“Renaissance Man And Impresario” An Exclusive Interview With Roberto Ragone [L’Idea Magazine 2019]

“Renaissance Man and impresario” an exclusive interview with Roberto RagoneInterview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena

You may have seen him at the movies, or at a play, or on the Internet, or maybe in the news while giving fiery words about the life of Vito Marcantonio. Regardless, you probably had the chance to see him or hear him, since he is continuously present in the entertainment life of New York, in one manner or another. Now you’ll have the chance to hear directly from him, a true Renaissance Man, and also an impresario, about his goals, his dreams and some of his achievements, since we were able to meet for an interview.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Roberto, you are a versatile individual, with experience in government and non-profit, besides acting, writing, and you also find time to be an impresario and a producer. How do you find time for everything?
Roberto Ragone: The way I make time is to schedule myself by streamlining and being organic about the work I do, trying to incorporate as many as skills and interests at the same time in each project. So, for example, I focus on advancing primarily my own scripts, getting them developed into a play or film, and including character I could portray. This multi-tasking, in its totality, comprises and constitutes who I am as an impresario.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: How do you manage to balance out the creative aspect of your life with the business one?
Roberto Ragone: The creative aspect of my life as actor, writer, and producer is becoming more of my business side, meaning I am making it an entrepreneurial enterprise from which I can earn a living. My goal is to live out my passion within my means and find ways of having a quality of life.  I want to be an artist who is self-aware about the need to treat my work in the arts like a business while minimizing my compromises, and avoiding – where I can – any work that I don’t really want to do.  I also do not want to be involved in projects that do not advance me since I have plenty of clips and credits on my resume. I might do something for free if someone is in a real bind, and I can cultivate a relationship with that person and/or there is a passion project I really believe in.  However,  I also assume that for those types of projects, I will not have to jump through hoops, meaning I will be given the role without an audition, and I can minimize my opportunity costs while doing work that has artistic integrity and is not superficially formulaic. The other factor is whether the project is giving me a principal role with “reel-worthy” scenes (more likely a lead role than a supporting role) and not a background role. I will also participate in scenarios where the producers can generate money that funds a larger project that has more financial feasibility.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: What exactly is your consultant activity about?
Roberto Ragone:  I continue to welcome consulting work. I do strategic planning and marketing. Some of the strategic planning comes in the form of brainstorming with clients and then formatting and structuring the documentation into a strategic or marketing plan, or whatever the scope of work. I may help to implement the respective plan through, for example, stakeholder outreach, social media marketing, email marketing, or event planning and implementation.
So my consulting work and production work are entrepreneurial and creative in that they use left brain and right brain skills from my prior career (in public policy, politics, and nonprofits) and from my artistic work.
However, I would prefer to focus my consulting work on writing. I don’t think many people are effective and clear writers when it comes to logic and analysis, and this can spill over to people who see themselves as creative writers (e.g. playwrights, novelists), particularly in the United States. They don’t necessarily know how to organize and articulate their thoughts linearly or methodically in the context of the piece being written. I imagine some people attribute their lack of structure or arc as stylistic, intended to prompt the audience to think. But more likely than not, it is an excuse or alibi for their poor writing or editing.
In fact, many people in this day and age do not even know how to spell and use punctuation properly. That includes even neglecting to end a complete sentence with the right punctuation and then capitalizing the first letter of the next sentence. This becomes a bit of a “negative reinforcement” motivation to forge my own path in my career, including with my own scripts.
I feel like I can help people through my “left-brain” skills, writing strategic and marketing plans but also “script doctoring” to find logic gaps in scripts or posing questions about character and plot development that a writer may need to answer to make sure the script is moving in the direction they want to go. People can lose track of the arc of their own story in the same way that people can lose track of their own premise and conclusion in a thesis even after multiple proofreads.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You were a member of the 68 Cent Crew Theatre Company. Could you tell us more about thatexperience?
Roberto Ragone: A friend of mine, Chiara Montalto, not only encouraged my acting and writing, but also introduced me to the 68 Cent Crew Theatre Company. That company, founded by Ronnie Marmo, started in Los Angle and also has a chapter in New York City co-founded by Chiara.
Every week, the company would break up into smaller groups or pairs. Two or three actors would team up as team partners to prepare a scene to perform in the following class for feedback from their actor classmates observing from the audience.  This is part of what’s called the Monday Night “gym.” In “gym,” the actors would “workshop” scenes, improvise, and perform cold reads, as well as write, develop, and direct material brought in by members. The actors “exercise” to keep their skills sharp for much less than the cost of a class.
My participation was brief but it acclimated me to work with a new group of actors, moving beyond whom I had worked with in the past. I was also cast in a staged reading produced by the theatre company.
By the way, I think Chiara’s one-woman show, A Brooklyn Love Story: Emergency Used Candles, about her special connection to her grandfather would be of interest to L’Idea Magazine. Chiara’s play was produced Off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane and in Los Angeles at Theatre 68. It’s currently in development as a feature film.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: What about your other theatrical experiences as an actor? Which ones you feel are the mostmemorable? 
Roberto Ragone:  My performance of Felix in The Odd Couple was my first foray into performing a full script in a long time. It helped advance the comedic elements of my acting.
I later played the role of a crime-thriller author who fancied himself as a detective in the play, The Tangled SkirtAlthough written in 2012, and not set for a particular time period by the playwright, the language and repartee between the male and female character – the only two characters in the play – had a very 1940s film noir dynamic.  Besides overcoming the challenge of learning a lot of dialogue, including three monologues, working off only one other character (unlike in The Odd Couple),  and solidifying the habit of memorizing lines, the Humphrey Bogart-esque language helped immerse me further into the 1930s and 1940s to prepare me further for the role of Congressman Vito Marcantonio.

A scene from Bromance-a-Roni

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Who is the actor or actress who you worked with that impressed you the most?
Roberto Ragone:  First, I need to acknowledge, Art Bernal, who, after playing Oscar to my Felix in The Odd Couple, put his money where his mouth is as a doer (unlike the “I’m Gonna’ Society” or the “I Should ah’ Society”).  He began a production company so he can build a directorial track record, and has chosen several plays where he cast me as the lead. (We have joked about being the “Scorsese/De Niro of theatre”.) Art Bernal selected, produced, and directed The Tangled Skirt, and cast the actress, Katie Holden, who portrayed the female role. Her memorization and performance as an actress stick out for me, along with our alignment in our brainstorming, line delivery, and stage “blocking”, which was fostered by Art Bernal’s approach/methodology. Katie and I played our roles in a way that fostered a nostalgia almost called upon by the story, and I look forward to working with her again.
The actor who has stuck out is George Papadimatos, not only for his energetic and powerful acting, but because of the chemistry audiences note when we perform opposite each other in productions of my scripts, George instinctively understood the nuances of the cadences I wanted him to use in delivering key lines.
Our aligned acting with Art’s directing bore fruit.  Art directed me and George in my one act-comedy, Bromance-A-Roni, to full houses at the Midtown International Theatre Festival. We won the festival award for Best Production.

