Your Italian Travel Tips… UNESCO Site in Sicily, Cefalù: When Yellow and Blue Don’t Make Green

Cefalù, Sicily, UNESCO World Heritage Site
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! Here is another of my favorite blogs with unique travel tips that I would like to share.

About once a month, I will reblog a post about lesser-known sites or places to visit in Italy under the title “Your Italian Travel Tips.” The post for April was written by Donna Fenice, a travel blogger who writes the blog Loving Italy’s Gardens, in which she shares stories about her Italian adventures, which all start with her desire to visit Italy’s gardens. Her tagline is, “Exploring the regions of Italy, one garden at a time,” which gives her articles a truly unique perspective.

In her own words, Donna says:

Gardens and Italy are my favourite things.  My love of gardening came first.  As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved puttering around with plants and dirt.  My love of Italy came much later and was totally unanticipated.  Years ago, OK, decades ago, as a student at the University of Toronto, I signed up for the ‘Third Year Abroad’ program.  My subjects were French and German so the plan was to spend the 1st semester in France and the 2nd in Germany.  I had a wonderful time in France, but…

I decided to get as far as I could from the bone-chilling dampness of December in France. Geography and my meagre resources dictated Italy.  I made it as far as Umbria in Central Italy, where in the town of Perugia it was possible to enrol at the Università per Stranieri (University for Foreigners) for 40,000 lire ($40 Canadian) on a month-to-month basis.  That first month stretched into a few more and then to a move to Florence, where I lived for almost five years.

Now I live in Toronto, Canada and visit Italy, and occasionally France, as often as I can, seeking out the gardens and lesser known places, as well as the famous ones.  I prefer to stay in B&B’s and agriturismi and have found that a stay of three days gives me time for lots of fascinating and enjoyable conversations with the owners and staff, who often speak very little English and are curious and eager to talk to la signora canadese in their language.  Over the years they have also given me countless tips about memorable places I would never have found or been able to get into on my own. And finally, I travel solo, something which invariably horrifies foreign travellers and delights the locals.


In the post to follow, Donna relates a wonderful adventure she had when she visited the Sicilian town of Cefalù. I love how she crafts her tale of this visit to Sicily, as she describes experiences getting to know the “ins and outs” of Sicilian daily life intertwined with her descriptions of the people and the beauty of the town. Sicily is the Region of Honor for 2018, and Cefalù is a UNESCO city. Read on, and I’m sure you will enjoy her amazing insights and beautiful photos of this unique city in Sicily.

And remember Conversational Italian for Travelers: Just the Important Phrases on and Learn Travel if you need a compact, lightweight pocket guidebook to take on your next trip! Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel

Loving Italy's Gardens

For a long time I wasn’t a fan of the ‘golden hour’, photographese for the brief period before sunset and after sunrise when everything is tinged with a warm, soft golden hue.  As far as I could tell, the only thing those golden rays did was dull the light and turn gardens into sickly yellows.  Then I went to a small fishing village on the north-east coast of Sicily and saw what all the fuss was about.

Cefalù (chay-fah-loo) is the site of the third cathedral in the UNESCO  triumvirate of Arab-Norman cathedrals.   (The other two are in Monreale and Palermo). It was only 120 k west of Tindari (post to come), but the coastal road was a lot more coastal than I’d expected and while it wasn’t ‘eternal’, which is how one commentator on Trip Advisor described it, it took a lot longer than I’d anticipated.

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Learn Italian Cognates—Even More Italian/English Best Friends!

Italian Cognates on via Dante, Milan
Kathryn for
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Learn Travel

Anyone who has studied Italian for even a short time has probably noticed how many Italian words are very similar to English. This is because both languages have words with origins that date back to the Latin language spoken by the Romans. These words are called cognates—words that have a common origin and a similar meaning.

English/Italian cognates can be the best friend of one who is trying to learn either language. But beware! Not all words that sound alike have the same meaning in both languages. There is a pattern, though, and if you can recognize the different groups of cognates, your vocabulary will greatly increase with very little effort.

