This Italy reading list will take you on a tour around Italy in 20 books, one for each region.
I love reading and as you can guess I have a long pile of books about Italy at home. From Italian classics to the tragicomic adventures of foreigners moving to Italy in search of La Dolce Vita, every book is always an opportunity to learn more about Italy and see things from a different perspective.
For this post, though, I’ve selected only one book for each of the 20 regions of Italy. Think of them as pieces of a puzzle that will give you an idea of how varied and diverse the Italian territory is. You will find novels written by Italian authors, hilarious expat adventures and also the occasional cheesy fictional story.
Whether you’re looking for books that transport you to Italy while cozied up on your couch or some inspiration to plan your next trip to Italy, this list could be a good place to start.
Books set in Abruzzo: “Mezza Italiana” by Zoe Boccabella
Mezza Italiana (literally, half Italian) is the story of Zoe Boccabella, an Aussie with Italian roots who struggles with fitting into society and juggles between the hurtful comments at school and an embarrassing family that bottles its own tomato sauce and give tablecloths as presents. Then in her 20s, she decides to go backpacking around Europe with her boyfriend Roger and her mother encourages her to go and discover her heritage in Fossa, her grandparents’ hometown.
When the couple reaches the little mountain village in Abruzzo where her family comes from, Zoe is enchanted by what she sees and starts to realize how precious the Italian heritage she always refused to accept actually is. She learns to appreciate the local stories and traditions and becomes addicted to the food (you’ll find also some recipes inside the book). After their first trip to Fossa, Zoe and Roger return for a longer stretch of time to further connect with Italy. The book contains also a reference to the tragic earthquake that hit the region in 2009.
Books set in Aosta Valley: “What happens in the Alps” by T A Williams
This is a fictional romance novel set in Italy’s beautiful alpine region, written by a male author who seems to be at ease getting into a woman’s head. The story is set in the imaginary village of Santorso (the name is borrowed from Sant’Orso, the patron saint of the region’s main city, Aosta), where the protagonist, Annie, escapes to after losing her husband in a tragic accident. Here she starts a new business and many unexpected surprises come her way, including a love triangle!
T A William lived in Aosta Valley for four years and knows the area pretty well, as seen in the descriptions of the area and the many Italian delights mentioned in the book, from bistecca alla valdostana (the Aosta Valley steak stuffed with ham and cheese) to genepy (a traditional herbal liqueur).
Books set in Basilicata: “A dream of Italy” by Nicki Pellegrino
If you dream of moving to Italy every time you read news of houses on sale at 1 euro, then this book is a great read for you. It’s the story of four strangers who arrive in Montenello, a fictional village nestled in the mountains of Basilicata, after applying to the mayor’s scheme that puts dilapidated houses on sale for 1 euro. In exchange, they agree to renovate the buildings within three years and, most importantly, contribute to bringing new life to the local community.
Forget renovation and DIY tips, though, this book is all about life dreams and cheerful characters like Donna Carmela, the mayor’s mother, who dreams of becoming a nonna (grandma) and delights newcomers with her culinary skills. Most importantly, it’s set is an enchanted region of southern Italy still quite untouched by mass tourism, offering a window on a simpler and slower pace of life.
Books set in Calabria: “Stolen figs and other adventures in Calabria” by Mark Rotella
Calabria is the toe of Italy’s boot, a splendid region between two seas that is home to gorgeous beaches, ancient hamlets, and many natural wonders. Although the region is unfairly ignored by many travelers in favor of nearby Sicily and Apulia and locals are often considered unfriendly, Calabria is a real stunner and locals are among the most welcoming people I’ve met during my travels around Italy.
This is evident also in this book, which talks about an American father and son who reconnect with the family that his father’s parents left behind when they emigrated to the States. The author persuades his reluctant father to visit his parent’s hometown in Calabria for the first time in thirty years. But what started as a two-day trip turned into regular visits after a chance encounter with Giuseppe, a postcard photographer who reunites them with their Calabrian family and becomes their guide around the region. As they travel through Calabria, Giuseppe initiates the author into local hacks like stealing figs from the trees of unknown farmers and make ‘nduja (a super spicy, spreadable cured meat).
