Articles by: Roberta Cutillo

  • Art & Culture

    A Taste of Capri in New York

    “The poet Pablo Neruda called Capri the pearl of the Mediterranean,” Amy Riolo states as she welcomes the guests of “Under the Capri Sun,” an event held last night at New York’s prestigious James Beard House, which she helped to organize, to sit down.

    “Everyone loves Capri,” she continues, “so it’s not a hard sell.”

    But, as Amy points out, what Chef Pasquale does is present the familiar flavors of the island along with the memories or fantasies they evoke in new and unique forms. “His dishes are a testament to the Mediterranean diet, he works sustainably and thoughtfully in one of the last remaining family-owned restaurants.”

    Up to this point, guests have had the chance to sample a delicious selection of hors d’oeuvres inspired by the traditional street food of Campania, including Amalfi Coast-style fried and baked “Montanara” pizza with San Marzano tomatoes and Provolone, a ricotta, provolone, tomato fried pizza by celebrated Neapolitan pizzaiolo Antonio Fusco, and a collaborative fried pizza made by Fusco and filled with Rinaldo’s citrus-infused carbonara.

    This is the first US visit for both chef and pizza-maker, who thank everyone for coming before the night’s dishes start coming in.

    The appetizer is Chef Rinaldo’s signature “Mistaken Caprese,” an inverted version of the classic salad, in which he somehow managed to enclose fresh tomatoes inside a beautiful round mozzarella, served with an aromatic Fiano di Avellino DOCG from the region’s Cantine Terranera winery (where all of the evening’s wines come from.)

    Next, comes a fragrant plate of Caprese-style ravioli, which as the Chef explains, are made without eggs, rendering them lighter and ideal for the warm Summer months. “These are filled with three different cheeses with three different aging periods and fresh herbs from Capri and are served with tomato, basil and ricotta,” he says.

    This delicacy comes paired with a wonderfully mineral Greco di Tufo, the second and final white wine of the evening.

    Afterwards, the waiters bring out the red, a 2009 Taurasi DOCG - “the Barolo of the South” as the chef calls it - signaling that it’s time for meat: braised beef cheek so soft it immediately melts in your mouth served with Taurasi wine jelly.

    This delicacy is followed by a simple yet delicious fennel and orange salad, a perfect sweet and sour palate cleanser to prepare diners for the final dish, the “Panettone di Capri,” a lighter and more summery version of the typical northern Italian winter holiday cake.

    “Panettone comes from Milan,” the chef clarifies, “but this year for the first time we’ve had more Panettone sales in the South than in the North. This version is made with mother yeast and semi-candied fruits, which are less dry and sugary.”

    Finally, Antonio Fusco kindly offers to demonstrate how he kneads pizza dough as the guests finish sipping on their coffee and Passito and mentally prepare themselves to reluctantly return from this culinary trip to sunny Capri and perhaps begin booking their next vacation there.



    Ristorante d'Amore

    Via Fuorlovado, 36, 80073 Capri NA, Italy

    Website >>

  • Art & Culture

    Valentine's Day in Verona, the Capital of Love

    What could be more romantic than spending Valentine’s Day in Verona, the beautiful Northern Italian town where Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was supposedly set?


    That’s probably what the folks at Airbnb were thinking when they decided to launch a new contest earlier this year, the winner of which will get to spend the night in the house that, according to legend, belonged to the Capulets. This includes sleeping in Juliet’s bed – the one used in Franco Zeffirelli’s acclaimed 1968 cinematic adaptation of the play – as well as a private dinner for two prepared by famous chef Giancarlo Perbellini.


    Unfortunately, this year’s contest is no longer accepting applications but the city offers plenty more Valentine’s Day-themed activities. Still through Airbnb, you have the chance to reserve themed tours through the most picturesque parts of the historical city and immerse yourself in a romantic fantasy, which will be documented by a professional photographer. And you can end the experience with a fancy five-course dinner in the Michelin-starred Casa Perbellini.


    Another option is join the Juliet Club, the team of people – featured in the 2010 romantic comedy starring Amanda Seyfried, “Letters to Juliet” – who answer the letters addressed to “Juliet, Verona.” You can volunteer to become one of Juliet’s secretaries for a day and help respond to the thousands of letters sent to the romantic heroine from all over the world.