For words that are similar in Italian and English, the stem of the word will provide a clue to the actual meaning, and the ending will also follow a common pattern.

See how this works below with an excerpt reprinted from the grammar section of our Conversational Italian for Travelers  textbook, courtesy of publisher Stella Lucente, LLC.

For an easy-to read reference book on grammar, the same section is found in the  reference book Conversational Italian for Travelers: Just the Grammar.



Grammar Note: Cognates

Adjectives Ending in -ista, -ologo(a), -ore, -essa/ice, -ario

Chapter 9 of Conversational Italian for Travelers Just the Grammar contains examples of the many different types of jobs available today.

Many of the words that describe the professions in Italian and English are cognates—they have a common origin, share a common stem, and have equivalent endings. The Italian ending will be invariable for some professions, as it is in English, but for others, it will change to reflect the gender of the professional

The ending –ista in Italian is equivalent to the ending –ist in English. The –ista ending is invariable, but the definite article (il, la, or l’) will change to reflect the gender. For more than one professional, change the –a ending to the plural –i for men and –e for women and use the plural definite articles (i, gli, or le), of course!

l’artista = artist    
il farmacista = pharmacist = la farmacista
il pianista = pianist = la pianista
il socialista = socialist = la socialista
il turista = tourist = la turista


The masculine ending –ologo and the feminine ending –ologa in Italian are also equivalent to the ending –ist in English.

il biologo = biologist = la biologa
il geologo = geologist = la geologa
il psicologo = psychologist = la psicologa
il radiologo = radiologist = la radiologa


The ending –ore in Italian is equivalent to the ending –or in English. You will notice that these nouns refer to masculine professions. The corresponding profession in the feminine is either –essa or –ice. 

l’attore = actor = l’attrice
il conduttore = driver/chauffeur = la conduttrice
il dottore = doctor = la dottoressa
il professore = professor = la professoressa


The endings –aria and –ario in Italian are equivalent to the ending –ary in English.

il segretario = secretary = la segretaria
il salario = salary    
il vocabolario = vocabulary    


If you can think of another cognate to add to these lists, please join our Conversational Italian! Facebook group and leave a post, or leave a message below. I’d love to hear from you!


Just the Grammar from Conversational Italian for Travelers
Conversational Italian for Travelers: Just the Grammar

Available on and www.Learn Travel

Italian Lamb Roast for Easter Dinner

Roasted Lamb for Easter


Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Buona Pasqua a tutti!  I am a new convert to celebrating Easter the traditional Italian way, with Easter lamb, as you will discover if you read on below.  But  now I enjoy Easter lamb just as much as any Italian, and – more importantly – my family does, too! The method I developed for roasted Easter lamb was originally posted on March 21, 2018 on the Learn Italian! blog for Stella Lucente, LLC  and Below is an excerpt. Click on the link for the entire method!

I’d love to hear if your family makes Lamb for Easter dinner and your favorite method!

Share your comments below if you like, or in our Conversational Italian Facebook group.

The Easter holiday and the Easter lamb for dinner have been linked together in Italy far beyond recorded years.  But, I have to admit that here in America, my Italian-American family’s own tradition for Easter was (for many years) a special Sunday brunch with friends at our favorite restaurant.  My children loved greeting the Easter bunny as he walked through, the Easter egg hunt, and of course, the special (and the children’s second) Easter basket filled with chocolate goodies provided with dessert.

Now that my family is a bit older, and the charm of the Easter bunny has faded (although not the love of chocolate, mind you),  we prefer to meet at home for Easter.  Since the matriarch of the family, my mother, has had to give up cooking, making our Italian Easter dinner – which, as we all know should feature lamb – has fallen to me.

