The Elusive Bella Figura and How to Find It

‘La Brutta Figura’ was partly inspired by the desire to communicate to others the gulf of difference between visiting a country, namely Italy, and living there. Italy might be another European country but it’s arbitrary fashion rules, imperative food traditions and relaxed employment regulations could hark from Mars from the expat’s point of view. My first ever blog post explored the concept of ‘la brutta figura’ – making a bad impression – which ranges from the wrong use of the informal ‘you’ to wearing unbranded sunglasses to not being able to wax lyrical about a Raffaello painting on command. ‘La bella figura’ is an art, encompassing appearance, comportment, cultural education and more besides.

After two years of living in Italy, however, I still have never been able to beat an Italian at paying for a drink at the bar, still do not have a specific ‘intimo’ soap solely for the bidet and still have never been able to swirl a glass of wine without narrowly avoiding a burgundy disaster. While the bella figura does relate to appearance, that side is certainly the most superficial element. The bella figura really shines through with how you conduct yourself in social situations and your educated conversation. I have therefore decided that through the aid of some very Italian New Year’s Resolutions I shall transform the brutta figura into the bella figura and share with you the essentials for becoming a full fledged italiana!*

*Well, a few New Year’s Resolutions aren’t going to prevent an expat sticking out like a sore thumb in a social situation but it will at least be an improvement on my first few months here naively saying ‘ciao’ to all the anziani… (very impolite).

1.Learn to make fresh pasta (properly) from Nonna from the South

Every morning my boyfriend’s grandmother, who comes from Basilicata in the south, makes fresh pasta using flour she brought from her home because she doesn’t trust the produce in the north. She makes anything from tagliatelle to tortellini and she tells me it’s very theraputic. It may be a little antiquated but it certainly should be a skill in la bella figura’s repetoire.

2.Undergo a cooking course in a Tuscan villa so I can whip up a delicious three course dinner at a moment’s notice

A born and bred Tuscan Giulia Scarpaleggia teaches from her traditional family home in the countryside making dishes based on local ingredients (such as pecorino cheese or olive oil from local producers) and seasonal varieties. Every town and village in Italy seems to have its local speciality born from the particularities of produce and agriculture characteristic of that area. It’s time to impress with my profound knowledge of Italian culinary variety and superior cooking skills, and a cooking course involving wine and dinner after seems to be a good start. (website here)

3.Avoid Food Crimes

We expats always get snide remarks about drinking the wrong coffee at the wrong time of day or the absurd concoction that is Hawaiian pizza or our complete ignorance towards good food in general. Eating and drinking is a minefield and the expat needs to be battle ready to avoid shameful faux pas. Helpfully, the Academia Barilla lists the 10 Italian Cooking Commandments on their website using many angry exclamation marks. Take note expats.

4.Become a wine snob

The unfortunate dislexic Vicar of Nibbleswicke taught flummoxed readers that one should never ‘plug’ wine, but rather ‘pis’ it, but that’s about as far as my wine knowledge goes. Unfortunately that won’t cut it in Italy. You need to know your millesimato from your *insert Italian wine beginning with ‘m’ here. And knowing that white wine goes well with fish is not impressive. I have a lot to learn, and hoping this knowledgeable fellow’s blog (web address ‘ubriaco’) and this jazzy blog, which is certainly not written by ‘balding upper-middle-class twits’, will assist me.

Here, incidently, are more rather terrifying commandments this time on the subject of wine, enlivened with words like ‘adulteration’, ‘covet’ and ‘murder’. They are, however, riddled with wine in-jokes which are lost on me.

5.Learn the formal ‘you’

9781403936752My couple of years learning Italian at school have been invaluable here, but one yawning gap in my knowledge is using formal address. At school you do not learn a language with the sole aim of living in the country in the future, and in fact the language you use as an expat is vastly different. I might have come from school knowing how to analyse the metaphors in a novel but I spent months praying I’d never need to ask for a knife and fork in a restaurant. The formal ‘you’ is certainly something that never seemed vital at school but one wrong verb ending and I’ve unintentionally offended a harmless old man. It’s time to buy a grammar textbook and get learning the eternal variations of verb endings that exist in Italian! I recommend the Palgrave Foundations series for any budding Italian students.

6.Express yourself in style

Italian is the language of poetry, of epic texts, of oratory and eloquence. It is full of heavenly musical sounds (which makes it so well suited to opera). It is also a very creative language, with innumerable delightful idioms and expressions to enliven dialogue. People who are able to exploit the great variety of Italian to its fullest extent are rare and are respected. Grammar can get tedious so I’ll supplement it with improving my knowledge of unusual adjectives and quirky idioms. Here are some expressions to get started, on the topic of food:


  1. You are like parsley – you pop up everywhere.
  2. I know my chickens – I know who I’m talking about.
  3. You can’t have a full barrel and a drunk wife – you can’t have your cake and eat it.
  4. Don’t be a salame – don’t be an idiot.


7.Travel to Learn and Learn to Travel

One of the most valuable gains from living (rather than just visiting) Italy is the luxury to do day trips or weekends in the car to little villages or country villas or lonely monasteries that those tourists arriving by plane tend to miss. From these visits one realises the real depth and breath of culture that derives partly from the fact that Italy only became a unified country in 1871. As such even the most insignificant town has its speciality dishes, its own celebrations and customs, its own traditional dress and often its own language (there are hundreds of different languages and dialects spoken throughout The Boot deriving from Latin, Romance, Germanic, Slavic and Hellenic roots). Cultural knowledge is of great standing when it comes to la bella figura so my future travels around the bel paese will have a new role as opportunities to deepen my knowledge of my adopted home.

8.Celebrate Traditional Festivals

The still very individual regions of Italy express their characters through local festivals deriving from celebrations of food, drink, religion, politics and more. While sadly the cynical modern world means folk dancing and wood whittling are becoming less popular past-times, these festivals are still celebrated profusely with local customs. In the tourist-ridden cities the revival some of these festivals may be the cunning plan of the tourist board, but venture into smaller cities or the countryside and you can find, for example, the festival of the jujube berry in Arquà Petrarca (the berry liqour is very tasty), or chestnut festivals throughout autumn, or the lesser-known but very entertaining Palio of Ferrara (involving donkeys). The Italian has Italy in his heart, there’s no doubt about that, but his greatest love is for his region and his town.

I think that’s ambitious enough to be getting on with. Look out for a similar post next Capodanno as it’s likely I’ll have spent the year drinking wine using the ‘plug’* method and thinking lasagne is the height of culinary achievement rather than attempting these New Year’s Resolutions.

*For those of you whose childhood did not revolve around Roald Dahl books and dreaming of going poaching with Danny and his Dad, this means ‘gulp’.

Buon Anno!

15 thoughts on “The Elusive Bella Figura and How to Find It

  1. Sounds like you will have a wonderful year working to fulfill your resolutions! Do you have a good resource for Italian idioms? I love learning them as well, and I do think to be able to use them correctly makes you sound much more like a local! Would love your suggestion on a good resource book of idioms/expressions. Buon anno!


  2. After years of living here, I’ve just quite simply decided not to use the formal “you” (except in very limited occasions). I use it with old people, and really fancy locations, and okay maybe the job interview. Besides that it’s out the window. My Italian hubby almost never uses it. And when I’m receiving any service, I’be come to understand that I dictate when it’s used. But most importantly, I’m AMERICAN. (Lol) and they know it doesn’t exist in our language


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