Books set in Campania: “Neapolitan Novels” by Elena Ferrante
It’s no secret that Naples is one of my favorite places in the world and Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels truly capture its charm and complexity. This series of four books narrates the story of two childhood friends, Lila and Lenù, over the course of 60 years. They grow up in a poor neighborhood in post-war Naples and after elementary school they take different paths, but they never lose the love they feel for each other.
Lila is a beautiful, rebellious woman, she marries a successful but violent grocer, then falls in love with Nino, got pregnant and finally leaves her husband. Lenù, on the other hand, grows up thinking she’ll never be enough, despite graduating from a prestigious university and becoming a successful writer. The story of the intricate friendship between Lila and Lenù, which portrays also sixty years of Italian history, has been adapted into a fascinating TV series. Warning: highly addictive!
Books set in Emilia Romagna: “The Little World of Don Camillo” by Giovanni Guareschi
The humorous adventures of Don Camillo and Peppone, the protagonists of this collection of stories set in Emilia Romagna, are a classic of Italian literature. Peppone is the communist mayor of a rural village amidst the plains of Emilia Romagna, and he’s often found making passionate speeches about the values of Communism. Don Camillo, on the other hand, is the unorthodox parish priest who preaches against the godless Communists and is often found engaged in amusing conversations with Jesus.
As you can guess, these two fight a lot, but story after story, it becomes clear that their continuous squabbles and pranks hide a sincere friendship and a common fight against social injustice. The adventures of Don Camillo and Peppone are also a window on the political and social life in rural Italy after WWII and have been adapted into a delightful black and white TV series (take a look here).
Books set in Friuli Venezia Giulia: “Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere” by Jan Morris
Trieste, the capital of Friuli Venezia Giulia, is a fascinating city with a long, complicated history that saw it part of different countries and a crossroad of various cultures. Morris knows Trieste very well, having visited it over the course of fifty years, first as an 18-year-old soldier during WWII and later as an old lady, after changing gender.
Her reflections about the unique character of the city and its various influences are captivating and one can easily see the parallelism with the author’s search for her own identity. The book is rich in beautiful descriptions as well as references to famous visitors from Sigmund Freud to James Joyce, who lived in Trieste many years during his self-imposed exile from Dublin.
Books set in Lazio: “Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling” by Ross King
Those expecting to find Eat Pray and Love here may be disappointed, but I suggest reading this book to learn more about the fascinating story behind one of Rome’s most beautiful landmarks, the Sistine Chapel. Probably not many of you know that the spectacular frescoes we admire today in the Sistine Chapel were born from an idea of Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the chapel in 1508. At that time, Michelangelo was a thirty-three-year-old artist with very little experience of the art of fresco and no desire to embark on such a massive project (the ceiling measures over 12,000 square feet!).
Thankfully, he didn’t have much of a choice and realized what is now considered one of the world’s greatest works of art, which took him and his team four years and countless hours perched on scaffolds. The story of the day-to-day life inside the chapel is well intertwined with that of life in 16th-century Rome, between historic anecdotes and artistic rivalries.
Books set in Liguria: “The Enchanted April” by Elizabeth von Arnim
The Enchanted April is a timeless novel about the magic of Italy and its transformative power. Despite being written in the early 1920s, the story is still very actual. It tells about four British women who escape to a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for a month after reading an advertisement on The Times. They don’t know each other and couldn’t be more different, but they were all there looking for a change and slowly become friends.
While reading the story of Lady Caroline, Mrs. Fisher, Mrs. Wilkins, and Mrs. Arbuthnot, you will find yourself immersed in the beauty of Portofino, surrounded by the most spectacular views and the sweet scent of flowers. And although it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in real-life Liguria (especially in April, when the weather can be cold and rainy at times), the author well depicts the warmth of Italy and the mesmerizing beauty of this stretch of coast.
READ MORE: “Liguria beyond the usual routes”
Books set in Lombardy: Inspector Trotti series by Timothy Williams
British author Timothy Williams wrote a successful crime series featuring Piero Trotti, a police detective who fights lies and corruption. Although the author never mentions this in his books, the stories are set in Pavia, the town famous for being the gateway to the Oltrepò Pavese wine district and home to a prestigious university where Williams taught for a while. Also, the books contain lots of discussions and references to Italian politics.
