Learning (and Teaching) How to Become Italian

Lucia Pasqualini (July 14, 2016)
With Michael White, Head Chef and Owner of the Altamarea Group. Musings on how much non-natives with a robust knowledge of the culture and language can help promote the lifestyle, riches, and beauty of Italy all over the world.

I remember vividly the first time I lunched at Marea. I’d heard rave reviews of the restaurant ever since arriving in New York and was curious to try it for myself. A few months after settling in, I found an excuse to go. I can still recall the table where I sat with two dear friends and where we received a special visit from chef and owner Michael White.

At the time I knew nothing about him. Surely I didn’t expect him to pop into the dining room and introduce himself very politely in impeccable Italian.

He had heard that there was a table of Italians, so he came out to greet us. I could not help but ask him where he learned to speak Italian so well. He explained to me that he worked for many years at the renowned restaurant San Domenico in Imola.

Becoming Italian

Michael comes from Wisconsin, where he studied to become a chef. After school, he decided to spend three months in Italy to improve his culinary techniques. Michael immediately fell in love with Italian cuisine and culture and ultimately ended up staying in Italy for 7 years. Under the wing of Gianluigi Morini, the chef at San Domenico, Michael gained a deep understanding of all the secrets behind an Italian dish, starting with a knowledge of Italy’s products and avors, avors that he could taste and breathe in thanks also to his personal interactions while discovering il Bel Paese.

And it also happened that he fell in love with Giovanna. The couple met in Emilia Romagna. However, he speci ed, she is originally from Molise, just like my husband. Molise is a tiny region little known abroad, but Michael was intimately familiar with the best products in the region. He even knew the little pastry shop in my husband’s hometown!

Michael speaks Italian with Giovanna and his daughter Francesca at home. Francesca studied at the Scuola d’Italia. Italian language is part of his life, just like his restaurant Marea, which exudes pure Italian avors and tastes. That day, he proudly showed me how every single piece of decor in the restaurant comes from Italy. The chairs, the lamps, the tablecloths, the cutlery – everything is Made in Italy, even the wood which decorates the walls comes from Italy! In fact, while I entered the restaurant, I was immediately struck by a small detail that only an Italian eye would recognize: Richard Ginori’s plates elegantly set on the tables. The restaurant itself is an ode to the Italian lifestyle.

The importance of language
I was very impressed by Michael and remember my first lunch at Marea fondly. The original Italian dishes were perfectly executed by a chef who places importance on using excellent and authentic products and knows how to combine the avors in true Italian fashion. After that lunch, I chose to celebrate my husband’s birthday at Marea. By night Marea has a unique atmosphere.

I like the way the maître d’ and the waiters welcome guests at the entrance and very elegantly guide them to the table. I have always felt a certain kind of magic, a special music emanating from the ambience.

Over the years Marea became the restaurant closest to my heart and Michael a person who inspired me a lot. I consider him one of the ambassadors of Italian gastronomy in New York. He is the one who made me aware just how much knowing the language can be the vehicle to a deep understanding of the secrets of Italian creativity, and I am convinced that Michael’s talent became more rounded and re ned thanks to his knowledge of the language. This conviction grew within me and it is now a theory that I have been trying to spread in my new position as head of the promotion of Italian language abroad for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Magic atmosphere

A few weeks ago I went back to New York for the rst time since returning to Italy almost two years ago. I came back to visit old friends and old haunts, Marea among them. I wrote to Michael a couple of months in advance to reserve a table and inform him that I was returning and would love to say hello to him.

My first  day in New York I happened to be passing in front of Marea and decided to enter to make sure that everything was ne with my reservation. I was still in the doorway when the maître d’ recognized me and welcomed me with a great smile, kindly pointing out that I was few days early for my dinner! I had met the maître d’ only a few times before leaving New York, yet he recognized me right away. It felt as if I had never left New York, and I was very happy to be back.

On the evening of my dinner, I was the rst to arrive at the restaurant. There was a different maître d’. This time I told him my name and he immediately welcomed me as if he knew everything about my dinner party, that I was visiting again and how much I loved Marea. I asked if Michael was at the restaurant. He said that he was not sure if he was in New York. I asked him if he could check, and he did. When he came back he told me that I was right: Michael was in the kitchen!

The waiter escorted me to the table and, as I entered the main dining room, I felt the same magic I had felt every previous visit. A short while later Michael came to my table. We hugged each other right in the middle of the room and exchanged a few words in Italian. Then he came back to the table later, when all the guests had arrived, to introduce himself in Italian, just like he did the rst time we met, with the same grace and modesty. Michael was in the kitchen the entire night and prepared a unique menu for my friends. That night I was overjoyed to have spent a very special evening with some of my dearest friends and delighted to be in the great hands of an exceptional chef and friend.

The Ambassadors we need

I would love to meet other Michael Whites of the world, authentic ambassadors of Italy’s cuisine and lifestyle. I know many more exist and I feel extremely proud whenever. I meet people from around the world who love Italy so much. Michael’s example opened my eyes to how much non-natives with a robust knowledge of the culture and language can help promote the lifestyle, riches, and beauty of Italy all over the world. Grazie Michael! 

* Head of the promotion of Italian language abroad for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Michael White is Chef &
 Owner of AltaMarea Group