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Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena
A Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow, a recipient of the Dorothea Lange/Paul Taylor Prize from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, and the Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination from Teachers and Writers Collaborative, Mary Cappello is a former Fulbright Lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow, Russia) and currently Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island. She is the author of six books and co-author of one, and she has numerous essays and articles published in professional and literary magazines, and anthologies. She kindly accepted to share her thoughts about her books and lifework with us…
Her most recent book, “Lecture,” which appeared this October, has enjoyed a warm reception with features in such places as The Atlantic and The Los Angeles Review of Books. In September, she carried out a discussion of the project with novelist, essayist, and scholar, Namwali Serpell, hosted by Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Your latest book, “Lecture” is defined on your website as a “song for the forgotten art of lecture.” Could you tell us more about the book’s aims and content?
Mary Cappello: There’s a statement I find useful on the website of Columbia University’s Institute for Ideas and Imagination where they write that the purpose of the Institute is “to question the established ways in which knowledge is defined, produced, and taught.” That’s pretty much the point of my latest book. I’m very interested in what might be called “re-mediations of knowledge”—I want to pause to consider why we adhere unquestioningly to the forms that shape how and what we learn, how and what we convey or perform as writers or scholars, this includes everything from re-thinking the traditional panel presentation, to the public reading, from the conference to the syllabus. Each of these forms deserves a book in my opinion (or many books), at the least, a curiosity-imbued genealogy that might bring to the fore each mode’s historic, educational, and ideological supports. What purpose did these forms originally serve and how are they serving us (or failing to serve us) now? What might incite their re-invention, and how do the challenges of our current moment suggest the need for new ways to think about knowledge and understanding?
” …essayism seems to have capaciousness and curiosity hard-wired into its DNA.”
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Your other books are varied in their topics and they are defined as a memoir; a detour; an anti-chronicle (or “ritual in transfigured time”); a lyric biography; a speculative manifesto; and, a meditative fantasia on “mood. How do you explain your creative diversification?
Mary Cappello: I think of each of my books as a different type of thought experiment—an approach inspired by Gertrude Stein’s life’s work, though my writing does not begin to approximate the radically experimental purview of hers.
The cultivation of wonder is very important to me, as is the pursuit of a kind of strange beauty.
I remember many years ago hearing the current Nobel Laureate, the poet, Louise Glück, say in an interview that with each new book that she wrote, she identified a habit that she sought self-consciously to break. While I doubt that I can claim to have succeeded in doing this with each new book that I have written, I have always been inspired by that directive, and I try to keep it nearby. I take a somewhat related approach with my students as well, suggesting that we treat each problem or question that compels us as demanding its own new relationship to form. I have also tried to take seriously something that a graduate school mentor of mine, Martin Pops, once wrote about Herman Melville. That, in Melville’s novel, Redburn, he “was doing what he could do easily rather than chancing what he could not.” If we have been working for many years at our trade, we know what we can do well. I do try to give myself over to compositional approaches that are foreign to me, or in which I have little confidence, even though I know that this could lead to failure.
As for wide-ranging subject matter, essayism seems to have capaciousness and curiosity hard-wired into its DNA. Everything is interesting! And there’s not enough time in any one writer’s life to tap even a tiny morsel of the infinite, but, still, we try.
“I was aware of the power and beauty of my mother’s voice from a very early age…”
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You stated that an essay about your mother’s agoraphobia led to your first book, “Night Bloom” (Beacon Press). Could you elucidate the connections between the two?
Mary Cappello: I was aware of the power and beauty of my mother’s voice from a very early age, and, beyond that, of the role that reading and writing played quite literally in her survival. A certain relation to language, a reverence for the power of words, a love of the transformative potential of literature was bequeathed to me by people like my mother, Rosemary Petracca Cappello, a deep reader and a poet, and her father, a shoemaker-writer from Teano, John Petracca.
Night Bloom emerged out of an essay I had written ostensibly for a panel on autobiography at a Modern Language Association convention over 20 years ago. At the time, I was hopeful to create a form that could bring my poetic practice together with a scholarly ethos. I composed an essay that was rather unconventional given the protocols of academic panels. It was a personal essay on the subject of my mother’s having used letter-writing as a means of leaving the house during a period of my childhood in which she suffered from agoraphobia.
My training as a scholar of literary and cultural theory helped me to understand my mother’s difficulties in terms of the immigrant household in which she grew up. I was very keen to release my mother’s suffering from the confines of a “personal” dilemma and understand it in terms of the sociological circumstances that produced it, which included the very real horrors of poverty. The resulting essay, lyrical at a core, I titled, “My Mother Writes the Letter That I Dream.” The great Italian American writer and scholar, Louise DeSalvo happened to be in the audience of this early morning panel, and she wrote me soon afterward about her experience of the piece. Louise became my informal agent before I had an agent, and it was through her that the idea for Night Bloom made its way to the then Executive Editor, Deborah Chasman, who acquired the book for Beacon Press.
“…awkwardness was a wholly pervasive but woefully undertheorized and under-described condition.”
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Your second book, “Awkward: A Detour” (Bellevue Literary Press), a Los Angeles Times bestseller, ranges across various subjects. Could you tell us more about that and what prompted you to write it?
Mary Cappello: I couldn’t have told that, by the end of a semester teaching a seminar in Documentary Discourse and Immigrant Subjectivity, “awkwardness” would appear before me as a subject and a form begging for a book. My experiences abroad in 2001-2002, in Russia and Italy respectively, in many ways served as a foundation for my pursuit of awkwardness, most especially because of a feeling of an inability to adjust to life in the United States upon my return, particularly in the year following the events of September 11th (I was teaching and researching in Moscow in Fall of 2001, and in Italy and Sicily in the Spring and Summer of 2002). Originally in search of a conceptual center around which a book set in Italy and Russia could cohere, I found in awkwardness this possibility but much more: a book-length essay that moves out from and returns to forms of national (and global) displacement, but that also follows awkwardness toward unexpected areas of investigation: a complex braid of conceptual kin overlaid with implications for how we live in our bodies, how we manage our souls, and what is at stake in an over-valuation of balance, fit, adjustment and calm. Talking about the book with people from all walks, stations, and classes of life, I realized immediately that awkwardness was a wholly pervasive but woefully undertheorized and under-described condition. Our inability to dwell in uncertainty following the events of September 11th, and our embrace, instead, of xenophobic reaction formations served as the political ground of the book.
A striking conjunction of experiences at the end of the year following my return home literally inspired the book: I was teaching Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali; Fear Eats the Soul, a beautiful meditation on a relationship that develops between a young Moroccan immigrant to Germany (Ali) and a white German working-class cleaning woman who is many years his senior (Emi). The film is structured around surveying gazes, and, consequently, the people in the film, most especially the couple in question, move in their bodies in “unnatural” ways, stiffly, even as they try to show affection to one another. My students laughed at these stilted-seeming displays of the body, while I was, on the other hand, moved by them. This affective conundrum led me to consider all that is NOT revealed when, in Hollywood films, for example, the body is presented as though its owner has a perfectly seamless and “natural” relation to it. In the ensuing days, my students and I discussed whether perhaps this is what we should laugh at—the artificiality required to make filmic subjects appear natural. On the evening that the class screened the film, we found ourselves confronting a simultaneous, unexpected awkwardness, again at the intersection of immigrant subjectivity, representation, and the body. I wanted to share some of what I call “immigrant traces” with my class, over and against technologies of tracing to which immigrants must submit: to distinguish between the forms of tracing used by immigration services (for example, fingerprinting, and identification numbers, questionnaires and interviews) that are meant to “track down,” and therefore “find out” the immigrant, partly with the aim of always criminalizing him in advance, and the traces that immigrants themselves create in the form of literature, film, etc., traces whose aim perhaps is for the immigrant to be found, rather than found out. I was looking for a particular passage from my Italian immigrant grandfather’s journals, the collage-like traces, sentences in multiple directions, that he wrote in his shoe repair shop. I didn’t find the piece I was looking for, but instead, two letters that my grandfather had written to me when I was a child but that he had never sent. The letters were intensely beautiful in their structure and sentiment, and I was struck by the writing and re-writing that was going on in them, the letters as a palimpsest. As I turned one letter over, I saw, penciled on the reverse end, upside down, atop a page the words that my grandfather was teaching himself that day from the English dictionary, accompanied, not by their English definitions, but by their beguiling Italian counterparts. At the top of the page, the word “awkward” appeared. This was followed by “awhile,” and after that “awe.” In effect, my grandfather gifted to me the focus of this book.
In time, I would come to see awkwardness as the result of our desperate attempts to control chaos or our futile attempts to order things when they insist on falling apart. I’d become interested in the awkwardness of escaping feeling: you might try to numb yourself, but you’re left with a feeling, and the “feeling” is a feeling of awkwardness. And I would come to think of awkwardness as fundamental to our human-ness insofar as ‘being’ depends upon a great many inconsistencies and gaps that we daily try to avoid acknowledging. The gap between being alive and not understanding what it means to be alive is a kind of fundamental awkwardness. There’s no escaping it; we need to embrace it.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Your third book, “Called Back” (Alyson Books), received a ForeWord Book of the Year Award and an Independent Publishers Award (IPPY), and was a Finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and a Publishing Triangle Award. What is it about? (“Getting the News,” an excerpt from Called Back that appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of The Georgia Review, won a GAMMA Award for Best Feature from The Magazine Association of the Southeast. Spring 2021 will see a re-issue of Called Back from Fordham University Press, with a new Afterward composed from the point of view of life within the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Mary Cappello: I like to say that Called Back is not “about” breast cancer but is written from it. Here are the things that cancer at the turn of the century was asking me to notice and here is what it didn’t want me to notice. Here is the thinking that becomes necessary and possible in the context of treatment for breast cancer. Educators in a variety of fields have taught the book—from classes in feminist memoir to courses in Medical Humanities, and it seems to speak to people at every level of the curriculum, as well as to physicians-in-training and of course fellow patients. The book is a cultural critique in the tradition of Sontag, Lorde, Ehrenreich, and Rose, and it’s also a kind of love song to my partner, Jean Walton, and my surgeon, Dr. Maureen Chung. I love to give readings from it and to discuss it, so I’m looking forward to its renewed life, especially in these dire pandemic times, and with gratitude to Fordham University Press’ choosing it for re-print.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Your fourth book, “Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them” (The New Press, 2011) has an attention-grabbing title and I am sure my readers would like to know how it was born and what it is really about…
Mary Cappello: Swallow is based on one of the most compelling collections in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum—over 2,000 foreign bodies that a pioneering laryngologist named Chevalier Jackson extracted nonsurgically from people’s airways and stomachs in the early part of the 20th century. My encounter with this cabinet of curiosities was accidental, and originally I imagined simply writing an essay about the peculiar nature of the collection and its objects’ aura. But then I discovered that Jackson had written a best-selling autobiography in 1938, and once I read it, I was seduced by him, his life story, and my sense of him as an inventor, an artist, a writer, and humanitarian. He was an eccentric genius who saved thousands of people’s lives. I came to understand the collection as haunted by the stories that it could not tell on its own, and this led me down uncharted paths at the National Library of Medicine where a great many of the case studies attached to this collection reside. The book is a psychobiography of Jackson but it’s also an attempt to re-humanize the collection—which I subsequently played a role in re-curating and re-contextualizing. It’s a meditation on the fine line between that which we marvel at and that which disgusts us. Along the way, it tries to find a language for the complex bio-dynamics of the human swallow, and the mouth as the site of appetite, desire, aggression, and language itself.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You earned your Ph.D. at SUNY/Buffalo’s Center for the Psychoanalytic Study of the Arts with a specialization in nineteenth-century American literary and cultural studies, and Medical Humanities. How was your experience at that University and how did that influence your writing and your life?
