Although Italians have a reputation for being boisterous and exuberant, in fact the Italian family dinner can be a stiffly ceremonial business. More often than not, chairs are uncomfortable, portions meager, pleasure and ease sacrificed on the altar of la bella figura, which, roughly translated, means caring more about how things appear to other people than about whether they make you happy. And perhaps for this reason, what are to foreigners the signs of an enviable heritage can become for young Italians the emblems of a tyranny they would like nothing better than to escape. That may explain the avidity with which they are willing to chuck nonna's Tuscan bread chest in favor of witty Alessi tableware, a sleek Antonio Citterio desk or a minimalist sofa from B&B Italia.
Anna Zegna seeks a middle ground. An executive at Ermenegildo Zegna, the clothing and fabric house her grandfather started not quite a century ago, she effortlessly blends luxurious Milanese tradition and clean modern style--just like a beautifully tailored Zegna suit. A no-nonsense, athletic woman, she keeps her blond hair short and to the point, dresses simply but expensively in dark slacks and a muted cashmere shawl and receives visitors not at a desk but at an immense table spread with mugs, papers and photographs of models. Her title is Director of Image and Communications, and no one could better communicate the Zegna image. Refinement and understatement are the watchwords of this fashion house, which brings classic fabrics and tailoring up to date not through dramatic gestures but through discreet innovations in drapery and cut.
Everything about Anna Zegna suggests an eagerness not so much to throw off the past as to lighten its burden by liberating tradition from the suffocating formality with which it is so often paired. When she entertains in her 18th-century house near Biella, in the Piedmont region of Italy, she tries to combine what she refers to, in her perfect English, as "the warmth of the past with the sensuality of today." The fine fabrics for which Zegna is famous (the company recently supplied the cashmere to upholster a special-edition Ferrari) play a crucial role. For a recent dinner party, she draped her oval dining table with a white Agnona cashmere throw overlaid with an orange shawl of cotton and silk; then she set the table with English 19th-century ivory-handled silver and antique Meissen china, both family heirlooms. For a centerpiece she arranged orange and pink roses: "I always prefer mixing stems from the flower market with what I have in the garden, rather than the more professional arrangements of florists." The vase for the flowers had been purchased by her grandfather at Accorsi, the legendary Torino antiques dealer.
"We live in a world of contrasts," Anna says, a philosophy that extends to her cooking as well. "Today we move easily between modern and old, East and West. I love to eat Japanese food in the morning and risotto in the evening." For her dinner party, she collaborated on the menu with her friend Mina Vachino, with whom she co-wrote a Piedmontese cookbook named after the park that her grandfather established in Biella. The meal began with a silky tuna mousse and a colorful salad of marinated trout fillets tossed with orange and grapefruit slices, followed by a risotto with spring vegetables and succulent pot-roasted rabbit flavored with thyme, marjoram, sage and bay leaves. A crostata filled with custard and a layer of crushed amaretti biscuits finished the meal.
"I love the trout dish because it represents an Italian twist on sashimi, my favorite food of all," Anna says. She is about to leave for Los Angeles and is looking forward to visiting a Japanese restaurant there that she's heard is wonderful. Its location in a seedy strip mall, next to a porn shop, doesn't deter her, true enthusiast that she is. "The Japanese influence is very important in my life," she says. "In decoration as well as food, it's about an ideal of clarity." Words one might just as well apply to Zegna style itself.
Text by David Leavitt, whose books include Arkansas and The Page Turner, as well as Martin Bauman, which will be published this fall by Houghton-Mifflin.