‘New York!? But why are you here?’ is often the bewildered response when I tell Italians where I am from. Why would a New Yorker leave NY? ‘I want to go to NY!’ ‘I want to live in NY!’ ‘But why Italy?’
It is something that one understands only after having lived in NY. Vai, go, experience it. It is a fabulous city, one which everyone should experience and live in for a few years at least. Ask someone who has experienced both Europe and NY, however, which side of the Atlantic they prefer for a beautiful, balanced life, and the answer is almost always Europe.
Alessandro Fabrini, CEO of AERIN, the luxury lifestyle brand created by all-American girl Aerin Lauder, has the diverse experiences that give him credibility when discussing this inexorable question. From Rome with love, to Florence, Switzerland, London, and now three years in New York, his opinion is thoughtfully formed. It is apparent from his immediate capability to transfer himself to memories of extraordinary journeys, outdoor hobbies, and characteristic dining experiences that this is a person who appreciates life in its full and romantic meaning. While his professional profile is hugely impressive and he has earned highly esteemed positions at international luxury companies, Alessandro understands the difference between work and life, between the office and the dinner table, between time spent behind an iphone and time spent traversing a minuscule archipelago in Vietnam.
New York is a vibrant city able to fulfill the appetite of the hungriest knowledge-seekers and entertainment hunters. Between the libraries, museums, theatres, sport and music events, exhibitions, restaurants, and clubs, you could say it is unparalleled with the rest of world. Especially at the beginning; I felt like Alice in Wonderland; I wanted to try and experience everything. Society here nearly imposes this upon you; so on top of a quite hectic workalike, you are almost expected to go see the latest exhibition, Broadway show, or dinner or drink in the just-opened restaurant. Not to mention that you are likely at this new restaurant networking for work purposes.
In Europe, leisure is a pleasure that never feels like a ‘must-do.’ The people have a different way of enjoying free time: maybe each European city does not offer the same to its citizens as does New York, but Europeans can enjoy a more diverse offering across the continent, usually more affordable, and certainly very authentic. The quality of life, in regards to leisure, is without a doubt better. In Italy, with a few hours drive, you can be in a totally different place- somewhere that awakens all five senses. In London, with a two hour plane ride, you arrive in a different culture, different food, you hear a different language. I recently went twelve hours to Hawaii and arrived to the same food, the same language, the same of too many things for such a big trip.
‘From New York, to really escape in the way that I love to escape, and this is subjective of course, but to really experience something different, you have to go very, very far. In Europe, you have so much at your fingertips. That being said, sure there are a few wonderful places to to pass a weekend. The Hamptons is very beautiful, and I recently visited the Beacon Museum which was a great experience.’
We focus on travel for a little while. Alessandro recounts with a tender disposition and undeniable passion his most memorable escapes.
‘I love islands. The concept of being separate; to me that is the best way to escape. From Rome, where I am from, you can go to Ponza, Capri, or Li Galli islands. With a little more effort you can go to the Eolie and Egadi islands, to Favignana, Pantelleria, Isola di Lampedusa… and the food in southern Italy has no comparison. There is nothing like the flavours of fish caught that morning in the Tyrrhenian sea, or the juicy tomatoes, the fresh herbs, the southern citrus fruits…
‘Vietnam is somewhere I would gladly return. It is a beautiful country across the board with a fantastic cuisine, interwoven with European influences. North of Hanoi is an archipelago of jungle-like islands called Ha Long Bay. The few inhabitants live in floating homes. Traveling through the archipelago is unlike anything you’ve ever seen or experienced.’
I ask him how successful he has been finding authentic Vietnamese food in New York. ‘Not very,’ he responds with kind humour. ‘London, in my opinion, has better Asian food. London has great restaurants in general. It’s my favorite city.’ (I can hear the genuine smile forming on the others side of the Atlantic.) ‘I think it’s the most international city I’ve ever experienced. Everyone says it is New York, but actually the majority in New York are Americans, while in Central London the majority are in fact the international, not necessarily the British. Sometimes in London it’s enough to go from one neighbourhood to the next to experience something totally different.’