Mary Cappello: I think of Buffalo as the city that tutored me in the importance of interiors and interiority, and SUNY/Buffalo’s English Department as the place where I came to know the extreme pleasure of thinking, not just alone and on one’s own, but with others—the relationship between thinking and sociality. The place was a cauldron of new ideas, and it was dedicated to a kind of radical originality, a quirkiness that helped me feel validated in my own odd turns of thought and imagination. No two professors in Buffalo’s English department thought alike, which might seem like an obvious thing to say, but it was very much the case that the professors I had the privilege to learn from were not much interested in orthodoxy, so even if a seminar represented a shared, new vanguard, which might seem, on the surface, predictable, what happened in these seminars never was. It was a place where the creative was never severed from the critical. A place where it wasn’t just ok but absolutely essential to think of oneself as a thinker-composer, or an artist-intellectual. Buffalo and the department were the places where I met James Morrison and Jean Walton, life-changers, forever. With both of them, I experienced “love at first sight.” Together, we wrote Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: So, you also collaborated with James Morrison and Jean Walton on “Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration”. The three essays in it have a common theme. What is it? Could you tell us more about their connections?
Mary Cappello: Many of my favorite books to emerge from a queer sensibility are books of three, from Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives to David Plante’s Difficult Women, to Hilton Als’ The Women to Roland Barthes’ Sade, Fourier, Loyola. Our contribution to this tradition is A Threefold Vibration. As a reader, there is something elegant and inviting about a book made up of three parts to me, and there’s also something tantalizingly asymmetrical about any collection of three. I have an abiding interest in the off-kilter or the questionably balanced.
The book is about the separate but overlapping routes we took to coming into consciousness as queer intellectuals in 1980s Buffalo. There are numerous themes that recur in the essays, but always from a different angle, and we hope that is the beauty of this project. These include the limits of expression, the gender of ambition, secrecy, eroticism, academic time, and snow. We also each inadvertently created portraits of one another, and especially first encounters. One of my favorite texts is an interview that the French philosopher Michel Foucault carried out in which he proposes that homosexuality’s real threat to the social order has to do with the new forms of friendship it makes possible. I hope that readers experience an uncommon kinship in the book not just between the three of us, but between themselves and us or the stories that we bring to the page in these essays.
One of the high points of bringing it out was the chance to have a conversation with the incomparable Michael Silverblatt for KCRW’s bookworm. Silverblatt’s own relationship to Buffalo’s English Department emerges in the interview as well.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Is your fifth book, “Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack” (University of Chicago Press) related to your Ph.D.’s studies? Could you tell us more about it?
Mary Cappello: Life Breaks In is probably my most ambitious book thus far, formally and thematically. I conceived of it as a collection of essays and other prose experiments. The book has numerous premises: for example, that mood is the basis for a lucrative pharmacology even though there is no agreement either in the hard or social sciences on what mood IS. That mood is one of those subjects that is everywhere apparent but under-thought. That mood appears to be an ineffable yet essential core of who we are. That in the US, mood is grossly de-delimited by the shrunken lexicon of depression. An article appearing in Salmagundi in which the great writer, JM Coetzee called for a psychology for our times that would take mood seriously spurred me on, as did the sudden, burgeoning interest in mood in the academy in literary and cultural studies (the work of Hans Gumbrecht, for example). My book aims to contribute to these discussions though it is not an academic book. First and foremost, I wanted to see if I could create a literary form that could do justice to mood. To test the boundaries of new nonfiction forms, the elasticity of the essay, the short form, the aphorism, all in the name of a subject that asks for its own form: mood. “Cloud-writing” might be the answer the book provides. The main point of the book is to create a vast repertoire of zones that readers can enter and exit as they please, and to spark a multi-disciplinary conversation, performative as well as meditative, on the subject of atmospheres, personal and political, psychological and aesthetic, real and imagined that govern or liberate us, by turns. In the process, I found myself unexpectedly bringing to light some undiscovered spaces where mood has done interesting work in the world (specifically, the picture books of Margaret Wise Brown; the habitat dioramas of Charles D. Hubbard in the LC Bates Museum; and Florence Thomas’ fairytale Viewmasters; a major through-line of the book is mood’s kinship with sound). In the end, I considered that the major point of the book might be to offer a form of strange beauty in mood’s name.
The book is not directly related to my doctoral studies except insofar as I have always maintained an interest in the workings of the human mind, encouraged by my study at Buffalo’s Center for the Psychoanalytic Study of the Arts. And, it is probably the case that I was drawn to the unique habitat dioramas of Charles Hubbard—a forgotten American impressionist—thanks to some of my formative training in Visual Culture under Martin Pops.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You seem to have a lot of works-in-progress and I am sure you wouldn’t mind sharing some of these projects’ specifics with our readers…
Mary Cappello: I’m working on a book-length essay along the order of my earlier book, Awkward: A Detour, but this time with a focus on dormancy, on all that sleeps and what stirs something to wake, psychologically, physiologically, and culturally/socially.
I’m also working slowly on a collection of short-form prose pieces that I am calling “studies” or literary études inspired by what feels like a diminishing ability to study anything at all in the digital age.
Meanwhile, I’ve been writing a series of long-form essays on the subject of intimacy between strangers, that includes, most recently, an essay on the many meanings of the word, “keep,” after seeing a sign on a house in my neighborhood saying “keep out,” considering what a strange command that is, and wondering what it could possibly mean, especially to a non-native speaker of English.
I recently curated a collection of e-mails of my mother’s, Rosemary Petracca Cappello, for Ninth Letter, called “The Dearest Mary Project”; and I had the privilege of composing a new Afterword to my third book, Called Back, in anticipation of its re-issue from Fordham University Press in Spring of 2021.
“This is what writing is to me—a humble, ethical act that I carry out in a workshop, largely in solitude.”
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Could you tell about one or two of your essays that have been published in various magazines and why you felt compelled to write on those topics?
Mary Cappello: I think I’d like to draw your attention to two of my earlier essays, “Losing Consciousness to a Lost Art,” which appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review in 2008, and “Moscow, 9/11,” which appeared in Raritan in 2002. “Losing Consciousness to a Lost Art” materialized for me during screenings of silent film and the very special atmosphere that is created annually at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy. I have had the good fortune to attend the festival twice in my lifetime, and this essay emerged on the occasion of my first sublime experience of this week-long extravaganza. I was re-visiting the essay recently and realizing that it treats the very subject that is at the heart of my next book project. We think that we are moving on to new and different territory when we write, and hopefully in some ways we are, but this essay shows my abiding interest in how we sleep and dream and what we wake to, an interest that is at the heart of my next book project on dormancy and dormant states. The essay earned a Notable Essay of the Year citation in Best American Essays that year. “Moscow, 9/11” speaks to my experience living in Moscow, Russia, at the time of September 11th. I was teaching on a Fulbright fellowship at the Gorky Literary Institute and studying Russian at the time, and the piece is my attempt to offer a glimpse of what it was like to experience that historical cataclysm at a far distance from my homeland.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Is the teacher in you influencing the writer in you or vice versa?
Mary Cappello: The teaching and the writing always go hand in hand. Teaching is an art, and often enough I learn from my students; the classroom is often a cauldron for the testing of ideas, or for working through something I’m writing about, and things that arise unexpectedly in the classroom often directly feed my writing. My teaching career has enabled me to be present to and inspired by the truly great writing that many of my students have produced, both undergraduate and graduate, and, in some cases, to witness the meteoric blossoming of their own careers. This includes, perhaps most notably, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Ayad Akhtar, who studied with me at the University of Rochester. At the time that we met, I was 29 and he was 19! It was so many years ago. His recent novel, Homeland Elegies, includes a character based on me and a fictionalized homage to our relationship.
“…the gardens I grew up in stood for willfulness, patience, and an abiding love of changing forms..”
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Did you find your Italian American roots influenced your writing and your life choices? If so, how?