Another confession – I’ve never really liked the particular “gamy” taste of lamb.  But, luckily, I’ve taken up this family challenge with years of Italian cuisine to fall back on.  I’ve tried several ways to make lamb known to  Italians of different regions.  And I think I’ve found a method that my family all agrees makes our lamb moist and delicious. (Hint: you may find some similarities between this recipe and the pot roast recipe I posted from February.) I hope if you try this recipe for Easter, or for another special family dinner, that your family will agree with mine that it is the most delicate and flavorful lamb you’ve tried. Click here to read on for the recipe!

Italian Father’s Day: St. Joseph’s Day Is La Festa del Papà

Festa del San Giuseppe St. Joseph's Table
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

March is the month for showing thanks to fathers in Italy. “La Festa del Papà” takes place on March 19, the day dedicated to San Giuseppe, or St. Joseph, father of Jesus Christ in the Christian religion.

Many Catholic churches in Italy and America, as well as Italian-American societies, host special ceremonies and parades to give thanks to St. Joseph. In my community in and around Chicago, this is a much-loved holiday that seems to bridge the generations between young and old. I’ve had the honor of celebrating St. Joseph’s Day many times, sometimes with two or three different Italian clubs each year!

The traditional St. Joseph’s Day celebration is completed with an afternoon feast, which is centered on a “St. Joseph’s Table”*—a large, three-tiered table with a statue of St. Joseph in the center surrounded by platter upon platter of special foods. Because it is the Catholic season of Lent, the traditional dishes for the St. Joseph’s Table do not contain meat. But that does not stop the Italians from creating a wonderful feast of pasta, fish, and special pastries to celebrate St. Joseph and all fathers of Italy.

Below is a bit of history about the day that I have found during my research on the topic. And, of course, because much of the focus of this holiday is on the special foods to be made for the feast, a Sicilian recipe for Sfinge—fried dough balls—is found at the end of the blog post.

*Featured image of a St. Joseph’s Table courtesy of


La Festa di San Giuseppe

Il 19 di Marzo

St. Joseph is honored with a special day by many countries of the world that practice Christianity. In Italy, it is said that the people from Sicily hold St. Joseph in special regard because they believe that their prayers to St. Joseph ended a drought that had caused a severe famine during the Middle Ages.

Legend has it that the drought in Sicily one year was so severe that the only vegetable left growing in the fields was the fava bean. The Sicilian people prayed to St. Joseph and promised they would honor him with a great feast every year if he ended the drought. They survived on fava beans until their prayers were answered and the rains came. From that time on, as promised, Sicilians all over the island have dedicated a feast in honor of Saint Joseph. The tradition has continued to today, and the St. Joseph’s Table, as it is now called, has grown into a feast rich in delicious and symbolic foods.

The St. Joseph’s Table should have three tiers, representing the holy trinity of Catholicism. In the center is a statue of St. Joseph. Fava beans are always included—in a bowl by themselves or as part of a dish. An ancient peasant food thought to have been introduced to Sicily by the Romans called “Maccu” (a soup of dried, crushed fava beans, fennel, and olive oil) was included in the past, as “Maccu di San Giuseppe,” but it is rarely seen today in Italy. Today, many Italian Americans have fava beans blessed at church and carry them for good luck for the rest of the year.

Breadcrumbs are also a popular component of the St. Joseph Day feast, and they are said to represent sawdust. This serves as a reminder that St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers and supported his family by working as a carpenter. Breadcrumbs can be found in many Sicilian dishes, and for St. Joseph’s Day, they are popular in stuffed artichokes or in pasta con sarde.

Treats from the bakery abound on the St. Joseph’s Day table, because St. Joseph is also the patron saint of pastry chefs. Every region has its own special “San Giuseppe” breads and desserts. Breads are made into the shape of a staff or a cross. Fried pastries are very popular. “Sfinci” is a small, fried dough ball (fritter) sprinkled with sugar. Larger puff pastry balls called “zeppole” are piped with custard or cannoli cream and are often topped with a maraschino cherry.

