining you’re likely to do in Italy. You’ll be able to hang your purse safely next to your legs under the table, rather than over the back of the chair or on the ground. And don’t be fooled by the words “purse” or “handbag,” guys – these things are sturdy enough to hold your backpack, camera bag, or day bag, too.
  • Money Belt – Yes, I think you should have one for your Italy trip. And I also think you should get a lesson in how to use it. Top tip? Wear it inside your clothes. Not outside. It’s not a fanny pack. (This is obvious to some people, but believe me – it’s not obvious to everyone.)
  • PopOut Maps – These are my favorite maps of Italian cities. There’s no folding or unfolding required, so it’s easy to get your bearings and keep going without looking lost for too long.
  • Electricity Adapter/Converter – It’s important to not fry your electronic gizmos when you plug them into an Italian socket. Remember, you’ve got to get both the adapter and the converter! The one I’ve linked here does both in one unit, but most do not. Buyer beware.
  • Dream of Italy Newsletter – My friend Kathy puts together a monthly newsletter that will keep any Italophile immersed in Italy all year long. There’s great stuff in there about Italian culture, as well as insider tips for those of you planning a trip.
  • Walking Tours – If you know where your gift recipient is going in Italy, and when he or she will be in a specific city, you could give the gift of a walking tour. I’ve never taken a Context Travel tour that didn’t make me feel smarter (like I had just taken the most interesting college class in the world). They offer tours in/from Rome, Florence, Venice, and Naples. And I know and like the people behind Walks of Italy, though I’ve yet to take one of their tours personally. (I’m going to fix that the next time I’m in Italy. I hear rave reviews from friends who have been on their tours.) Walks of Italy offers tours in Rome, Venice, Florence/Pisa, Pompeii/Amalfi, Tuscany/Siena, Umbria, Milan, and Puglia. You can also browse a huge array of options for tours all over Italy on Viator, a company for which I contribute blog posts. If you’re not 100% sure of someone’s travel schedule, you could always give a gift certificate good for one tour, and leave the daunting task of choosing to someone else.

Italian Edibles & Kitchen Gear

Many sizes of mokapots || creative commons photo by Maggie

Many sizes of mokapots || creative commons photo by Maggie

When I’m not in Italy, I think it’s some of the stuff in my kitchen that makes me feel most Italian. These are some of my favorite treats and kitchen gear from Italy.

  • Mokapot – Before I went to Italy, I assumed Italians all had fancy espresso machines at home. Not so. Most make coffee at home using a mokapot, a stovetop espresso maker. The familiar burbling sound these make when the coffee is ready will soon have you salivating like Pavlov’s dog. I have a few sizes of these, but keep in mind that the “cups” indicated are espresso cup sizes, so a six-cup mokapot gives you about one full American-sized mug of coffee.
  • Dosacaffè – I don’t think I’ve ever been as in love with a kitchen gadget as I was with my dosacaffè when I first got it. It simultaneously holds your coffee grounds (keeping them protected from light and air) and dispenses them neatly into a mokapot. It’s completely brilliant. I’ve only seen them for sale in Italian shops, but it looks like you can buy them online, too. You may want to check out the “how to” videos so you get a better idea of just how they work.
  • Pocket Coffee – This is a cold weather treat in Italy (it would melt on store shelves in the summer), but you can find it year-round online as well as at some specialty shops (it’s often on the shelves at my local Cost Plus World Market, although it’s mislabeled as being from Germany). It’s liquid espresso inside a dark chocolate shell. You want this. You also want to eat it in one bite, lest the espresso get all over you.
  • Limoncello – Make your own limoncello at home (it’s very easy, and I’ll be publishing the recipe I use here on the site soon) and give it as gifts in decorative bottles. You can buy it, too, but where’s the fun in that?
  • Panettone Baking Paper – Prep your favorite Italy-loving chef for his or her holiday baking with some baking papers for panettone, Milan’s signature Christmas bread. Maybe you’ll get a loaf in return.
  • Pasta Machine – The design on these pasta rollers hasn’t changed in decades. There’s no reason to fuss with it when it works, right? Making pasta at home is a fun way to get the whole family involved in a cooking adventure.
  • Perugina Baci – These chocolates, made in Perugia, are pretty easy to find in the United States these days, or you can get them in boxes online.

Italian Household Items

Deruta plate || creative commons photo by picdrops

Deruta plate || creative commons photo by picdrops

There are a million ways to surround yourself with all things Italian in your home – a quick search of the words “Italy” or “Italian” on any shopping website will give you more ideas than you can handle. This is, then, clearly not an exhaustive list. It’s a small selection of things that I think are particularly evocative of Italy, while still being classy enough to add to any home’s decor. (In other words, I’m not going to list that apron with Michelangelo’s David on the front. Ahem.)