So if you were to choose home, it would be London?
‘I would have said yes, without a doubt, before Brexit. Actually, perhaps the country. I lived in London and also in Surrey. I am a passionate horse rider, and I moved my horse from Italy to England. Every weekend I would ride in Windsor Park. The park is exceptional, and in the summer there are endless events. Richmond Park is also very beautiful. The British really appreciate nature, even if the weather is damp and chilly, they have a profound appreciation for nature and activities spent outside, which in truth also goes back to their ties to tradition. You can see this also with places like Petersham Nurseries, one of my favorite places for a long lunch with friends surrounded by greenery.’
Where else do you like to dine in London?
‘Mr. Foggs is a unique place, very traditional. You can’t see it from the street; you ring a bell and you have to be accepted inside for a drink. There are a few ‘private’ places like this in London, but there is a difference between tradition and stuffiness. You can still be contemporary yet hold strong to traditions. I also like Dukes Hotel, and a drink at Langham Place or Claridges is often high on my list. The Ham Yard Hotel, quite different from Claridges, is one of my favourites in London. The restaurants I love the most are Hakkasan, Roka, Zuma and Coya. There is also a place called Story which serves fantastic British cuisine.’
Have you identified your go-tos in New York?
‘Sure, there are a few places I’ve been back to often. Marea is great, and Per Se, although both are a bit pricier than necessary in my opinion. Milos is good for a business lunch, and Piros is also great Greek food. I’ve been to Scarpetta and ABC Kitchen quite a few times by now. Then I am a fan of Danny Meyer, and I really like Maialino, and also Marta. Marta is my pizza go-to. I’m from Rome- I love pizza super thin and crispy, and this is how it’s done at Marta. The majority of New York pizza places are more neapolitan and that’s just…’ Alessandro laughs gently. ‘Well, I’m from Rome.’
‘I have to say, as much as I love the restaurants in London, Italian restaurants are better in New York. Although I am Roman, I love the typical Milanese aperitivo. I like a cocktail, or just wine, better if sparkling, with a great selection of finger food. Here in New York, and also in London, you just go straight to the drink without any food. As much as I love enjoying the beautiful bars and restaurants, I cannot keep up, alcohol-wise, with my fellow Anglo-Saxons!’
I give my input about how frustrating it is that Italy has not caught onto the restaurant bar concept. There are hardly any restaurants here that have a bar where you can sit, have a glass, a bite to eat… it is so much more fun sometimes to sit at the bar than a table. Alessandro agrees.
‘In New York, alcohol is over 50% of the bill. Italian restaurants would make so much more money with people waiting at the bar. That is the other thing that I find quite frustrating with New York; how hard it is to get a reservation. It was my birthday last week, and I called this one restaurant a few days before. Sure, a few days isn’t really enough time anywhere, but their response was that I could call up to six weeks in advance.’ He laughs a gentle, humble laugh. ‘But how do I know what I am doing in six weeks?’
Ah, the art of the dinner reservation in New York. Something outsiders would never realise. I ask him what is an assumption Italians make about NY that is not true?
He ponders. ‘Well, Italians perceive New York as one. Everywhere in New York is cool, fast, fashionable, et cetera. Really there are so many New York’s. DUMBO, the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, the East Village. These neighbourhoods live parallel lives. A couple from the Upper East Side would never live on the Lower East Side. They might go for dinner to a hot new restaurant, but then they would climb into a cab and go straight back to the soft boundaries of where they feel comfortable once again.’
Alessandro has been so gracious with his time, and has waxed nostalgic about his wonderful and diverse travel experiences and worldly insights. I know he has work to do, as it is mid-day in New York when we are speaking. I decide to let him go without asking my usual last question of ‘if you could bring anything from Italy to New York, what would it be?’ I am confident that I know the answer, or at least that I can come close. Vibrant San Marzano tomatoes direct from the volcanic soil south of Naples, mozzarella from Campania’s caseifici, 36 month parmigiano reggiano from Parma, and perhaps juicy white figs fallen in heaps and hoards from Puglian fig trees.