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The Art of the Pennica: the Italian Afternoon Nap

“The pennica is almost meditative, certainly tonic, and I wish we could make it a habit like it once was.”

“I’m just going to rest my eyes for a minute,” my dad told me after our Pasquetta lunch a few weeks ago. “You know, to gather my thoughts.” He plonked down in his armchair, reclined his head and in the span of seconds, began snoring. 

Half an hour later, he was up, ready to re-engage in our conversation and have another slice of pastiera

That, for those unfamiliar, was a pennica: the post-lunch nap that older generations of Italians–especially in the country’s central and southern regions–are masters of (though if you ask my father, he’ll say he was simply doing some “deep thinking”). 

Not to be confused with the Spanish siesta, which, at least back in the day, involved putting on pyjamas and heading to the bedroom for a proper kip, a pennica is all about having a quick snooze in your clothes, anywhere that’s comfortable: a bed, sure, but also the sofa or, as my dad demonstrated, an armchair. It doesn’t need to be long (20-30 minutes is the ideal length), nor particularly deep, but many say it should be practised daily for optimum results. 

Pennica–or pennichella as my dad calls it to highlight its brevity–is made up of different stages, which in Roman dialect are clearly and precisely identified with their very own names. There’s the cecagna, which is the torpor one feels just after eating; the abbiocco, when both eyelids and limbs start to feel heavier and relaxed; and then the pennica itself, when slumber takes over. 

Keep in mind that pennica isn’t full-on sleep. A pennica doesn’t leave you time to dream or drool, though you’ll still feel like you’ve dozed off for hours. It is nothing but a commendable activity meant to restore you. Post pennica, you should be refreshed, not sluggish (which is much more common after a two-hour lie-down).

Photography by Milla Muuronen

It’s no wonder that, in the past, Italian companies (but also shops, factories and restaurants) regarded the nap as an essential part of the working day and would let their employees take a pennica at home before returning to the office (or, sometimes, in their desk chairs right in the office itself). To my dad and uncles, grandparents and great grandparents, penniche were the simplest pick-me-ups to tackle the afternoon: the natural Red Bulls to their temporary tiredness. The art of the pennica spoke to something uniquely Italian too: the importance of slowing down and enjoying the moment, even between chores and business commitments. 

Over the past few decades, as many Italians traded leisurely lunches at home for sandwiches at their desks, the pennica turned into a rare occurrence–something only people of a certain age, like my dad, would do. But in losing this practice, I think we’ve lost part of our essence. 

Pressing pause on the hustle and bustle after a nice pranzo–belly full and heart content–sounds to me like the perfect way to really savour the day and focus on oneself. The pennica is almost meditative, certainly tonic, and I wish we could make it a habit like it once was.

I, for one, am trying. (Working from home helps, of course.) 

While I didn’t join my dad in that Pasquetta pennica, I have started taking a little afternoon rest whenever I feel the abbiocco settling in. I nod off for a short while or use the opportunity to take stock of the day so far (that “deep thinking” my dad mentioned might not be an euphemism after all), then return to my laptop. And you know what? I do feel more energised. 

With the days getting hotter, I foresee bringing the pennica on holiday too. A little nap by the sea, the sound of the tide as my background, and not a worry in the world, at least for 20 minutes everyday. That, to me, is bliss. And an art I really want to perfect.

Photography by Milla Muuronen