Travel writer Rebecca Winke has long resided in the sleepy Italian town of Assisi. Here are her top reads for anyone who wants to experience the culture, landscapes, and people of Europe’s “Bel Paese” ("Beautiful Country")—without leaving home.
In the decades since I moved from Chicago to Italy, I've traveled the peninsula from tip to tail as a writer, documenting its regional cultures and cuisines. My fascination with Italy and its people has made me a voracious consumer of Italian literature—much of which has been translated. Here’s a roundup of my favorite books set in the Bel Paese, from lavishly photographed travel journals to thrillers with local flavor.
"Always Italy" by Frances Mayes and Ondine Cohane
Peak armchair travel by the author of "Under the Tuscan Sun"
A luscious journey through Italy’s many regions, this in-depth guide pairs insights from two renowned travel writers with hundreds of National Geographic photos. Released in March 2020, it’s full of fresh content and is sure to have you dreaming about your next trip. As a long-time fan of Mayes’ subtle and affectionate writing about Italy, I especially enjoyed her eclectic coverage of culture, history, and cuisine that captures the best of this endlessly fascinating country.
"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante
A literary landmark of Neapolitan fiction
If you’re ready to settle in for a long, leisurely read, Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Novels”—My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child—are numbered among the most influential works of contemporary Italian literature, tracing the lives of two Neopolitan girls. Though the details of post-war Naples were new to me, the intricacies of lifelong female friendship were heartbreakingly familiar. The first two books have been adapted to television and can be seen on Amazon Prime.
"I’m Not Scared" by Niccolò Ammaniti
A gripping tale of lost innocence, set in southern Italy
In the summer of 1978, 9-year-old Michele stumbles across the hiding place of a kidnapped boy while exploring the ruins of a crumbling farmhouse. A story of friendship, betrayal, and the end of childhood ensues, comprising both a riveting crime novel and complex morality play. With Ammaniti's straightforward prose and a page-turning plot, this book set during Italy’s “Years of Lead” was hard to put down and not soon forgotten. Gabriele Salvatores’ award-winning 2003 film adaptation is also one for your must-see list.
"The Shape of Water" by Andrea Camilleri
The first of the Sicilian series with Inspector Montalbano
For pure transportative pleasure, dive into Camilleri’s iconic detective novels set in Sicily and centered around the prickly yet brilliant commissioner Salvo Montalbano. Start with the first mystery published in 1994, or jump in with a later novel and work your way forward or back in time; each is a self-contained and absorbing story that combines classic elements of crime fiction with astute cultural commentary about modern Sicily. If you find yourself drawn into Camilleri’s universe, check out the Inspector Montalbano television series on Amazon Prime.
"Tortellini at Midnight" by Emiko Davies
A culinary journey through Italy, from south to north
Italy is synonymous with food, so no list of books would be complete without at least one culinary tome. This collection of heirloom recipes traces the story of a family who emigrated from the southern reaches of Puglia to the northern city of Turin over the past century, before finally settling in Tuscany. I was entranced by both the regional dishes and the delightful anecdotes behind each recipe, and the photography had me rushing to the kitchen to try my hand at homemade tortellini.
"Across the Big Blue Sea: Good Intentions and Hard Lessons in an Italian Refugee Home" by Katja Meier
Italy’s refugee crisis played out in the Tuscan hills
It’s easy to view Italy through rose-tinted glasses, but this Mediterranean country has been on the front lines of Europe’s refugee crisis for decades. Meier's clear-eyed telling documents one woman’s experience working with African immigrants at a refugee home in Tuscany. In turns funny and somber, the story offers a unique view into the cultural clash that often ensues between newly-arrived immigrants and their adopted country, as well as the difficult adaptations required on both sides.
Rebecca Winke’s first visit to Italy was a coup de foudre, and her affection for the Bel Paese has only grown over 25 years of living and working here. She covers travel, cuisine, and culture for The Telegraph, Italy Magazine, and other publications, and has contributed to a number of printed Italy guidebooks, including DK Eyewitness Travel Guides.