First let it be known that I rarely write reviews, and had no plans to do so for this book either -- but I was surprised at the vehemence of the negative reviews left about this book and wanted to leave my own opinion.
I absolutely adored "the italian"; it was one of the very few books that I did not trade back to the bookstore when I was finished with it. Many other reviewers complained about the excess of history, and I can see why -- if you're not interested in history, this book could understandably begin to drag. However, I found the historical background very interesting, and thought that the addition of a side story besides the romance between beatrice and angelo made the book just that much better. It also gave it a verisimilitude that many other period romances don't have. I fell in love with the Italian countryside, the cause, the Bartolinis... and, of course, Angelo... :) I thought Beatrice was remarkable and Angelo... well, Angelo is Angelo. That line should tell you something about the book -- you put it down feeling as if you know the characters personally and have every right in the world to refer to them as such.
To connect the book with some of Elaine Coffman's other books -- I have only read one at this point, "The Fifth Daughter". It is a 'prequel' to The Italian, and honestly? The only reason I made it through the whole stupid story is because I realized early on that the 'fifth daught' Marissa would connect with the dear-to-my-heart Bartolinis. Once she got to Italy, it was Angelo and Serena that kept me reading.
So to finish: I would originally have recommended just buying this book immediately. However, due to the apparent lack of agreement on how good this story is exactly, I would probably reccomend buying it used. That way if you do like it you have a well-loved copy with a history of its own; if you don't like it you're not out all that much. If you are interested in history at all and like romances that aren't entirely "tie the heroine to a bedpost and ravish her", I would hazard a guess that this book will become one of the select few that have a permanent home on your romance bookshelf.