The table is also decorated with many types of citrus fruits. And red is the color to wear for good luck at your Festa di San Giuseppe! When you greet people at the festa, say, “May St. Joseph always smile upon you.”

After the celebration, as part of the tradition, the table is broken down, and all food that is left is wrapped and distributed to various charities, so those less fortunate may also partake.

Traditional Sfinge di Ricotta from Sicily


St. Joseph's Day Sfinge
Sfinge, Italian fritters, sprinkled with sugar.

Below is an excerpt from the site Visit Sicily about the wonderful Sicilian treat, Sfinge di Ricotta, which is traditional for La Festa di San Giuseppe. They are simple to make—a puffy, fried dough ball, or fritter, sprinkled with sugar—and delicious!

The recipe of “Sfinci” is one of the oldest, typical Sicilian recipes.  Sicilian people, as all southerner people, go crazy for frying and during Carnival they prepare  thousands of yummy  recipes. These  Sicilian  cookies are small pieces of fried dough enriched with nuggets of raisins or ricotta cheese and then  fried in hot oil.

There are several variants, some of these also add boiled potatoes in the dough. This is the most classic version with a simple mixture of water, sugar, flour and ricotta cheese. Try them, they are delicious, you will not stop eating! 


  • 500 g (whole milk ricotta cheese [about 15–16 oz.])
  • 200/250 g flour (2–2.5 cups)
  • 2 spoons of sugar (teaspoons)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder


Place all ingredients together in a bowl (eggs and ricotta in a well in the center of the dry ingredients) and mix them with a mixer or by hand until you get a dough with a solid and firm consistency. (Start with 2 cups of flour, and add the rest as needed).

Let stand for about 20 minutes.

Then take the dough with the tip of a spoon and push it with your finger in a saucepan filled with boiling oil. (A small, deep pot works well for this step. Use only small bits of dough and try to form a small ball as you roll it off the spoon. Test the oil by putting one piece of dough in and watch it cook. Moderate the oil so it does not get too hot, so the center of the dough will have time to cook.) Let them cook until they have a goldish aspect.

(The pieces of dough will form a puffed ball (fritter) as they cook. When one side is finished cooking, the ball will flip by itself to the other side. When the other side has finished cooking, the ball will flip again. Let the fritter cook a few more seconds after the second flip and then remove it with a slotted spoon.)

(Drain fritters on a paper towel and while still hot roll gently in sugar. Then remove them to a serving bowl and sprinkle with more sugar if desired.)

Sprinkle them with sugar and serve.

*Volumes are approximate and additional directions in parenthesis are added to the original recipe by the author.

Italian Phrases We Use EVERY Day! What’s Happening?

Burano in Venice, Italy
Kathryn for
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Learn Travel

Do you want to speak Italian more easily and confidently by the end of 2018?

I believe that “commonly used phrases” are the key for how we can all build fluency in any language in a short time.

If we learn how to incorporate “commonly used phrases” when we speak Italian, we will be able to express ourselves more easily and quickly. We will be on our way to building complex sentences and speaking more like we do in our native language!

This post is the 11th in a series that originates from our Conversational Italian! Facebook group. Our group has had a chance to use these phrases. Now I am posting them on this blog for everyone to try! 

A “commonly asked question” that will help us talk more easily is
 “What’s happening?”
We will discuss the Italian expressions used to ask this question,
which will lead to some answers such as:
“Everything is fine.” and “I understand.” 

 See below for how this works.

As we all master these phrases, so will you. Try my method, and let me know how it works. What sentences will you create with these phrases?

Please reply. I’d love to hear from you! Or join our Conversational Italian! group discussion on Facebook.

This material was adapted from the Conversational Italian for Travelers textbook and reference books Just the Verbs and Just the Grammar  

                       found on and Learn Travel

The rights to purchase the Conversational Italian for Travelers books in PDF format on two electronic devices can also be obtained at Learn Travel


What’s Happening?

in Italian

The English verb “to happen” is rendered in Italian with several different verbs: succedere, accadere, and capitare. However, the verb used to convey the idea that something is about to happen, especially to somebody, is succedere. Watch any Italian movie, and you will probably hear this verb at least once when one character asks another character to explain what is going on.

