These are the souvenirs you should be bringing back from Italy


These are the souvenirs you should be bringing back from Italy

22 February 2017

Don't be tempted by the barbecue aprons printed with Michelangelo's David. Instead, bring home hand-crafted souvenirs for unique and beautiful mementos.

One of the great joys of visiting Italy is discovering the country's rich tradition of local crafts, many of which continue to be practiced by just a few tenacious artisans dedicated to keeping their often centuries-old art thriving. Though you may be tempted by the whimsical barbecue aprons printed with Michelangelo's David or the classic leaning tower of Pisa paper weights, resist squandering your shopping allowance on these dust-collecting tchotchkes. Instead, support Italy's historic artisan workshops and ateliers by purchasing a unique, hand-made memento that carries with it all the tradition of the region you are exploring. Some of the best souvenirs you can bring back from Italy are gourmet treats: the excellent regional wines and certified authentic extra-virgin olive oils, vinegar, cheeses, truffles, and pastas that are hard to find outside of their immediate area of production. But if you've hit your limit of gourmet goodies and are looking for a souvenir that both captures the character of the place you are visiting and meets the more practical requisite of being easy to pack in your suitcase for the return trip home, here are some suggestions for regional specialties, from famous to little-known. A few tips before you go:
  • Workshops are usually run by a single artisan or small family, so expect the shop to be closed in the early afternoon on weekdays and all day Sunday.
  • Many artisans who sell to travelers are savvy about international shipping. If you’d rather not pack that set of ceramic plates or case of wine, ask about their shipping services.
  • Look out for cheap knock-offs! This is especially true of Venetian masks and Tuscan leather. If the price is too good to be true, you can be certain that you are looking at a counterfeit.

Authentic souvenirs to bring back from Italy

Scrumptious gianduiotti from Piedmont

You have your bags packed with bottles of some of Italy's most prestigious wines and “white gold” truffles from Alba, but make sure to tuck in one more regional specialty before heading home: creamy gianduiotti from Turin. These triangle-shaped chocolates are individually wrapped in gold foil and sold in most gourmet and pastry shops (a famous company is Guido Gobino) in and around the city. Gianduiotto by Guido Gobino Gianduiotto by Guido Gobino - © Guido Gobino

The name gianduiotti comes from gianduja,  a chocolate confectionary invented in the late 18th century by the Piedmontese chocolatier Michele Prochet, who added 30% hazelnut paste to his chocolates to make up for the cocoa shortage during Napoleon's reign. In 1852, Turin's historic Caffarel chocolate company began using gianduja to make elegant gianduiotti, shaped like the hat worn by Piedmont's traditional “Gianduja” character, one of the masks of the Italian Commedia dell'Arte.

Elaborate Carnevale masks from Veneto

Speaking of masks, for a unique yet iconic gift, choose an ornately decorated mask from Venice. Historically, the function of Venetian masks was to allow their wealthy wearers anonymity while indulging in the vices for which La Serenissima was known all year round. To this end, masks were plain black or white and limited to the traditional Commedia dell'Arte characters:  Bauta, with a beak-like shape; Columbina, a half-mask held up with a baton or fastened to the head with a ribbon; Medico della Peste, with round eye-holes and long nose; and the Volto, a stark white full-face mask. Today, masks from Venice are worn exclusively during the winter Carnevale festivities or hung as decorative objects. They’re elaborately decorated in workshops like Ca' Macana in the Dorsoduro neighborhood. Here you can either purchase one of their meticulously handcrafted masks, or take a mask-making workshop with their trained artisans and decorate your own.

Top quality leather from Tuscany

Leather craftsman, Scuola del Cuoio, Santa Croce, Florence - by Gwendolyn Stansbury Leather craftsman, Scuola del Cuoio, Santa Croce, Florence - by Gwendolyn Stansbury

Another iconic regional craft in Italy is Tuscany's sumptuous leather, used to create timeless coats, elegant shoes, trendy handbags, and gorgeously bound books. The heart of the region's leather production is Florence, which has a thriving artisan culture embodied in dozens of tiny workshops scattered throughout the historic center. If you’d like to invest in hand-sewn shoes or a bag that will last a lifetime, you'll find it in Florence. Though most visitors shop at the crowded San Lorenzo market, skip this tourist trap and opt for the Scuola del Cuoio in Santa Croce, the city’s historic leather school. Founded after World War II by the Monastery of Santa Croce and a number of local leather artisans, the school was originally aimed at teaching war orphans a trade. Today, anyone interested in learning or perfecting their craft can enroll, and the school's shop carries beautiful accessories and home decor made by their trained artisans.

Intricately decorated ceramics from Umbria

Majolica ceramics are to Umbria what leather is to Tuscany. The tiny town of Deruta, located just outside the production zone of red Umbrian wine Sagrantino di Montefalco near Perugia, is the center of Umbria's historic majolica production. Deruta has been famous for its intricately decorated ceramics for at least five hundred years, and has developed a number of signature styles over the centuries. The most historic include the “Raffaelesco,” featuring grottesche floral, rooster, and dragon patters said to be inspired by the works of Raphael, and the “Bella Donna,” decorated with profile portraits of period maidens and honorific banderoles encircled by delicate decorative borders. the best souvenirs from Italy - Deruta ceramics - by Douglas Hoyt Deruta ceramics - by Douglas Hoyt

You can't miss Deruta along Umbria’s principal highway, marked by dozens of ceramic workshops beginning in the center of the hill town and spilling down the hillside to the motorway in the valley below. Stop here to select exquisite pieces of majolica hand-painted with the same care and skill today as five hundred years ago.

Whimsical clay whistles from Puglia

Deruta's majolica is formal and staid, but the terracotta whistles from Puglia show the more playful side of Italy's historic ceramic tradition. In the town of Rutigliano just north of the Salento peninsula and winemaking region, whistle-making is such a part of the local artisan culture that there is a museum dedicated to the history and craft of these whimsical pieces of art. Formed in an endless variety of shapes—flora and fauna, animated characters, popular celebrities or politicians, miniature houses or Vespa scooters—the whistles can be purely cheerful, subtly satirical, or even slightly off-color...but they all have a mouthpiece at the back so they can be blown. Traditionally, clay whistles were believed to herald romance and symbolized fertility, in addition to bringing good fortune by chasing away the evil eye.  Puglia's one-of-a-kind whistles may not bring luck and offspring, but they are sure to bring a smile.