Mary Cappello: I think you can see from my earlier answers that my Italian American upbringing is at the heart of my writing. There are so many ways to talk about this, but it’s possible a line from my first book, Night Bloom, says it best. I was writing, in particular, about gardening in that book, that of my father (whose parents came from a town near Palermo, Sicily) and that of my maternal (Neapolitan) grandfather (whom I’ve already mentioned), and his father, who was a master gardener who made his living by, in summer, cultivating the gardens of the wealthy residents of Philadelphia’s Main Line, and in winter, stoking their furnaces. In either case, his job was to create warmth. In Night Bloom, I wrote that “the gardens I grew up in stood for willfulness, patience, and an abiding love of changing forms.” These principles guide my aesthetic as a writer. I have had to admit over the years that, in spite of the influence of master gardeners, I’m not a great gardener, try as I might! But I maintain an intense interest in plants and flowers and still hold out hope of studying Botany in earnest one day. The work of my gardener forebears, at any rate, manifest in the art that I try to make. As well, I place a high premium on all things artisanal as a result of my Italian American upbringing. The people who reared me were weavers and shoemakers, sheet metal craftsmen, hatters, and confectioners. I try to keep their handiwork nearby to help remind me that my writing needs to be embodied. But I also keep them near to remind me of the pleasures, power, and necessity of honest labor. This is what writing is to me—a humble, ethical act that I carry out in a workshop, largely in solitude. It’s a making and attending that serves something other than oneself. I also try to stay present and true to their stories and their complexly beautiful lives all the while knowing that I can never do justice to them—their lives are boundless, really—but I still try.
“I’d like to live in a country where those entrusted with governance recall once more their dedication to the public good…”
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: What is your utmost desire at the moment?
Mary Cappello: That a new day will dawn in which we will collectively be enjoined to turn our attention to the things that need fixing, the lives that need our attention, the issues that truly matter in lieu of the daily antics and attention-grabbing inanities of a person who strikes me as a deranged and extremely dangerous individual—the current president of these United States. Someday, he will, like all of us, discover that he is human—which is to say, he, too, will have to face the limits, rather than the extent, of his powers. He will know that he is not omnipotent but, like us all, mortal. This must also be said of all those who aided and abetted him. I’d like to live in a country where those entrusted with governance recall once more their dedication to the public good over and against the acquisition of a new blue suit and a deluded sense of their own power and importance. Currently, I’m put in mind of the painstaking work involved by people who took the splinters, shards, and smashed pieces of the Jewish synagogue in Berlin and re-built it following the War. In our case, it’s not just about putting things back together—which will be hard enough—but re-conceiving of structures that, in a very real and good sense, we have been finally required to understand as deeply flawed. If demagoguery wins the election, my utmost desire will be to find my place in the revolution that will, of necessity, follow, while maintaining my own humanity, which is to say, my own sanity.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Do you believe that the isolation that Covid19 has forced most of our society into has been a boom for writers or it had a deterrent effect on creativity?
Mary Cappello: I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think it has required that we reconsider where and how we make meaning. And my own desire is to be quiet for a very long time. I have not written anything worth sharing with a public since the day on which the pandemic was announced, I remember it vividly: the 12th of March 2020. For my own part, I await the new language that I think is called for to meet the realities of this moment. I’m sure it will come, but I prefer not to rush it.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: If you could meet any one historical character, who would he or she be and what would you ask them?
Mary Cappello: I’d like to sit at the feet of Hannah Arendt and ask her to help me to understand how we have arrived at this moment in the history of this nation-state.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: A message for our readers?
Mary Cappello: I look forward to the day of our having survived the pandemic and being able to visit Italy and Sicily once more. To be in the presence of Italian and Sicilian culture, Italian and Sicilian people, Italian and Sicilian language, and Italian and Sicilian history once more. Such abiding beauty. I say this, and yet must pause in the presence of my own mis-spoken-ness, because, so much is unsaid in that little word, “our”—“our” having survived the pandemic. So many have not survived; people close to me and to you have already contracted the virus, are currently sick, or dying, or have died. Precariousness continues to loom; and even if we take every precaution—which we must—none of us is immune. May we continue to mourn in solidarity for a better day, and trust in the prospect of one day being able to greet each other in person, sharing the bounty of an Italian table.
Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena
Paul Salsini is a multi-talented Italian American author who is a contributor to the upcoming second volume of A Feast of Narrative, an Anthology of Italian American Writers, which I edit. I thought that our readers would appreciate to know more about his wonderful books and very interesting life…
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Paul, you spent 37 years as a journalist and 48 years as a college professor teaching Journalism and Musical Theater. Which one do you miss the most and why?
Paul Salsini: This may sound corny, but I knew in eighth grade that I wanted to be a journalist. I don’t know why, something about being on the scene but not being part of the scene, and also being able to write, which I loved to do. Not only that, but I wanted to work at The Milwaukee Journal. We lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and got the paper and I read it religiously. So I was thrilled when I was hired by The Journal after I graduated in journalism from Marquette University in Milwaukee. Those were the glory days of the paper, big circulation, excellent staff, ground-breaking stories. I started as a suburban reporter, then joined the State Desk, became State Editor, responsible for coverage of the state and state government, and then my best job, Staff Development Director. I handled applications, did recruiting, worked with the staff, ran the intern program and, best of all, was the writing coach. I think I was one of the first writing coaches in the country. I worked with some of the best writers on the paper and it was a very satisfying job. Like other positions on newspapers, it no longer exists.
In 1970, I thought I’d like to teach and I landed an adjunct position at Marquette. Over the years, I think I taught almost every journalism course it offered. The best was the last, Narrative Nonfiction Journalism, which I invented. Students got to delve deep into subjects and write real stories.
I’ve had a long interest in musical theater so when the instructor of History of the Musical Theater retired, I volunteered for that course. I developed a broad range, from vaudeville to “Hamilton.” It was a “core” course, which meant that all university students had to pick a course from a list. I guess mine looked like a “blow-off” course because it quickly filled to the room’s capacity – 60 students from all over campus. They soon discovered that there was work involved, but they loved it and I think they learned that art in any form should be a part of everyone’s life.
I don’t miss The Journal because journalism has changed so much and I know the staff is now depleted and has to do so much more than when I was there. I do miss my students from both departments and am still in contact with some of them. But I wouldn’t want to teach online; I’d miss the face-to-face relationships.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: But you are still teaching, aren’t you?
Paul Salsini: I’m not teaching anymore. The core curriculum was revised and, for unknown reasons, the course was dropped. But I still have a relationship with Marquette journalism. The college runs an online Neighborhood News Service that covers largely neglected areas of the city, and I do some editing of stories.
As I said, I’d long been interested in musical theater and enjoyed going to shows and reading about it. I have two favorite composers, Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim. In 1984, I thought, I’m a journalist and I like Sondheim, why not put out a publication devoted to his works? So I found a guy who would do the business side and I did the editorial side and we put out this quarterly magazine, The Sondheim Review/Devoted to the Work of the Foremost Musical Theater Composer/Lyricist. I did a lot of the writing. I traveled around the country (and even London) to write about shows and I interviewed many people, including Sondheim (who celebrated his 90th birthday in March 2020). But after ten years I needed to get a life so I gave it over to an assistant editor. It died a few years later. Over the years I had accumulated a large Sondheim collection of books, DVDs, CDs, tapes, articles, programs and other things. When my wife and I moved to a smaller apartment ten years ago I donated it all to the Marquette library, which established the Stephen Sondheim Collection, open to anyone.
I still teach, sort of. I give programs about musical theater, largely through videos, at retirement homes here. The people love them.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Although you were born in the USA, you seem to consider yourself somewhat a full-blood Tuscan, Why is it so?
Paul Salsini: My father was born in the small village of San Martino in Fredanna near Lucca in Tuscany. He came to the U.S. at 20, went to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and became a copper miner. Other people from San Martino had arrived there earlier, and he boarded with a family that had five sons and a daughter. Yes, he and the daughter fell in love and married, my father and mother. So both sides of my family are from that same village in Tuscany and when I go to the cemetery there I see the Salsinis and the Consanis all together.
My mother made a lot of good Italian meals and my father and mother spoke Italian to each other, but not to us. I was always interested, though, and in 1985 The Journal sent me with a photographer to Italy for two weeks to write stories. That’s when I fell in love with Italy, and especially Tuscany. I think I wrote about 25 stories about the people, the issues, the history. The best part, though, was visiting my cousin Fosca, my father’s niece, who lived in the house where she was born in San Martino in Fredanna. She was just wonderful. She’s 95 now and still a hoot. Since her husband died two years ago she lives alone, does her own fabulous cooking and is beloved in the village. All of her siblings and all of mine have died, so we’re the last.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You wrote your first novel, “The Cielo: A Novel of Wartime Tuscany,” basing it on your cousin’s wartime experiences. Could you tell us more about that?
Paul Salsini: I have visited Fosca often, taking my wife and kids (we have three, and four grandchildren). One time, Fosca told us about living through World War II. She said she and neighbors from San Martino in Fredanna fled to the hills, literally, when the Nazis occupied the village. Some people stayed in barns, some in the woods and some in old farmhouses. She and her friends stayed in an abandoned farmhouse called the Celli, high in the hills that had been in the family for centuries. They remained there for three months, sometimes hearing nearby fighting between the Nazis and the partisans, until the Allied forces liberated the area.
Anyway, I was fascinated by her story and as a journalist I wanted to write it. But there were problems: I can’t speak or read Italian well, which was essential. I was working, so couldn’t spend months there. And many of the sources would be dead. So I decided to write it as fiction. I know, I know, journalists are often accused, falsely, of writing fiction, but this was different. So I spent months researching the war, the area, the partisans, the Nazis, etc. etc. It would be the story of how people were forced to live together while fighting was going on all around them. During the research I discovered that on August 12, 1944, Germans had invaded a nearby village, Sant’Anna di Stazzema, and slaughtered 560 people in four hours. It was the second-worst massacre by the Germans in Italy during the war. So that became part of the story, with a partisan assuming a major role, and the book becoming even more historical fiction.
So I finished the first novel I’d ever written and called it “The Cielo: A Novel of Wartime Tuscany.” I named the farmhouse Cielo, which means ‘heaven’ or ‘sky,’ but I also liked the way it was similar to the real farmhouse’s name, Celli. To my surprise, the book was well received and even won awards: First Place from the Council for Wisconsin Writers and First Place from the Midwest Independent Publishers Association.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: From one novel about Tuscany, you end up with a series of six novels about that region. How did that happen and why are these novels all about the beautiful region of Tuscany?
Paul Salsini: Something strange happened after writing that book, and I’ve since learned that it happens to much more experienced writers as well. I couldn’t get those characters I’d created out of my head. They were real. I thought about them at night, wondering what they were doing. So I wrote a sequel, “Sparrow’s Revenge: A Novel of Postwar Tuscany.” It was about how that partisan, filled with guilt because he didn’t save his lover in Sant’Anna, sought revenge.