  • Florentine Paper – I know, I know – no one writes letters anymore. It’s kind of true. But when you do sit down to write a thank you note after the holidays (you should still do that by mail, y’know), why not do it in Italian style with some ornate Florentine paper?
  • Deruta Ceramics – Serving your latest culinary masterpiece on something as beautiful as pottery from Deruta will make any dish that much more appealing. Genuine Deruta ceramics are quite expensive, so this is the gift you want to reserve for a spouse or favorite grandparent. Also, be aware that knock-offs are plentiful, especially online.
  • Italian Magnetic Poetry – Whether you’re learning the language for an upcoming trip or you’re trying to keep your Italian skills fresh, these fridge magnets are a fun way to do both.
  • Italian Phrase-of-the-Day Calendar – One of the things I love about these calendars is that they not only expand your vocabulary, they offer cultural insights into Italy along the way.
  • Santa Maria Novella Perfume – The famous pharmacy in Florence has outposts in a few other cities around the world (including Los Angeles and New York), so if you want a super-fancy gift for the Italophile who has everything, consider a scented soap, perfume, or hand lotion.
  • La Cucina Italian Encyclopedia of Italian Cooking – The lovely La Cucina Italiana magazine may be no more, but you can pick up the magazine’s tome of a cookbook, containing more than 500 recipes.
  • Italian Flag Ornament – I love adding travel souvenirs to my holiday decorations, and this is a great way to display Italian pride.
  • Azzurri Jersey – Soccer fan on your holiday list? Don’t worry about what team he or she supports – get a jersey from the Italian national team and you know you can’t go wrong.

Books About Italy

Book & coffee || creative commons photo by John Nicholls

Book & coffee || creative commons photo by John Nicholls

Bring Italy into your brain with a book, either something about an aspect of Italian culture or history or a work of fiction set in Italy. Here are some of my all-time favorites.

  • The Dark Heart of Italy – This is no Under the Tuscan Sun. It’s an honest look at the complicated (and corrupt) world of Italian politics post-WWII, though it’s told with a great deal of affection by a man who lived in Italy for many years.
  • Ratking – This is the first of the series of Aurelio Zen murder mysteries by Michael Dibdin. Each is set in a different Italian city, and I recommend every single one of them. Note that they contain some pretty graphic descriptions of murders (fictional, but still). They also contain some pretty amazing descriptions of Italian cities, each of which becomes a central character to the story.
  • Art History Books by Ross King – These books are great examples of how to make non-fiction exciting. King goes into the history behind the creation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling (Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling), the design and building of the Florence Duomo’s dome (Brunelleschi’s Dome), and the painting of one of the most famous and delicate frescoes on earth (Leonardo & the Last Supper). They are all worth reading, particularly before you visit Rome, Florence, or Milan, respectively.
  • The Agony & the Ecstasy – This is a fictionalized account of the life of Michelangelo. It takes plenty of liberties with what may or may not be true, but it’s fascinating nonetheless (and based on plenty of research into the era as well as the art and people involved).
  • An Irreverent Curiosity – I love my friend David Farley’s book about his search for one of the Catholic Church’s least-discussed relics – Jesus’ holy foreskin – apparently stolen from a small, forgotten hill town outside Rome.
  • The City of Falling Angels – This is the story of the 1996 burning of Venice’s famed opera house, La Fenice, and the investigation into who might have committed arson. You may remember author John Berendt’s novel-turned-blockbuster Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil.
  • A Season With Verona – If you’re a lover of Italian soccer, then this is the book for you. The author spends a year traveling to every single game of his home team, often with the most ardent of the team’s supporters.
  • Pomodoro! A History of the Tomato in Italy – Tomoatoes may seem ubiquitous in Italian cuisine, but they’re not. This book traces the tomato’s path to Italy, then to the U.S., and then back to Italy. It’s a more interesting journey than you might expect.
  • Extra Virginity: The Sublime & Scandalous World of Olive Oil – Perhaps you already know that “extra virgin” on olive oil could be meaningless, depending on where you get your oil. But you may not realize just how gritty the world of olive oil production truly is.
  • My Cousin the Saint – One man traces his family history back to Italy and finds out one of his ancestors is an Italian saint. It’s not your average family tree.
  • Dream of Venice – Yes, this is the book in which a short essay of mine is featured. It’s also an utterly gorgeous book about an impossibly photogenic city, full of images by Charles Christopher and words contributed by a stellar line-up – including Frances Mayes, Woody Allen, Julie Christie, and many more. Anyone who loves Venice will fall in love with this book.

