Nataly Zigdon grew up spending time in her family’s Italian restaurant in the US, but never quite understood the essence of Italian food and culture until she traveled to Italy. From Rome to Florence to Naples, she traversed the country meeting locals, meandering through markets and eating everything she could get her hands on, especially if it was home cooked. Her greatest takeaway from her time in the country: Italians are proud, passionate and loyal, and live la dolce vita.
What inspired you to travel to Italy? How long were you there for and where in the country did you travel?
When I was younger, my family owned an Italian restaurant where I had spent a good amount of my afternoons after school. I had asked my uncle once why the lights were so dim and how anyone could see the food they were eating. He explained that the lights set a mood and an ambiance that made people feel good – and people like to feel good. I walked away wondering what an ambiance really had do with dim lights.
My uncle went on about other things we had around the restaurant that lent to people feeling good – the Italian music that infused the body and mind with such passion; the wine that was lavishly fermented to alter the state of mind; and of course the pasta – the staple of all Italian comfort. All of this contributes to the ambiance, which an Italian knows and feels exceptionally well.
I wanted to get to know the true way an Italian feels. After all, they are the creators of la dolce vita. I wanted to indulge like an Italian, but not just in the way of consumption of food and wine; I wanted to know and consume the mentality and way of life that they have beautifully created for themselves. In my four months traveling all throughout Italy, from gazing at the impressive architecture in Torino to eating the most heavenly slice of pizza in Napoli, to touring many cities in between, I immersed myself in the Italian lifestyle and I consumed every bit of it.
What differentiated the cities and regions you visited from one another?
It’s hard to notice what differentiates the cities and regions from each other at first glance. Thankfully, I was good at making friends with locals and never shied from asking what they loved and hated most about the different places and people within them. That’s how I came to understand that Italians in the north are known to be more ambitious and accepting to change. Farther South, they are more traditional and move at a beautifully slower pace; their lifestyle shifting with the warmer climate. In central Italy, you can find a hearty blend of the two; a balance of sorts.
In the north, the landscapes will keep you on your toes, from rolling green hills to Tuscan wineries and rocky beaches. The south will slow you down, offering jagged mountains adorned with lemon and olive trees and the blue waters of Capri. Regardless of where you get lost and find yourself, the view is unbelievable.
And no matter what part of the country you find yourself in, you’ll quickly notice that every Italian has robust pride, homegrown bluntness and an exceptional passion for food and wine. That is what made me fall madly in love with each region – the people themselves.
Did you have a favorite city or region? What made it your favorite?
Although Florence was the most amazing to walk through – with its cobble stoned streets, it felt as though time stood still – and Bologna was my favorite to people watch, it was Naples that I had felt most fascinated by. Naples unexpectedly caught my attention and kept me wanting more. Not only did the city have the most delicious pizza in all of Italy, but it also had a rawness to its character that made me feel like I was getting to know a truer side to Italy. I found such beauty as I walked through the alleyways, looking up at women hanging their laundry and men singing on their balconies. Kids ran freely and vivaciously through the streets and vespas zoomed by. The smells of fish being thrown and sold in cramped fish markets and of homemade Sfogliatella on every corner kept me captivated. I felt constantly surrounded by a rough realness and I think that is what I was most hoping to find when I traveled to Italy – a culture that didn’t feel as impacted or changed by consumerism or tourist entertainment. Neapolitans don’t care what you think, and that might just be both their greatest strength and their greatest flaw. It’s what I felt connected to most.
Tell us about the food – was it as mouth-watering as they say it is?
There is a reason why Italians are so passionate about their food and gain so much pride from their cooking. Surprisingly, Italian cuisine is characterized by its simplicity with many dishes having only a few ingredients. That is what makes each dish so palatable – you can truly appreciate each delicate basil leaf, each buttery drop of olive oil, and every flavorful vine-ripe tomato.
In Rome, I stumbled upon a little restaurant hidden in a narrow alley, far from the busy streets surrounding the famous Fontana di Trevi. I ended up returning twice just for their amazing pasta swimming in vodka sauce. In Naples, I had a true Neapolitan pizza, and in Bologna, mouth watering Pasta Bolognese. Florence had me eating schiacciata at just about every meal. But even between a daily cappuccino, gelato, and glass of vino, my absolute favorite was the pleasure of cooking in my apartment with fresh ingredients that I bought at the market that day. Italians typically buy their groceries daily, only getting what is needed for the day’s meals. I would wake up delighted knowing that I’d get to roam around the central market to let my eyes decide what I was having that night. I never left the Mercato Centrale without fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil.
I also made friends with locals who begged to cook for me, ‘so I could see how a true Italian cooks’. They didn’t have to beg me twice. It wasn’t just the food that I found remarkable, it was the way it brought people together, and no matter what issues or unresolved feelings people might have, they are always left outside of the kitchen. For Italians, cooking is the heart of socializing and the cement of family unit. It is what they are most proud of. Italians have such a lust and appetite for life and it shows so beautifully through their food.
What surprised you about travel in the country? Did you have any expectations before arriving there that were completely subverted once you were on the ground?
High speed trains in Italy were simply brilliant; I could go from Florence to Rome in one hour (a trip that would otherwise take much longer). I was highly impressed with how accessible it was to travel throughout the country, and that made my adventures that much more enticing to embark on.
I also learned that although considered and known to be extremely passionate, Italians are not quick to open up. Once they adore you, though, they will give you the shirt off their back and the food right off their plate. When you gain an Italian as a friend, you gain a friend for life.
What lesson did you take from your travels in Italy?
If there is one thing I have gained from Italian culture and lifestyle, it is il dolce far niente – an old Italian expression that means sweet idleness, or the sweetness of doing nothing. Italians know how to appreciate time spent doing nothing and don’t feel guilty for enjoying it. Americans would say work hard, play later. Italians say play hard and play later. They indulge in life’s pleasures and do it exceptionally well. They don’t need a reason or an incentive to satiate their everyday desires.
I have come back with a balance instilled in me to find the pleasure in my work and to work to indulge in pleasure. Whether that be in another being, in my painful yearning to travel, or in a daily glass of vino – I will do it as an Italian, with pleasure.