After that, yes, those people were still in my head and I couldn’t get rid of them. So I wrote “Dino’s Story: A Novel of 1960s Tuscany.” It was sort of a coming-of-age story about a boy who was born at the end of the first book and ten years old in the second and who goes to Florence to study art in the third. He’s there during the devastating flood of Florence in 1966. More historical fiction.
I called those three books “A Tuscan Trilogy,” but that was a mistake because those people were, yes, still in my head and I realized I was writing about them from decade to decade.
So I continued writing about these people in interrelated short stories. The first was “The Temptation of Father Lorenzo: Ten Stories of 1970s Tuscany” and then “A Piazza for Sant’Antonio: Five Novellas of 1980s Tuscany” and finally “The Fearless Flag Thrower of Lucca: Nine Stories of 1990s Tuscany.” All of the stories are set in the fictional Sant’Antonio, not unlike San Martino in Fredanna, and in Florence. The original characters age (some die) and some new ones arrive.
I decided that was the last of the series. Ezio the partisan and other original characters were now in their 80s and another book would have been very sad. I had to move on. But, yes, sometimes they’re still in my head. I wonder how Ezio and Donna, who live in the Cielo in the hills, are doing; I imagine that Dino’s adopted son from Albania must be in college by now, and I can only speculate on what’s going on between the handsome television priest Father Giancarlo and the former nun Anna.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: I stand corrected: you wrote seven books about Tuscany, including “The Ghosts of the Garfagnana: Seven Strange Stories from Haunted Tuscany.” What’s different about this book from the others?
Paul Salsini: After I’d completed the series, I thought about what to write next. I’d been fascinated by the Garfagnana area of Tuscany ever since, researching “Sparrow’s Revenge,” my driver/translator showed me the “Devil’s Bridge” near Borgo e Mozzano and told me the story of how the devil built the bridge in the Middle Ages. Surely, I thought, if a region can foster such a legend it must have lots of other good stories, too. (I’ve since learned that there are nine devil’s bridges in Italy alone and maybe up to two dozen in Europe.)
The Garfagnana, which is north of Lucca, is unlike any other area I’ve seen in Italy, not that I’ve seen all of Italy. It’s very rugged, with high snow-capped mountains, tiny villages, lots of green stretches. Just the kind of territory where witches and ghosts and strange traditions would occur.
So I fashioned a collection of short stories, interrelated again, about the people and places, and all with supernatural connections. It was fun.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You also wrote a nonfiction book, “Second Start.” What is this book about?
Paul Salsini: When I was at The Milwaukee Journal I wrote an article for the paper’s Sunday magazine about “second-career” priests. These were men who had gone through a seminary near Milwaukee that specialized in training and ordaining men who had had other careers. As far as I knew, this hadn’t been written about, so I expanded the piece into a book and included priests from other areas of the country, including New York.
Their stories were inspiring and the book was well received. I wish I knew what happened to the priests. I know a few have died, and I’ve heard bad things about one of them. That’s to be expected, I guess.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You are the author of “Stefano and the Christmas Miracles” and “Stefano and the Tuscan Piazza,” two children’s books. What inspired you to write for children? What kind of message these two books are trying to convey to the readers?
Paul Salsini: I have a presepio that I bring out every Christmas. It started with a few pieces I bought in Florence and I’ve been adding one every year so there are now more than forty figures around the stable—and no more room! They’re made by Fontanini. I’d always wondered about those “other people” who are in it – a woman with geese, a man sharpening a knife, a boy asleep, an old man guided by a boy. Why are they in the Nativity scene?
So I wrote a story about a grandfather, “Nonno,” telling the boy Stefano stories of some of them. In each case, the person goes to Bethlehem and there is a miracle at the manger. For example, a boy who is a terrible bugler but is part of a “boy band” goes to the stable and suddenly is able to play beautifully.
The second book, sort of a sequel, also resulted from a collection begun in Florence. Arranged on a bookshelf in our living room are miniature ceramic pieces that form a Tuscan piazza, a tower, a church, a palace, houses, etc. They were made by “J Carlton by Dominique Gault.” It’s a French company that makes other miniatures but it has now discontinued the Tuscan line. So I used the same format, Nonno telling Stefano stories about some of the buildings, but also going into such medieval things as flag throwing, ghosts and devils, battles, the contrade of Siena, the calico storico of Florence, etc.
In both books, I hope I stressed the bond that can exist between a grandfather and a grandson. My mother’s father lived with us for years before he died. I have a photo of him and me in the back of the book.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: What other literary project are you working on at the moment?
Paul Salsini: I’m deep into a story that’s unlike anything I’ve ever written. It’s contemporary and it deals with a contemporary subject. In fact, it’s so contemporary that I’m not sure how it’s going to end. That’s about all I’ll say.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: If you had the opportunity to meet and talk to anyone in history, who would it be and why?
Paul Salsini: Probably Leonardo da Vinci. What an incredible, but also inscrutable, person! Was anyone ever so multi-talented?
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: In a critical moment for our nation and the world as it is the one we are living, what do you think writers like us could contribute to the society around them to alleviate the stress?
Paul Salsini: When I’m writing, I seem to enter into another world, a world that I may have created but which takes on a life of its own. I let the characters tell their stories in their own way. I’m hardly one to suggest what writers could do in these perilous times, but I think they are desperately needed now. They can take readers into universes where they can explore new ideas, discover new characters, visit new places, enjoy different stories. For myself, I find that I’m reading a lot more now, more fiction than I ever have, so I’m finding more new worlds.
L’Idea: Do you have a message for our readers?
Paul Salsini: Read, read, read.
Interview By Tiziano Thomas Dossena
An artist, a chef, a businessman, a philanthropist, a bulwark of Italian culture in the world…who is really Antonio Argentieri? Let’s discover a little more about him…
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Our readers, who reside in Italy may know you from your Italian TV program on RAI Television, but I see from the flood of information online that you live in Ireland and you have strong connections to Australia and Italy. Could you tell our readers how you arrived from Vasto, in Abruzzo, to Dublin, and what are your past experiences in Australia?
Antonio Argentieri: Yes, in Italy I am also known for television programs, such as la “Prova del Cuoco” e “Cuochi e D’intorni”, Alice TV and others.
I am originally from an Abruzzese town, Vasto (ch), from where I left many years ago with my suitcase full of dreams and experiences. I was strongly convinced of bringing my Italian excellence and my corner of Abruzzo with me to the world. Quality, culture, and history seen through my art as a pastry chef.
On my return from one of my trips, I was invited to a meeting at a school, in which an Italian entrepreneur and other companies operating abroad took part. And that’s where they suggested that I move to Ireland, at the invitation of one of them. I found myself so well in Dublin that I decided to stay and establish a working platform for my businesses around the world.
My relationship with Australia has been solid and strong for several years now, particularly with W. Australia and the city of Perth. I started with my cooking show, up to returning even 3 times a year, for more and more numerous other shows in regional clubs, associations, and for events sponsored by the state. As a result of all this and for my love for the city of Perth W. A., I was honored by the “twins buttons” with the symbol of the city, and for the dissemination abroad of the Italian heritage in the world. Meanwhile, I became a guest and judge of the Perth Royal Show and the Association of Cake Decorators of W. A.
Also in Australia, for years now I have been the ambassador of the CLCRF based in Perth but operating internationally, collaborating and organizing large fundraising events for research against childhood cancer. And it is from everything that I then created and patented my “Cake Kid’s Therapy” with a therapeutic approach to children who are going through a bad period, to artistic, Italian pastry.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You are an artist who also found a path in life being a chef. How did that occur? What triggered your interest in baking? How did your son Karoljosef get involved in your passion?
Antonio Argentieri: I have always loved our Italian culture, in all its vast and unique expressions. I remember from an early age, watching my mother and my grandmother, while they made desserts, fresh pasta, and more of our tradition, which fascinated me more and more, even behind their stories. They talked to me about the art, history, and traditions that were behind those preparations.
Then growing up I lost this attention, even though it remained hidden in me. I decided to take another path, always artistic, taking me to study interior design at the academy.
And it is in a particular and delicate moment of my life that, thanks to the intuition of my son Karoljozef, this passion of mine exploded again. He is the one that praised my baking and called me “Sweet Daddy.” And it is since then that I have begun to study and specialize in this “white art”, where I express my past studies to the fullest.
After a year, I founded “Sweet Daddy Pastries & Co Italy” and I immediately started traveling the world. Today I reside in Ireland, where the “KJA FACTORY”, which absorbed Sweet Daddy Pastries & Co Italy, was born
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: What about “KJA factory”?
Antonio Argentieri: The “KJA FACTORY” is a reality that collects all my experiences gained over the years. In fact it bears the name of my son Karoljozef, and it is another way to thank him.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You founded “Sweet Daddy Pastry & Co Italy” sixteen years ago. How does your company operate?
Antonio Argentieri: My Factory brings the Italian qualities and excellence, art, culture, history of my country with me to the world. I select and create culinary and non-culinary products with small Italian family businesses, which produce in an artisanal way, still following centuries-old traditions. Like the “Fratelli Costa” and the “Orma”. Sicilian, Abruzzese, Calabrian products.
Through my cooking shows, the whole of Italy is represented in a sensorial way.
I always say in my shows, “here you live and enter the heart of Italy for a couple of hours”.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: What brought this success for “Sweet Daddy Pastry & Co Italy in countries like Kyrgystan and Russia? Do you also export to USA?
Antonio Argentieri: As I said earlier, with the passage of time with my shows, I have been invited to many other countries, always thanks to the contacts and friendships that developed through my good work. I have received many satisfactions both human and professional. I built relationships that allowed me to serve many high ranking state representatives, like the Russian prime minister in Kyrgyzstan at a state banquet. I have seen, with Italy in my art and in my heart, many countries, only America was missing and I was supposed to visit in September New York and Las Vegas to start some commercial ties, but unfortunately, Covid19 has blocked everything.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Your motto is “Learn, create, rejoice”. Do you carry that belief in everything you do?
Antonio Argentieri: Yes, my motto is “Learn, create, rejoice” and I carry it in everything I do. I never forget my roots, and from Italy I can only learn, create, rejoice. Presenting yourself with a smile is the key to everything.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Do you still operate as an artist aside from your baking world?