Movies About Italy

Cinema Italia || creative commons photo by Roberto Venturini

Cinema Italia || creative commons photo by Roberto Venturini

You can add to your DVD collection instead of your bookshelf and still bring Italian entertainment into your life. These are all Italian films I adore, and I think you will, too.

Note that some of these DVDs are imports from Italy, and will not play on most DVD players sold in the US or Canada. Look for “Region 1” compatible DVDs for discs that will play in those countries.

  • Cinema Paradiso – This is a classic from 1988, and there’s also a 2002 “director’s cut” of the film that’s absolutely worth watching. It actually made me feel differently about the characters. You may want to watch both, if you haven’t seen the original in awhile.
  • The Bicycle Thief – Another classic, this simple film about a poor family in post-World War II Italy remains as poignant and powerful today as it did when it came out in 1948.
  • Life is Beautiful – Yes, this 1997 Oscar-winner is a desperately sad tale of a family torn apart by the Nazis during World War II. And it’s also – strangely – simultaneously uplifting.
  • La Dolce Vita – Federico Fellini’s crazy gem of a film, La Dolce Vita not only gave us that unforgettable scene of Anita Ekberg wading into the Trevi Fountain in an evening gown, it also gave us the word “paparazzi.”
  • Roman Holiday – I think it’s impossible to watch this sweet film, with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, and not fall in love with both of them – and with Rome.
  • Il Postino – This film just doesn’t quit with the stunning scenery of southern Italy, not to mention Pablo Neruda’s poetry and an achingly adorable love story.
  • The Best of Youth – This was actually a TV drama series. It’s six hours in total, and I defy you to not turn it into a marathon one Saturday afternoon. It’s a gripping story that follows one Italian family through more than four decades of the country’s history.
  • Benvenuti al Sud – If you’ve ever visited the south of Italy, you need to see this film. It’s really funny, and also makes fun of some of the silly stereotypes northern Italian have about their southern cousins (and vice versa). The theme was flipped in the sequel, Benvenuti al Nord.

Italy Stuff for Kids

Leonardo da Vinci tank model in France || creative commons photo by Elliott Brown

Leonardo da Vinci tank model in France || creative commons photo by Elliott Brown

Want to get your kids on board with the Italian lifestyle at an early age? Or are you prepping them for an upcoming trip? Either way, here are a few ideas to incorporate Italy into their holiday, too.

  • Leonardo da Vinci Models – Let your kids try their hands at putting together some of da Vinci’s designs, and perhaps they’ll have a better appreciation for the Renaissance master when they get to Italy.
  • La Befana Figurine – Introduce a new holiday tradition to your kids with the story of La Befana, and a figurine of the gift-giving witch. You can also include a book about La Befana if your kids aren’t already familiar with the story.
  • Pinocchio Book – If your kids don’t already know the Pinocchio story, this is the perfect chance to bring it into their lives. Do yourself (and your kids) a favor and skip the non-Disney version. Get a translation of the original Carlo Collodi story, which is definitely darker (not suitable for really young kids) – and also far more textured, nuanced, and wonderful.
  • Italian Language Book for Children – There are lots of language-learning books aimed squarely at kids. And, hey, if you’re all learning together, you can all use the same books. This link is for all age groups, but you can break it down further by age ranges if you want to get books specifically geared toward your kids.
  • Italy Travel Book for for Children – Get your kids involved with the trip planning by giving them a kids-oriented book about the country before they get there. Of course, there are a zillion books available, so check out reviews to see which one your kids will like best. I haven’t read it myself, but there is a “Not for Parents” guide to Rome by the Lonely Planet folks, so you know they’ve at least got the travel guide part nailed. There’s also this combination Italian language learning and Italy travel book for kids ages 8-12 or so, which may be a good catch-all for cultural insights as well as language tips. And although this one is really for the parents, it may give you good overall intel on traveling in Italy with kids (including prepping them before you leave home).

A note about the product links, if you’re curious: The Powell’s Books and Amazon links in this post are called “affiliate” links, meaning I get a commission from Amazon if you purchase something via those links. The price of the product for you doesn’t go up, however. The links for the tour companies and Italy newsletter listed in the travel section are also affiliate links, and (again) the price you pay for each item doesn’t change. In other words, the buying experience for you is no different, and I get a little something for introducing you to whatever lovely thing you end up buying. If you use one of these affiliate links, I offer my heartfelt thanks for your support of Italy Explained.

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