    Needless to say, all of these experiences – with the exclusion of the Airbnb contest - can be enjoyed year-round, not just on Valentine’s Day. And the beautiful city of Verona is certainly worth a visit, whether or not you’re the romantic type. Juliet’s home, a medieval palazzo located in the central Via Cappello, is undoubtedly a valuable historical and architectural landmark.


    During the 1940s, it underwent extensive restorations to reinforce the myth and recreate a more “Renaissance” atmosphere. The famous balcony was reconstructed using pieces of marble dating back to the thirteenth century and the interiors adorned with frescos and furniture from the period.


    According to historical documents, it would appear that two feuding families by the names of Montecchi and Cappelletti did indeed inhabit the town during around that time, fighting over its control, though there is no way to prove that they were indeed the ones who inspired Shakespeare’s romantic heroes.


    Whether or not the famous star-crossed lovers did actually live in Verona, the fact remains that the city has been over the course of the years influenced by the story in multiple ways, and that in of itself is a fascinating aspect of its history.

  • Art & Culture

    The Life of a “Foreign Italian”

    In 2019, Lillian Spiegel walked into New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò with a project in mind. She wanted to organize an exhibition of the works of Leo Yeni, featuring drawings and sketches, mostly made during the artist’s permanence in a Swiss internment camp, as well as paintings, family photographs and official papers. 


    Leo Yeni was born in Italy in 1920 from a Greek father, Isac Yeni, who moved to Italy in 1912 following the eruption of the Italo-Turkish war. There, Isac became an accountant for the Italian Commercial Bank and married the Livornese Pia Della Torre, Leo’s mother. At the time, Italian law dictated that if a woman married a foreigner she would adopt her husband’s citizenship and lose the Italian one and that’s what happened to Pia. 


    So, although they lived in Italy, all members of the Yeni family were effectively foreigners in the country, a fact that didn’t affect their daily life much until Mussolini took power and racial laws were instituted. After losing their rights and means of livelyhood, as foreign Jews, the Yenis were expelled from the country. They were given until March 12, 1939 to leave, but having nowhere to go, they remained, moving to the countryside, where they stayed until 1944. 


    Leo eventually managed to cross over into neutral Switzerland, where his father’s cousin, Isac de Abravanel, could host him. Crossing the border had become extremely dangerous, particularly after the police of the Italian Social Republic issued the arrest warrant against all Jews present on Italian territory in November 1943. It was constantly patrolled by Nazi and Fascist soldiers. Many who tried to cross were either rejected by the Swiss or sold by the guides they had hired. In his diary, Leo describes the preparation and farewells in great detail.


    His parents, who were then 63 and 75 years-old, remained behind and, according to official documents, they were arrested a few weeks later, detained in Milan and then deported to Auschwitz where they were both killed.


    Leo’s journal entries - shown in the exhibition - reveal that his journey to Lugano was tumultuous to say the least, he got lost on the snow-clad mountains shortly after crossing the border, accidentally found himself back on the Italian side and deemed it safer to return home, where he arrived just after his parents had been arrested. 


    Eventually, with the help of a guide, he made it to Lugano, where he was arrested and put into jail until his request for asylum was approved and he was moved to the internment camp of Unterwalden. There, Leo drew and wrote every day, creating a rare record of daily life in the camp through his daily activities, interactions, and through his feelings. 


    After the war ended, Leo found himself alone and with nowhere to go. The chances of obtaining Italian citizenship were remote, as the country was in great turmoil. So he decided to move to America. In 1946, he came to New York where he established himself as a designer and artist. 


    Despite his best efforts, Leo never managed to obtain Italian citizenship, Ms. Spiegel explains. “I knew him for over 20 years,” the minute but energetic retired schoolteacher says, “and I know how much this grieved him.” For this reason, ever since the artist passed away in 2011, she has been working painstackingly to gather documents and contact authorities to grant Leo posthumous Italian citizenship. 


    The documentation she has managed to assemble is impressive. She carries copies of the most important documents with her in a fully stuffed folder and has spoken to countless people across the world, from UN workers to diplomats. 


