La Dolce Vita, 101

Gabriella Ganugi fuses Italian history, architecture and culture into an educational experience.

TAMPA, Fla. (May 22, 2012) - Gabriella Ganugi has two great loves: education and Italian cuisine. Luckily, she does not need to choose between them, and neither do University of South Florida students who study with her in Florence, USF’s most popular study abroad program.

Educator and chef Gabriella Ganugi with husband David Weiss on a May visit to USF, during which she was presented with the President’s Global Leadership Award.

Ganugi is founder of Palazzi Florence Association for International Education and holds a degree in architecture. In the world of food lovers, she is also known as a prolific author of books on the artistry of Italian cuisine with more than a dozen titles to her name. Ganugi was recently honored at commencement as a recipient of the President’s Global Leadership Award for her contributions to international education and to USF’s study abroad programs.

USF News Manager Vickie Chachere caught up with Ganugi – who splits her time between homes in Florence and New York with husband David Weiss, for a few questions about the dolce vita she has created for herself and hopes to inspire in USF students. This summer, 105 USF students are studying there accompanied by four USF faculty.

But first a few important details: Her favorite food is cheese in general and blue cheeses specifically. Ever the internationalist, she pairs the sharp cheeses with Sauternes, a French sweet wine. And yes, the boucle suit the shade of a peach hibiscus that she is wearing on her whirlwind visit to Tampa is Chanel. When it comes to enjoying classic American cuisine, Ganugi says her favorites include southern corn bread, fruit pies and the cuisine of New Orleans, but nothing quite compare to the rich cultural history wrapped up in Italian cuisine.

Q: What do you teach American students about the intersection of food and art and thought and culture and history, for Italy it’s all the same?

A:  We have two different types of classes. Classes for professionals, for students who want to become chefs and work in the industry. Those classes are more technical than the others. The others are classes that introduce students to our culture, food, fashion, habits – even meal times, how families eat.

What do we teach them? All the basics. The way we grow up is we see our families cooking all the time. There are several things we take for granted. I remember the very first class I taught to American students and taught students how to sauté an onion.  And this student took the onion and put it in the middle of the skillet, and she thought it was ok.  An Italian person, if you tell anyone – even a child – clean an artichoke, they know how to do it. It is a completely different approach to produce a cuisine. We have to train them on appreciating food. In general, this culture doesn’t show children and young people how to appreciate food; families don’t cook anymore. So when they get to Italy and they have never been abroad, so what we try to do with them is to integrate them into the culture. There are students who think Fettuccine Alfredo is an Italian recipe, it is not. Cesar salad, think it’s Italian? It’s not. We try to teach them the true Italian food.

Q: You can learn the history of Italy in its food, in wine and olive groves that are a thousand years old.  Is that is where you start?

A: It is connected to our history. (Famed Italian architect) Bernardo Buontalenti created for the Medici family all these meals and tables for festivities – not just the recipes but the architecture of food. There were dishes which had birds flying out and there were ice sculptures, like today. Every place has local produce, farmers and it’s kind of funny when we hear about sustainable food and specific supermarkets like Whole Foods for sustainable foods. For us, we eat only seasonally. We go to the market every day and we buy what’s available. Everything is celebrated by food in Italy. The whole country is a food and wine celebration.

Q: Are students shocked when the go to Italy and realize how everything is made from scratch?

A: For most of them, it is the first time they live by themselves, they are used to dorms. Its double-shock: the culture and they have to take care of themselves. Some people come to Italy with stereotypes. … They are surprised by everything.

Q: This is serious academics, this is not come to Italy for a semester or a spring break and eat and drink?

A: The whole program is very serious. Studying abroad is not just sitting in a class; it is appreciating the culture and integrates with the community. If you don’t do that, you don’t really make the most of your experience.

Q: As an educator, that must be the golden moment for you when you see them opening up their minds?

A: This is my mission in life. When you see students arriving from abroad and they are completely lost in the beginning. The culture is overwhelming and then you show them, you teach them. When I say teaching, I don’t just mean classroom teaching. The experience is the whole thing – teaching them how to eat, how to buy things, how to drink, how to appreciate good quality of wine without getting drunk. Then at the end of the semester you send them home and they are a completely different person. We changed their lives and I love it.