Book Review: 5 Reasons ‘Conversational Italian For Travelers’ is Your Best Bet

Although I’ve had the wonderful pleasure of traveling through Italy many times, I firmly believe that the Italian language will be an eternal challenge to adequately grasp and understand. Everyone learns differently, but for me, I need total immersion and that means living among the Italians. However, with each new experience conversing with them while I’m in Italy, I learn a little more. They are so encouraging with my efforts to communicate and they make me feel good for putting my best efforts into it. It is such a rewarding experience to say the right words in Italian and to join in the conversation while making good sense.



I always make it a rule to travel extremely light. That means just one small pull-bag and a knapsack. As most of us, I had to learn the hard way. So when Dr. Kathryn Occhipinti, author of “Conversational Italian for Travelers ~ Just the Important Phrases” approached me with her lightweight pocketbook, I was eager to look it over. I’ve had the book now for a few months and honestly, I am very impressed. Would I choose this particular pocketbook over any other similar one? Yes, absolutely. I’ve compared it to Rick Steves’ “Italian Phrase Book and Dictionary,” one I’ve used and loved, but Kathryn’s is my favorite for a few reasons.

  1. It is nearly one-fourth the thickness which makes it much more pliable and lightweight
  2. The basic phrases are all covered which includes everything from transportation, city life, hotels, and restaurants.
  3. A few pages are dedicated to explaining the Italian alphabet, sound combinations and general pronunciation for speaking the words.
  4. A vocabulary is included at the end of each chapter.
  5. On the back of the pocketbook is a colorful regional map of Italy that I love.

In all fairness, Rick Steves’ Italian Phrase Book and Dictionary is more complete, with the addition of finding help when you need it, major rail lines and maps. But for the pure essentials to function adequately within an Italian community, with the addition of the pocketbook’s slim dimensions, Conversational Italian for Travelers-Just the Important Phrases is my top choice.

Author Dr. Kathryn Occhipinti says, “As a physician, I am considered a third-generation Italian-American success story; on the other hand, despite the fact that I was raised with Italian food and celebrating Italian holidays, the Italian language remained a mystery.  At home, Italian was a “secret language” spoken between my parents and grandparents.  I was to be “American,” and this meant no home instruction in my family’s native language. Later in life, I realized that this phenomenon had happened to an entire generation of Italian-Americans!”

Kathryn Occhipinti
Kathryn Occhipinti, photo credit,

During her first trip to Italy, she had to use a phrase book to communicate and realized upon her return that she deeply wanted to learn the language. She began teaching informal group Italian lessons for the Italian-American society. As a result, after 10 years she began to develop her series of books based on learned techniques that worked best among her students.

Conversational Italian

Simple to understand and comprehend, this little pocketbook will get you a long way into your journey of communication among the Italians.


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Let Marilyn (Take Me Home Italy) Plan Your Italian Vacation with Expertise

Today I’m excited to introduce to you a dear Italian (100%) friend of mine, Marilyn Ricci. We met several months ago in my hometown over a cup of coffee (Marilyn) and vino (me) at the local Starbucks. As someone who loves Italy the same way she does, we hit it off immediately. I can honestly say that Marilyn is now an Italian soul sister. She really knows her Italian heritage and country like very few people do.

susan and me

Marilyn operates her own business, TAKE ME HOME ITALY, where she plans ideal itineraries, brainstorms ideas, and makes it her quest to ensure that you have a fabulous time when you plan a trip to Italy. Marilyn has impressed me with her vast knowledge of Italy, the regions, and the inside track…most everything that you need to know to have the best experience.

So, with no further ado, I’ll let Marilyn take the stage.

You need to work with an Italian

First of all, thank you to Susan Nelson of Timeless Italy for allowing me to guest post for her followers.  Susan is a great writer and wonderful person. Grazie mille.

Mi chiamo Marilyn Ricci di TAKE ME HOME ITALY. Sono 100% italiana e ho viaggiato tanti in italia.  My name is Marilyn Ricci of TAKE ME HOME ITALY. I am 100% Italian and I have traveled in Italy many times. I love Italy and the people of the country so much that I actually became legally an Italian dual citizen.  



Both sides of my parents are completely Italian but they are Americans.  Both of my grandfathers and Great-Grandparents came to the United States around 1900.

Marilyn Ricci 1

That doesn’t really explain why I believe you need to work with an Italian.  Let me explain. TAKE ME HOME ITALY  is a business I founded to provide custom travel in Italy.  My goal is for you to have the adventure you seek in that fascinating country that I adore.

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Millions of people travel to Italy every year.  It is a top destination worldwide. Everybody loves Italians.  They love the Italian food and Vino they have tasted in the USA! Some people enjoy days at an archeological dig while others want to fashion shop in Milan and Florence. And then there is ALL THAT ART!  Did you know that approximately ½ of the world’s art is in Italy?

Most people really are not sure what to expect from such a vacation. So they look at tours that advertise everywhere. Tours are an option. You will most likely hit the major cities of Rome, Florence and Venice. You may have a side trip or two where you see a small town or go wine tasting in Tuscany.  And you will do all of this with 50 strangers in an air-conditioned bus and accomplish this feat in 10 to 14 days, maybe less. Maybe that is not what you are looking for.

