Blending in to Rome as an expat: New clothes, new diet and is there anything better than a frothy cappuccino?

I'll never pass for an Italian but I can dress like one.
I’ll never pass for an Italian but I can dress like one.

The latest polls showing Donald Trump leading Joe Biden had barely reached the Internet when I started reading Americans’ plans of escaping to Europe. Americans threatened the same in 2016, but few even packed a duffel bag. They bravely gutted out one of the most insane periods of American history. Another four years of Trump?


Many target Italy. What a slap in the face of American politics when Americans would rather live in a country that has had 69 governments since 1945. Corriere Dello Sport should list next to its soccer odds the line on the latest prime minister lasting another week.

Still, I don’t blame Americans for wanting to move to Italy. It is heaven with better pizza. I’ve lived in Rome for 10 years and have given advice about how to move here and 10 tips to live by

But that’s only part of it. Once you’re here, you have to blend in. That’s not easy, especially someone like me. I look about Italian as a baseball bat. I’m tall. I’m a quarter Scottish, a quarter Swiss, a quarter Irish and a quarter English. If you lean toward cheap cultural stereotypes I’m a cheap, boring drunk who’s lousy in bed.

That’s beside the point. Let’s just say I’m really, really white.

I’ll never look Italian. I’ll never be Italian. But there are ways for me not to look like I hopped off an American Express tour bus. Here are 10 ways I’ve tried to blend into Rome:

In my wardrobe, sportcoats have replaced college sweatshirts. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I wear Italian clothes

During my first stint in Rome from 2001-03 I went to gladiator school and quickly learned that never in the history of Ancient Rome did a gladiator or Praetorian guard under his tunic wear a pair of gray University of Washington gym shorts. To prepare for my retirement to Rome I, sadly, threw away almost my entire collection of American university clothes. Along with them went souvenir T-shirts from half the countries in the UN.

I want to tell inane tourists walking around Centro Storico that Italians have no earthly clue what “Ohio State” means except that you’re an easy pickpocket target.

Today my entire wardrobe is from inside Italy’s borders. I wear sportcoats. I wear suits. Angelico. Zara. David Saddler (Yes, it’s Italian). I bought one from an outlet store run, I swear, by ex-Camorra hitmen who walk around in burly sweatsuits like extras in The Sopranos. This red suit is so shiny I look like a flunky for the Irish mob.

I cater to light, colorful sweaters, print shirts, tailored dress shirts and scarves tied Italian style. And black. Lots of black. In the rain I’ll wear a Ben Hogan hat that makes me look like a Sicilian fisherman. My face looks even less Sicilian but the hat pulled down over my eyes gives me an Italian attitude.

Every pair of shoes except my old gym shoes and my Merrells for traveling is from Italy. I would no more wear beat-up ugly shoes outside my neighborhood than I would a MAGA hat.

Nothing beats the perfect cappiccino in an Italian bar.

I drink coffee

While this is no adjustment for most Americans, for me it was akin to drinking snake blood. Actually, snake blood I once drank in Taiwan was more palatable than Starbucks. I never drank coffee until I moved to Rome. Coffee is an acquired taste and I knew I had to acquire it if I wanted to hang out in pretty piazzas. Sitting outside drinking beer all day is what they do in Rome, Georgia, not Rome, Italy.

When I tried my first cappuccino in Rome back in 2001, something changed. I actually liked it. The creamy foam. The sweeter coffee. The ceramic cup. Turns out, I didn’t hate coffee. I just hated American coffee.

Italy’s coffee culture is massively important for expats. Many mornings I’ll go across the street to my Romagnani Caffe, order a cappuccino bencaldo (extra hot) and talk to the baristas about our A.S. Roma soccer club (see below). 

A couple times a day when I’m running errands I’ll jump into a bar (cafes are called “bars” in Italy) and order a caffe (espresso) and stand at the counter. I’ll pay the €1.10 (about half the price of Starbucks), tap the counter in silent appreciation and I’m gone. 

By the way, during the Covid lockdowns when bars only had takeaway service, coffee was never served in paper cups. They were plastic. Italians find drinking coffee out of paper cups as disgusting as pineapple on pizza.

With Fabio, one of my many language scambio partners over the years.

I speak Italian

If you’re going to the bar and talking to your barista, you’d better speak the language. No country in Europe has a smaller percentage of English speakers than Italy. It’s even lower in Rome. It’s even lower in my Monteverde neighborhood.