    “It was the Consulate who told me to come to the Casa,” she tells me. Here, she felt welcomed and says she’s pleased with how the exhibition turned out. “What stood out to you?” she asks me eagerly, making it clear how much she cares about its effectiveness, its impact.


    As the director of Casa Italiana, Stefano Albertini noted, in a way, dedicating a show to Leo here, in the Italian House, is a way of recognizing his belonging to the country. Something, which he and countless other Italian Jews were unjustly denied during their lifetimes. 


    But, far from being done, Lillian is still set on getting Leo his citizenship. In her research, she came across a similar case and found there is indeed a precedent for recognizing posthumous Italian citizenship. And as I look at her sitting inside an office of the Casa Italiana, where she generously agreed to meet me, I know she won’t stop until she gets it.

  • Art & Culture

    Bringing Italian to NYC's Public Schools

    Back in April 2019, Harlem’s Public School 242, also known as the Young Diplomats Magnet Academy, officialized the launch of Manhattan’s very first Italian Dual Language Program, a project initiated by InItaliano, a grassroots initiative that promotes Italian language and culture in various public and private educational settings, conceived by three Italian parents with the aim of filling the lack of resources for Italian speakers within the school system.


    With the support of institutions such as the Italian American Committee on Education (IACE), the Italian Consulate in New York and by collaborating with the Board of Education, Stefania Puxeddu, Benedetta Scardovi, and Francesco Fadda of InItaliano, managed to identify a public school willing to test the program and, after a pilot phase, the first class of Italian dual language students entered kindergarten last September.   


    And that’s what they were celebrating last Thursday in the warm and inviting neighborhood pizzeria Sottocasa, located in Harlem, a few blocks from PS 242. Parents, teachers, Italian entrepreneurs and institutional figures, and even a few children, all came together in the restaurant’s brick-covered back room, to thank each other, share stories, and discuss the way forward, as oven-fresh pizzas flowed through the crowd.


    The first to speak was the Consul General of Italy Francesco Genuardi, who stated that “the program is a great way to spread Italian language through the arts, sports, through the Italian way of life,” and stressed the Consulate’s support and admiration for the work that InItaliano has done to make this happen. To signify this, the entire consular team came along and even brought an official Italian flag.


    As Francesco Fadda explains to us while waiting for the event to start, dual language students are not only taught a second language, they learn every subject in both languages, from history to math, science, and so on. By the end of the cycle, they are perfectly bilingual, a great advantage for their future academic, professional and personal lives, particularly in an increasingly global society.


    Bilingualism is a constant part of the children’s lives, expanding beyond academic courses and into afterschool activities, from art and music classes to sports. For example, with the support of CONI, the Italian Olympic committee, the school is currently working to launch a track and field team and potentially bring the students to participate in the annual Italy Run, which takes place in Central Park in the Spring.



    “At the moment, only 3 children out of 20 are Italian, most of them are American or come from third countries,” Fadda explains, “which is great, it creates a multicultural environment. But we also want to spread the word so that Italians who move to New York are aware of this option.”


    Such a program would allow Italian families living in New York to give their children an American education - which can help them integrate and experience New York life and culture fully and eventually prepare them for American universities - without running the risk of them losing their mother tongue and their connection to Italy. And they can do so without having to pay the exorbitant sums demanded by private international schools (as a public school, PS424 remains free.)


    “Since dual language programs are not widely spread, you don’t need to live in the neighborhood to attend this school,” Fadda tells us. “though priority is still given to those who reside in school district 3.”


    “The program makes a lot of sense here. We want the children to be proud to speak Italian in Harlem,” added the Consul General, “And we are excited for this program to expand to all of New York’s boroughs.”


    He was echoed by Christine Loughlin, the superintendent of the city’s School District 3, who stated that “the Department of Education is committed to this program and is looking forward to partnering and spreading it.”


    Each year, the program grows and a new dual language class enters kindergarten. The idea is to eventually spread to Middle and High school. And InItaliano is confident that they will reach this goal within the next few years. Meanwhile, they are also looking to get more elementary schools to adopt the program as well. At the moment, there is only one other New York school, PS112 in Lefferts Park, Brooklyn, with an Italian Dual Language Program, the city's very first one.