Therefore, for the simple question, “What is happening?” we have our verb of choice—succedere. The conjugation is regular in the present tense, so the third-person singular form that we will need for “it” to happen is succede.

The passato prossimo (past tense) can be used as well, for a one-time event that has just happened in the past. The helping verb will be essere, and the past participle is the irregular successo. So to ask what has happened in the past, we will need to use è successo.

Now,  to complete the question we want to ask, we must also learn the different ways to say “what” in Italian.

Che is commonly used as an interrogative expression meaning “What?” Again, anyone who has watched an Italian movie has no doubt heard all of the different variations on how to say “What?” in Italian. “Che?” “Che cosa?” and “Cosa?” all mean “What?” and are used interchangeably.

In fact, three of the most commonly spoken phrases where che is used in this way are the ones we are working on! Here they are:

Che succede? What’s happening?
Che è successo? What happened?
Che c’è? / Cosa c’è? What’s up? What’s going on?
(informal between friends)


Many times, when Italians ask a question, they start the sentence with the verb and leave out che, as in these common phrases:

È successo qualcosa? Did something happen?
È tutto a posto? Is everything all right?




Whenever someone asks a question in Italian, of course, they will expect to hear an answer! Let’s say you have asked, “What’s happened?” and it turns out everything is OK. You may receive one of the general answers below:

Non preoccuparti! Don’t worry (yourself)!
Non succede niente. Nothing is happening.
Non è successo niente. Nothing happened.
Non lo so. I don’t know.
Niente importante. Nothing important.
È tutto a posto.

Va tutto bene.

Everything is all right.

Everything is going well.
Everything is fine.

Ho sistemato tutto. I’ve put everything in order. (as in “I’ve fixed the problem.”)




Or, maybe you already know the information someone is talking about.  A relative or a friend, perhaps, has done something that is no surprise to you.  In this case, we can use expressions that include “che c’è” to convey a bit of irony.

Che c’è di nuovo? What else is new?
E che c’è di nuovo? And what else is new?
E allora, che c’è di nuovo? And now, what else is new?





To continue the conversation even further, the verb capire, which means “to understand” is also very helpful. Once someone has conveyed to you what has happened, you will want to let them know that you understand the situation!

Capire is an -ire verb of the -isco type, meaning that the io,tu, lei/lui, and loro forms add -isc before the usual -ire ending. For more on the verb capire and other important -ire verbs with -isco endings, please see Chapter 7 of our Conversational Italian for Travelers textbook and Just the Verbs book.

Below are some easy answers you can give to relay the idea that you have understood what is going on. At the end of the list, there are additional questions you can use to ask someone else if they have understood something. Remember that, as usual, we will leave out the “io” (I) and “tu” (you familiar) subject pronouns for these verbs because these verbs are easily understood solely by their endings.

Capisco. I understand.
Ho capito. I understood. / I have understood.
Capisci? Do you understand?
Hai capito? Did you understand? Have you understood?


Remember these phrases, and I guarantee you will use them every day!


"Just the Verbs" from Conversational Italian for Travelers books
Conversational Italian for Travelers: Just the Verbs


   Available on and Learn Travel

Italian Festa della Donna and International Women’s Day

Festa Della Donna
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

While researching “La Festa della Donna,” which takes place on International Women’s Day every March 8, I came across a bit of history about the origins of this special day for women. Although the holiday in Italy today is a lovely early springtime celebration, made complete with bright yellow mimosa flowers and a light, airy yellow cake, the origins are a bit more serious. I thought I would share what I have learned about the origins of the day in this blog.

Read on after the short history of International Women’s Day for a brief description of how Festa della Donna is celebrated in Italy today and how to make a mimosa cake for the special women in your family.