I am not fluent. I have come to the painful conclusion I probably never will be. I don’t understand it well enough. I speak it, read it and write it fine. But put me in front of a TV or movie screen and I might as well be watching Court TV from Uzbekistan.

Living in Rome doesn’t help. They talk too damn fast. For me to learn Italian in Rome is like an Italian learning English in Queens. Excitable soccer commentators on TV sound like an Alitalia pilot right before his plane crashes into the Dolomites.

I can talk Italian to my Italian friends, conduct business around town, communicate with my doctors. After 10 years, I’m getting more compliments on my Italian. My American accent is heavy. My Italian sounds German. I could tell my girlfriend I love her, and it sounds like I’m giving her orders to invade Poland.

But I try. Italians appreciate that. I chat with waiters, taxi drivers, food vendors. The best way to respect a culture is through language, and speaking Italian to Italians shows I respect their country and their way of life. 

If you don’t learn it, you’ll forever live inside a boring English bubble, doomed to the company of tour guides, UN officials and other expats.

Fresh fruit and pecorino are just two major elements in the Mediterranean diet. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I changed my diet

The Mediterranean Diet is the one diet that should transcend generations. It’s marvelous. It’s healthy. It’s tasty. It’s cheap. My diet consists of pasta, fish, tomatoes, pecorino and parmesan cheese and fresh fruits and vegetables from open-air public markets. 

I rarely eat steak – and not just because it’s difficult to find a good one in Rome. I eat almost nothing fried anymore. Restaurants I frequent don’t give me so much food I need to take half of it home.

My guilty pleasures are gelato, which has about a third the calories of Ben & Jerry’s, and dark Italian chocolate. 

When I go out for breakfast, I have a fagottino, Italy’s square, chocolate-filled pastry, or a simple cornetto and a cappuccino. I don’t stand in line outside a restaurant for an hour to eat pancakes, hash browns, scrambled eggs, buttered toast and a smoothie with so many unnatural ingredients it’s almost synthetic.

I cook with olive oil, not butter, and cook pasta every day. I can walk 100 meters to my local alimentari and get fresh, hand-made pasta in half a dozen shapes. 

Consequently I’m 67, 6-foot-2 (I shrank an inch) and 205 pounds with low cholesterol and blood pressure. I’m half blind but that’s just part of aging.

Live here, see the fit Italians and understand why their average life expectancy is 84, sixth in the world, and the United States’ is 80, 47th. Not much difference?

How much life can you fit into four years in Italy?

Me with Oliver and Fabrizio in their Enoteca del Ponte in Grinzane Cavour, Piedmont, the heart of Barolo country.

I switched from cocktails to wine

For 20 years my poison was Tanqueray-and-tonic.  I was a sportswriter who traveled all over the U.S. Every night after work I’d retreat to a local bar and order a T&T. In the summer covering baseball it was beer. It made sense. The U.S. was the world’s leader in craft beer. I had to sample the local brew.

I haven’t cut beer from my diet. Ever been to Rome in July? But cocktails are in my distant past. Living in Italy made me fall in love with wine. I can’t imagine eating a meal out without wine. I can’t imagine gathering with friends without a bottle between us.

I drink for the taste, not the feeling. And Italian wine is the best in the world. Each region has its own trademark vino. When I’m in Piedmont I drink Barolo. When I’m in Tuscany I drink Chianti Riserva. When I’m in Puglia I drink Primitivo. 

In recent years I’ve gotten heavily into wines from Rome’s Lazio region. Cesanese. Frascati. Castelli Romani. I can buy a bottle of local wine in my supermarket for under €7.

I go to many wine tastings where I mix with Italians, all of whom know the importance of quality over quantity.

Me at home in one of my many articles of Roma wear. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I became a Romanista

One occasional theme in this blog is my transformation from sportswriter to sports fan. I have been a fan of A.S. Roma ever since I watched a game in Olympic Stadium in 2002. After the game, I clasped shoulders with Roman strangers and heard 53,000 fans sing Grazie Roma after the win.

Every game day I wear one of my red-and-yellow Roma sweatshirts, T-shirts, vests, stocking caps and/or scarfs around town. Inevitably I’ll pass a total stranger who will say “Forza Roma! (Go Roma!”) And I’ll answer “Sempre (Forever).” Or when I’m in Romagnani I’ll follow with “Lazio merda! (Lazio shit!)” and they’ll answer “Sempre!”

