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 – that is, 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, 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 – an ambiance – that made people feel good, and people like to feel good. I walked away wondering what an ambiance had do with dim lights. (Admittedly, I didn’t fully grasp the true meaning of ambiance until I traveled to Italy).
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 passion; the wine that was lavishly fermented to alter the state of mind; and of course the pasta – the staple of all Italian comfort. Together, those elements made people feel good; feel an ambiance that Italians are so exceptional at feeling. After all, they are the creators of la dolce vita.
I wanted to get to know this feeling – this ambiance – authentically. I wanted to indulge like a true Italian, but not just in the way of consumption of food and wine, but also in the lifestyle and mentality they have beautifully created for themselves. I decided to travel throughout Italy for four months and during that time, I stopped to gaze at the impressive architecture in Torino and eat the most heavenly slice of pizza in Napoli, and explore the many cities in between. I immersed myself in the Italian lifestyle and 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 got to know that Italians farther north are known to be more ambitious and accepting to change. Father South, folks are more traditional and move at a beautiful slower pace; their lifestyle may have to do with the warmer climate. In Cental Italy, you can find a hearty blend of the two; a balance of sorts. In terns if landscape, the north has a bit of everything from rolling green hills to Tuscan wineries and rocky beaches. The south is better known for jagged mountains adorned with lemon and olive trees, and the blue waters of Capri.
Regardless of differences, every Italian has robust pride, a homegrown bluntness and an exceptional passion for food and wine. And every region has an undeniable, unbelievable beauty.
Did you have a favorite city or region? What made it your favorite?
Florence was the most amazing to walk through with its cobble stoned streets – it felt like time stood still there. Bologna was my favorite for people watching. But it was Naples that I felt most fascinated by – Naples that unexpectedly caught my attention and kept me wanting more. Not only did Naples 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’s culture and history. I found such beauty as I walked through the alleyways, looking up at women hanging their laundry and men singing on their balconies. Kids vivaciously ran freely through the streets and vespas zoomed by. The tenaciously alluring smells of fish thrown and sold in cramped fish markets and of homemade Sfogliatella on every corner kept me captivated. I felt constantly surrounded by moments of rough realness that seemed unaffected by tourism.. I think that is what I was most hoping to find when I traveled to Italy: a true culture undefined by consumerism or tourist entertainment. Neapolitans don’t care what you think. I think that might just be their greatest strength and their greatest flaw, but that is 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 lane, far from the busy streets surrounding the famous Fontana di Trevi. I ended up returning twice just for their amazing pasta in vodka sauce. In Naples, I had a true Neapolitan pizza; in Bologna, Pasta Bolognese in Bologna. Both were long-awaited dreams come true. In Florence, I ate schiacciata at just about every meal. But, and even despite delicious daily cappuccinos, gelatos, and glasses of vino, my absolute favorite food was what I cooked myself in my apartment using fresh ingredients I bought at the market that day. Italians typically buy their groceries daily, only getting what is needed for the day’s meals. I woke up in the mornings delighted knowing that I’d get to roam around the Mercato Centrale and let my eyes decide what I was going to eat that night. Regardless of the final meal plan, I never left 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 said. They didn’t ever have to beg me twice. It wasn’t just the food that I found remarkable, but the way that the food brought people together. No matter what issues or unresolved feelings one might have, they are always left outside of the kitchen. To Italians, cooking is the cement of family and at the heart of socializing. Locals 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?
I was really impressed with how accessible traveling throughout the country was. The high speed trains were simply brilliant. I could go from Florence to Rome in just one hour; using any other mode of transportation, it would have taken much longer.
I also learned that although passionate, Italians are not quick to open up. Once they know you, though, they will give you the shirts off their backs and the food right off their plate. Once you gain an Italian as a friend, you have gained a friend for life.
What lesson did you take from your travels in Italy?
One thing I gained from experiencing Italian culture and lifestyle is il dolce far niente – an old Italian expression that translates to sweet idleness or the sweetness of doing nothing. Italians know how to appreciate time spent doing nothing and don’t feel guilty for it, Americans might say work hard, play later. Italians say play now 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 every day desires.
Since returning from my travels, I have been trying harder to balance work and pleasure, and to allow myself to indulge more often. Whether it be in time with another person, or in my yearning for travel, or in a daily glass of vino – I will do it as an Italian, with pleasure.