APRIL 27, 2015

STRANGER: Federico Leidi
LOCATION: Ristorante Pizzeria Maurzzella, Piazza Oberdan 3, Milan, Italy
THEME: One night in Italy with a Beatles tribute band member

Business, Beatles, and Berlusconi.

The three main topics of my dinner in Milan with city resident Federico Leidi. By day he works for an e-commerce company, and when off the clock, he’s Paul in a Beatles tribute band. And at all times, he has strong opinions to share about Italian politics.

I was in Italy in late April for my eldest brother’s wedding, and had a night free. I’d asked online for people to join me at a restaurant of their choice and share their story. Federico, 29, replied. “This sounded weird enough that I had to try it,” he said, laughing as we met.

It was my first visit to Milan, and I was impressed despite the persistent drizzling rain that fell on the city during my trip. Milan is not as old as the likes of Rome or Florence, and so there are more modern buildings and less landmark architecture to be found. Yet it’s still a place rife with spots for taking tourist photos, and I added to perhaps the billions of snaps that have been taken by visitors, including pictures of the beautiful Duomo di Milano Cathedral and the famed La Scala opera house.

My dinner with Federico was at Ristorante Pizzeria Maruzzella, a decades-old restaurant near the expansive Indro Montanelli public gardens, in a seemingly residential part of town.

The place is decorated in a style perhaps best described as untouched rustic. The floors are covered in faded tile, the whitewashed walls decked with black-and-white photos hung at slightly uneven angles. Overseeing everything is an stout elderly man that I assumed to be the owner, because he was the one who seemed to be calling the shots and directing servers to and fro.

As the waiters zipped by with plates heaped high with pasta, I couldn’t help but salivate a little. Everything looked great, and I figured I was in for a treat. Other diners at the restaurant seemed happy, with laughter and vibrant conversation serving as ambient noise.

Turning my attention back to the table, I noticed that initially Federico eyed me with what looked like a mix of curiosity and bemusement, but if he was awkward about sitting to dine with someone he didn’t know, he didn’t show it. Relaxed at our two-seater table, he seemed animated by the conversation and eager to talk with me about his life.

I don’t speak Italian, but Federico speaks excellent English, though with a strong accent from his home country. He was born and raised in Tortona, a city not too far from Milan in northern Italy. These days he works in Milan and spends most weekends back in Tortona.

He worked as an IT consultant for a while before getting his current job as a project manager for Groupon, which offers daily discounts on a wide range of goods, services and events. “I love that it’s such a young environment, it’s a lot of fun,” he said. As the company grows in size, Federico says it’s becoming a little more structured than its more anarchic early days, but he still enjoys it.

Before making his home in Milan, he developed his expertize for his current career by studying business administration at the University of Milan, followed by a masters course in the same subject at school in the Netherlands. So did he always have an interest in studying business?

“Actually, I wanted to do physics,” he said. “I really loved the subject, and my physics professor was really passionate about it and transmitted that to the students. With physics you can contribute to humankind more so than in doing an office job for some company.”

But reality steered him away from studying that subject in university. “I’d been talking to my parents and my professor and they agreed it would be a better idea to study business because the job opportunities in physics are not that great,” he said with a sigh.

When I pointed out that he could have been the next Galileo, he smiled and said, “Eh, you need brains for that. But sometimes I regret not studying it more.”

He also regrets having to leave the Netherlands, saying he came to love that country and how “ordered” and “neat” it is compared to life back in Italy.

But he had a girlfriend back in Milan and so he moved back, finding his initial IT consultancy job pretty quickly. That relationship is over, but Federico is now dating a Korean girlfriend who is at university in Milan.

Then he broke off from speaking English to say something in Italian. I was befuddled at first, but then turned to see him talking to the waiter, who was arriving with my starter of tagliatelle pasta with a beef ragu.

Federico only wanted a pizza and it hadn’t arrived yet, and I felt bad about eating while he watched. But he waved his hands at the plate in an “eat, eat!” gesture.

“Just start, don’t worry,” he said.

So I started. And immediately realized that my initial thought that this was going to be a great Italian meal was already being fulfilled. The pasta was freshly made and surprisingly light — even though the components suggest a heavy dish. And the ragu was a perfect sauce with tender meat.

My silence while I ate freed Federico to tell me about his life as a bootleg Beatle.

Before Federico’s father started work as an accountant, he was a musician playing bass with Italian pop singer Gianni Morandi. “You’ve probably never heard of him,” said Federico, and I had to admit my ignorance. But there are plenty of examples of Morandi’s work online.

“I always had a passion for music because of my father, I grew up listening to him playing the Beatles and bands like that,” he added. When he was a teenager, Federico started playing the guitar and drums, and a hobby in music is something he’s kept up with to the present day. In his spare time, he likes to write his own humorous pop songs and plays whenever he can.