Antonio Argentieri: Yes, my artistic field is vast and it is always alive in my “white art”.
In my creations, in my cakes, there is art, sculpture, study. I plan to organize an exhibition with my most representative pieces. I also have a second passion, singing. I love opera madly.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You appeared on the Italian RAI TV program “La prova del cuoco”. How was that experience?
Antonio Argentieri: The experience in RAI TV was fantastic, educational, and led me to meet unique people and workers, and I still feel today its effects on me.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: On the occasion of the 70th Festival di Sanremo, you created a sculpture made of sugar for the renowned soprano Katia Ricciarelli….
Antonio Argentieri: Yes, Sanremo was yet another recognition of my art and of my person. Being called to create a dessert for the fiftieth anniversary of her career, the anniversary of soprano Katia Ricciarelli, was an unparalleled emotion.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Any new projects in the works?
Antonio Argentieri: Fortunately, there are many projects. Meanwhile, I continue in the best ways to spread our traditions abroad, then in the coming months, Covid19 permitting, there is the release of my album “Singing with the chef”. I already have the confirmation of Sanremo D.O.C, a television program and finally to come to America.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: If you had the opportunity to meet anyone from the past or the present, who would he or she be and what would you ask them?
Antonio Argentieri: In the past, I had the privilege of meeting John Paul II, a great man, a vibrant soul for the whole of humanity, a strength, a cry, a hope, an example for the whole world. Yes, I would love to meet him again, and relive that experience, and ask him if there was still a man like him so that he can still give the man of today that strength and that light that are lost today.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: A message for our readers?
Antonio Argentieri: I am asked for a message for the reader; what to say? Times are not calm, this Covid19 has created human and social instability It is precisely at this moment that you have to take your life back in hand, and go back to planning, delineating, dreaming, studying, not getting lost in the whirlwind of fear, for a peaceful future. Never give up, never.
Always remembering that beyond the clouds, the darkest ones, there is a radiant and warm sun, which shines for everyone.
Review by Tiziano Thomas Dossena
Reading “THE SECRET PRICE OF HISTORY, Searching for the Treasure behind Alexander’s Medallion” was a thrill for me in many ways. The book is a complex one, in the sense that it carries two historical lines of narratives contemporarily, one in the 19th century and one in the 21st century, and their developments are intertwined in such a matter that understanding one of them is necessary to comprehend the other one. How the authors, Gayle Ridinger and Paolo Pochettino, managed to give this effect of historical clips, almost cinematic, and not confuse the reader is a marvel and it attests to their literary and historical abilities.
I stated that it has two parallel stories, and it is so because the outcome of the older one, if presented only in chronological order with the new one, would spoil some of the surprises that our heroes and evil characters confront on their path throughout the book.
Said that, I will contradict myself by saying that the book’s start is in 1989 and not in those two centuries mentioned. This opening, though, it’s only a requirement, almost an indispensable prologue that introduces the slippery main evil character, the so-called White Devil, whose presence will effuse throughout the narrative concerning the 21st century. He is not only a wicked, depraved and soulless individual, but a corrupter and a manipulator, so that any other iniquity that is not performed by him occurring in this portion of the book is necessarily tied to him, whether because it’s a crime committed by someone following his orders or just inspired by him through their relationship, be it familial or business-induced.
The 19th century timeline narrative is a wonderful piece of historical fiction which could stand by itself and which is powerful and detailed in the description of the events. The heroes are many, considering that the story-line starts at the time of the Roman Republic in 1845. Through the vicissitudes of a Roman noblewoman, a patriotic cheese monger, and a deserter from the Austro-Hungarian army who become friends for life we can also follow the history of the making of Italy as a nation.
It is obvious that the authors spent a considerable amount of time in their historical research, since the outcome is flawless and seamless, even when interrupted by the alternating process of the book’s narrative. Through the delightful reconstruction of the focal points of their period of time that was swept by the wind of patriotism and freedom seeking, the readers not only encounter Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Hero of the Two Worlds, Antonio Meucci, the inventor of the telephone, the emperor Napoleon III, Pope Pius IX, and many other major and minor characters who left an imprint of a kind upon the pathway of history, but hear their voices and discover their thoughts, their fears, their desires, contradictions, and sometimes their obsessions.
These characters, though, are not just used as embellishment or backdrop decorations, but are essential to the progress of the story itself. Through keen observations and depictions, Ms. Ridinger and Mr. Pochettino present live reconstructions of feasible situations that allow the reader to enjoy the staging as much as the excitement that the events themselves may bring to surface. An example of that is the demonstration of the newly-invented telephone to one of our heroes, Eleonora, by Antonio Meucci:
She passed the letter to Sandor to re-study and took Meucci’s strange cylinder in hand again.
“Talk into this?” she said with a smile. “But I want to talk to Ester.”
“I know. Talk into the handle.”
“The handle’s not Ester.” She rattled the object and Meucci laughed.
“Do as I say,” Meucci gestured at her encouragingly and winked at Sandor. “The electricity will carry your voice…I call it a telettrofono. It’s what I’m working on now.”
If it weren’t a miracle. She actually heard Ester’s voice come from the cylinder three times in answer to her own. Sandor raised his eyebrows at her in equal wonderment. Yes, it was lovely, Meucci was a genius, but her mind could not fathom where Ester was.
“You can see her in a moment. You can hear her this moment,” the old inventor insisted. “And she can hear you. Tell us about yourself.”
In this charming and imaginative paragraph you can feel the excitement of the characters and at the same time somewhat witness a plausible occurrence in the household of Meucci. It is with these credible, or should I say probable settings, almost reenacted anecdotes, that the tale is carried to fruition, and in Oh, such a convincing and thrilling manner!
Through the book one can discover the mechanics behind the formation of the Garibaldi Guard during American Civil War, the horrors of the battles, whether fought on Italian or American grounds in these years of turmoil, even the passionate gestures of painters such as Induno or Freeman, who did not shy away from danger and kept on creating their masterpieces, whether on the battlefields’ edges or in the Roman ruins. The story offers also an insight on the conflict between Christianity and Mithraism, the birth of the Casane Astigiane (Italian for “Houses of Asti”) , the major family banking houses of Asti, Italy in the middle ages, the crusades, and other historical events of the past, but it does so that there can be an understanding of the existence of the medallion that is connected to Alexander’s purported treasure.
The authors, nonetheless, do not disdain to insert in the story some matter-of-fact statements, quips that can be humorous and allow for a breather in the breathtaking progression of the events. For example, in the conversation between a member of the Vatican’s IOR bank and an Italian Congressman, the ecclesiastic declares:
“…And you, who were elected by an overwhelming margin and voted even by Alzheimer sufferers, you should be the first to know that.”
Unquestionably the mysterious treasure and the people who are involved in that search through the centuries make this story a first-class thriller, but that the main story in itself is about the search for a treasure is somewhat deceiving, because this book is about passions and greed, selflessness and egoism, cruelty and love, and most of all about the people who believed strongly in an ideal, sometimes flawed or self-serving, but nevertheless always dictating their actions regardless of the outcomes.
The readers who expect to take a long time reading a 585 pages book will surprise themselves when they will discover that it isn’t so with THE SECRET PRICE OF HISTORY because this is definitely a book that is very hard to put down.
On a different note, in a moment as dramatic as the one we are living, with this newfound plague, this pandemic that has changed our way of life, to read this passage about yellow fever in this book is evermore enlightening and frightening:
The yellow fever had entered Memphis from the river; the George C. Wolf and the Bee, two supply ships from New Orleans, had arrived with two passengers sick with yellow fever and had been moored in quarantine for three weeks before Kate Bionda, a girl who worked at a riverfront stand, suddenly died, and the town knew that some sailor or passenger must have broken the quarantine to visit her and in doing so brought death to their doors. And after the flight of those thirty or forty thousand fortunate souls, a terrible calm and silence had settled over Memphis. No church bells. No mail. No news, because the telegrapher had been able to flee. There was only silence and the grief of those who had lost a loved one or their entire family.
A wonderful website, https://www.secretpriceofhistory.com/, is available to discover more about the book, the sites mentioned in it, the characters and the history events cited and so much more…
Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena
His portraits are not just beautiful images, but they capture the soul of the character represented and they are alive, something that only a few artists can claim for their art production. William John Castello has been drawing and painting portraits all his life and it shows. The artist kindly met with me and spoke about his art and his life…
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: William, at what age did start having the ‘call’ to be an artist?
William John Castello: As a child I had a condition know as chronic bronchitis that threatened my life. Between the medications and my vulnerability to infections, I spent most of my childhood indoors. I had precious little exposure to others beyond my immediate family. To fill the many hours, I would take typewriter paper and try to reproduce the faces on the covers of LOOK, LIFE and TIME magazines. I became quite good at in time and, by the time I was free of the bronchitis, the skills I had developed became my signature characteristic when I found myself among my peers in grammar school. I was the “artist”. My first public exhibition was in the local Brooklyn Public Library. They displayed a dozen of my portraits with full name credit and story. The exhibit lasted a full six months at the librarian’s insistence and led the way to local public recognition of my abilities. The nuns from my grammar school, St. Jerome’s in Flatbush, Brooklyn, encouraged and displayed my work for years to follow. Fate turned a life-threatening illness into a life-long path.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: So, you started early and follow your passion all through college, earning a B.F.A. in Fine Arts from St. John’s University. What happened after that?
William John Castello: I had to fight for my undergraduate experience. Born of two second and third-generation Italian-American parents, their desire for me to succeed was the driving force behind their demand for excellence in my academic endeavors. My good grades were the result of my parents’ efforts and constant insistence. They wanted me to become a doctor or lawyer like so many of my cousins and my sister had. I volunteered in a city hospital for two summers during high school and gained nothing but revulsion of the medical professions. Law was tacitly interesting but resulted in putting me to sleep. I wanted to be an artist. My dad said, “The word ‘artist’ is usually preceded by the word ‘starving’.” I pleaded with him to send me to art school. He would under one condition; that if I had not found a lucrative job as an artist in the first six months, I would repay him for my tuition.
