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  • A Taste of Italy in America
    Discover Disney's version of Italy and learn something about the homeland
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    For years, my family and I have visited Walt Disney World's EPCOT, a theme park dedicated both to science and cultural exchanges. One half of the park, in fact, features mini villas that represent different countries. In Italy's villa, which is part of this World Showcase, you will get a taste of the homeland. When you arrive you'll see a building that will have you feeling as though you are in St. Mark's Square in Venice. The gondolas across the way will keep you feeling as though you are far away from Orlando, Fla. With Germany and even Japan just steps away from you, this feeling will only last a second. Still, there are some interesting ways you can experience Italy firsthand right in the middle of Florida.

    For starters, you can talk to the people working at the espresso stand and two table-service restaurants Tutto Italia Ristorante and Via Napoli. They are native Italians, who work in the park for one year. Every time you come you meet a new group of young Italians, who are excited to practice their English on you and allow you to practice your Italian. Many of them share with us their excitement at working at Disney World and in the United States. Whenever we find those who are here from Naples (the island my family is from Ischia, which is a province of Naples), we end up spending a little extra time chatting. They love to meet kindred spirits, who can understand their homesickness. Often, they give us great tips, such as order the pizza, which is nothing compared to what you'll get in Naples, but is still quite tasty and much better than the linguini and clams, which is not cooked in the traditional fashion.

    Normally, I wouldn't recommend Italians go to Italian restaurants in a theme park. Of course, you will get better dishes at an authentic Italian eatery or, of course, in mamma's kitchen. But sitting down at one of the restaurants gives you a chance to speak with the native Italian waiters. If you decide to dine there, I would make a reservation (well in advance) for Via Napoli. This restaurant is similar to Naples 45 in New York. The flour and tomatoes come straight from Italy, and the pizza is cooked in wood-burning stoves that are actually on full view of diners, shaped like large mouths, and named after Italy's three volcanoes – Etna, Vesuvio, and Stromboli.

    Yes, there are other entrees on the menu. But the pizza is the best thing to order, especially for Italians who know authentic Italian food. Whatever you do, do not leave the place without trying the zeppoles, which are served with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. My husband, sister, and I love to indulge in these fried puffs of heaven that we dream about returning every time we're in Orlando.

    If you'd rather just pass by Italy, you can still check out the stores, which feature authentic Italian imports – perfume, Italian national team gear, and some jewelry (not fine gold, but Murano glass and the like). You can also go to the Tutto Gusto Wine Cellar, which my father and brother love to do. Here, you can purchase a glass of Italian wine. If you're lucky, you'll arrive in time to see one of the hilarious street performers poking fun at Italy and its people or teaching you something about the country. During the holiday season, La Befana pays a visit to explain the folklore surrounding her existence, for instance.

    The kids might like stopping by the Kidcot Fun Spot within the Italy villa. Here, one of the Italian employees will give you a cardboard Disney character (our son chose Duffy the Bear) on a wooden stick with a stamp that says Italy and a drawing on the back (ours featured an Italian flag). Your child can color the character and talk to the staff about Italy. Our son, who spends lots of time with his Italian relatives in Italy, was happy to hear people talking to him in Italian.

    Don't be surprised if you're still missing home after you stop in EPCOT's Italy. It's great and all. But Italy is still Italy. And Italy in Orlando (in the middle of a theme park) can hardly compare. Of course, those of you from Napoli – and probably other parts of Italy – will still complain about the espresso. Still, the staff of Italians, replicas of Italian landmarks, and the attempt to teach the culture is another way to bridge the gap between Italy and the rest of the world. It gives those who may never make it to Italy the opportunity to learn about the country and its people – or at least to taste some authentic vino. Salute!

    Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012), and you can follow her life and career at the Two Worlds Web site.

    Article Published 1/28/2013


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