Vito Marcantonio

George also played former Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia opposite to my Congressman Vito Marcantonio in a film short I wrote – entitled, The Final Covenant of Vito Marcantonio –  based on a scene from a full-length script, which I also wrote (entitled Vito’s Last Penance: The Vindication of Vito Marcantonio.)  I had performed a theatrical version of that scene as a one-act play, and then Art suggested I make it into a film short.  Art put together the production team and co-directed. When George and I performed the crescendo to the scene (of the LaGuardia/Marcantonio argument), the dynamic was so dramatically intense, that when the main director yelled “cut,” the crew broke out in spontaneous applause.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: As a writer, you had quite a few successful plays, monologues, and comedies. You won the “Best Production” award at the Midtown International Theatre Festival with the comedy Bromance-A-Roni. Could talk a bit of that comedy?
Roberto Ragone:  Bromance-A-Roni is loosely based on two comedic and lesson-learning incidents with the same set of friends.  The male friend in real life, Mike Fiorito, is one of many Italian-American friends who received a college education, but remained ethnic and down-to-earth rather than elitist and pretentious. (In fact, Mike is a successfully published author  whom L’Idea may want to cover.) Too often when white ethnics are portrayed as both ethnic and educated, they are either Irish, Polish, or Jewish. Italian Americans are portrayed as though operating under some kind of Manichean dichotomy. They are either hyper-ethnic and/or “under-educated” and “under-articulate” or,  if they are articulate with an Italian last name, their ethnicity is marginalized to irrelevance. Otherwise, if they are ethnic and educated, it is a mask disguising wrongdoing.
My writing attempts to turn those notions on their head with a paradigm shift portraying articulate and insightful Italian Americans who discuss substantive topics in a comedic or ironic way while maintaining the cadences and delivery of the “old-school front stoop.” This is my value proposition, and audiences have told me they like the natural authenticity and intimacy of my characters.  By coincidence, this also aligns with how I portray LaGuardia and Marcantonio and some of their contemporaries in my scripts about the Vito Marcantonio saga.
It certainly helped that Art Bernal and George Papadimatos were involved with Bromance-A-Roni. It seems that during the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the festival publicist reveled at selling the logline and promotional pitch of my play: a modern combination of Abbott and Costello, the Odd Couple, and Italian-American Woody Allen, with a touch of Bugs Bunny.

Vito Marcantopnio

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You seem to be fascinated with Vito Marcantonio. What triggered your interest originally? Could you tell us the difference between The Purgatory Trial of Vito Marcantonio and the monologues? 
Roberto Ragone:  I experienced a series of coincidences between 1986 and 1992 where Vito Marcantonio kept recurring in my life. The first time was when learning about him in an African-American history class in how he fought against the poll tax and lynchings. Then in the summer of 1986, I was accompanying a high school friend’s mother, who was Caribbean American, through East Harlem and she stopped, cited a building, and wondered whether that was where Vito Marcantonio used to have his office. I said, “You know of Vito Marcantonio?”  Her reply was: “Yes, and he helped my family.”  Then two years later I came across Maria Laurino’s article in Village Voice critiquing how Governor Mario Cuomo failed to meet the standard of Italian-American progressivism set by Vito Marcantonio and his two mentors, Fiorello LaGuardia and Leonard Covello.
Then that fall of 1988, I was at a meeting of the FIERI organization, founded and led by John Calvelli.  John would become one of the most illustrious, articulate, and visionary leaders of the Italian-American community (as well as the environmental and cultural community, spearheading One Percent for Culture and elephant preservation campaigns, as Executive Vice President of the Wildlife Conservation Society), worthy of future focus by L’Idea.  John announced at a FIERI meeting, that September 1988, that he heard Al Pacino might play Vito Marcantonio in a movie. I bet almost everyone in the room was excited by the prospect of a new Al Pacino project without knowing who Vito Marcantonio was.  (That film was never produced.)

Finally, in 1992, I was invited by an Italian-American college friend, Stephen Cancian, to his wedding. (I did not anticipate Steve or anyone else in California to invite me to a wedding other than a high school friend married the prior year. I asked my mother to read the invitation carefully over the phone to me, and when she pronounced Steve’s name in Italian, I was pleasantly surprised.) The night before the wedding, the guys went out and, since we were all political junkies, we began to discuss current events and leadership. Steve then said when he comes back from his honeymoon, he is going to mail me a book about an Italian American leader with a unique management style who would talk to people directly for a few minutes before referring them to staff to deal with the details. I asked the name of this personage, expecting to hear the name of a business leader.  When he said, “Vito Marcantonio,” I said, “You too? I can’t believe how this name keeps coming back up in my life.” When he returned from his honeymoon, he, unlike many people in this world, followed through on his promise, and sent me Dr. Gerald Meyer’s book – Vito Marcantonio: Radical Political (1902-1954).
In 1996 after 10 years of coincidences of Vito Marcantonio reappearing in my life,  I met Dr. Meyer. We set out to organize the largest event ever on the late Congressman – a multi-media event organized two years later with FIERI, the NYU Circolo Italiano, the National Italian American Foundation, and the John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute, attracting over 400 people at the student center of New York University, where Marcantonio had gone to law school and had founded a university-level Circolo Italiano.
Then came Dr. Meyer’s definitive observation: “We can’t let this event occur in isolation. This needs to be part of a larger campaign to educate the public about Marcantonio with a multi-disciplinary approach.”
Of all the goals that Dr. Meyer enumerated off the top of his head, the artistic-related goals resonated the most with me; I choose to concentrate on achieving these objectives: a feature film, a full-length play, and a documentary. These would then include dramatizations and a one-man show.

Roberto Ragone in The Shadows of Life

Some of the aims of our prospective campaign were being achieved along the way, such as walking tours of historic landmarks of Italian Harlem and El Barrio – where Marcantonio lived his entire life and succeeded his political mentor as Congressman after he helped elect LaGuardia Mayor of New York City in 1933.
Then, in 2011, that list of goals became part of the Mission Statement written as the Preamble to the Constitution of the newly-founded Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF) –  a cultural-historical community based organization that brings together people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, dedicated to disseminating and sharing knowledge of the life and work of Vito Marcantonio and his mentors, Fiorello La Guardia and Dr. Leonard Covello. The VMF has striven to correct the historical record, which most often has ignored or misrepresented Marcantonio’s unceasing work on behalf of those left out of the American Dream  The VMF applauds his courageous fight for a more authentically democratic country and offering a valuable important frame of reference for coalition-building. To date, the VMF has fulfilled its mission by: organizing book presentations; book circles; screenings of documentaries; and walking tours. In addition, the VMF has co-produced plays, as well as organized commemorations and awards dinners.
Dr. Meyer and I would be voted in as Co-Chairs, Maria Lisella – who also leads the Italian American Writers Association – would be voted in Vice Chair of the VMF, and Adam Meyer as Secretary/Treasurer.
Other goals would be steadily accomplished, including the naming in 2017 of the northeast corner of the intersection of East 116th Street and Lexington Avenue, “The Vito Marcantonio Lucky Corner,” thanks to New York City Council Speaker and Councilwoman of East Harlem, Melissa Mark-Viverito. There is a photo of a bird perched on the sign during the ceremony, which many of us concluded was harboring the soul and spirit of Marcantonio to witness the event.
One year after that, the Vito Marcantonio Forum was being invited to participate in a Conference in Picerno, Italy – the town where Marcantonio’s family originates in the province of Potenza in the region of Basilicata.