The first one in the series, “Converging Parallels”, was released in 1982 and takes place in the years of the Red Brigades, while the last one, “The Second Day of the Renaissance” came out a couple of years ago and sees the now-retired inspector traveling across Italy to solve a new case while escaping a fugitive who wants to kill him.
Books set in Le Marche: “A Recipe for Disaster: Cooking Up a Big Italian Idea” by Stephen Phelps
Stephen Phelps is a former TV producer and this book is the story of his life in the beautiful hilltop town Sarnano in Le Marche, and his attempts to film a cookery series. He teams up with his partner Tam, who has zero cooking skills, and their friend Lia, who doesn’t speak any English, trying to put together a professional series with zero funding and a small kitchen. Their efforts resulted in the six-part TV show Cookcucina, now available on Amazon Video, Google Play and iTunes.
The book contains a series of delicious recipes and is curiously structured like an Italian meal – Antipasto (appetizer), Primo (first course), Secondo (second course), and Dolce (dessert) – with the addition of Amaro (meaning both digestif and bitter) after the earthquake that hit Le Marche in 2016. There are also lots of insights about living in rural Italy, alongside delicious recipes and places to visit around the region.
READ MORE: “Exploring Le Marche: a one-week itinerary”
Books set in Molise: “The generosity of strangers: when war came to Fornelli” by Thomas E. Antonaccio
Molise is perhaps Italy’s most underrated region, which is testified also by the lack of English-language books set there. However, I’ve recently found “The Generosity of Strangers”, in which the author narrates his mother’s life as a young girl growing up in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Set in the tiny hilltop town of Fornelli, about one hour drive from Campobasso, the book is structured as a series of episodes spanning a period of 15 years, and written in little chunks of text, just as a child would speak.
This is no standard travel book but conveys important messages that are terribly actual and make it worth reading. In tough times we should open our hearts and help each other to overcome adversity. As the little girl says in the chapter about the American soldiers that were staying with her family: “we’ve only known each other for a month or two, but they’re just like part of the family”.
Books set in Piedmont: “Labor of love: wine family women of Piemonte” by Suzanne Hoffman
Piedmont is home to one of Italy’s top wine districts, the Langhe, producing excellent wines like Barolo, Dolcetto, Barbera, and Barbaresco. And while some may still think that winemaking is a purely masculine job, Hoffman’s book narrates the untold stories of the great women behind some of the region’s most famous winemaking families.
The chapters are full of interesting curiosities and heartwarming anecdotes, like the graduation present of Silvia Altare from Elio Altare: an envelope containing a membership in the farmers’ union, which started her life in the family winery. Warning: the stories are accompanied by stunning photographs that will make you want to jump on a plane to Italy to start exploring Piedmont.
Books set in Puglia: “Head Over Heel: Seduced by Southern Italy” by Chris Harrison
The plot is not new – an Aussie falls in love with an Italian and decides to move to Italy to live the Dolce Vita – but the fact that it’s set in beautiful Puglia and it talks about a true story makes it worth reading. Chris is an Australian journalist from Sydney who meets the beautiful Italian teacher Daniela in a pub in Ireland while on holiday. Needless to say, it’s love at first sight and Chris decides to leave it all behind and move to Daniela’s hometown Andrano, about 60 km from Lecce, to live with her.
Besides the romantic content and the beautiful places (the author talks about the year he spent in Milan, too), the book is an interesting account of the challenges that expats have to face when moving to Italy. Chris is hugely frustrated with Italian bureaucracy (which I totally understand) and vividly narrates the struggles of adjusting to a different life and culture – which results in extremely funny passages like his tragicomic encounters with the carabinieri and his future mother-in-law questioning his choice of colored underwear.
Books set in Sardinia: “The Lead Goat Veered Off” by Neil Anderson
The Lead Goat Veered Off is the super entertaining account of a three-month cycling tour around Sardinia that the author took together with his wife Sharon. He shares lots of hilarious episodes, like that time they were stuck in a tent for three days in the middle of a snowstorm with only a bunch of oranges to eat! Like many other travel books, Anderson’s story spurs us to reflect on our life and the importance of living it in our own way, because “success is being true to yourself”.
