Watch just about any old movie filmed in Italy and more than likely they'll be flirting... especially the stereotype of an incorrigible flirt coming on to a woman. An old gent pursing his lips to his fingers letting a young girl know how tasty she looks, or a young regazzo following for a few steps on the street accosting a young lady with a flurry of metaphorical compliments, or it could be a supposed innocent young boy blurting out blatantly how great a woman's legs are.
Flirting is part of life in la Bel Paese. In fact, there is a special metaphor for it...
fare la civetta, which literally means "to make like an owl", or simply una civetta (an owl) meaning "flirt". The expression was first penned in 1494 when poet Poliziano used the word civettare to describe how a woman might attract a man, by cooing like an owl to attract her prey, and then silently pouncing on them with their sharp talons as their prey approaches.
In reality, Italian women do flirt more like an owl than men do. They are more subtle and less obvious than the screeching of regazze hawks. A young regazza will start to walk away from her prey, but then turn her head back slightly with a half smile and side glance, and then keep walking away.... Hooked.
Hair dangling over the eyes is another technique. Lowering her head and letting a few wisps of hair hide her admiring glance at a young man, but then flipping them back into place shows a guy she sees something she likes... Hooked.
Subtle and blatant at the same time, una giovane bellezza (a young beauty) may be sitting at a gelateria touching a spoonful of gelato to her lips, glance over at her targeted regazzo and slyly lick her lips, putting her spoon right back to the work of enjoying her confection... Hooked.
Amazingly--but very Italian--there are many distinct variations in the way this word is used:
The context matters, too. For instance, if someone says "Non andrai da nessuna parte con Adelina. È una vera civetta." (You won't get anywhere with Adelina. She's a real tease.") Most men stay clear of a tease once they become away of their game.
Curiously, there is even the giacca civetta (owl jacket). This is the second jacket a man leaves over the back his chair at work so the boss and co-workers think he is somewhere in the building... when in reality he is out of the office wearing his other jacket (metaphorically or otherwise) while fare la civetta.
Even more interesting, I recently discovered the expression Italians use for "bait and switch" when a company advertises one cheap product (the owl cooing) just to trick you into buying their more expensive one (the talons)... Produtto civetta!
Perhaps Italian men have gotten a bad reputation, mostly from stories of them pinching girls behinds or following aggressively down the street. In fact, Italian men are Mama's boys, very romantic and won't marry until they find l'angelo perfetto (the perfect angel), or one as worthy as Mama. Their flirting can also be very direct, but often in poetic praises:
"Hai degli occhi bellissimi." (You have beautiful eyes.)
"Mi piace il modo in cui ridi" (I like the way you laugh).
"Il tuo sorriso è davvero fantastico!" (Your smile is really awesome!)
"Ho visto che mi stavi guardando e ho pensato di venire qui a fare due chiacchiere."
(I saw you were looking at me and I thought I could come over and chat).
"Complimenti alla mamma." (My compliments to your mother).
"Nel cielo manca un angelo?" (Is heaven missing an angel?)
"Ti sei fatta male cadendo dal cielo?" (Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?)
In English these pick-up likes might sound corny... in Italian, just try to resist...