Marcantonio street naming

For me, ever since the time I and Dr. Meyer were planning the large 1998 event at New York University – there was a sense of “if you build it, they will come” – a quote from the film, Field of Dreams, a title symbolically important to the efforts of the VMF.
Now the Vito Marcantonio Forum and the work of its members have become transnational. Matera, a city in the region of Basilicata, Italy had been chosen as the European City of culture for 2019. The Matera Foundation had provided an opportunity for local towns in Basilicata to apply for funds to host cultural events.
The local government of Picerno, led by Mayor Giovanni Lettieri, and the Deputy Mayor, Giusy Marisco had obtained funding to organize a three-day conference that would include academic and artistic presentations about the life and times of Vito Marcantonio, related themes in Italian culture and history, and the Congressman’s continued relevance to the United States and Italy today.
Funding included bringing in two members of the Vito Marcantonio Forum to participate. The VMF selected Gary Bono as one of the representatives, who had begun to actively participate in advising the organization and serving informally in administrative roles on top of his participation in the People’s World and in running a company that republishes renowned books related to the political Left.
The VMF selected me as the other representative, as a VMF founder member and co-chair, who had begun to focus my own career on acting, writing, and producing, and had been making  Vito Marcantonio my magnum opus project. I had recently performed my one-man show to a sold-out crowd (with requests to perform in other cities) a couple of months before the plans were finalized with the municipality of Picerno for me and Gary Bono to attend the Conference.
My dramatizations typically consist of my reenacting particular speeches or remarks by Vito Marcantonio (with some tweaking).  My one-man show consists of a performance piece I wrote where I portray Vito Marcantonio making a case as to why he does not belong in Purgatory – thus, the title, The Purgatory Trial of Vito Marcantonio.  The setting of the trial is at the Lucky Corner (East 116th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan).

Roberto Ragone, Co-Chairman of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, speaks during Sunday’s fourth annual commemoration of the group’s namesake. (Photo courtesy: The Independent)

The full-length play and cinematic production are entitled Vito’s Last Penance: The Vindication of Vito Marcantonio. There is also a film short, as mentioned, in post-production of the most workshopped scene (performed also as a one-act play, and protected in the copyright of the full script) where Marcantonio must persuade his semi-retired and semi-reluctant mentor, Fiorello LaGuardia, to stick his neck out and endorse him for Congress in a nation becoming more reactionary under President Truman; and where we learn LaGuardia’s stake as an opposition leader against the Establishment could be jeopardized if he supports Marcantonio. This piece is entitled, The Final Covenant of Vito Marcantonio.
Notice these titles have religious connotations partly because Marcantanio’s death, as in the death of Sacco and Vanzetti, can be evocative of The Passion (of Jesus). This is particularly notable with respect to Marcantonio because he is the only Catholic politician in American history who has been denied a Catholic burial.
I am particularly proud of how the people of color in my life have taken up the cause of advancing the story of Vito Marcantonio. I recall the late Morgan Powell, an African American member of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, who, in 2014, reached out to a Latino gentleman who hosted a show on cable about getting us on the program at the last minute to discuss our (at the time) upcoming commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the death of Vito Marcantonio.

Vito Marcantonio Forum with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito at Woodlawn Cemetery

Art Bernal, who is Mexican American and who co-produced and co-directed, “The Final Covenant” short, brought together an experienced and enthusiastic production team consisting of Karen Torres, producer of Puerto Rican heritage; Justin Bennett, the main director, who is African American; Xavier Campo, director of photography, who is Columbian; Juan Fullada, sound technician originally from Peru; and the makeup artist – who transformed me into Marcantonio and George Papadimatos into LaGuardia – Serica Bell, who is Caribbean American. George is Greek American and Brytanie Holbrook – who portrays LaGuardia’s second wife, Marie, whom he dated and married after his first wife passed away from illness – is Finnish and British descent.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Do you plan to bring The Purgatory Trial of Vito Marcantonio on the road?
Roberto Ragone:  As I was planning the performance of the one-man show in New York City, and as result of my initiating an inquiry or being approached by those who would not be able to make the Manhattan performance, the question was posed: “when are you going to bring it over to x, y, or z city.  Some people would suggest a venue and/or offer to produce the show either because they were willing to take the initiative or step up after Art and I explained our financial and logistical constraints, like room and board.
Those areas of interest added up to Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, Troy, New York, and parts of Florida.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You also played lead roles in some movies and I am sure our readers would like to find out more about that… Which movies were? 
Roberto Ragone If you don’t mind, I would be pleased to include the link to a brief film demo reel – https:://youtu.be/PhZ-bDBR2k4 –  which was edited by the great documentary filmmaker, Anton Evangelista, whose credits include Umberto E, a moving documentary about his father – with a title evoking the classic Italian film, Umberto D – along with a documentary about the great poet and author, Daniela Gioseffa, and most recently, Il Signor Jackson, about the life of Edward Jackson, the prominent  African American educator of the Italian language and culture.  I hope L’Idea takes an interest in Anton’s work and Edward Jackson’s contributions.
My Casting Networks resume has the most comprehensive gathering of my credits, clips, bio, skills, and projects: http://www.castingnetworks.com/RobertoRagone

Roberto Ragone as Vito Marcantonio

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: How did that experience compare with the theatrical one? Any other movie in preparation, yet?
Roberto Ragone:  The theatrical experience helps sort out which actors take the responsibility of memorizing their lines and following directions. If you can do theatre,  then film becomes easier. However, the theatrical experience calls for a projection of yourself to an audience whereas cinema requires a subtlety for the camera.
I am trying to raise money for different projects where I play a lead role. In one film, I am an undercover investigator trying to destroy a child trafficking ring. The film also attempts to raise awareness about this international issue. In another project,  a mystery horror film – entitled, Where Evil Lurks, written and directed by Stephen Corr,  I  play a detective investigating the link between a cult to a murder. And of course, in the case of Vito Marcantonio, I am hoping that a “road show” of the one-man show will generate interest in the production of the 105-page version of the full-length play Off Broadway.   (There is a larger version of the script for theatre and adaptable for an epic film or mini-series.)