I don’t know about you guys, but I can easily picture myself exploring the beautiful coasts of Sardinia on two wheels, with the salty breeze and warm sun on my face, and those postcard-perfect views that made the region famous. I really hope I’ll be able to visit it later this year after having to cancel my Carnival trip back in February.
Books set in Sicily: “Inspector Montalbano” by Andrea Camilleri
There are lots of books set in Sicily, but nothing epitomizes the island quite like Salvo Montalbano, the fictional detective created by Andrea Camilleri. The stories take place in the imaginary town of Vigata and are originally written in a mixture of Italian and Sicilian. While narrating the crimes and murder mysteries investigated by Montalbano and his team, Camilleri provides also picturesque descriptions of Sicily while often revealing the island’s social and political reality.
The books have been adapted into a popular TV series, mostly filmed in Sicily’s Baroque towns like Ragusa Ibla, Modica and Scicli. Also, true Montalbano fans will be pleased to know that it’s easy to visit the real-life places of the fiction, starting from the inspector’s beautiful seafront house at Punta Secca (just check out the link below).
READ MORE: “Sicily: the ultimate Montalbano tour”
Books set in Tuscany: “Game for Five” by Marco Malvaldi
The protagonist of Game for Five is the Tuscan version of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (which I love, by the way). The setting is a small seaside town on the Tuscan coast, near Livorno, where everyone knows each other and life is centered around the local café, BarLume. Here, the owner Massimo and four pensioners (one of whom is his ice-cream-addicted grandpa) spend their time between rounds of espresso and card games, chatting and gossiping. Then one day the body of a young woman is found in a trashcan on the edge of town and Massimo turns into an amateur detective to solve the mysterious case with the help of his four friends.
Malvaldi is a great, humorous storyteller and he used crime just as an expedient to offer a delightful insight into life in a typical provincial town in Italy, involving lots of gossiping and conversations in local dialect. He wrote other mysteries featuring the BarLume: Three Card Monte, The King of the Games, and The Highest Card. His books have been made into a delightful TV series.
Books set in Trentino Alto Adige: “Eva Sleeps” by Francesca Melandri
Behind snow-covered mountains and strudel-scented air, Trentino Alto Adige (Italy’s northernmost region) hides a pretty unique history that saw its territory moving between being under the domain of Austria and part of Italy. As you can guess, this produced integration problems and even serious identity turmoils. Just think that there are three official languages (Italian, German, and Ladin), with Bolzano being home to Europe’s first trilingual university!
This is the background of Eva Sleeps, a fascinating story of family, love, and the struggles of being stuck between two cultures with distinct heritages. The protagonist is 40-year-old Eva, who goes on a long train journey from Alto Adige to Calabria to see Vito, the only man close to a father she ever knew, for one last time before he dies. During the trip, she experiences many flashbacks to the years of her childhood, which provide a gripping window on the political and cultural transformations of Trentino Alto Adige.
Books set in Umbria: “Il Bel Centro: a year in the beautiful center” by Michelle Damiani
Il Bel Centro is a fantastic read for those planning to visit Umbria. It’s the story of Michelle and her adventurous family, who left their hometown in Virginia to spend a year in the charming village of Spello and experience life in Italy. It offers a great insight into the highs and lows of adjusting to local people, culture, and language, with lots of interesting comments about the cultural differences between the two countries.
Page after page, the protagonists familiarize themselves with the concept of “piano piano” (no hurry) and start to appreciate local wisdom and slower pace of life. They embark on funny expeditions to the local alimentari (grocery shop) and close encounters with our horrible bureaucracy, while discovering Italian delights like the Aperol Spritz (by the way, the author included also some delicious recipes!).
Books set in Veneto: “The politics of washing” by Polly Coles
Have you ever wondered what real life looks like in one of Italy’s top touristy destinations, where roads are canals and cars are boats? In this book, Polly Coles provides an insight into living in Venice, where she moved to with her family for a year. She talks about local uniqueness like the seasonal acqua alta (high water) and the unspoken rules of laundry etiquette, but it’s the attitude of Venetians and the invasion of tourists and immigrants to take center stage.
I’ve purposely included this book here because it makes you think about life in Venice beyond all those beautiful palaces and bridges and the problems that mass tourism is causing to Venetians, who are often described as rude and unwelcome when the reality is quite the opposite.
Have you read any of these books set in Italy? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
A super hug from Italy,