    The Principal of PS 242, Denise Gomez, thanked the institutions for their support and the faculty for “putting on different hats” and working hard to provide the students with effective dual language education. “We’re making it happen as a family, as a community and I invite everyone to come and see for themselves.”


    Afterwards, each guest began to come stand by the Italian flag and share their own stories. Some talked about how speaking different languages shaped who they are, it brought them experiences and opportunities. In some cases, it’s what landed them their jobs or even helped them meet their spouses.


    Those who weren’t brought up with two languages, wish they had been and more importantly recognize the need for bilingual education in today’s society. As the director of the Italian Trade Agency Antonino Laspina justly remarked, “Italy needs more bilingual people.”


    Overall, everyone agreed that being bilingual is an advantage and that sending your kids to a program such as this one, where they will not only learn an additional language but also be immersed in a truly multicultural environment, means investing in their future.

  • Art & Culture

    Countering Declining Readership and Bookstore Closures in Italy

    The Italian Senate passed a new law in an attempt to counter declining readership and its negative effects on the country’s publishing industry. The law consists of several points, all aimed at supporting small bookstores and publishing houses and encouraging Italians to read more. 

    One of these points is the implementation of an annual Italian Book Capital, following the model of the World Book Capital, an initiative launched in 2001 by UNESCO, which recognizes a city that has excelled in the promotion books and reading. 

    To participate in the selection of the Italian Book Capital, cities will have to submit their project proposals to the Council of Ministers. Each year, the winner will receive 500.000 euros in funding for the realization of its project. 

    The “reading law” also consists of a national reading promotion plan: each 3 years, the Ministry of Culture will adopt a national action plan, financed by 4.350.000 euro annually and coordinated by the Center for Books and Reading. 

    Another point consists in the incrementation by 3.250.000 euro of the bookstore tax credit introduced two years ago, which has already helped to support about 1500 bookselling activities. Additionally, discounts on booksales will be capped at 5% as a way of supporting smaller bookselling businesses. There will also be an official register of “Quality Bookstores” recognized by the Ministry of Culture. 

    And to encourage readership, a 100 euro “culture card” will be allocated to economically disadvantaged families to allow them to purchase books. Furthermore, a fund of one million euro will be allocated to the formation of school library personnel. The law will also simplify the process of donating books that no longer qualify for retail due to imperfections, alterations, or damages. 

    An articulated law, which tries to tackle the issue from multiple perspectives in order to counteract a complex cultural phenomenon. Though it is tempting to identify specific factors to blame for why Italians are reading less and less books and why bookstores are going out of business - short attention spans and Amazon are some of the most cited culprits, - the truth is that, as with most cultural trends, the issue is multifacted and must be addressed as such. 

    “The approval of the law is an important step forward,” commented culture minister Dario Franceschini, “it isn’t the last stop, now we all have to work on a law for the publishing industry, which will support the book sector as a whole.”

  • Art & Culture

    Art Bonus Brings More Donations to Italian Culture

    In 2014, among other reforms to pump new life into the Italian cultural landscape, Dario Franceschini (who recently returned to the position of Culture Minister, which he had previously covered from 2014 to 2018) launched Art Bonus, an initiative to encourage private donations in the cultural sector, a practice which remained until then practically nonexistent in Italy. 

    Over 435 million euro donated by 14.237 patrons went into the restoration, protection, and development of the country’s cultural heritage. With an increase of over 25 million euro in the last 6 months. 

    “Art Bonus is working well and in just a few years it has become a model throughout Europe,” commented Franceschini. 

    In fact, the practice of offering benefits in order to encourage privates to donate to art and culture, long widespread in the United States, is just now starting to take off in most of Europe, where public institutions have historically been expected to handle the preservation and promotion of culture on their own.

    Private interference in this sector often gets looked at skeptically and there is a lingering notion that it is somehow immoral. And it can in fact become problematic in the case of cultural institutions accepting donations from questionable sources, an issue which has lately began to emerge with artists and activists coming together to ask museums such as the Guggenheim and the MoMA to "divest from toxic philanthropy," that is to refuse funding from clearly immoral sources (in the case of the Sackler family who is tied to the opiod epidemic or others yet involved in the manifacturing and selling of weapons.)