When I meet a native Roman I ask, “Romanista o Laziale?” When he or she asks me I just show them my AS Roma keychain or watch. It gets me all kinds of smiles, friends and the occasional discount.

When I go to Olympic Stadium, they appreciate that an American has adopted their team. Insanely jealous of the global giant Juventus, Romanisti want to expand the club’s international footprint. This is my way of helping.

Wild boars sifting through garbage on a Rome street.

I complain about Rome

Yeah, I bitch. I whine. My honeymoon phase here ended long ago. Maybe it was waiting six weeks for my Internet to transfer to a new apartment only a mile away from the old one. Or the mailman who never left a note saying a Christmas present arrived and it was sent back to my sister in Oregon before I could pick it up. Or maybe it was one of the 22 city buses that inexplicably burst into flames one year.

Romans complain. Go into a post office, wait a little and inevitably you’ll find a Roman yelling across the counter at some badgered clerk in the famous Roman postal position: shrugged shoulders and eyes wide open, saying silently, “I don’t know.”

While Rome has made me more patient (Where else do you wait an hour in a post office to pay an electric bill?), complaining makes me at least sound like a grizzled local. It’s a bond we all share. We trade anecdotes about what wild animal picked at the garbage on their street this week. Or we collectively curse ATAC, Rome’s disastrous public transportation service, when the bus that was supposed to arrive doesn’t. Then doesn’t again. And again.

Misery loves company. It’s what makes us all lean on each other.

Two Caravaggio masterpieces in San Luigi dei Francese.

I frequent art galleries

Romans are crazy about art. During the 16th and 17th centuries, artists were rock stars. Michelangelo. Leonardo da Vinci. Raphael. Caravaggio. Gian Lorenzo Bernini. They received salaries commiserate to today’s pro athletes. They were just as popular and just as flawed.

It’s 400 years later and their names are even bigger in stature. Rome has, officially, 121 museums. I’ve been to most of them. I will never tire of seeing the way Caravaggio made moonlight through a window shine on a man’s face. Or see veins subtlety rising through the skin of a Bernini statue.

Marina is a photographer and we often join mobs of Romans attending photo exhibits at MAXXI, Rome’s modern art museum, or Museo di Roma in Trastevere down the hill from me. 

You don’t need to appreciate art to learn about the history of Italy just through the images of religious figures. No matter how much you love the beauty of Italy, the landscape paintings will make you love how it once looked even more.

Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli is only 25 miles from Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I take day trips

Romans like getting out of Rome. In the summer, the traffic jam to the beach on Saturday mornings can match some days on Southern California freeways. They also head to the Alban Hills around Rome for cooler air and the small-town vibe. They’ll go to surrounding hill towns for a visit back in time.

In January 2023 Marina and I launched TraveLazio (, where every other Friday we detail a different day trip from Rome. From Picinisco in the south where they make the best pecorino cheese in Italy to Tuscania, with breathtaking views near the Tuscany border, we’ve traveled most of the kilometers of Rome’s underrated region.

It’s fun to jump in the car or train and in only 30-60 minutes we’d be in a world far from Rome. These are towns you won’t find in Rick Steves. You won’t find Americans or Asian tour groups. What you’ll find are other Italians getting off the beaten path and breathing some different air.

Lately, I’ve even given Romans advice on where to spend a lazy Sunday

Marina and I above the Roman Forum from behind Campidoglio, the site of the Roman government.

I have a Roman girlfriend

Rome is too romantic to walk alone. You need someone to share these impossibly romantic spots. If she’s Roman, it peels back another layer of culture for you to see.

Through Marina, a third-generation Roman, I’ve made many Roman friends and been to trattorias, museums and small towns I never would’ve known. She also has a car and knows all the secret parking spots in a town built for about 600,000, not 2.8 million.

It also helps my language skills. I always say to learn Italian you must work in an Italian business, live with an Italian family or have an Italian partner. You either work it, live it or sleep it. We speak Italian about 90 percent of the time and my conversational skills have improved every year. She knows just enough English to translate new Italian words.

I can’t understand a word some of her Roman friends say but they are patient with my Italian and we all seem to communicate over bowls of pasta and bottles of wine. 

Well, I hope these tips help. Hey, even if Biden does win again, move here anyway. Italy is magical. Just like garlic in a tomato sauce, you just have to know how to blend in.