What to Buy in Italy: Souvenir Shopping in the Land of La Dolce Vita

Wines from Italy

I can’t bring home the sunshine. Nor will the arias that waft through the opera house in Parma follow me all the way across the Atlantic. The gelato,  the Parma ham and the cheese and the wines might make the trip — but I’m not looking for more baggage on my waistline, thank you very much. So how do I bring la doce vita home?

For tourists in Italy, shopping is a delight, whether it’s in a village market or an upscale designer showroom in Milan. Here are some unique souvenir and gift ideas that will keep the memories (and flavors) or your trip to Italy fresh.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Italy may be one of the world’s shopping spree capitals, and when in Rome…
  • There’s a wonderful elegance in the attention to detail and the appreciation for quality here.
  • Good for fashion, food, and art lovers.

Italian Clothing and Accessories

Milan, of course, is an international fashion center. A  high-design clothing make-over may not be in your budget, but a splurge on stylish shoes or a great purse can bring Italian design home and last for years. Gloves are another high-impact style item, easy for tourists to carry and bring home. For men, check out silk neckties and leather goods such as wallets, belts, and business card holders.

Murano glass pendant

And, of course, stylish costume jewelry is another easily portable purchase. If Venice is on your itinerary, hold off buying jewelry until you get to Murano, where the famed glass is made.

You don’t have to frequent high-priced boutiques to find interesting designs. Italy has succumbed to the outlet mall craze, where you’ll find bargains with fancy designer names. Street markets are another choice (and a bit more fun than malls): Sure, there’s lot of junk to be found in the tourist markets in cities like Florence — the ubiquitous T-shirts and cheesy replicas of  Michelangelo’s David or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But treasures are buried in these markets, too. In Florence, nearly 30 years ago, I bought a scarf for seven dollars on the Ponte Vecchio (where there’s also a good selection of both jewelry and gelato). My scarf has a few tiny pills now, but it still gets so many comments that I can’t bear to throw it out.

Italian Food Souvenirs

Pastas make nice gives, and travel well, too.

A warning about food souvenirs: There is a long list of foods you can’t transport across international boundaries, especially if you live in the U.S. or Canada.

So, with the customs inspector firmly in mind, what are some Italian food souvenirs?

  • Olive Oil. It’s in almost every Italian dish. Bring home a gift bottle infused with herbs.
  • Traditional Modena Balsamic Vinegar. This makes a great gift, but it’s pricey. Note: the “Tradizionale” designation is a legally protected food label that confirms that the vinegar is manufactured according to strict aging specifications. Traditional balsamic vinegar is not the same as any other high-quality balsamic vinegar (which is also made, and is widely available in, Modena). The process – and the results – are totally different, with the vinegar being aged and distilled in a series of oak casks like a fine port. It makes a great condiment for both pastas (raviolis, for instance, or stuffed shells), and it can even be eaten on ice cream! (Don’t judge before you try it; it’s delicious!) But a small bottle costs about $60.
  • Wine. Italy’s wines range from light bubbly lambruscos to earthy chiantis. Winemaking is a highly local industry here, with each region’s climate creating different flavors and favoring different grapes. If you drink a wine you like in a restaurant, find out its name and whether it’s local. If it is, buy it on the spot, because you may not find it again. (For wines you learn about in restaurants, an Italian friend also suggested asking waiters for your empty wine bottle: You can soak off the label, and try to order the wine once you get home.)
  • Packaged baked goods. Panforte, also known as “Siena cake” is a sort of fruit cake with honey and candy; it’s a local specialty of Siena (home of the famous palio horse races, which take place in the summer). Biscotti, of course, are hard biscuits that melt when dipped in coffee.
  • A quick and easy place to pick up food gifts is at the “AutoGrille” store chain, found on alongside Italian autoroutes. It’s the equivalent of our highway rest-stops and food courts, only theirs are filled with gourmet goodies. Italians take advantage of the fast-food there (note: it does not in the least resemble our “fast food”) but they avoid the souvenir items as being over-priced.

Italian Cooking Accessories

Some Iitalian classics, including Limoncello, olives, and Modena viengar

Merge traditional Italian cuisine and contemporary Italian style, and what do you get? Fabulous cookware, including utensils, bowls, and serving items. An Italian cookware store is a feast for the imagination. In Bellagio on Lake Como, I bought a vinegar and oil dispenser that has one glass container (for vinegar) inside another (for oil). Tools for cutting and serving pasta are both easy to transport and practical, and will certainly bring back memories of your Italian trip!

Colorful pottery is also available in many small markets, particularly in smaller towns and villages. Pasta bowls, mugs, and decorative plates are both beautiful and functional. Linens and tableware of both traditional and contemporary design are available in all price ranges. Veneto is a center of pottery making; two other important pottery-making towns with shops, galleries, and don’t-miss museum exhibits are Nove and Faenza (home of the famed Faience ware, which has been made since the Renaissance).

Italian Gifts

Any of the above items make good gifts, but here are a few more ideas for people with specific interests:

  • For kids and car-lovers: A reproduction toy-sized Ferrari from the Ferrari Museum in Modena.
  • For a music lover: CDs, framed posters, and book about Italian opera from the La Scala Gift Ship in Milan.
  • For a soccer (better make that football) fan: Scarves, caps, and mugs supporting a favorite team.
  • For a religious friend: Rosaries or religious statuettes from Vatican City.
  • For a chef: An apron from a cooking shop.
  • For an art lover: A guidebook or a reproduction from the Uffizi gift shop in Florence. (Museums shops throughout Italy are great sources of quality souvenirs that reference local cities.)

Practicalities

If you live on the American side of the Atlantic, you will have to leave the Parma ham and pastrami behind. The U.S. Department of Border Protection has a list of prohibited and restricted items. Dried and packaged food is generally okay, except for meats (dried, packaged, or in any other form). Some types of cheese (generally hard aged cheese such as Parmesan) are okay, runny smelly blue cheese is not. Bottled oils and vinegars, and vegetables preserved in oils with herbs are all fine, but don’t pack them in hand luggage because of airline regulations.

 

 

About 

Karen Berger is the author of 16 books, most recently "America's Great Hiking Trails" (Rizzoli, 2014). She has hiked, ridden horses, kayaked, scuba dived, climbed, sailed, skied, and marveled on six continents.

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