    However, this type of situation can hardly be said to have been the cause of Italy's reluctance to accept private donations. It can more likely be attributed to habit and to a more general diffidence of collaborations between the public and private sector. 

    But this perspective is starting to shift, partly nudged by the current economic situation. Public institutions are clearly no longer able to adequately support the vast cultural heritage their countries have to offer alone, they need help. And what would make more sense than going to their very own citizens for help to fund what ultimately belongs to them? 

    And this is far from being a new concept too. On the contrary, most of Italy’s artworks and monuments were funded by various wealthy patrons throughout history, just think of the Medici family in Florence or the Gonzaga in Mantova. 

    Thus cultural phlianthropy is apparenlty returning to Italy, though for the moment it remains more widespread in certain regions, with most donations coming from Central and Northern regions, and less so from the South. 

    The greatest sum came from Lombardy, where 3.235 patrons donated 175.073.257€. Piedmont raised 58.092.655€, followed by Veneto (54.243.540€), Emilia Romagna (48.972.314€), and Tuscany (46.501.347€).

    The next group of regions raised significantly less: 13.447.144€ in Lazio (despite it being home to the country’s capital!), 13.186.920€ in Liguria, 5.938.887€ in Friuli Venezia Giulia, 5.389.709€ in Umbria, 3.884.481€ in the Marche, 3.819.220€ in Campania, 2.161.086€ in Puglia, 1.447.665€ in Sardegna, 1.364.893€ in Trentino Alto Adige and then less than a million in Sicily, Calabria, Molise, Basilicata and Valle D’Aosta. 

    For more information visit the Art Bonus website. 

  • Art & Culture

    60 Years of La Dolce Vita

    Now synonymous with the Italian way of life, its iconic scenes forever tied to the global imagination of the Eternal City - it's impossible to visit the Trevi Fountain without immediately recalling Sylvia’s beautifully heartbreaking dance and the countless cinematic representations of the monument it ispired - "La Dolce Vita" turns 60.  

    The very first previews of Fellini’s masterpiece were screened in Rome’s Fiamma Cinema on the night between February 2nd and 3rd, 1960 and then on February 5th in Milan’s Capitol Theatre, where it was met with great hostility. 

    Audiences were shocked, angry even. It quickly earned the reputation of being a dirty, scandalous movie. An anonymous review (attributed to Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, who went on to become President of the Republic) published in the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano called it “La sconcia vita,” the “dirty life.”

    Fellini received countless telegrams and letters calling him a communist, a traitor, an atheist. It’s a harsh, unapologetically brutal film, which doesn’t condemn nor redeem anyone, it doesn’t provide audiences with a moral lesson, not even moral satisfaction. Perhaps that’s why it was met with such indignation and animosity. 

    But despite negative reception, censure requests from the Church, and age restrictions, something about the movie resonated with people: over 13 million people went to see it in the year it came out alone and it remains to this day the sixth most seen film in Italy since 1950. 

    La Dolce Vita won many awards, including the Palme D’Or in Cannes and an Academy Award for its costumes made by Piero Cherardi, and is featured in just about every single list or syllabus about the global history of cinema. 

    Co-written by Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and of course Fellini and his co-screenwriter and long-time collaborator Brunello Rondi, the film follows the daily life of gossip reporter Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), who drifts aimlessly through life and a series of seemingly joyless relationships, including with heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimée) and movie star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg.)

    However, the true star of La Dolce Vita is the Eternal City, where the film was shot between the Spring and Summer of 1959, across its most varied neigborhoods and surroundings. Some backdrops were recreated in the studios of Cinecittà, while other moments were famously filmed on location, including the memorable Trevi Fountain scene.

    In its ironic but violent criticism of society through the depiction of decadent aristocratic behavior and irresponsible media practices among other things, the film is possibly more relevant than ever today, a mirror that disturbingly reveals some of the darkest aspects of contemporary society, hiding behind the glamour of wealth and stardom and the eternal beauty of Rome.

