From fame in Italy to Nextdoor East Falls — how a best-selling author & fashion celebrity is rebooting her life for a very special boy from New Jersey, and a passionate belief in the transformative power of dreams.
Simonetta Lein did just that. For love, of course!
Last Winter, she and her NJ-born husband relocated from an apartment in Naples to a historic home on Henry Avenue — without knowing a soul here — to live their dream to raise a family in America.
Her first priority now that she’s settled in: to help people’s wishes come true. Seriously! She’s got a foundation, backers, social media… it’s a thing in Italy, Los Angeles, NYC Fashion Week — and now she’s turning her magical spotlight on her new hometown.
Next week during Pope Francis’ historic visit, Simonetta’s Wishwall Foundation will construct the city’s first “wishwall” (not to be confused with the “knot grotto,” ahem), at the corner of 9th & Montrose in the Italian Market. Guests are invited to post their personal wish, prayer, or intention on a designated wall, creating a massive, immersive art installation with a feel-good vibe.
There’ll also be refreshments , plus art, crafts, family-friendly activities, and a live simulcast of the Pope’s mass on September 27th. (And of course seating & bathrooms, too.)
What is the Wishwall foundation? A non-profit charitable organization & social community that promotes a happier world through dreaming & cooperation. Their focus is creating a global network of dedicated supporters to help make people’s dreams come true.
If it sounds hopelessly Pollyanna-ish, you’re not alone in your skepticism. Simonetta herself created her project on a whim, and was as surprised as anyone when it caught momentum, and almost immediately started connecting people, creating change. Before she knew it, she’d made an organization that’s spreading like wildfire through the many social media channels she reaches with her photos & writing.
Simonetta has over ONE MILLION followers — 233K on Twitter, alone. When you flip through her photos she’s an icy blonde fashion plate, but in person she disarms with an irresistible warmth & sweetness that calls to mind puppies, toddlers, and movie stars.
You must meet her. Read her interview in LA’s Splash Magazine first, and of course watch our videos (with her expressive face & hands, you don’t even need to turn your speakers on, ha!)
We tried our best to recap a recent interview into two handy Q&A’s, below, featuring both Simonetta and her equally-charming (in his own complimentary way) husband, Ray. But if you compare text to recordings, it seems much is lost in the translation, sigh. You’ll really wanna catch these guys in person.
They’re both fascinating people. Simonetta bubbles with enthusiasm, she’s the absolute best kinda teacher I can think of: a storyteller. All her funny little anecdotes are peppered with thoughts on history, philosophy, food, travel… she’ll even slip in Italian words, and before you know it you’ll remember that desideriamo is “We desire” in Italian.
Between assignments for Italian Vogue & Vanity Fair, Simonetta’s teaching Italian language and culture classes from her home. She and Ray would also love to help Italy-bound East Fallers plan the trip of their lives — they’ve both traveled extensively, particularly with “off the beaten path” stuff you won’t find in any guide book.
Cooking, too — well duh, they’re from Italy. But still, they’ve been cooking almost every night since they moved here, and their blending of European recipes with Philly ingredients has been an interesting process. They’re eager to share what they’ve learned.
And finally, we could all probably stand to reach out to Simonetta for her fashion insights — she’s got that effortless thing going, with her own cheeky flip. Not many neighborhoods can boast a fashion expert from Milan! Especially cool now that East Falls features regular Art Openings we can all dress up for…
Reach out to Simonetta’s Nextdoor profile (just send her a private message, the easiest way to reach her):
We did our best to edit Simonetta & Ray down into a simple Q&A but honestly it was like trying to catch lightning in a jar. For what it’s worth, then, here’s our take from a 30+ minute speaker-phone interview covering topics from language, geography, cuisine, and more (presented in two handy sections).
COOKING WITH ITALIAN TRANSPLANTS, or:
What’s the secret to making good Italian food?
Ray: The secret is using the seasons and climate to influence what you eat daily. Using the right ingredients at the right time is the heart of Italian cooking. You want to adapt local, fresh ingredients to the recipes. We try to teach people about what foods are in season in this area, because I don’t think many Americans know that.
What is a typical class like?
Simonetta: We can do one-on-one classes or small groups. We start with a focus on pasta and risotti, because we are very skilled making both. Ray is from Campania (near Naples, which is the patrimony of pasta). And I’m from the north, where risotto is a staple.
That’s where we start to show how foods are prepared in different regions of Italy. We can then range across the country, including seafood dishes which are especially good on the islands. We even focus on central Italy — we prepare Cacio e Pepe, a traditional Roman meal that’s made up of pasta, cheese, and pepper. It sounds easy, but is actually a bit tricky to make properly. Having said that, almost all of our recipes are easy and quick to make. People tend to think that an Italian meal has to be complicated. We show our students that you can put in a full day of work and still make a wonderful meal that night.
Do you suggest wines to pair with meals?
Ray: Yes, we focus exclusively on Italian wines. We’re very well versed in what each region produces. If you want a red, or a white, or a sparkling, each one is endemic to certain regions.