But it was a meeting with some friends from Tortona that led to the Fab Four. Two musicians asked Federico and a friend if they’d help out a concert they were performing in Tortona. “We played that gig and we were quite good together. So we agreed to play again. And then we had to decide what we were going to play. We decided to play the Beatles because we know every one of their songs from start to end, and loved them all,” said Federico.

They sing in English, not Italian, and attempt to make their accents sound closer to Liverpool than the north of Italy. “We probably fail from time to time,” he laughed.

They wanted to call themselves the Beetles after the insects that inspired the original band’s name, but there was another cover-band with that moniker. So they opted for the Beatools, and now they occasionally perform small gigs in Tortona and Milan.

“When we started, we didn’t even think we would play that much. We just wanted to hang out and play music. But it’s really easy getting gigs if you’re playing Beatles covers,” Federico said. “I had been playing some original songs with bands but it’s hard to find the right place where people will listen and appreciate it. But everybody loves the Beatles.”

The band’s been together for more than a year, and is just starting to consider writing some original songs to mix things up — though finding the time among four members who have busy lives can be difficult, he said. “But we’ll probably do this at least a few more years.”

Federico will also keep working on his own music, saying he’s received good feedback so far on his songs. “They are rock or pop songs, they are supposed to be funny, maybe a little cynical,” he said. I asked where he gets that sense of humor from, and he immediately said from his mum, dad, and the rest of his family.

By way of example, he told me about the time his grandmother learned that Federico had a new girlfriend. “She said to get an investigator to check if she’s rich or not, so I’d know whether to marry her,” he said, erupting in laughter.

As his laughs died down, our waiter reappeared with two massive plates. The first housed Federico’s margarita cheese-and-tomato pizza, as big as a steering wheel.

“This is real pizza, Napoli style,” Federico said, explaining that to qualify as Napoli style it must be able to be folded without breaking apart. “I’m not sure if you want some, you’re having a lot of carbs,” he said with a grin.

True enough. My entree was a plate of potato gnocchi served in a rich tomato sauce. These tiny little pellets were soft without being gummy, and each one was coated in the delicious sauce rather than some U.S. restaurants’ tendency to just dump a dollop of sauce on top of the dish.

As I enjoyed the pasta — washed down with the restaurant’s excellent house red wine — the conversation shifted onto the third topic Federico promised to talk about: politics.

He’s a big fan of Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister who has faced years of allegations of sleazy encounters with prostitutes, corruption claims, and other attacks that would permanently end the careers of most politicians. Somehow Berlusconi manages to keep bouncing back, and he presided over the only government to last a full five-year term since World War II. “Everything they say about him is probably true,” Federico said, shrugging when I brought up the character that his former leader has become in the news media. “But he knows what the problems are in Italy and at least he tries to do something about them, even if he doesn’t always succeed.”

While Berlusconi is currently barred from running from political office following an adverse ruling in 2013 in litigation over tax fraud, he remains popular among voters, Federico said. “He knew that we have too much government spending in Italy and he wanted to reduce it. He couldn’t do everything he wanted, but at least he identified the problem and suggested the right solutions — his opponents just said to keep spending more money and we’ll get new jobs that way. But the government isn’t meant to be dealing out jobs, guys,” he added, shaking his head.

“When you compare Berlusconi to the alternatives, he’s a guy who was successful making a company, creating jobs for people. What have the others done? They’ve never worked a day in their lives,” Federico said. What does that mean? Did they come from money? “They come from politics, which is even worse,” came the punch line in response.

I suggested that makes Berlusconi the least-worst option of bad bunch, but Federico didn’t really buy that description. “He might be a little bit like that, but I really feel that he understands the problems and suggests the right solutions. But he didn’t have enough power or support to do what he wanted to. You need a lot of power in order to cut spending in Italy,” he responded.

Federico says that government spending is much higher in his home country than other nations, such as Sweden, even though there’s less to show for it in terms of services. But he thinks it’ll take a generation to shift opinions on the need for such high spending — and don’t look for Mr. Leidi’s name on the ballot papers, as he’s not interested in running for office. At least not in the foreseeable future.

After a crash course in Italian politics, it was almost time to end dinner.

We closed out with a small, wonderful panna cotta. Not too sweet and mercifully light, this was a great albeit slightly indulgent way to close out a tremendous meal.

While I ate it, I noted that Federico had mentioned Tortona often. I asked him why he goes back to his home town so frequently, either for gigs or to visit friends.

“It’s such a short ride and I love to go out at the bars there,” he said.

“And if I go home my mum takes care of my meals and washes my clothes. It’s very convenient. Milan is nice and we have some cool events sometimes, like design expos. But the people can be kind of cold,” he said.

If that’s the case, Federico was the exception to the rule. Easy to talk with, his joyful nature and sense of humor were evident throughout the meal. Yet dinners have to end eventually, and it was time for us to go our separate ways and to bid him buonanotte.

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