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Are you working on any new project at this time? … Maybe a book, maybe another play?
Roberto Ragone: My projects seem happily endless based on the scripts I am writing. I feel fortunate that I do not have mental blocks. I don’t suffer from the problem of procrastination in terms of writing.  Ironically, when I delay writing, the story and dialogue keep building up in my head to the point where I have to write them down, or I become less productive in other areas or even weighed down.  One particular example of such a challenge was when I was in the middle of the rehearsals and preparing for the performance of Bromance-A-Roni during the Midtown International Theatre Festival in 2017: a new comedy was emerging in my head that would also serve as a tribute to Jimmy Durante. I have since edited several drafts of that play.
Ultimately, I don’t need to be part of a writing pool to get ideas or sort out logic gaps.  I ask people who are personal or professional peers about whether the logic for a particular moment is clear versus whether more spoon-feeding is necessary.  I might ask whether it is better to say a sentence a particular way versus another sentence structure, or which character should be designated to deliver a particular line of punchline.  The challenge is making the time to edit these scripts and complete them for a production given the other things I need to do as an actor to advance my career and earn income.
I would also like to see some of my “left-brain” essays published that critique current events and analyze them in the context of historical figures, including political and cultural figures and forces in an interdisciplinary manner.  For example, I have drafted an essay about Vito Marcantonio that I am trying to get published that also speaks to current affairs.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Roberto, did your Italian roots influence you as an artist? And as a man?
Roberto Ragone:  There are a few factors in my Italian roots that drew me towards my Italian heritage and the artistic expression of that heritage through the arts as an outlet – for someone like myself who feels closely connected to and contemplates that heritage.
My high school sophomore social studies teacher, Judith Katz, enthusiastically and energetically taught me about what one might describe as the three Rs of the Italian heritage: Rome, Renaissance and Risorgimento. This instructed me to look beyond the three Fs of Italian culture that Americans typically appreciate: food, fashion, and fine arts.
On top of that, my father was the typical hardworking Italian immigrant earning money to advance his family.  My father seems to be the archetype of the lively, vivacious, animated, charming, entertaining, and joyful “Napoletano,” since he is from Salerno, which is in the same region as Naples. Once, when I saw him watch Luciano Pavarotti sing on TV, I seemed to be looking at the face of a man saying to himself, “that could have been  me.” It turns out my father sang, performed in theater, and even danced. There were stories about friends in his paese (Teggiano) – in an agricultural area – taking turns hosting gatherings at their homes, playing vinyl records on the record player.  And the young men would walk up to the young woman, and ask them to dance.  After the dance was over, the young men would walk up to their peer (my future would-be father), who was the authority and the expert, and say in Italian, “Uuayy!  Arsenio, com’ agiu’ fatto?  Agiu” fatto bene?” (“Arsenio, how did I do?  Did I do okay?”)
This information would help me make an “informed choice” in determining that it would be the right thing to leave the world of politics, public policy, and nonprofits  and commit myself to acting, writing, and producing. I had always imagined comedic or dramatic dialogues and how the lines would be delivered, and even occasionally how to direct a scene. I had even found myself critiquing acting performance, a script, or a director’s choice as far back as my youth. I would also sometimes imagine myself hosting, emceeing, or moderating discussions on stage.
I prefer to be in a situation where I offer a unique value proposition that can have a positive, constructive, and even transcendent impact, rather than be one among many, serving a role where I’m easily interchangeable with someone else.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Any message for our readers?
Roberto Ragone:   I would want to make an appeal not only to the 17 million people who identify themselves as having Italian heritage, but also Italophiles. In fact, I also make an appeal to people to learn their ancestry through services that teach how to reconstruct your past in order for them to discover if they have any Italian heritage.  If one has Italian heritage, I would suggest taking advantage of the “Italian blood” proviso in Italian law guaranteeing you citizenship.  This might be a modern version of how Europeans used to contemplate (and maybe still do in their collective unconscious) how they were all once part of the Roman Empire.  Throw in the fact that Italians perhaps experienced the second largest Diaspora after the Jewish people, and you’ve got a Pan-Italia that can create a new Pax-Romana.
A connection to Italy through a visit to Italy is like a baptism that helps one begin to transcend the American social construct of being white.  You began to appreciate a nation that has a rich cultural history and offers frames of reference and models, in the law, engineering, design, and other aesthetics as well as the culinary arts and sartorial splendor of clothing. fabric and swatches. (A recent survey found that people identified Italy as the most “beautiful” country in the world.)
However, through my appeal (and any “baptismal visitation” to Italy), I hope interest in Italian history can prompt interest in Italian-American history and how that history in the form of phenomena can serve as public policy case studies offering insights on how to address contemporary problems in leadership (through LaGuardia and Marcantonio), education (through Dr. Leonard Covello and Dr. Maria Montessouri), law enforcement (through  NYPD  Lt. Joseph Petrosino); customer-oriented banking and finance (through A.P Giannini); equitable capitalism (through Pareto principals of economics), and public health (through the Roseto Effect).
While there is an understandable request for sensitivity and “safe space” in American society, it is ironic that people, including the people who advocate for sensitivity and space, don’t seem to grant these prerogatives to Italian Americans, and others who appreciate Italian culture and history. In fact, there seems to be no problem with the notion of non-Italian Americans depicting or approving the depiction of the Italian-American experience as one where all the bad guys are of Italian heritage and all the good guys are non-Italian American.   This irony is enhanced by the fact that Italian-Americans served in higher proportions than any other ethnic group against the Axis Powers.  Italy protected a higher proportion of its Jewish population (85 percent) against the Holocaust than almost all other European nation.  While the death of 15 percent of the Italian Jewish population underscores the tragedy of the Nazi genocide, it reflects the heroism of the Italians to rescue, hide, and save it’s Jewish population from extinction.  It is my understanding that a study showed that if you were to ask Jewish Europeans in many parts of your Europe, “what are you,” –  meaning what is your heritage – they would say, “Jewish.”  However, in Italy, they would say they are “Italian.”
There also seems to be no problem with selectively determining who is a good guy and who is a villain in history.  And this is not done through facts and truths but through fraudulent and fabricated propaganda.  So someone like a Christopher Columbus, who did not mistreat people of color who were minding their own business or whom he befriended, has been demonized as a poster child for evil. Meanwhile, latter-day leaders who should have known better,  but instead perpetrated, permitted or perpetuated, violence against people of color, unprovoked by people of color, get to remain lionized heroes, including Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson.  And while Alexander Hamilton has been underappreciated compared to Thomas Jefferson, he has perhaps been more exonerated that he should be. In fact, it is ironic that there are people out there who couldn’t pass a test about basic American history (or get a lot of questions wrong), who couldn’t tell you the significance of July 4, 1776, and/or don’t know what happened in American history over the past 20 years – much less over the past 50 years – that may have adversely affected their lives. But some of these same people think they are suddenly experts about 1492.

Roberto Ragone

In contrast, America’s Founding Fathers were introspective about the significance of the ancient Roman Republic and the need for representational government.  The Founding Fathers knew that Rome was a blueprint, not just for buildings the same architectural style in Washington DC, but for “form[ing] a more perfect union,”  as written in the Preamble of the Constitution. In fact, prior to the Constitution, in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, the words, “all men are created equal” came to Thomas Jefferson from his friend, the Italian humanist, Filippo Mazzei.  Thus, Jefferson’s “Italo-filialism”  extended beyond naming his home Monticello.  Unfortunately, the Founding Fathers were not sufficiently introspective to apply these notions to African Americans and  Native Americans.  One can argue that the Romans were more enlightened in their time, and Columbus in his time.
Because of the contributions of Italians and Italian Americans towards shaping among the best aspects of the United States of America, they are more worthy of respect.  At the same time, Italians, Italian Americans and Italophiles need to become more introspective of themselves as transcendent bridge builders between cultures.  In contemplating the Pan-Italia and new Pax-Romana I mentioned earlier, I always imagined myself giving a speech identifying a modern Medieval “philistinism,” and then urging change by exhorting people of Italian descent with the following: “Let us be able to claim now what can be claimed around 500 years ago – that a Renaissance has descended across this continent…and it began…with the Italians…thank you very much!”

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Tiziano Thomas Dossena wins the 2019 OSIA Literary Award

  • Our Editorial Director wins the 2019 OSIA LITERARY AWARD!