  • Art & Culture

    Italian Museums Open up to Foreign Directors (Again)

    The direction of Italian national museums will once again be open to foreigners. This decision was announced by Dario Franceschini, who resumed his role as the Italian Minister of Culture in September, a position he previously held from 2014 to 2018 before it was taken over by Alberto Bonisoli of the Five Star Movement during the first Conte government, which lasted from June 2018 to September 2019.


    During his time in office, Bonisoli implemented measures limiting the autonomy of Italian museums by removing their independent boards of trustees and tightening government oversight into their spending and loans, causing more than a few problems including the battle with France regarding loans for the Louvre’s big Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit. 


    Last Summer, in typical nationalistic spirit, Bonisoli signed a decree ending the experiment which involved hiring seven foreign museum directors, including Eike Schmidt, who revolutionized Florence's Uffizi Gallery. Though he never officially forbade foreign applicants from applying for the direction of Italian museums, the former minister did state that there was "enough talent at home" and a few contracts were abruptly terminated, causing other international directors to fear for their own positions and in some cases begin looking for jobs elsewhere.

    It was Franceschini who first allowed non-Italian professionals to take the lead of the country’s most renonwed museums (something which only happened in 2014) in an effort to open up and modernize these institutions, to help them reach their full potential. Now that he’s back, he plans to continue on the same track, reversing Bonisoli’s measures. 


    “Autonomy and quality directors are a winning mix for museums and territories,” Tweeted Franceschini, who is also bringing his popular Free Museum Sunday initiative back into full force. 


    The ministry of culture is currently looking to fill 13 directorial and upper managerial positions at national museums: The Galleria Borghese, Vittoriano complex and Palazzo Venzia (now merged), and Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome; Ostia’s Archaeological Park, the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna, the Girolamini Library and Monumental Complex as well as the Palazzo Reale in Naples; Mantova’s Ducal Palace; the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino; Cagliari’s Archaeological Museum; the Museo Nazionale d’Abruzzo in L’Aquila; Matera’s Museo Nazionale; and the Sibari Archaeological Park in Cosenza.


    All of which are of course open to international applicants. However, in some cases, it might take some time to repair the damage done by the last shift in policy. 


    While some such as German art historian Cecilie Hollberg (who has been invited to reprise her position as the Director of Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, the country’s most visited museum after having been fired last Summer) are expected to return to Italy, other valuable experts may have been lost forever. For example, the former director of the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, Peter Assmann, who is now at the head of the Austrian National Museum in Vienna, will not be resuming his role.


    And given the track record and the country’s ongoing political instability, it might be a while before foreign museum directors decide to trust Italian institutions again. 

  • Art & Culture

    A New Technology Museum in a Palermitan Palazzo

    Palermitan architect and entrepreneur Giuseppe Forello, the founder of MEC, defines his new space in the heart of the Sicilian city as “a museum within a restaurant and a restaurant that’s also a museum.”


    Located on the main floor of the Renaissance Palazzo Castrone Santa Ninfa and featuring a breathtaking view of the city’s Cathedral, the MEC museum - whose name stands for “Meet Eat Connect” - is comprised of a permanent collection, an exhibition space, and a gourmet restaurant.


    The collection features a unique selection of objects from Forello’s own private collection consisting of 4000 examples of the earliest devices realized by Apple, including Apple 1, the first computer ever made by the famous technology company founded in Cupertino in 1976. 


    These objects are divided according to eight thematic categories: Seed and Fruit, Innovation, Pirates, Apple Store, Prototypes, Pixar, Temple, and Competition.


    The current exhibition, titled “Steve Jobs 1955-2011 – Why Join the Navy If You Can Be a Pirate?” stems from a collaboration with Italian entrepreneur Marco Boglione (head of the clothing conglomerate BasicNet) and was curated by techonology historian and curator of BasicGallery Cecilia Botta. It traces the history of Apple as told through various objects and mediums. 


    The final room, titled “Temple,” is dedicated to contemporary art and features photographs by Jean Pigozzi and Diana Walker as well as an installation by the Roman artist Edoardo Dionea Cicconi.


    As for the restaurant, the “Eat” part of MEC, it takes the shape of a literary cafe in the morning, which then turns into a fine dining restaurant in the evening, featuring both an original tasting menu and à la carte dining options, all prepared by Chef Carmelo Trentacosti of the gorgeous Villa Igiea Hotel.