And so, following a wonderful three-and-a-half-year education in the fine arts by the European instructors in St. John’s, I obtained an internship in the art department of the MacNeil-Lehrer Report on PBS. After six-months, I graduated with a position as a graphic journalist at the Associated Press. I never had to pay my father back.
For the next 35 years, I produced graphics, stories, information packets, multi-media presentations and more from the newsroom in the world headquarters of the Associated Press in New York City. All that time, I remained a fine artist when off duty. My time at the AP proved to be worth the education of a thousand universities. The window to the world was opened to me every day and I had to learn and interact. Never easy, not without many sacrifices and yet, the best view of all humanity that anyone may ever have.
When I saw retirement coming I obtained a master’s degree in global diplomacy from Norwich University to prepare for a second career, possibly in international affairs, which dominated my attention in my journalistic career.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Now you teach Professional Journalism at your alma mater. Why Journalism and not Art?
William John Castello: Upon retirement, my St. John’s alumni association informed the university that there was a journalist on the loose. I was contacted and offered a job as an adjunct professor on the spot. When I had a second to comprehend such a career move the marriage was made. They needed a journalist and I am one. As far as the fine arts, art history etc. I was advised to obtain yet one more master’s degree and then reinvent myself again as a permanent professor of whatever I wished.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: I noticed that you mostly draw portraits. What is the reason for this choice?
William John Castello: I have a love of the human face. When I was a lonely child, the television set was my constant companion. With the sound on or off, there was always the faces of familiar people. They looked in on me with the luster of black and white. They provided entertainment, humor, drama, and thrills. The faces in the magazines were compelling. I learned to know (or imagine) their thoughts through their expressions. My portraits became my people, my friends and the path to having others recognize me in time. The human face is magical, expressive. It never lies.
I produce moments of emotion and thought rather than the image of flesh and bone. My portraits are encapsulations of a moment in time, a distinctive flash of thought or emotion, a signature characteristic of a distant life. I try to capture the energy of a person in each rendering.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Do you use only the pencil or also other media in creating your works?
William John Castello: I have experimented with almost every artistic medium available, from watercolor to cast bronze. I’ve produced many oil and acrylic paintings, sculpted wood, stone and clay and worked metal. My love of portraiture determined my favorite medium, a simple pad and something to draw with. My most recent set of over two hundred portraits on tan paper in pencil and graphite began with my desire to study the works of Da Vinci and attempt to recreate the look of line on colored paper.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: One of your recent major works is “Journey to Fiddler’s Green.” Could you talk a bit about that?
William John Castello: Upon retirement, I realized that I had not produced a canvas in many years due to time and space constraints. For the prior twenty-five years, I have shared much of my life with friends associated with the Ancient Order of Hibernians which is composed of the sons and daughters of Ireland. I was folded in as an associate member (having no blood or claim from Ireland) and as their artist. The twining of these two paradigms resulted in my search for a great project to produce on canvas.
Staten Island was the gateway to the new world during the potato famine in Ireland. Thousands of Irish men and women were forced onto “coffin ships” by their English overlords and sent across the Atlantic to fend for themselves. Upon reaching New York, many had died in transit. Many more had contracted a disease in the unkind confinement of these hellish ships. When they disembarked, the dead were anonymously buried in mass graves and the sickened arrivals were quarantined in hospital/death-houses on the Staten Island shore. Thousands died yet their final resting place remained a mystery until a local high school student researched historical documents and found the mass grave, located on the eighteenth hole of a local golf course.
Upon the revelation, the Hibernians contracted me to create a commemorative piece of art, and so, “Journey to Fiddler’s Green” was created: (below)
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You had recently a show at the Garibaldi Meucci Museum. What was the theme of the exhibit? Will something else develop from this particular experience?
William John Castello: The year-long exhibit at the GMM is known as the Sons and Daughters of Italy which combines portraits with biographies written by Marianna Randazzo and regional clothing made by local seamstresses and organized by Mary Ann Prince. Originally the exhibit was organized to celebrate the 100thanniversary of Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America Foundation’s ownership of the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum.
We, the contributors, took the opportunity to bring awareness to the world-changing contributions made by those of Italian descent. We brought to light artists and film stars, scientists and philosophers, poets and astronauts, all coming from one of the twenty regions of Italy.
Currently Marianna Randazzo and myself are composing a book, which we hope will facilitate the children, grandchildren and the descendants of all Italians to gain a proud and rich identity. Too often Italy is associated with gangsters or movie stars, ancient artists or corrupt politicians. This problem gives credence to cruel stereotypes and misconceptions. We strive to expand the ranks of those associated with the country, bring awareness to its brilliant and hard-working people and bring understanding about the true Italy to the world.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Do you have any special projects in mind for the future? Any particular shows, maybe?
William John Castello: We wish to create a series of books specializing in the Italian contribution to specific professions and to create similar books dealing with other ethnic groups. I will continue to find new inspirations and projects and explore new topics to inspire new creations.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Who is the artist that inspired you the most and why?
William John Castello: My mentor, Claude Ponsot was a student of Ferdinand Léger, a co-founder of Cubism and close friend of Pablo Picasso. Ponsot taught painting at St. John’s and selected me as one of his students to carry on the tradition. I chose not to.
My greatest inspiration, however, is Vincent Van Gogh. I see only pure brilliance in what many consider his insanity. His mind translated reality and emotion together to produce their most complex and beautiful expression. He spoke with color and texture. He gave emotion to each stroke. His troubled mind was the confluence of all of man’s experiences. His hand translated vast complexity into recognizable form.
Van Gogh’s work embodies the meaning of each of my portraits. They are depictions of the human emotions and experiences in blazing colors and imbued with deep meanings. Our images can be interpreted as actual people or objects and yet they are abstract depictions of the human experience.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: If you could meet and talk to any historical character, dead or alive today, who would he or she be? About what would you like to talk with him, or her?
William John Castello: I have always wanted to understand the mind of Da Vinci. His curiosity, observations, creations, and vision fascinate me. He never assumed to know what he had not proven to himself. He invented, wrote, sculpted and drew, in addition to his painting. His words found their way to the most powerful people of his time. His mind was the most precious driver of man’s artistic and technical evolution and I would love to know him.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: How much did being of Italian descent influence you in the Arts and in your private life?
William John Castello: I was distant from my heritage as a child. My grandparents attempted to provide some instruction, but they had limited contact with me. My curiosity about my origin eventually led me to discover Italy and its pivotal role in history.
I grew up in a predominantly Irish German neighborhood in Brooklyn. I was subjected to derision for my heritage and kept it from the spotlight for much of my youth. I was upon meeting my future wife Maria and her family, that I began to understand my heritage and adapt it to my life. The rest is history.
By Tiziano Thomas Dossena
Great innovative exhibit at the Garibaldi Meucci Museum thanks to artist William John Castello, writer Marianna Biazzo Randazzo, and OSDIA Trustee Maryanne Prince.This exhibit is the fourth installation in a series of six highlighting the regions, traditional dress, and people of Italy. Mr. Castello provided the portraits of some of the famous people from each region of Italy and Mrs. Randazzo wrote their biographies.Regional costumes were contributed thanks to the efforts of Mrs. Prince, who had the original idea of making them and obtained the goal though the generous participation of OSDIA and other sources, and the willingness of seamstresses who created the dresses just from images.
It’s an exhibit not to miss!
On June 1st, 2019, in front of the statewide delegates and dignitaries of the New York State Grand Lodge of the Order of the Sons and Daughters of Italy in America, President Robert Ferrito presented Tiziano Thomas Dossena with the prestigious 2019 OSIA Literary Award “for his contribution to the Italian American Experience in America.” The author also received a citation from New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.
Dossena, who is the Recording Secretary of Tuckahoe’s OSIA Giuseppe Garibaldi Lodge 2583, is the author of “Caro Fantozzi,” published by Scriptum Press in December 2008, “Doña Flor, An Opera by Niccolò van Westerhout,” published by Idea Publications in April 2010, “Sunny Days and Sleepless Nights,” published by Idea Press in December 2016 and of the upcoming three books “The Dance of Color,” “The Rebirth of an Opera,” and“New York City’s Italian Imprint, the Statues and Monuments of and by Italians in the Big Apple.”
His works have appeared in over 100 magazines and anthologies in Italy, France, Greece, Canada, Switzerland, and the United States. Dossena is the founder and Editor in Chief of two magazines, OperaMyLove and OperaAmorMio, and has been the Editorial Director of L’Idea Magazine since 1990.
In 2011, Tiziano Thomas Dossena was honored for both literary work and community service work at the New York State Assembly by New York State Assemblyman, Joseph Saladino. In 2012, the author received the International PREMIO GLOBO TRICOLORE award “for the outstanding efforts at keeping the Italian Image known in the world through his literary works”. In 2014, he was asked to read poems at the 9/11 Memorial Ceremony in Yonkers.
The whole staff of L’Idea magazine congratulates him for having earned such an important award and wishes him further accolades and honors.
Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena
Milanese by birth, Viola Manuela Ceccarini is achieving an enviable success in the Latin television world in the USA, after having contributed to various international television channels in Italian. Recognized journalist (she is a correspondent for six magazines, including L’Idea Magazine, as well as various television and radio channels) Viola, aka ViVi, as his friends identify her, covers all international awards (Grammys, Emmy, Oscar, etc.) and presents the public with an entirely personal view of the events. She speaks excellent Spanish with a slight foreign accent that earned her the nickname of “l’italiana” (“the Italian”) by the large Latin television audience. ViVi is the winner of the “Young Female Entrepreneur of the Year” award in the international Stevie Awards for Women in Business competition. We met in the center of Manhattan and we had a nice chat.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: ViVi, could you tell our readers how and why you came to the USA?