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 the Editorial Director of L’Idea Magazine 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.

From the left, OSIA NY STATE President Robert Ferrito, Tiziano Thomas Dossena, Literary Award co-Chair Geraldine Iannello Graham.

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,” andNew 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.

NY State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Tiziano Thomas Dossena

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.

 Please click here to view the award’s presentation.

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International High Cuisine: From Orecchiette To Rasta Pasta. An Exclusive Interview With Chef Patrizio LaGioia. [L’Idea Magazine 2019]


International High Cuisine: from orecchiette to Rasta Pasta. An exclusive interview with Chef Patrizio LaGioia.

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; (Patrizio 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 Cardozzo Hotel 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.

At the Four Season teaching a cooking class…

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.

At the FOOD & WINE Chefs Club

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.

LaGioia con Massimo Bottura e la moglie

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.

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“Everything And Anything Can Be A Source Of Inspiration “. Exclusive Interview With Queens Poet Laureate Maria Lisella [L’Idea Magazine 2019]

Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena

Maria Lisella is the sixth Queens Poet Laureate and the first Italian American to be named so. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated work appears in Thieves in the Family (NYQ Books), Amore on Hope Street (Finishing Line Press) and Two Naked Feet (Poets Wear Prada). Her work has appeared in New Verse News, The New York Quarterly, Ovunque Siamo, Paterson Literary Review, Skidrow Penthouse, and Shrew. Work has also been published in recent anthologies such as The Traveler’s Vade Mecum (Red Hen Press, 2017) while her essay, Shades, Colors and Internal Dialogues appears in What Does It Mean to Be White in America? (2LeafPress) and her travel piece, Lemmings appears in the five-volume collection She Can Find Her Way (Upper Hand Press, 2017). She co-curates the 27-year old Italian American Writers Association literary series. By day, she is a NY Expert for USA TODAY, Europe Editor for Travel Market Report and contributes to the bilingual, La Voce di New York.

L’Idea: How do you feel about having the honor of being the Queens Poet Laureate and the first Italian American to be so named?
Maria Lisella: As the first Italian American it feels like the perfect match: Italy is a multi-cultural country where more than 200 dialects are still spoken or being preserved while Queens is the most multi-cultural borough in America where about 140 languages are spoken.
Italian Americans have been part of the fabric of America for many generations and its cultural and literary legacy has often gone under the radar. Beyond Mario Puzo and Don DeLillo, many Italian Americans are not familiar with Italian American authors. Literature can help to banish or diminish negative stereotypes since authors present a plurality of images so it is imperative to read.
I would love to see organizations such as the Sons of Italy or the National Organization of Italian American Women to take up this mantle and support Italian American authors by buying and giving a book away with each membership to encourage Italian Americans to read our books.
The three rules of the Italian American Writers Association (IAWA) are: Read each other, Write or be written and Buy our Books, to which I would add, Review each other because if book are not reviewed they wither on bookshelves.

Maria Lisella with Tiziano Thomas Dossena at her reading over the John Calandra Institute

L’Idea: Your collection’s title is Thieves in the Family. Can you tell us why? 
Maria LisellaThieves in the Family (NYQ Books) was the title my mentor Diana Festa thought sounded stronger than Small Victories, which was the original title. On the surface, the poem is about a small theft — lily bulbs and herbs from a garden – but that act represents the petty resentments that bubble under the surface of a family often disrupting relationships.
Additionally, the two protagonists – the aunt, my mother, and the nephew – are engaged in cultural thievery. He steals the lilies from her mother’s garden, a legacy that links my mother to the earth of her Calabrese ancestors, while the nephew’s racist remarks expose him as either ignorant of the prejudice lodged against Sicilians in Italy or he is anxious to pick on the next group of color, in this case a Latin sister-in-law and African Americans to elevate his own sense of himself in an artificial and disingenuous way.

L’Idea: Are your poetry collections chronology or theme-based? What is the main the inspiration for your poetry?
Maria Lisella: My work reflects the passages of my life. My intention is to write with enough specificity to illustrate the experiences as genuine and particular, but general enough so that others can say, I have felt that way too, thus sharing feelings and recognizing some aspect of the human condition we may all have in common.
I can explore these passages through the many roles I play: partner, wife, friend, stepmother, sister, daughter, in addition to my public roles, all of which feed my creative work.
My late husband, Gil Fagiani, pursued a given period in his life and write to that time; I tend to jump around. Right now, I am coping with a tragedy – my youthful husband’s recent death. I am grappling with grief and I am learning about facets of myself I did not know existed. Because so many women are widows, my work has brought me closer to a wider audience.
Everything and anything can be a source of inspiration – I read everything, from cereal boxes to instructions on shampoos (often now with the back story to the product) and I read classical authors, poetry and prose in English and sometimes Italian. You never know what might kick off a memory, a dream, a stream of consciousness that will feed a poem.

L’Idea: Besides being a recognized poet, you are also a renowned travel writer. How did you start in this profession? Do you travel to write or do you write about your travels?
Maria Lisella: It is an odd profession for me in a way as I am an incredibly rooted person — I have always lived in Queens, New York and I attended commuter colleges — CUNY’s Queensborough, Queens, and NYU-Polytechnic.
The leap into the travel industry was fortuitous. I was part of a research team working for a travel columnist whose work was featured in Travel & Leisure. Eventually I began to work as a freelancer for that magazine, stayed a few years and moved to the travel trade, Travel Agent magazine as the International Editor.
During my 30-plus years of covering the industry, I visited more than 60 countries. The travel trade is a dynamic platform for travel professionals to exchange information. While tourism is one of the largest industries in the world, it is also an informal industry where knowledge is shared among professionals, at conferences and seminars while many are not formally trained.  I have also taught about the Hospitality industry.
Travel is a life-changing experience that has the capacity to change minds. The more people travel outside their hometowns, be it to other states or other countries, the more they can learn about others — their lifestyles, cultures and that experience can encourage tolerance and understanding.
Currently, I write for Travel Market Report, USA Today, The Jerusalem Post and La Voce di New York.
In answer to your second question, I do both — I write about my travels for articles for work while I also travel to write.
Right now, I am in Calabria, Italy as a participant in the first session of the Italian Diaspora Studies Association, organized by Professor Margherita Ganeri. The program is essentially a Writing Seminar that combines Heritage and Memory. American Book Award winner Maria Mazziotti Gillan leads the poetry workshops while Connie Guzzo McParland, President of Guernica Editions and Professor Ganeri lead the second week showcasing prose and fiction writing. So in this case, I traveled specifically to write.

