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Postcards: Flying in Italy

Renting an aircraft for the local’s point of view

Editor's note: This is an expanded version of the article that was published in the March issue of 'AOPA Pilot' magazine.

By Dick Davis

The grass runway interrupted the hilly landscape of central Italy and, much to our surprise, changed the course of our trip to the home of my wife’s maternal ancestors.

Pilot Briefing March 2020
The view of the west coast of Italy from a Cessna 172; this is the Tyrrhenian Sea, the inlet of Rio Martino, a local port near the Sabaudia Flying Club. (Photography by Mary Michael)

The grass runway interrupted the hilly landscape of central Italy and, much to my surprise, changed the course of our return trip to the home of my wife’s maternal ancestors. Riccardo De Nardis was a local pilot happy to show a couple of Americans the bleached-white structures of the coastal city Terracina and the inland lush greenery of the Circeo National Park from a Cessna 172. Meshed with the sandy beaches of the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea, we felt like we were flying through a Michelangelo painting.

De Nardis deftly maneuvered the Cessna at 1,500 feet over the Latina Province, midway between Naples and Rome. This was a return trip to Italy for my wife, Mary Michael, and me, but a first to see it from the air. De Nardis flies from the Sabaudia Flying Club based in Italy’s Pontine Plain next to Circeo. His career in the pharmaceutical industry is close to Sabaudia where he tries to fly at least every weekend—mostly local, but often longer distances.

De Nardis has flown all over Europe, including Norway, the United Kingdom, Ukraine, Turkey, and most countries in between. When on vacation, he’s managed to fly in Chicago as well as South Africa, Kenya, Mexico, Belize, New Zealand, and the Cook Islands.

Born 1963 in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, De Nardis went on his first flight in a light airplane at age 10 over the African bush with his father’s friend. When flying to Italy twice a year for boarding school, De Nardis often spent time in the cockpit of the Alitalia DC–8 with the flight crew—an opportunity no longer available in the twenty-first century. At 16, De Nardis joined the Aeroclub of Latina, became a self-proclaimed hangar rat for two years, and managed to build up 80 nonofficial hours flight time. He soloed and earned his private pilot certificate at 18. His total flight time now is more than 1,600 hours.

He has been a member of the Aeroclub di Italia since 1977, of AOPA-Italy since 1998, and belongs to the Italian Historical Aircraft Group, HAG.

In 2013, De Nardis bought the 1977 Cessna 172N, which he calls la iena, the hyena, because the first time he saw the Cessna it was dusty and smelled like the animal that lives in the African savannah. The Cessna had been neglected by its previous owner and needed extensive cleaning.

De Nardis’s dream is to fly the Skyhawk from Italy to Capetown, South Africa, and stop in Zambia at the airport where he had his first flight.

As De Nardis tells us of his aviation exploits and dreams, the stunning views keep scrolling by, including the ancient hilltop town of Sermoneta, the city of Latina, sections of the Appian Way, and more of the Pontine Plain. The Appian Way, constructed in the year 312 B.C. as a military road, has been expanded over the years and parts are drivable.

De Nardis’s aviation enthusiasm rubbed off and led us to another aviation experience: a visit to the famed Italian Air Force Museum in Bracciano. Located 25 miles north of Rome, it is the most important aviation museum in Italy. Among the collection is a replica of the Wright Flyer and the original engine that powered a Wright Model A, which was brought in 1909 to Italy by Wilbur Wright for flight demonstrations.

The museum includes aircraft, engines, and historical artifacts in four hangars in chronological order, with information signage in both Italian and English. Starting from the first aircraft of the early 1900s, visitors can follow the evolution of the Italian Air Force from the two world wars through today.

Our museum guide, Gino Mondini, seemed right out of central casting. The 80-year-old Italian Air Force veteran and former U.S. Civil Air Patrol pilot conveyed his extensive knowledge to us with flair.

The Bracciano-born Mondini’s extensive career started in the late 1950s with the Italian Air Force. He has amassed more than 3,000 flying hours in Italy and the United States, estimates 6,000 happy landings, and hopes to still be flying at age 90.

Mondini first came to the United States in 1960 and trained with the U.S. Air Force in Texas and Alabama as a Jupiter SM78 Missile Guidance System analyst. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1967 in Los Angeles County; and he participated later in the Kendall County, Texas, government and business communities and the Texas Civil Air Patrol. Mondini left the CAP in 2001 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He later was involved with the Winzen International Company, which was started by Otto Winzen, a pioneer in space exploration who built enormous stratospheric balloons used by aerospace companies and NASA to test various equipment to be sent into space.

Mondini returned to Bracciano with his family and is now a volunteer for the museum. With his command of four languages—Italian, English, French, and Spanish—he often conducts tours for foreign visitors.

Those exploring Italy too often overlook the region, which includes the Latina and Frosinone provinces. There is much to offer beyond the aviation experiences. For example, two luxurious villas in Castro dei Volsci offer tours and cooking classes. As we discovered, the villas can provide excursions featuring an amazing selection of wineries, olive groves, and restaurants.

La Locanda del Ruspante was our home Castro dei Volsci for 13 days of relaxing Italian rustic accommodations, sumptuous local cuisine, a few cooking lessons, and adventurous tours. One stop was an emotional visit to the remains of the homestead of Mary’s late mother, Pasqualena “Lena” (Cataldi) Michael, and her Cataldi parents and siblings. A dozen family members from the United States, most with Cataldi or Michael ancestry, joined us for a week.

Curiosity about what the two-story stone home was like decades ago and dismay about its current, rundown condition were our sentiments when walking around the 120-year-old remains. The structure was in much better condition 37 years ago when Mary last visited, she said.

A six-hour Italian dinner party for Mary’s cousins in the area was a highlight. Mary was gratified to renew friendships with 55 cousins, most of whom remembered her from that month-long visit in 1982 and a prior one in 1980. La Locanda staff prepared a multi-course feast that went perfectly with numerous, vociferous toasts of local wines. 

A return to an abundant olive grove, picturesque winery, and a bucolic Italian restaurant was a memorable taste treat, thanks to Gregory Aulensi, owner of Casa Gregorio, another deluxe villa in Castro. In 2013 we stayed at the Casa and enjoyed Aulensi’s accommodations, traditional Italian cuisine, and local tours.

Wines and antipasti at La Ferriera and lunch at Le Cannardizie Ristorante, both in Atina, and olive oil at Agricola Di Folco in Arpino, were fresh, colorful, crisp, and tasty, just as our taste buds remembered. While U.S. red wines don’t agree with me, the Italian reds are quite drinkable. It is something to do with organic sulfites used in Italy versus sulfites used in the United States, experts tell me. Salute!

We ordered several cases of olive oil and wine to be shipped home. It was too bad the local lamb and ravioli at Le Cannardizie can’t be delivered to our Pennsylvania home.

It was a pleasure to renew friendships with Aulensi, see the Casa’s exquisitely designed additions, and learn of his successful 2019 season of hosting more than 850 guests. The Michigan native is thriving in Castro dei Volsci, where his father has roots. 

Before going to bed our final night in Italy, Mary and I reminisced about our journey, the cousins, our glorious flight with De Nardis, our much-too-fast time with the gregarious Mondini, and our superb tours.

We plan to return. We wish only that our new pilot friends could fly us across the Atlantic. 

Dick Davis is a veteran writer of travel, food, health care, and business.

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