ViVi: Growing up in one of the most influential fashion capitals in the world: Milan inspired me to undertake a career in the fashion and entertainment industry. At the age of 17, after graduating from high school, my parents gave me a “postgraduate” gift by sending me three weeks to study English in New York. I still remember the moment when I arrived in Times Square … I was enchanted by the sight of the skyscrapers, the crowded streets, and the sparkling lights … for the first time I felt a feeling of infinite freedom … and inside myself I knew that in this city all my dreams could have been realized, so I made a promise to myself, that I would return to live in New York … one day … Three years later: After graduating from the University of Milan in “Visual and Multimedia Communication” I started working for a local Italian fashion magazine called “Zaffiro Magazine”, I was in charge of writing articles and interviewing fashion personalities at Milanese events of social life. Unfortunately, however, the opportunities in the sector were limited, which led me to reconsider the idea of living in New York permanently. So in 2013, I left Milan and moved to New York alone and against the will of my parents, driven by passion and desire to grow professionally. Living in NY has always been my dream and a personal challenge! New York has a unique energy; it’s the capital of the world, where everyone is equal and respected, whether you’re picking daisies (which you are probably the only one to see) on a sidewalk or you’re Leonardo DiCaprio, people look at you the same way. Because those who are here have ambitions, a project! You find all the best in New York; it is a city that either encourages you to be humble and improve yourself, or crushes you; that’s why I love it!!”
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Do you think that America, and in particular New York, still offers great opportunities for those with talent?
ViVi: Absolutely yes !!! In order to find and benefit from the opportunities available in New York, you have to come here with a certain kind of mentality that involves: ambition and perseverance, preceded by an action plan and a great desire to work and carry out a project without ever losing sight of the final goal. Although I firmly believe that New York is not a city for everyone, for its hectic and sometimes stressful lifestyle, you must love to work and you must have big dreams to realize…
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: For several years you have written and talked about fashion and High Society both in various magazines and in television programs. How did you come to this journalistic specialization?
ViVi: I always knew that I wanted to work in the media and in the entertainment world. Since I was a child, my sister and I played with Dad’s camera; she filmed me and I presented, sang and danced. In 2011 I graduated in “Visual and Multimedia Communication” at the European Multimedia Academy ACME, specialized in visual arts and multimedia production, where I learned to do post-production with video editing programs like Final Cut Pro/Adobe Premiere. After graduating, I took my first steps as an interviewer-columnist for a printed and online Italian luxury magazine called “Zaffiro Magazine”, presenting events in Milan’s nightlife.The magazine was managed by a communication company called DBCommunication, for which I carried out work in the field of public relations, occupying a fundamental role for the company, covering important projects for their clients, including Italian artists and celebrities. I was also in charge of designing the company logo. This logo was then printed on t-shirts and worn by Italian VIPs, singers, reality stars and celebrities. My passion for the media started in Italy and then grew up in America; to write and present programs give me a voice and above all the opportunity to express myself. I am currently writing in three languages (Italian, Spanish, and English) for various magazines and periodicals that talk about fashion and lifestyle. I cover fashion, entertainment, and events such as New York Fashion Week, Film Festivals, Grammys, Oscars … etc etc
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: But you are having a huge success with gossip no less than in a Spanish television program. Can you tell us a little about this new experience of yours?
ViVi: The Hispanic community has always welcomed me with open arms. When I moved to New York I came to live directly in Washington Heights, a Latin neighborhood located in the upper part of Manhattan (Uptown). My first rented room was in the home of a Dominican family, where I lived for 2 years and where I learned to speak Spanish (and street slang), to love the culture, cuisine, and music. , I am currently working for a Hispanic channel called Super Canal, where I conduct a segment of entertainment, gossip, and fashion news. The name of the program is “Option New York” and is broadcast live from Monday to Friday (2-3 pm) anywhere in the United States via Cable on Spectrum Channel 870, Verizon Channel 1507, Comcast Channel 620 and Optimum Channel 1023. Also, the program is broadcast internationally live from 3-4 pm in the Dominican Republic on Channel 33 (one of their main channels), in Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean Islands, and in Spain.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: I admire your various photos in which you pose as a model. Do you plan to continue even in the fashion shows despite your many professional commitments?
ViVi: Yes, I keep the doors open for any opportunity that comes to me $$$$!! In the past, I worked as a photo model, but for now, the only show I ever attended was that of my friend designer Pamela Quinzi. I usually collaborate with designers when I go to cover important events, I typically work and give the opportunity to Italian designers to present their collections, because there are many talented designers in Italy who need to be known.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: On what other projects you are working?
ViVi: I have so many projects at stake that unfortunately, I cannot reveal yet; surely I can tell you that soon a music video of Messiah, Kapuchino, and Tali will be released, in which I took part recently. They are known urban artists; Messiah is the one who featured with Cardi B in the Bodak Yellow version in Spanish. I can’t wait to share it with you!
(This interview originally appeared in Italian on Christoper magazine in April 2019)
Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena.
I had met him a couple of times in the corridors of Madison Square Garden and noticed the name on his great Chef uniform. I had heard that he was a Chef of great reputation and that intimidated me a little. I dared to talk to him the day I entered his kitchen for technical reasons. We discovered the commonality of the language and immediately formed a pact of spontaneous and natural friendship between Italian emigrants abroad. A few days later he warned me of his intention to move to the Baccarat Hotel, a prestigious restaurant in central Manhattan. I explained to him that there was a magazine (Christopher) that spoke of the Italians who had been successful abroad and he promptly consented to this interview. This is a translation of that interview.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Patrizio, you started your culinary adventure back in 2000 in various trattorias and restaurants, in Puglia. How did your passion for cooking come about?
Patrizio La Gioia: I think my inspiration was my mom. I still remember when I played on the floor and saw the table moving like a ship on the waves; (Patrick laughs) I had a lot of imagination as a child, in reality, it was my mother who worked the dough for the pasta. Sunday was a ritual for my mother to make fresh pasta and start with the famous orecchiette. I remember I wanted to learn how to make them but it was really very difficult for me, I was fascinated by how my mom made it look so simple.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: From there you left Italy in 2007, becoming Chef de Partie in Monte Carlo at the prestigious La Salier restaurant. How did this change happen? How difficult was the change from an Italian infrastructure to an international one? What did you learn there?
Patrizio La Gioia: Fortunately, the change was not so difficult after all, being an Italian restaurant with Italian staff, and then frankly, in Monte Carlo, Italian is also spoken. Workwise speaking it was quite difficult because I switched from restaurants to a five-star restaurant. I learned the five mother sauces, fresh pasta and much more.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: The next stop is America, and even Miami, Florida, at the end of that year. How did you get there? In that city you had two experiences as Chef de Partie at a high level; the first at the Hotel Cardozzo and the second at the renowned The Forge Restaurant. What difference did the two experiences have?
Patrizio La Gioia: Through La Salier I managed to get myself transferred to the Cardozzo Hotel in Miami as part of the company. I remember as if it was yesterday the difficulty with the language, the units of measurement, and the culture. I felt completely in another world. After a year at Cardozzo my goal was to work in one of the best restaurants in Miami. I then started working on The Forge, a legend in Miami, under the guidance of the great chef Dewey LoSasso. I remember that year he won as the best chef in Florida on the Miami Times.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: In Miami, there was another evolution and you worked as Sous Chef in two famous restaurants, one with French cuisine, La Gluttoneire, and one with Italian cuisine, Tiramesu. What different experiences did you have in these two locations?
Patrizio La Gioia: After the experience at The Forge, I started my first experience as a sous chef (second chef) at Tiramesu, a great Italian restaurant, where I learned how to manage the kitchen from a bureaucratic point of view. I learned about food cost, labor cost and how to make purchases. Always very keen on learning other cuisines, I left Tiramesu to embark on this new French experience at Gluttonerie (2012 best French restaurant in Miami).
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You also studied under the Executive Chef Thomas Buckley in the Nobu restaurant, also in Miami. How would you define this episode of your life?
Patrizio La Gioia: Oh yes, as I said before I always had the passion to learn different cuisines; well, yes, it’s Japanese cuisine at the great Nobu Miami. I remember when Chef Thomas Buckley (corporate Chef Nobu America) made me the proposal to work with him; I was a bit scared of the difference between Italian and Japanese cuisine. He jokingly replied “it’s the same thing!!! You have carpaccio and we have sashimi, you have pasta we have noodles.” It made me understand that cooking is cooking, regardless of cultures.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: In 2013 you moved to Aspen, Colorado, and worked at the FOOD & WINE Chefs Club. How does this club work? What functions did you have and what did you get from this practice?
Patrizio La Gioia: This was one of the best experiences of my career. Food and Wine Magazine is a New York haute cuisine magazine, which annually awards America’s best new chefs. The concept of the Chef Club is to invite every season 4 best new chef of Food & Wine, and create the menu with their best dishes, And we, as resident chefs, had to replicate them; an unforgettable experience.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: In 2014 we find you in New York, with the Patina Restaurant Group, In this corporation, you had various functions. What were they?
Patrizio La Gioia: My first role with Patina Restaurant Group was as Sous Chef in the restaurant Brasserie 8.5, French restaurant under the command of Franck Deletrain, a great chef, person, and friend. After 6 months with him, the company decided to promote me as Chef De Cuisine at the Naples45 restaurant, an authentic Neapolitan restaurant.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Being the Executive Sous Chef at a fabulous and famous restaurant like The Four Seasons Restaurant is the dream of many Chefs, and you would get it in 2015, holding the position until the restaurant closes, a sad episode that fortunately is was recently corrected with its reopening. What were your skills in that function?
Patrizio La Gioia: After some time spent in Naples45 I felt dissatisfied because I was in the big apple with the best restaurants in the world and I was there to make pizzas (not really, Tiziano, but you understand what I mean…). So I decided to go back to doing gastronomic cooking, and I started the adventure at the legendary Four Season Restaurant, knowing already that it had to close after two years. But it didn’t frighten me because I already knew that it would open new doors for me here in Manhattan. The Four Season Restaurant was very famous for the “Power Lunch” or Manhattan’s most powerful people came to lunch, and they often chose the special of the day. One of my tasks was to create three different special dishes every day.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: After The Four Seasons you had another extraordinary opportunity, working with the Illustrious Chef Thomas Keller. What did you learn from him?
Patrizio La Gioia: As I said before, the Four Seasons Restaurant opened its doors to the best restaurants in the world, so I started with 3 Michelin stars “Per Se”, one of America’s best restaurants, if not the best. For me, it was an honor to meet the great Chef and Mentor Thomas Keller. With him, I learned discipline, precision, and excellence.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: The penultimate stage of your American adventure is the Delta Club of Madison Square Garden, the most exclusive club in that venue, where I met you. What were your functions at the Delta Club?