L’Idea: Do you feel that being a poet influences much of your outlook and observations about travel? What about the other way around? Does your experience of travel influence a lot your poetry?
Maria Lisella: Being a poet is part of my DNA just as being a journalist is, and the two inform each other. My travel assignments have afforded me opportunities to travel to unknown places and meet strangers in their own homelands. The impulses to query, win trust and clarify are common to both forms of writing.
My travel trade work is factual, I don’t write in the first person although what I observe is inevitably filtered through my consciousness as a poet and many of my poems are what I call outtakes from the travel articles.
For example, I might interview someone such as I did in Mad with Fear based on a guide’s experience during the conflicts in Croatia in the 1990s; or the poem La Nebbia Veneziana or Fog in Venice reflects my visions as I floated in a pool of hot water in the middle of Carnevale in February in Venice; and Lovestuck is about a visit to the Borghese Galleria. Several other poems about Portugal and Spain are also based on visits to those places usually for a work assignment.
These are stories that would never find a place in my travel articles. However, when I write for La Voce di New York, which is read by a consumer audience, I have can intersperse my personal observations as I did in a recent review of the Leonard Cohen exhibit currently at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Gil Fagiani and Maria Lisella

L’Idea: You recently launched Missing Madonnas, by Gil Fagiani, your husband. Could you tell us more about that?
Maria LisellaMissing Madonnas is his first posthumous collection; there will be more books as Gil was very prolific and productive. He left three unpublished manuscripts on his desktop, a memoir that is now being considered by a publisher and a collection we began together.
Missing Madonnas is the last in his Connecticut trilogy — Chianti in Connecticut and Stone Walls  (Bordighera Press) — is an extraordinary collection that, in part, focuses on his mother’s Sicilian family from Capo d’Orlando but also presents vibrant characters who have seen the world from the bottom up. His work is often about faith, hope, love, and redemption — he had a strong belief in the human spirit’s power to transform its destiny.
Of Missing Madonnas Grace Cavalieri wrote in the Washington Review of Books: The downtrodden and discouraged were transformed by poems, and the exhilaration and beauty of his people are documented forever. His poems teach us to notice, to look on every chain-link fence for the lock; to value the original language of our families; to remember the mores that raised him. These poems are stories — showing the way Fagiani saw the world: funny, unpredictable, sometimes harsh, and also kind.

L’Idea: I know you co-curated the literary readings for the Italian American Writers Association (IAWA) with Gil. Were you working on any other projects in common with him?
Maria Lisella: During Gil’s hospital stay — the last two months of his life — we began a joint poetry collection that I have yet to organize or name.
We were also co-founders of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, which currently just presented a dramatization and presentation in Marcantonio’s family’s hometown of Picerno, Basilicata. A book presentation is scheduled for Wednesday, May 29 at the NYPL on Mulberry St. and on June 23, the VMF will present the VMF award to Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

L’Idea: Could you tell us more about these readings and IAWA?
Maria Lisella: At 28 years old, the IAWA reading is likely one of the longest running literary series in New York City. Each month it begins with an Open Mic where anyone can read followed by two featured Italian American authors and book signings and sales.
Through IAWA’s readings I have personally watched many writers move from being novices to becoming widely published authors and publish books, which is immensely gratifying.
Since Gil’s passing am grateful for several of the regular attendees who share hosting, posting, scheduling and promoting the readings. These are transferable skills authors can use to support their own work.
My mantra is, if you want an audience, you also have to be an audience. That etiquette is necessary for the success of the entire community.

L’Idea: Any new projects in the near future?
Maria Lisella: I have two collections in the pipeline, am looking more closely at the art of writing short stories and have Gil Fagiani’s work to continue publishing and getting out into the world.
I am always interested in discovering new outlets for my creative work and my reporting; as well as expanding the subjects I cover.

L’Idea: A message for our readers?
Maria Lisella: Try to think as a community — this does not mean we have to agree on everything, but it does mean we need to support each other’s achievements and to sharpen our knowledge of our heritage; to trade stereotypes including that we were the perfect immigrants, to embrace plurality within our community. Create book clubs that focus on various aspects of Italian Americans in America —to learn from each other.
I would add, we could step it up a bit when it comes to cultural philanthropy. Support authors, support institutions such as the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute that has become a dynamic think tank about our culture in America; the Vito Marcantonio Forum, IAWA, and NYU’s Casa Italiana, all of these offer educational experiences, mostly for free.

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ViVi L’italiana. Exclusive Interview With Viola Manuela Ceccarini [L’Idea Magazine]

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)

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The Lazy Italian Culinary Adventures. Exclusive Interview With Francesca Montillo

The Lazy Italian Culinary Adventures. Exclusive interview with Francesca Montillo

Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena

A very interesting agency, Lazy Italian Culinary Adventures, that will probably interest most of our readers has appeared recently and we felt that it would be opportune to discover more by interviewing the owner and founder Francesca Montillo, who is also a successful author.

L’Idea: Your Web site (www.thelazyitalian.com) is quite informative and pretty clear on the goals of your agency, but could you elaborate anyway on the concept of your culinary-themed food & wine adventures to the various regions of Italy?
Francesca Montillo: The art and history are certainly reasons why many travelers flock to Italy, but let’s be honest, food is what we can all relate too. I wanted to start a business that would appeal to everyone, that offered something to all, and food is the one common denominator. I have always enjoyed traveling back to Italy and if I am being honest, food is one of the main reasons. Everything is tastier in Italy, more genuine. I wanted others to experience that as well. I wanted everyone to know what a fresh summer tomato tastes like in Sicily, what freshly pressed oil is like in Tuscany and the flavor of freshly discovered truffles. I wanted others to be brought to the source of their favorite imported products, such a Parma Prosciutto or Parmigiano cheese, or extra virgin olive oil, and so, via my business, I am able to do just that. It’s extremely rewarding.

On tour in Venice with celebrity TV chef Joanne Weir

L’Idea: Why did you choose the name “Lazy Italian Culinary Adventures?”
Francesca Montillo: I receive this question a lot; I think many people wonder about the name! My goal with business has always been to get people to cook more, to spend more time in the kitchen, to sit down at home as opposed to a restaurant, so my recipes, as well as my business philosophy,  has always been simple, straight to the point and unpretentious. Some may even say it’s “lazy” cooking. It’s really not about being lazy, but being efficient in the kitchen; then again “Efficient Italian Culinary Adventures” just doesn’t have the same ring to it! I have been concerned that folks and clients don’t want to be associated with a business with the name “lazy” in it, and a few business advisors have suggested I change the name, but it hasn’t negatively impacted my business, as far as I can tell, so I think I’m sticking with it, as many are intrigued by it!

L’Idea: You also have an option called “Italy by Design.” What is that about?
Francesca Montillo: As much as I love leading and running my tours, I fully understand that touring, even with a small intimate group, is not for everyone. As such, I design private and custom itineraries for clients who want the native expertise I offer, without the group component. People essentially hire me to design their trip to Italy; then they set off on their own, with everything from A-Z planned and scheduled for them according to their preferences. They have neither the time nor the inclination, nor frankly, the experience, that creating a memorable week in Italy requires and they prefer to outsource the planning and designing of their trip to me.
I also offer private custom tours for pre-formed groups. Many friends, especially retirees and baby boomers, enjoy traveling together and want to form their own exclusive group tour, so for a minimum of 6 travelers, we’re able to design a spectacular week in which I expertly lead and guide them in Italy. This is a wonderful version of touring, without doing so with strangers.

L’Idea: How did you come up with the idea of these intimate culinary-experience travels?
Francesca Montillo: I fully believe that the best way to get to know any culture is through its cuisine, so while everyone was always asking me about my upbringing in Italy and what foods we ate, I figured the best way to tell them about it, was to bring them to the source, Italy, and actually show them. I have been traveling back to Italy for 30 years and with every trip, I was changed. I wanted others to experience this type of experiential travel as well.
Despite my business name, these are active weeks that are educational, fun, intimate and enlightening. Because I limit them to 12 participants, wonderful friendships are formed during the week and we travel like a family and not a large touring company.

