Grazie, Italia: eight things that make Italy great

By topgear, 12 March 2020

At the risk of irking Boris Johnson and his ilk, Italy is by far and away the best country in the world. And so it hurts us greatly (although, it must be said, nowhere near as greatly as it hurts them) to see our Meditteranean brothers and sisters languish and suffer under the weight of coronavirus. As Reuters reports, “shops and restaurants closed, hundreds of flights were cancelled and streets emptied across Italy”.

And this, to undersell it mildly, sucks.

It got us thinking, though – how could we help? After a quick confab in the office revealed that none of us are epidemiologists, we decided that the best we could offer is a tribute to all the things that make Italy great.

Hopefully, it’ll remind Italians that, while they will have to sit things out for a while until this all calms down, what they’ve achieved up to this point has already earned them a lifetime achievement award.

And for the rest of you, this ought to instil enough wanderlust to put this grande terra on your post-outbreak travel plans.

STORY Craig Jamieson

The cars

We could just wax lyrical about the cars for about 11,000 words and still not cover the length and breadth of Italy’s fantastic automotive oeuvre. We’re going to try as hard as we can not to dip into the usual ‘passion, brio, soul’ schtick and try to keep things as straightforward as possible.

So, you want V12s? You got ‘em. V8s? Them too. V6s with the power of V8s? Indeed. Mid-engined, front-engined, hybrid, turbo, nat-asp. Whatever your automotive kink is, Italy is only too happy to supply something that’ll slap a smile on your face so wide that your ears are involved.

The coachbuilders

How many coachbuilders can you name, in 30secs or less, off the top of your head? We’re guessing (due to the limitations of the written word when it comes to call-and-response) that it’s probably somewhere between three and eight. And now we want you to think about how many of these studios and coachworks are outside of Italy.

Yep, whether it’s the avant-garde mashup of racing nous and utter weirdness that is Zagato, the so-pretty-you’re-afraid-to-touch-them lines of Touring, the angular splendour of Bertone or the dependable excellence of Pininfarina and Giugiaro, you know them by their name, and their works.

Sure, there are coachbuilders across the world, even the brightest luminaries of the not-Italian coachbuilders – Mulliner, Karmann, Chapron – can’t possibly stand up against a cavalcade of names like Ghia, Scaglietti, Vignale, Italdesign, Bizzarrini, Frua, Fissore…

The roads

Sure, the cities can be a chaotic cornucopia of lunging traffic and a laissez-faire attitude to traffic signals or road rules. So do what we do – get out of the ancient cities that were never really designed for cars and out onto the rural roads, which feel as though they were designed both for cars, and the maximum extraction of fun possible.

Really, it’s the same level of choice as you have with cars. Want a narrow ribbon of tarmac draped delicately along a shoreline? Simple. How about a snowy mountain pass through the Alps? No worries there. Rural roads that cut through the forests of Lombardy so beautifully and sinuously that you’re in danger of making a really obvious reference to tagliatelle at every turn? Hand us the motoring writer cliche handbook…

The race tracks

If you tire of Italy’s roads – and we do suggest clinical help if this is the case, because, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, if you tire of Italian roads, you tire of life  – you can always replenish your inner speed with a trip to an Italian race circuit. Internationally renowned, FIA certified and properly infamous tracks like Imola, Monza, Mugello and Misano are available – y’know, except for when the GP’s on.

More of a top-speed fiend? Consider the Nardo Ring, about 12.5km of sheer terror and delight, and home to frankly ridiculous speeds and terrifying failures – such as Loris Bicocchi, whose Bugatti prototype shed tyres, brakes and then many important and expensive bits as it plowed along the guard rail… for more than a mile.

Or how about the Mille Miglia? It’s the race where none other than Enzo Ferrari got his start and continues (in a modified form, it must be said) as perhaps the best exhibition of classic metal we can think of. Er, sorry, Lord March.

The food and drink

Quick question: what’s the best road trip food? Anyone who said sandwiches can take their caravan and sod off. Sausage roll enthusiasts can enjoy crumbs of pastry down their front and incipient heart disease. And whoever said salad… come on. You don’t make friends that way.

Of course the answer is pizza! Fresh, aromatic, and delicious for vegetarians and carnivores alike. In Italy, it’s out of the oven by the time you’ve had a restorative San Pellegrino, delicious in every wood-fired bite and generally gone as fast as our fat fingers can convey it to our mouths. And we’re not even going to go past mentioning calzone for fear of shorting out another keyboard with our Pavlovian drooling.

Now in a blissful food coma, you might be wondering how to fortify yourself for the onward journey. It’s as simple as getting a waiter’s attention and uttering this simple phrase: doppio espresso, per favore. It is the very finest coffee. It is the very finest way to make coffee. And it is about as Italian as it gets.

Be sure to finish your drive at sundown, because then you can experience some of Italy’s best contributions to the art of eating well. We’re talking Aperol, vermouth, or Campari as an aperitif, dinner with more courses than your average university and then Limoncello to soothe your overindulged stomach.

The sights

Tell us a more beautiful place than Italy and you’ll have the perfect foundation for an argument so full of vitriol and spittle that you’ll likely wish you’d never bothered.

Natural beauty? Got that one stitched up already, and embroidered a Fendi badge on the front. From the almost-Austrian Alpine beauty of the Dolomites and South Tyrol, down the impeccably alluring coastline from the Cinque Terre to the Amalfi, over the rolling Tuscan hills or ascending the edifice of Etna as it smoulders, there is no end to the awesome sights available from behind the wheel.

Add in the countless historical, archaeological and architectural paramounts from Pisa to Puglia and you’ve got scenery worth taking a lifetime’s worth of moments to gaze upon. Or a series of photos that you then post to social media with vacuous captions in a futile effort to monetise your life. Y’know, your choice.

The design

Italian design is one of those things that we’re hardwired to conflate with ‘excellent’. The usual trope goes something along the lines of ‘the reliability is not up there with the Japanese, but the design saves it’. How many times have you read that before?

But let’s move away from cars (just for a second; don’t panic) and think about the broader picture. Or building. Or item of clothing. Or furniture. Or boats, motorbikes, scooters…

Italy, then, to skirt any number of cliches at dangerously close distance, is a land of complete aesthetes. Marie Kondo’s idea of joyful objects? Pah. The Italians had that downpat centuries before she made her millions telling people to clean up their crap.

Take just a few modern(ish) examples of things that were prettier than they ever needed to be. Ask an Italian to make a simple two-stroke scooter and he comes back with the Vespa. Ask for a cheap family runabout that saves on expensive steel and you get the Fiat 500. Ask for a boat to take out on Lake Como or Maggiore and you get the Riva, a vessel that matches both for sheer beauty. Ask for shoes and you get Ferragamos. Ask for a simple cup of coffee in the morning? Two words: Moka Pot.

The engineering

OK, we’ve prattled on about all things bright and beautiful for long enough. It’s time for some waft-free words about how your car would be about as useful as a glass hammer if not for the Italians.

So, the next time you get in your car, thank Alessandro Volta for inventing the battery that means you don’t have to hand-crank the thing to life. Thank Vincenzo Lancia, who pioneered the unibody car, saving you from ladder-framed rubbish.

Thank Eugenio Barsanti and Felice Matteucci, who were instrumental in the development of the internal combustion engine. Thank Gugliemo Marconi for your ability to listen to 6Music as you cruise along. Thank Antonio Meucci when you make a call to AA after running out of petrol.

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