Patrizio La Gioia: At Madison Square Garden it was a unique experience! Spectacular events, from basketball games, hockey, boxing matches, and of course concerts. I remember the time that Andrea Boccelli came to sing, I was in the kitchen and at a certain point, I recognized the song Nessun Dorma, one of my favorite songs. I went out of the kitchen with goosebumps. At the MSG I was the Chef of the Delta Club, which serves the 20 most important Suites, practically cooking for the VIPs, including the owner Jim Dolan.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Now that you’ve become one of the Chefs at the prestigious 5-star “Baccarat Hotel” what other goals do you set yourself?
Patrizio La Gioia: I honestly don’t know where it will take me in the future. Certainly, I know one thing: every choice I make will always be made with the heart, as I have always done. Obviously, like all chefs, my dream is to manage my own restaurant one day.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: In many years as a chef in prestigious locations you will have cooked for actors, singers, and high personalities. Do you have any particular anecdotes?
Patrizio La Gioia: Unfortunately, for privacy reasons I can’t say much, but the only thing I can say is that in my career I cooked for actors, singers, athletes, politicians, princes and princesses, but for me every guest is a VIP, regardless if he is a famous person or not. But I will never forget the time I was in the kitchen and a waiter came into the kitchen and said to me: chef, there is a certain Massimo Bottura who says he is an Italian chef and wants to talk to you. And I, with an irritated tone, shouted to the waiter: “A CERTAIN MASSIMO BOTTURA!!!?????? He is the best chef in the world!!! Ignorant!!”
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: During your career, you have created various specialties. Could you reveal one or two for our readers?
Patrizio La Gioia: As you well know, in Jamaica one of the typical dishes is the oxtail, almost like the coda alla vaccinara, a typical Roman dish, but prepared with different spices. My wife is Jamaican, so one day I was inspired and I created this dish “Pappardelle with rosemary, with oxtail ragout, black cabbage, and Tuscan pecorino”. A colleague of mine nicknamed it the “Rasta Pasta” plate. Since then, my famous Rasta Pasta was born.
Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena
As a former international supermodel, Maria Liberati never dreamed that she would go from being a fashion diva to a domestic diva. Ironically, while jet-setting off to modeling assignments around the world, Maria became closer to the simplicity of life and food in the country setting of her family’s vineyard in the mountains of central Italy. She began to experience the real tastes of food that she knew from her childhood.
An Award-Winning cookbook’s author and Celebrity Chef -her passion with food began at the early age of 4, when she would accompany ‘nonno’ (grandfather) on his early morning Saturday trips to the Italian Market in Philadelphia to pick out all the fresh ingredients for the Sunday family meal.
Years later, Maria was spotted by international artist Sergio Terzi (known as Nerone) and was asked to sit for a portrait at his studio in the Emilio-Romagna region of Italy. While sitting for this portrait, the months lingered on and Maria found herself spending more and more time at Nerone’s family farm nearby. During her time there, she studied the art of making the famed Parmigiana-Reggiano cheese. When the painting was finished, it was exhibited all throughout the world including the Metropolitan Museum of Art where the painting and the artist were honored at a special ceremony for the contributions of Italians to the World.
Today, Maria is considered one of the foremost experts on Italian Cuisine and culture, and has been called the Italian ’Martha Stewart’ (Celebrity Society magazine 06/06). The Basic Art of Italian Cooking book series was awarded the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris, France.
A lover of the arts, Maria is also famous for intertwining (in her own style ) food with art, travel, and life and a portion of her blog was selected to be part of the digital exhibit for the Kuntshistoriches Museum in Vienna, Austria for its cultural references of Mozart. A frequent guest on radio, TV and national media features. She serves as a spokesperson for many food and kitchen related companies, look for her on QVC. She also serves as food consultant for new products. Maria is frequently found cooking center stage at many consumer and trade show events as guest Celebrity Chef and designs corporate teambuilding programs for Fortune 500 companies. As a professional speaker, Maria is asked to speak at many events on her success. The rest, as they say, is history. She divides her time between her office and residence in the USA and Italy where she writes her books and hosts specialty culinary and wine programs and food/travel writing at some of Italy and Europe’s most magnificent castles and vineyards. (Courtesy of MariaLiberati.com)
Maria is the author of many books. Here’s a short list:
The Basic Art of Italian Cooking
The Basic Art of Italian Cooking: Holidays and Special Occasions-2nd edition (this one won the 2010 Gourmand Word Awards)
The Basic Art of Italian Cooking: DaVinci Style
The Basic Art of…Pasta
The Basic Art of…Pizza
The Basic Art of…Coffee
The Basic Art of…Cocktails
The Basic Art of…Creating a Tuscan Style Wedding
The Basic Art of…Experiencing Venice
The Basic Art of…Christmas Dinner
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Maria, when and why did your passion for cooking develop into a full-time enterprise?
Maria Liberati: After I wrote my first book- The Basic Art of Italian Cooking- this became a full-time enterprise. The popularity of the book just took off, I had to create a blog, and I was getting asked to do book signings and appearances throughout the USA and at some places in Italy. The blog quickly grew to over 300,000 worldwide followers. Once I began doing TV appearances I was asked to create a TV series based on my book series. I am now working on my second TV series.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena:: Could you tell us more about the concept of your culinary travel books?
Maria Liberati: The concept for the book series was to create not just a book filled with recipes but a food experience. I always felt that food in Italy is not just about eating a meal but experiencing the meal Besides the awesome flavors, Italian food is so well loved because when you sit down to an Italian meal you are part of an experience that includes not only the food but the ambiance, the sentiment of eating together with good friends and/or family, and the history related to the ingredients and or the recipes. So the food evokes the senses in many ways. And I felt that a book of just Italian recipes did not really portray Italian food the way it should be; I wanted people to experience the recipes not just put a bunch of ingredients together. Therefore, I set out to create stories that related to the recipes and menus, so that people could experience Italian food. To truly enjoy Italian food, you should experience the food, not just eat it.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena:: Is your Blog, The Basic Art of Italian Cooking by Maria Liberati tm at www.marialiberati.com, an integration to your books or is it something completely different?
Maria Liberati: The blog was mainly created to be a companion to my book series, so it is mainly related to the book series but I also post about some other topics that may not be in the books. Food is related to so many things- art, travel, home, garden, history, music, architecture and I also combine those topics with food.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena:: “Your Basic Art of…” books have a great success and are recognized as an important reference point as travel cooking books go, but you have now developed also other topics, such as Experiencing Venice, for example. What made you choose these new themes for these series of books?
Maria Liberati: My philosophy is that there is an art to almost everything, so I am pairing that with select topics that fit in. Yes, so coming up will be other singular topics in that series, The Basic Art of Coffee, Cocktails, Pizza, Pasta, Creating a Tuscan Wedding, Experiencing Venice and more to come.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena:: You have won many awards, among them the Gourmand World Award and the Culinary Travel Blog of the Year Award. Which one you felt was the most rewarding and why?
Maria Liberati: Both awards were equally regarding, but if I had to pick one, I would say that the Gourmand World Cookbook ward that I received in Paris in 2010 was exciting. I was up against so many professional international chefs, it was truly an honor to know that a book I had worked so hard on was selected as best Italian Culinary book in the USA.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena:: Maria, you are developing your own TV series for PBS. What is it going to be about? When will it be aired?
Maria Liberati: I did do a PBS series a few years ago that was based on my book series and filmed in Italy. This new series that I may be developing will probably be done in a studio and will have guests cooking with me. That will air sometime in 2019.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena:: Your Company, “The Basic Art of Italian Cooking by Maria Liberati,” organizes, hosts and caters corporate training culinary-themed events for Fortune 100 and 500 companies. Could you tell us more about that?
Maria Liberati: Corporate training culinary events are events that bring together employees in a culinary environment. They get to spend time away from the office and connect with fellow employees by cooking and eating with them. So I may have a menu of five courses and then divide a group of 30 employees into teams of 6 and each team has to prepare one recipe and then eat the courses that have been prepared together; this creates a collaboration environment they can take back to the office with them. However, sometimes I am also asked to be the special guest at incentive meetings for salespeople, they receive a signed copy of my book and I may do a cooking presentation or other presentation on one of my books.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena:: Your Company now has a line of food products. What are they? What makes them different?
Maria Liberati: So far the products are a Pizza Sauce and a spice blend. Both products use all natural ingredients but they also include a blend of spice blends I developed that incorporate many of the flavors used in Tuscan cooking. I am working on developing blends of spices that highlight the flavors used in different regions of Italy. I am currently developing other food products.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena:: Are there other new book titles on the way? What about new projects, other than the PBS program?
Maria Liberati: Yes I am collaborating with my favorite culinary school in Italy- Chef Academy in Terni (the town of St Valentine) on a book that will include their recipes and my stories from my blog. And, as mentioned, a new TV series, and a podcast.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena:: If you could meet a personality from the past or the present, who would he or she be? What would you like to tell them and to ask them?
Maria Liberati: If I had to choose one, it would most definitely be Leonardo DaVinci. One of his interests, and he had many talents and interests, was food. I researched DaVinci’s foodie life and wrote The Basic Art of Italian Cooking: DaVinci Style- which is about the different cities in Italy he lived in and what he created in each city as well as recipes from those regions. But I would like to ask him what would be his favorite meal to eat and to paint.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena:: Maria, do you have a message for our Italian American readers?
Maria Liberati: Yes, to keep your heritage alive and teach your children or grandchildren or nieces, nephews about it. We have such a rich heritage, and our ancestors made so many contributions to assisting in building the USA and invented so many of the things we use today in our daily life. But it is also really important to understand where our families came from to appreciate what we have today. Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ house always included stories and photos about their life in Italy. I didn’t truly understand anything about their life and where they came from until I had the opportunity to visit and then live in Italy and research so many things. I fell in love with my culture and history and that is why I created my book series. It afforded me the opportunity to work in and study the things I love the most. As Italian Americans, our life here in the USA is a result of so many years of hard work and drive and passion that our ancestors had. And if you can somehow teach that or convey that to your children it is truly a beautiful thing for them to understand and even aspire to keep their dreams alive.