L’Idea: Which ones are the most common geographical areas that you visit in Italy for these tours? 
Francesca Montillo: Last year, I was in Tuscany, Veneto and Emilia Romagna. This year, I have several tours in Southern Italy, namely Sicily and Puglia. I think people are attracted to these regions as they are very authentic, not as traveled and recognize that the cuisine is very distinctive. I have traveled all over Italy, but as a Southerner myself, I recognize that the cuisine there is so very different and I’m looking forward to exposing my clients to it. Italian cuisine is so varied from region to region, from town to town, really, that we could explore every inch of the land and not find a dish that is made the same way. It’s incredible, really. I have my work cut out ahead of me in exposing folks to all the various types of foods!

L’Idea: What can a participant expect from this experience? Are the participants also introduced to the different kind of wines?
Francesca Montillo: Being a food & wine adventure, participants can anticipate lots of both. We take cooking classes with the locals, visit lots of wineries and see the wine production process, visit olive oil mills, honey farms and many cheese producers. We visit historical restaurants, participate in local foodie tours and sample the specialty local products and of course, do our fair share of eating gelato! To round it off, we often participate in a cultural tour of the main city in which we’re focusing on so that we can get to know it better. My trips are definitely not about art or history; while having a sample of that, I make it clear that if those are your main interested, you might be better served choosing a different agency, but if food and wine are the main reason for your trip to Italy, then join us!
I think what makes my tours unique is that we frequently stay in one location with day trips throughout the week. I don’t like the idea of bussing my clients from city to city, wasting precious vacation time in transit, changing hotels every few days, crossing cities off of a travel list, never getting to know one location well enough. Perhaps that makes us lazy after all, but I believe in full immersion travel, getting to know one area well, visiting the nearby towns and getting to know the locals as much as possible.
I am finding that travelers are also very savvy these days, they don’t want the “been there, done that” experiences but want more authenticity, less tourist and more local life, less “mass produced travel” and more unique experiences with the natives, so it’s an exciting time to be in my position. I’m finding that being a native is also something my clients appreciate as if offers that extra level of validity that many other US companies can’t provide.

L’Idea: Are you planning some other special tours for the future? 
Francesca Montillo: I am now planning my 2020 schedule and it’s a bit all over the place! I will soon be in Umbria and will be researching the landscape there for a possible trip. I think Umbria is one of the most underappreciated regions that deserve more attention and certainly more visitors. I’ll be leading a private week in Chianti, and hope to organize a week in my native region of Calabria in 2020. I have been getting inquiries about the Amalfi Coast, so that’s also under consideration. My concern with Amalfi is that folks may be too overwhelmed by the beauty, beaches, and scenery that they will be distracted. I still want food & wine to be the main focus of my tours! I will have to plan that one carefully! Both Emilia Romagna and Veneto were well received so I may return there in 2020.

Two students from her cooking class

L’Idea: You also offer cooking classes in the area of Boston. Could you tell me more about that?
Francesca Montillo: I started my cooking classes a number of years ago as a way to show hesitant or new cooks how easy Italian cooking can be. Some feedback I always receive from students is that they had not realized how easy many dishes are to prepare. They anticipated sauces lingering on the stove for hours, lengthy recipes taking hours and strict food rules that they had to follow. And while yes, there are Italian dishes that call for just that, we instead prepare dishes that are simple, take 30 – 40 minutes to prepare and don’t have a lengthy laundry list of ingredients. Again, sticking with my theme of being efficient in the kitchen. It could teach more elaborate dishes, but if the students aren’t going to prepare them at home because they are intimidated or simply don’t have the time, than what is the point of the class? Sure, it’s a fun way to spend a few hours, but I want people to leave my kitchen feeling confident that they can replicate the meals at home. Many of my students are busy executives, new moms, busy dads and even college students who simply don’t have the time to cook, so I show them that it’s completely doable to create a multi-course, guest-worthy dinner in a short amount of time.

L’Idea: Your book “The 5-ingredient Italian Cookbook” has received many accolades. What is the book about?
Francesca Montillo: Thank you for the kind compliment! The cookbook really captures the spirit of my business and my cooking philosophy; that being that cooking doesn’t need to take hours, nor lengthy recipes to be delicious. Even in Italy, as you know, home cooks value quality over quantity, freshness, and seasonality above all else. Many dishes naturally require just a handful of ingredients, but it’s not presented as such in many cookbooks, so home cooks get anxious and don’t even try. The book contains 101 regional recipes, each with a short intro to the dish or the region it comes. It’s a great introductory book for new cooks or cooks that just need a few new ideas. At the beginning of the book, we list a short, handful of ingredients that don’t count towards the 5 main ingredients, items that all home cooks should have at home, such as oils, salt, butter and such. Once a home cook arms her/himself with these staples, they will need little else to prepare delicious meals at home for themselves and their families.

L’Idea: Could you offer our readers a recipe from your book?
Francesca Montillo: I’m a huge believer in sharing recipes. Some people have the mentality that recipes should never be shared; clearly, that was never me! I would love to share a few recipes from the book, as well as invite readers to my blog (https://www.thelazyitalian.com/food–travel-blog) where I post free recipes regularly.

L’Idea: In your book, you refer to a taste tour. What is that?
Francesca Montillo: In the book, 101 regional recipes were captured, giving the readers and home cooks a taste of every region. The region of each recipe is identified, so a reader carefully following the book would be able to see a theme in regional cooking. For example, how Sicilian cooking is spicier than northern cooking. The recipes are a great window into the soul of regional Italian cooking that can be transported back to the States. If one wants to truly experience authentic Italian cuisine, then I think they would be very well served to join me on a culinary adventure to Italy; since that’s not an option for many, I think the book is a great alternative for a virtual taste tour of Italy.

L’Idea: It is obvious that you enjoy cooking, but do you also cook all different regional cuisine for your own dinners? Which one is your preferred dish?
Francesca Montillo: I grew up on Calabrian cuisine, inspired by neighboring regions of Puglia and Sicily, so I certainly gravitate towards that kind of cooking at home. I am also the daughter of a greengrocer, so I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I really love eating fresh produce, especially in the summer months. It’s strange to me how young children in the States aren’t introduced to produce at a young age. I think part of that is that vegetables here are often cooked plainly, making it very unappealing to kids. I grew up eating zucchini, green beans, eggplants, and broccoli and thought nothing of it because it was cooked deliciously and dressed with local extra virgin olive oil. I’m happy to offer many recipes in the book that I think would appeal to young eaters. It’s so important to introduce young eaters to fresh produce early on.

L’Idea: On my part, I will stop by one of your classes when I’ll be around Boston, but do you expect to ever present your book in New York? Maybe also offer some classes in this area too?
Francesca Montillo: I would certainly love to, if the opportunity presented itself, I am very open to it. I do receive frequent emails asking if I take my classes on the road, so one never knows. It’s certainly something I would consider. I am also contemplating starting a YouTube channel, so that would be a great way to showcase my recipes to a greater audience. Until that time, I look forward to hosting you in Boston!