    This latest addition to Palermo’s blossoming contemporary art scene opens its doors to the public on January 31st, adding to the already extensive list of reasons to visit this glorious city and the unique island of Sicily.

  • Life & People

    Imma. Headstrong Neapolitan Pizzaiola in NY

    Imma Liguri was born in Naples, in San Giovanni a Teduccio, “not a very nice neighborhood” as she calls it. Though she grew up in the kitchen, helping out at her father’s and her grandparents’ pizzerias since she was a child, landing a job as a woman in the Neapolitan pizza industry was not easy. “There were huge stereotypes against female pizza-makers,” she explains. “There were some out there but they were looked down upon, derided.”


    At the age of 14, Imma started looking for additional jobs to help out her mother after she and her father split up. “I didn’t want to take money from the family, I wanted to bring more in,” she tells us. She worked in pizzerias across the city - wherever she was able to find employment through friends, only working for people she knew - for part of the day and then run back to help out at her grandparents' restaurant. 


    Eventually, she studied hospitality in school and continued working in Neapolitan pizzerias until, one day, a friend reached out to her on social media to tell her a new Italian restaurant would soon be opening in New York and the owner was looking for pizza-makers. “I was skeptical at first. I never dreamed of going abroad,” Imma laughs. 


    The restaurateur in question was Ciro Casella and he was looking to open his second New York restaurant San Matteo Pizza e Cucina in the Upper East Side. They met for a coffee in Salerno. “Every second someone came up to say hello. Ciro knew everyone!”


    After a few back and forths, Ciro ended up offering her a job in New York and she took it. “He hired me without ever having seen me make pizza. He took a big leap of faith with me.”


    And so did she. Imma didn’t know what to expect coming to New York. She was scared. Her mother, Amalia, had recently passed away. “I needed a change and I wanted to do it for her, to prove that I could really make it,” she explains holding back tears. 


    “I still don’t know how I got on that plane,” she says. But she did, and before she knew it, she was in the Big Apple. She arrived in 2014 and started working in the restaurant’s first location, San Matteo Pizza Espresso Bar, and then also at San Matteo Pizza e Cucina, when it opened in 2016. 


    “San Matteo became like a second family to me,” she recounts, “Ciro liked the way I worked.” Having long-since mastered impeccable technique in making true Neapolitan pizza, Imma likes to improvise, to experiment with cuisine as well. She likes to say that you can make anything you want with pizza dough, even desserts.


    “Sometimes, before my shift starts, I’ll bake some dough and fill it with Nutella to make myself and Marika (Ciro’s daughter who also works at the restaurant, ed.) some breakfast. “She gets mad because I make her eat too much. I also make little pizza dough cones and stuffed them with ice cream.”


    Imma also loves to mix cuisines. “My aunt was from the Ukraine and I grew up eating her food, which was usually a fusion of Italian and Ukranian dishes. She transmitted the desire to create something new by bringing together different traditions. And Fausto who works here and is an incredible pizza maker, really, he's from Mexico and is constantly teaching me new things. I love learning about different cultures through food.”


    And every once in a while she gets the chance to indulge in a few improvised experiments in the restaurant: “Sometimes Ciro tells me to 'invent' something fun for a customer and I do.”


    It’s not always easy to explain what she’s doing to American clients but she likes to try. “There was this one customer who always came in and ordered the same thing: a Margherita with sausage,” she remembers. “I went up to him once and managed to convince him to try all our specials. People like to see the chef come out of the kitchen and talk to them, they get excited and it also makes them feel safe.”


    Despite her young age, - the headstrong pizzaiola is only 26 years-old - Imma has taken part in numerous international competitions. Are people still surprised to see a woman pizza maker, we ask.  


    Imma pauses before replying: “In the US, it feels like women can do any job and they don’t get judged for it. In Italy, at least in the South, you’ll find some women who drive trucks for example, but they’re often laughed at, insulted. Here, I don’t really get people who come up and say ‘oh wow, you’re a woman.’ If someone makes that kind of remark, chances are he’s Italian and from the South.”


    She doesn’t let it get to her though. As she puts it, “what are they going to do, send the pizza back when they realize a woman made it?”