There are some great, small group tours. I have heard wonderful things about Victoria De Maio’s PostcardZ from Victoria’s groups in Puglia and also in the Italian Riviera (And Victoria is Italian!). If you are interested in those areas I would contact her. However, they don’t run all year and, if this is your first trip and you want to see Venice, you either have to do it a different way or tack on extra destinations before or after her group. Take Me Home Italy can help you with that.

Marilyn Ricci 3

Here is why I think you need to work with an Italian, preferably me:

  • While you were teething on teething biscuits, Italian Mammas gave my siblings and me the crusts of Italian bread for teething.
  • We grew up with Italians from La Bel Paese, the beautiful Old Country. We heard stories of the small towns, the people, the traditions and the small towns.Marilyn Ricci4
  • Spaghetti and Sauce (or Ragu’) were mainstays in our home.
  • We made polpette (meatballs) and homemade pasta with our hands instead of playing with playdoh.
  • We heard Italian spoken from the day we are born. We understand the beauty of the language as well as many words and phrases that have helped shape our lives.
  • Mario Lanza, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Perry Como were playing on the Television or Radio unless there was an Italian Opera on. We danced to the music from the time we were toddlers and tried to sing along with the Opera stars.
  • We grew up playing Bocce. We get it.
    Marilyn 6
  • We have family living in Italy who can assist us in gaining information about places you want to see, that is, if we haven’t already been there.Marilyn Ricci 7
  • We will hug you when we meet you and offer you food. That is how we roll. Singing isn’t out of the question either!
  • We are a passionate people. We enjoy life to the fullest and live in the moment whenever possible. We want you to experience that passion and find that piece of Italian soul for yourselves. We will listen to your needs and shape your experience to accomplish this goal.
  • The Italian culture is quite complicated. Each region is different, has differing influences but all the same fascination and beauty.  From the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, the Renaissance and Mussolini, Italians are a dichotomy. We understand them. Our family growing up was a microcosm of all that history wrapped up in some biscotti.

Marilyn Ricci 8

When you are ready to find that dream vacation in Italy, that dream that is yours alone, let Take Me Home Italy help you.  It will be easy. It will be fun. We can listen to Pavorotti or Tiziano Ferro together, eat a meal and laugh together while we find the best fit your money can buy. I will be here to help you. It will be an adventure!

For more information check us out on the web at:

Or on Facebook at:

Or on Twitter at: @takemehomeitaly

Ci vediamo presto!  See you soon!


Scarlino ~ Tuscany’s Tucked Away Hamlet

Scarlino- looking down from part of the old fortress wall.
Scarlino- as seen from the old fortress wall 

While standing in a Tuscan vineyard full of ripened purple fruit to stretch my legs during a long car ride from Pisa to Rome, I found myself captivated by a vision that appeared straight out of a Brothers Grimm storybook. Sitting high above me in a fairytale setting was the castle village of Scarlino. Located only 62 miles SW of Florence and a short way inland from the coast, Scarlino looked like an island floating on a sea of green trees. Blocky beige houses tumbled down the hillside, hemmed in by ancient stone walls and oak-filled forests.

Small medieval hilltop hamlets have always had a magical effect on me. They leave me curious and compelled to see more, as if they held a secret ready to be discovered. Scarlino was no exception, and I quickly decided take a temporary detour to the top.

After driving up a few switchbacks, I rolled my little car through the old medieval gateway and into the quiet village.

Scarlino Archway

Narrow cobbled streets took me to rustic corners, tiny piazzas and tall brick buildings. Bits of the 11th century fortress walls, great for a perch, provided expansive views of the surrounding countryside. To the west, the Mediterranean shimmered endlessly toward the horizon. Located only twelve miles from the coast, Scarlino (scherl in the Lombard tongue, meaning lookout-post) offered a perfect opportunity to experience Tuscany without the waves of tourists.

Vines and flowers grew around crumbling rock in crisscross formation and stonework felt warm to touch. I passed by several coffee bars, restaurants, and tiny food shops. Small gatherings of locals sat about the piazzas engaged in conversation.

While relishing the expansive view from the wall, an elderly gentleman in dark worn slacks and a white t-shirt approached me for a visit. In a town where very few speak English, typical of small villages like this, our language limitations were no barrier. His wink and broad toothy smile gave me reassurance that I had made a friend.

Typical Medieval Street in Scarlino-
Scarlino is a maze of Medieval streets.

My short stroll through the village provided some authentic Italian nooks and crannies that are so enjoyable to stumble across. Below is the backside of a restaurant that, on the other side, offered birds eye views of the valley below from a flagstone terrace. Bright red geraniums light up this old crumbling wall.


A bit of history….

Afterwards, I found a chance to look up the history of Scarlino on my laptop. My strong attachment to a place always involves the past and I love to investigate. What I found is that archaeologists have discovered remains of a small village where Scarlino is today, composed of wooden huts surrounded by a boundary wall dating from the Late Bronze Age (10th – 12th century BC). Since then, communities have come and gone, including Etruscan settlements, until the early medieval ages when Scarlino became an established village with a castle fortress.