L’Idea: Any special message for our readers?
Francesca Montillo: I urge all readers to give themselves a chance in the kitchen. Even novice cooks can prepare delicious recipes provided they use high-quality ingredients and are strategic about their recipes. Home cooking is not only healthier and more economical but also far more rewarding. I also invite all readers to check out my website and consider joining us for a tour in the future! Past travelers have commented that they forget that they are on a tour, as they feel like they are traveling with friends, I couldn’t ask for a better compliment.

Thank you L’Idea Magazine for the opportunity to share what I do, and my love for Italy, with your readers!

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The Italian Cookie Comes With A Smile. An Exclusive Interview Of The Great American Baking Show: Holiday Edition’s Winner Tina Zaccardi. [L’Idea Magazine]

The Italian Cookie Comes With A Smile. An Exclusive Interview Of The Great American Baking Show: Holiday Edition’s Winner Tina Zaccardi.

The Italian Cookie comes with a smile. An exclusive interview of The Great American Baking Show: Holiday Edition’s winner Tina Zaccardi.

Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena

 For all the friends who had the fortune to taste Tina Zaccardi’s cookies, cakes, and pies, it was not such a big surprise that she had won “The Great American Baking Show: Holiday Edition”: the heavenly experience of flavoring her desserts convinces you immediately that you are dealing with an artist and a winner. So much so that in the towns of Tuckahoe and Eastchester no TV was turned off the day she participated in the final episode. Call us fans, aficionados, devotees, followers, groupies or whatever else, only a person who tasted her sweets can understand the love for her baking products and for her (she is humble, soft-spoken, and always carries a wonderful smile, all qualities that add up to her charismatic presence). I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions regarding her recent experience.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You have a great passion for baking and cooking in general. When was this developed? Was there a turning point that made it so?
Tina Zaccardi:  I started baking when I was very young by watching my mother and grandmother.  I started to see that everyone enjoyed eating what I was baking and it gave me a great sense of satisfaction and confidence.  As I got older I found that baking was a way to set myself apart.  It was also a way to make my family and friends very happy by baking something that they love.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Was the participation The Great American Baking Show: Holiday Edition hard to obtain? What was the process for admission and? What prompted you to apply?
Tina Zaccardi:  The process started with a 75 question application.  The next step was an interview with a producer; I was then invited to a tasting interview where I have to bring a few of my bakes.  They must have liked what they tasted because I was sent through to a live baking audition. From there I was chosen as one of the 10 bakers to appear on the show.
The reason for me wanting to apply is a bit of a story.  I was sitting watching TV about 5 years ago and came across The British Baking Show on PBS.  I immediately fell in love with the format and said to myself if they ever do an American Baking Show I would definitely apply.

Photo Mark Bourdilloion_ABC

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You did stay 25 days in England to tape the show. Did you tape an episode per day? Were you always told what type of dessert you had to bake or did they leave it to your choice? How were the judges?
Tina Zaccardi:  I was in England for 25 days filming the show.  We did not film every day and had 1-2 days off in between filming.  Of the three bakes per episode, I knew what I would be baking for two of them.  The technical challenge was a total surprise.
The judges were great!  They gave constructive and honest feedback regarding our bakes and could not have been nicer!!!

Photo ABC/Mark Bourdillion

Photo ABC/Mark Bourdillion

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Could you tell our readers what were the most memorable moments of this unique experience?
Tina Zaccardi:  There were so many experiences but I’ll tell you a few.  I never expected to win, so moving forward in the competition every week was like a dream come true.  One of the most exciting experiences was when I got a handshake from Paul Hollywood for my Chocolate, Cherry, Pistachio Rugelach cookies.  For anyone one that has watched the British Baking Show getting a Hollywood Handshake is as good as it gets!!!
Definitely, winning Star Baker twice was a twice in a lifetime experience.  Also, the great times I had with my fellow bakers outside of the competition is something I will always treasure.

Photo ABC/Mark Bourdillion

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Was there a moment of distress in which you felt you had lost your chance to win?
Tina Zaccardi:  I had a few moments, but I think the most stress I felt was during the Showstopper Bake for Cake Week. I had a problem with my cake and I thought that if I served what I had to the judges I would definitely be going home.  I had to compose myself and bake a different cake all from memory.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: What were some of the desserts you prepared for the contest?
Tina Zaccardi:  Some of my desserts were Chocolate mini cakes with an orange buttercream, a cranberry compote filling and a marzipan pumpkin for decoration.   There were a chocolate hazelnut praline and a key lime pie inspired eclair.  Classic cannoli siciliano, a gingerbread birdhouse and a goat cheese and balsamic glazed pot de creme.  Just to name a few…

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: In 2013, you were the finalist of the “Joyful Cook-off” on the “Today Show.” Could you tell us more about that? Did it require a long time for you to go through the process, as it did for “The Great American Baking Show: Holiday Edition?” What were the main differences?
Tina Zaccardi
:  The Joyful Cook-Off only required that I submit a single recipe and mine was chosen as one of the top three.  I got the opportunity to present my recipe on the Today Show.  My recipe was a Thai Inspired Chicken and Couscous.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: In that same year, you also appeared on “The Chew.” What did you do on that show?
Tina Zaccardi:  The Chew had 3 viewers participate in a dessert cook-off. I won with my recipe for Peach Blueberry Crumb Pie with a Pecan Crust.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: What about “Rachael Ray Show’s 10th Annual Burger Bash,” which you won in 2016? How exciting was the show and what did you win with?
Tina Zaccardi:   Rachael had three viewers compete in a burger bash.  My winning burger was a beef patty stuffed with roasted garlic and gorgonzola topped with arugula, bacon, homemade tomato jam and frizzled onions.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Do you expect to have more TV appearances in the near future? Are we going to see any “Tina Zaccardi Special” anytime soon?   
Tina Zaccardi:  You never know what the future brings.  Maybe there will be another TV appearance!!!

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: What about the possible commercialization of your products? Do you want to continue to bake for fun or are you looking into a possible partnership with some company for your products?
Tina Zaccardi:  Right now I’m taking one day at a time and have a few things in the works.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Do you believe your Italian roots influenced your baking and life choices?
Tina Zaccardi:  I do believe that my Italian roots have influenced my baking.  I tried to put some aspect into each of my bakes on the show.

THE GREAT AMERICAN BAKING SHOW: HOLIDAY EDITION – Tina and her tricolor cake, inspired by the colors of the Italian flag.

Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Do you have a message for the aspiring bakers and chefs who read our magazine?
Tina Zaccardi:  Whatever you do, whether it’s baking or something else, don’t ever believe that your dream is too big.  If I believed that, I would never have auditioned for the show.  Never underestimate the benefits of hard work.  I’ve been practicing and researching and learning for a long time.  I believe that my hard work and preparation had prepared me for anything that I would have to bake on the show.  Even though I won, I still believe that I still have so much to learn.

Market Place at Fordham University

I would like to thank you and your magazine for giving me the opportunity to tell my story.


You can find Tina’s recipes and suggestions on these sites:

Web Site: TinaZaccardi.com                 Instagram: TheItalianCookie

Anginetti cookies (photo courtesy Tina Zaccardi)

A wonderful video by Tina on how to shape Anginetti cookies…

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