In a three-day visit back to Italy over Christmas, Fabio Vitali devoted several hours buying 130 pounds of his favorite cookies, cheeses, carbs and wines to bring home at maybe half the price he would pay in the U.S.
Vitali, a native of Milan now living in Philadelphia’s East Mount Airy neighborhood, believes that “food connects all Italians. It’s not the beauty of the country. It’s not the way we talk. It’s the food. Sicily is very different from the North, but what is keeping us together as a community is the food.”
Luckily, Italian food has been available as he has studied and worked in six countries. Not as good as the pasta alla Norma his mother made on his last trip. Maybe even not as good as dishes he’s known for making from scratch: lasagna with ragù and béchamel; Tuscan ravioli (filled with spinach, ricotta, nutmeg, pepper and parmesan and served with a butter-parmesan sauce); and pappardelle Bolognese. Cooking is just a hobby for Vitali, vice president of marketing and communications for Sofidel America, the U.S. division of one of the world’s largest manufacturers of tissue paper. He started working for Sofidel in 2009, and when it expanded to America in 2012, he first visited the U.S. As a Sofidel vice president since 2016, he helps lead a staff of 1,700 in six plants and the Horsham, Pa., headquarters.
Sofidel mostly sells its paper to other companies that package and brand the toilet paper, kitchen towels, napkins, handkerchiefs and tissues. One exception is Nicky paper towels, sold at Wegmans in environmentally friendly paper packaging.
His other pastimes include avidly riding both mountain and road bikes; playing in the Bella Vista Football Club, a social soccer league in Center City; ushering at Christ Church Philadelphia; nurturing global camaraderie through Milan’s Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore alumni engagement board; speaking at professional development conferences, with sustainability his most recent theme; and regularly broadening his professional skills, with the latest being the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia Business on Board program in leading arts and culture nonprofits.
All that’s on top of his two degrees (bachelor’s in business management from Milan and a master’s in governance and company strategy from the Università di Pisa); mastery of five languages (Italian, English, French, Spanish and Portuguese); founding a nonprofit startup to support Erasmus, a European Commission program underwriting study abroad; and multiple triathlons. Certo, a go-getter. Vitali has shown the same drive his parents did by leaving Sicily for Milan. “They were immigrants, too, looking for something better, an opportunity.” His travels exposed him to the cultures of England, France, Spain and Portugal before he moved to America, the fabled land of opportunity.
“I just got my American citizenship, which made me very happy because I love the United States, and I love Philadelphia,” he said, referring to the urban bustle and nearby, accessible natural spaces.
He and his wife, Farnia Fresnel, managing director of the Lenserf Group, are global citizens. When they wind down their corporate careers, he believes they will retire to more than one place. Maybe near her family in New Jersey, maybe near his family in Milan, maybe the family apartment in Taormina, Sicily, maybe warmer parts of the U.S., maybe South America (“Amazing. We just went there.”)
He ticked off some differences he has observed. The U.S. is more efficient and respectful of time, and Americans are more polite, he believes. Italian bureaucracy is more frustrating, and Italians are more dynamic and creative. “Italy is a good country to appreciate life,” he said, referring to its world-renowned arts, fashion, architecture, literature and, of course, food.
He has also noticed differences between Italian Americans and Italians. Italian-American cuisine is “very honest,” he said, exemplifying with fettuccine Alfredo, a dish that Italian natives will deride as being made up, ignoring the tradition of fettuccine al burro.
Italian Americans – even his wife – sometimes identify themselves as Italians. Yet too many Italians feel “if you are not born there and you didn’t live 20 years in Italy, you are not Italian, which is very unfair,” he said. “I hope in time this is going to change.”
Nominate an Italian-American Achiever
Do you know someone with a story worth sharing? We’re looking for Italian Americans who are leaders in their fields – entrepreneurs, educators, athletes, government officials, musicians, nonprofit founders and even hobbyists whose passion and hard work have led them to accomplish great things. Send us a tip at ItalianAmericanHerald@todaymediainc.com.
You might see them profiled in a future issue.