How to live and eat like an Italian: 'Downtime is necessary'

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“Italians are very social people,and don’t have a sense of guilt by seemingly doing nothing, taking time in the day for cards with friends, naps, walks, and long lunches at home,” says Sophie Minchilli. Photo by Sophie Minchilli.

Sophie Minchilli was raised in Rome with a view of the Colosseum from her kindergarten classroom, and she enjoyed fresh pasta lunches. She explains the Italian notion of dolce far niente — the sweetness of doing nothing. 

Endless lunches, walks, and summers at the beach are Minchilli’s earliest memories that inspired her to embrace the lifestyle of surrendering to the moment. “Downtime is necessary to work better,” she says, “and Italians get that without a sense of guilt.”

Want to live and eat like an Italian? Michilli says wake up and hit a coffee bar, and it’s not the quality of the coffee but the loyalty to the shop’s owner that’s important. Next is work, and another coffee break and a sweet. Lunch is the biggest meal, and some people make their way back home for a home-cooked pasta lunch. An aperitivo is enjoyed with friends after work, and dinner is typically a lighter meal of soup or vegetables.

Minchilli’s new book is “The Sweetness of Doing Nothing: Live Life the Italian Way with Dolce Far Niente.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

KCRW: Can you explain your interpretation of dolce far niente and being in the moment?

Sophie Minchilli: Over the years, I came to learn all the things I'd taken for granted as a kid. So just the way I was raised in Italy, all these things were pretty extraordinary. And I realized this after university. I went to London for three years, and then I moved back to Italy. I realized all the things I was missing were all the things that I grew up with, like long Sunday lunches, long walks after big Sunday lunch, summers at the beach. 

This sort of Italian lifestyle, this dolce far niente, it's a lifestyle. I think the thing that Italians mastered is not having that sense of guilt when we're apparently doing nothing. But we're actually doing a lot. So by sitting and spending two hours in the afternoon, playing cards with your friends, you're obviously not doing much, but you're actually socializing, you're keeping your brain going. You're meeting new people, you're having a drink, that might lead to dinner. Downtime is necessary to work better. And I think Italians get that perfectly without all of the guilt that I think our society makes us feel nowadays.

Author and tour guide Sophie Minchilli was raised in Rome with a view of the Colosseum from her kindergarten classroom window, where she had lunches of fresh pasta. Photo by Elizabeth Minchilli.

For Italians, eating is like a sport. So much of the culture around meals, or beverages is ritualized. Can you take us through a typical day of Roman eating?

I would wake up and have breakfast, which is usually very small at home. And then the first thing any Roman will do is go to a coffee bar. It's more about the social aspect rather than the quality of the coffee. So even if the bar you've been going to for 30 years doesn't make very good coffee, you will still go there because you have to be loyal to the owner. The people that go there are the same ones that have been going there for 30 years. It's a way to socialize first thing in the morning.

At times they will go to work, but then they'll need a break. So they'll go down to the bar again and have another coffee and a sweet. Or they'll have something savory with usually a non alcoholic aperitivo like Corradino, which is sort of like a bitter orange drink that doesn't have alcohol. 

Lunch is the biggest meal. So some people will make their way back home to have a home-cooked lunch. If people can't do that, they'll take at least a full-hour break for lunch. And that's usually when we eat pasta. I feel like most people in Rome will eat pasta every day. 

Then there's an afternoon aperitivo, which is what we have before dinner, and that's a time when you meet up with your friends after work. And then there’s dinner – so either at home, or you go out. Dinner is usually smaller and lighter than lunch, so no pasta – either meat, fish, vegetables, beans, or soup.

Sophie Minchilli has a lesson on slowing down and embracing the moment in “The Sweetness of Doing Nothing: Live Life the Italian Way with Dolce Far Niente.” Photo courtesy of Thorsons.

For those who can't make it to Italy for one of your beautiful tours, can you outline a perfect day that we can create for ourselves to bring a touch of dolce far niente into our own lives.

The easiest way that everyone can do this is by creating your own Italian Sunday tradition. You don't work, so your phone is off. You meet with friends, or family, and you have the longest lunch you can possibly imagine. I think my record was six hours sitting down at the table. 

You could spend the whole morning cooking with your friends, or family. And we will splurge, so that's when you'll have starters, and you'll have a first course, like pasta or risotto. Then you'll have meat, vegetables, and dessert. After lunch you’ll have drinks and coffee, then start again with more desserts. It's just endless. It's very slow and long. And then you either nap, or go for a walk, or both. It basically takes up the whole day.