Scarlino Castle- Five Sided and Oddly Shaped Towers
Scarlino Castle ~ Five sided with odd-shaped towers

Rocca Aldobrandeschi, its ancient castle, is worthy of exploring. Although much of it is no longer existing, the ancient grounds, towers and views fascinated me. According to documentation, it was in existence by 973 AD. and was once a stronghold for the northern city of Pisa. Originally owned by the powerful Aldobrandeschi family, the village and castle were conquered by Pisa in 1164. During this time, political and military expansion dominated the goals of the wealthy and prestigious. By the 13th century, Pisa had permanently imposed its authority along the nearby Tyrrhenian coastline.

Curiously built with five sides and three odd-shaped towers, the castle is strategically positioned overlooking the valley on one side and the coast on the other. A wide panorama of patchwork fields in variegated green surrounded the village from below. Opposite, rolling hills of oak give way to the distant open expanse of the Mediterranean sea. Today the castle is used for local shows and cultural events.


Rocco Aldobrandesca- Castello di Scarlino
Rocca Aldobrandesca- Castello di Scarlino sits like a fairytale


St. Catherine and Me

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Catherine and I outside the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena

“Be all God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”  St. Catherine

I knew we would be good friends from the start. Catherine has that presence that compels you to be close to her, to hug her. I was instantly drawn to her simple humbleness, as if she were nothing but a small brown bird. So I approached her, wrapped my arms around her, and squeezed tight.

During our stay in Siena, I couldn’t escape the urge to visit her whenever I could. She made such an impression on me. Diminutive yet mighty, Catherine was a woman able to influence the greatest powers within her own country.

Basilica San Domenico
Basilica San Domenico

Who was this tiny Dominican nun who collected such a large group of followers, including me? Where did her charisma come from? How did she gain the respect of the most powerful?

Catherine was Siena’s Mother Terese. She reached out to the poor, the sick, and the homeless. She worked tirelessly helping others through the Black Plague, bringing salvation to many. People were drawn to her radiantly joyful nature and spiritual wisdom. She was someone people wanted to be around. In short, Catherine was a saint!

St. Catherine of Siena
St. Catherine holding a White Lily as an Emblem of her Purity

The painting above is the most accurate likeness of St. Catherine known to exist. It was painted by a contemporary friend, Andrea Vanni, and is housed in the Basilica of San Domenico.

"Be all God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire."  Catherine
Looming Statue of St. Catherine in her Sanctuary

I must confess, while passing through her sanctuary, this statue of her stopped me in my tracks. She stands looming with outstretched arms, clutching a crucifix and lilies, and she is huge. At night, lights are positioned to shine up on her, casting ominous shadows on the wall. Very intimidating. Although she tirelessly fought corruption within the church, the impression of fire and brimstone is so far from whom I believe she really was.

Born Catherine Benincasa in Siena during the late middle ages in 1347, the 23rd child out of 25, Catherine lived amazingly during her short 33 years. Striving for peace in Italy, she acted as liaison between the two great powers, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Papacy. Two supporting parties resulted from these two powerhouses. The Ghibellines comprised the imperial party, and the Guelphs supported the papacy.

The people of Florence, traditionally a Geulph city, were upset with the pope and his lingering in Avignon, France. They wanted him back in Rome as he had promised them. Little Catherine, through her works and letters, so impressed Pope Gregory XI that he did eventually return the papacy to Rome. As a result, she established peace between the Pope and Florence. She became known as “the mystic of politics.”

St. Catherine's Home located close to San Domenico
St. Catherine’s Home located close to Basilica San Domenico
St. Catherines Sanctuary
St. Catherines Sanctuary

Basilica San Domenico, built in 1226, kept a cell in which St. Catherine spent much of her time. In fact, she hasn’t entirely left. Today her head can be seen inside an urn on a gilded tabernacle in the chapel dedicated to her. Her finger as well. The rest of her is kept in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, where she died in 1380. Her bodily remnants are called relics, and those of the saints were highly prized in every Italian city during this time. It was believed that housing a saints body part would protect that city from harm.

Basilica San Domenico
Basilica San Domenico
St. Catherine resting at home.
St. Catherine resting at home.

Sadly, Catherine struggled with anorexia. She ate very little and, as a result, her life ended early. This mindset of extreme neglect for the body was prevalent among the saints. They were convince this act brought them closer to God.

An author, humanitarian and servant, Catherine possessed a great passion for her faith, for the welfare of others, and for her country. She was greatly respected for her spiritual writings and her political boldness to speak the truth to those with the highest power in the country. It was exceptional for a woman in her time to have such influence on politics and world history. She was illiterate, yet managed to sway the greatest powers and minds of her age.

Address: Basilica San Domenico, Piazza San Domenico, Siena,Italy Contact: 0577/280893, Hours: Apr-Oct 7am-12:55pm and 3-6pm, Nov-March 9am-12:55pm and 3-6pm  Cost: Free