Naples has outstanding white wines but the reds are “meh.” In fact, one of the best white wines in the world is from Naples, called the Tears of Christ (Lacryma Christi). It’s produced on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, which is obviously volcanic soil. The soil produces extraordinarily good white wine grapes. There are also fruits and vegetables that only grow in that microclimate. Some of them can’t be found anywhere else.
Any challenges finding the “right” ingredients in East Falls (or the Philadelphia-area)?
Simonetta: No, we’ve found everything we need, Dibruno Brothers and Reading Terminal Market have all the cheeses and specialty ingredients. In East Falls, the Shop Rite has a great selection of European products. Ray even found Lavazza coffee, which he uses to make espresso in the morning.
Ray, has your upbringing in New Jersey influenced your cooking?
No. My mother came here directly from Naples. She learned to cook there so she was always looking to the old country, not new jersey, for her cooking ideas. And that’s a good thing since Naples is the most interesting culinary spot in all of Italy. it offers everything from fish to pasta to pizza.
The only culinary things we got from New Jersey were some good tomatoes and pumpkins.
Since it’ll be your first Thanksgiving here, will you be cooking a Thanksgiving meal? Would you want to Americanize it at all or would it be strictly Italian?
Ray: We’d love to organize an Italian meal with two dishes from the north, two from the south, two from the center, and maybe one from an island, like Sicily— to show the range of Italian cuisine. Even better — we’d like to invite a small group, maybe a few couples, to help us cook the meal.
LANGUAGE, CULTURE & TRAVEL
Tell us about your Italian classes
Simonetta: We tailor our classes to the individual or the group so there isn’t a “standard” class. It all depends on the student’s ability and interests. One of my students liked to talk about the history of Italy, so we built our classes around that. Another was interested in a political discussion, particularly how Italy fits into the eurozone and how its economy has been affected by that. Other people prefer talking about Italian food, film, literature, or fashion — there are so many ways to learn about Italian culture and we love to share them all.
Why are you teaching Italian now?
Simonetta: I’m always looking to share my culture with others. When I moved to East Falls, it was one of the first things I thought about (after we finished the renovation of our beautiful house). There’s an energy here that reminds me of Italy and I’ve met some wonderful people who have Italian roots but want to know more about where they come from and what the culture is like in their region of Italy. It’s also a great way to meet new people and connect with the place I call my new heart!
How long are classes? Is there homework?
Simonetta: Each class lasts about an hour to 90 minutes. Yes, we can assign homework but again, it depends on the student. Some like having homework. We have a lending library of Italian books, magazines, videos, and movies to help with take home assignments. We can assign short writing assignments to get students familiar with writing in Italian or just talk about a magazine article or movie.
East Falls has quite a number of big Italian families. Do you teach classes that could help Italian Americans connect with their cultural roots in Europe?
Simonetta: Yes we do. So many Italian Americans don’t know their roots or where their relatives come from. Some even think chicken parmesan is an Italian food (fun fact: it’s not). We can help them discover their roots. The Italian government offers a website that allows people to look up their surnames and trace it back to a region of Italy. We can then help them understand about the history and culture of that region — our cooking classes are great for that, because cooking is such a big part of Italian culture.
What’s something that American Italians might be surprised to learn about Italy?
Ray: That there is no such thing as Italy, not in the minds of the people. Unification of the country only happened in 1870, so it’s a relatively recent event, but people are still fiercely attached to their local bell tower. They’re fiercely proud of being from Venice or Naples or Florence. No one is from “Italy.”
It’s understandable because there are so many differences between North and South — it shows in the dialects and languages. A person from Venice can’t understand someone from Sicily unless they speak Italian.
Simonetta: There are also different historical influences in different parts of the country. In the north it was Normans, Vikings, and Austrians, to name a few. In the south you had the Greeks and Moors.
Even today, different languages are spoken in parts of the country French, German, Catalan (on Sardinia) and Spanish. In Calabria there’s a place where they speak ancient Greek!
These different regions were supposedly unified, but I don’t think it will ever truly happen. The only time you see Italians is during the World Cup.
What part of Italy would you say East Falls reminds you of most?
Ray: The greenery and the forest in this area reminds us a bit of Umbria (Perugia is the capital), which is called the green heart of Italy. There’s also a long history here. You go down Coulter, you’ll see where Grace Kelly grew up. At the reservoir, you’re where Washington’s army encamped.
You also offer a traveler’s class — can you tell us about that? If someone is planning a trip to Italy, what can you teach them (handy phrases to help them get around, explain custom/transportation/etc) or recommend (sites to see, places to visit, foods to try) that will make their trip better?
Ray: We can help create a tour. Most travelers go on tours that focus on the big cities but we can suggest unconventional places — there are other beautiful areas that aren’t as well traveled, like Verona or Matera, which is where they filmed The Passion of the Christ. Palermo is another place that few tourists see, but it has beautiful Moorish architecture. Because these places are less traveled, you can feel the culture there more. We can suggest places to see, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, even wines they can find in those areas. It all depends on what people are interested in.
Can you give us a slang-y phrase you’d hear often in Italy?
Simonetta: In my region (Friuli), they say manzi manzi, which means bye bye.
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