Since the turn of the century in the 1900s, a history had already developed of commemorating “the woman” with “women’s days.” On these days, women held special gatherings and marches, usually in an attempt to bring women’s and children’s rights to the forefront.

An excerpt from an article titled “International Women’s Day History” from the University of Chicago describes how these early “days of the woman” turned into a celebration of women around the world, now called “International Women’s Day”:

In 1975… the United Nations (UN) began celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Only two years later, in December 1977 the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a “United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions.

Click on the link that leads to a summary about International Women’s Day History from the University of Chicago if you would like a more detailed description.



La Festa della Donna

Il 8 di Marzo

In Italy, mimosa flowers are in bloom in central Italy on March 8 and were chosen as the symbol of this holiday by the Italian Women’s Association. Mothers, wives, sisters, and teachers can expect to receive small bouquets of these flowers from the men in their lives. Also, in most Italian cities, the Italian government grants free entrance for women to museums, and galleries may even host special exhibitions about women in history or dedicated to female artists. In the evenings, many restaurants offer special discounts for women, many who dress in yellow for the occasion and go out to celebrate with their families or significant other.

Finally, no celebration is complete in Italy without a special food to enjoy, and in this case, there is a special “mimosa cake”—a light, airy yellow sponge cake with a topping made to look like the small blooms of the mimosa flower. Most of the cakes I have seen are round, but I found a beautiful sheet cake version on YouTube that I’d like to share. It is from the Fatto in casa da Benedetta blog, and Benedetta has a book of recipes that has been available since last year (click on the link if you are interested in the book).

The cake is a bit complicated, and descriptions are in Italian, but the video gives clear directions. The end result is delicious and looks beautiful! I hope you enjoy!

From the cook:

Questa torta è dedicata a tutte le Donne
che ogni giorno rendono il mondo un posto migliore.

TORTA MIMOSA Ricetta Speciale Dedicata alle Donne – Italian Mimosa Cake Recipe

Special Mimosa Cake by Benedetta
Beautiful mimosa cake by Benedetta for La Festa della Donna in Italy. From her blog: Fatto in Casa da Benedetta, February 25, 2017

Your Italian Travel Tips… 10 Reasons to Add Turin to Your Italy List

Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! Here is another of my favorite blogs with unique travel tips that I would like to share.

About once a month, I will reblog a post about lesser-known sites or places to visit in Italy under the title “Your Italian Travel Tips.”  The post for February was written by Ishita Sood, a travel blogger from India who writes the blog Itaophila, in which she shares her stories about her Italian adventures.

In her own words, Ishita says:

I fell in love with Italy when I first visited the country 5 years back. It’s rich history, beautiful culture and friendly people had me smitten. Since then I have been reading, writing and traveling to the country. I feel a connection with Italy that is in many ways not explainable but beautiful.


In the blog to follow, Ishita relates a wonderful trip she took to Turin. Read on and I’m sure you will enjoy her amazing insights and beautiful photos of this unique Italian city.

And remember Conversational Italian for Travelers: Just the Important Phrases on and Learn Travel if you need a compact, lightweight pocket guidebook to take on your next trip! Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel


There’s more to Italy than just the big cities. Don’t me wrong, I love the modern side of Milan and the bohemian quarters of Rome but a traveler visiting just these cities in Italy is missing a lot. One needs to re-consider and explore the unconventional choices as well and maybe add a few days to make it to Turin (an hour from Milan)

While searching for new places to visit in Italy I found Turin (Torino in Italian) many years ago. However, I couldn’t visit it until this year when I found really cheap deals from Delhi to Rome and Milan via Kuwait Airways. I think that was what pushed me to book my tickets and start my love affair with Italy’s first capital Turin.

Here are my top 10 reasons to add Turin to your Italian Bucket List:

1–>NOT AS CROWDED AS THE BIG 3: Would you…

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