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La Dolce Vita University: An Unconventional Guide to Italian Culture from A to Z Paperback – March 13, 2018
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by Phil Hall on WagMag
Giuseppe Verdi once proclaimed, “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.”
Carla Gambescia seconds that emotion in her new book “La Dolce Vita University: An Unconventional Guide to Italian Culture from A to Z” (Travelers’ Tales, Solas House Inc., $19.99, 320 pages).
For Gambescia, her first foray into book authorship caps a lifetime’s cultural and emotional odyssey. “I grew up in a very Italian household in South Philadelphia,” she recalls. “My parents, on the outside, were very American. Privately, they were fervently proud of their roots. My father would tell me stories from Italian history, such as Galileo dropping the ball from Tower of Pisa, and I had Italian lessons.”
Into her adult life, Gambescia embraced her heritage through entrepreneurial and literary pursuits. She founded and ran the restaurant Via Vanti! from 2008 to 2016 at the Mount Kisco Metro-North station and was co-creator of Giro del Gelato, a bicycling tour of Italy that took travelers along routes in search of the country’s celebrated snack. She also wrote an Italian-focused column for a Mount Kisco news service from 2012 to 2013.
But when it came to gathering her love and knowledge of Italy into a book, Gambescia realized she had a hurdle to overcome. “As a writer, I cannot really sustain a narrative,” she acknowledges. “And I wanted this to be reader-friendly. People like to pick up and put down things and not wonder where they left off.”
Thus, Gambescia opted to create a skein of mini essays that highlighted the glory, eccentricities and spirit of all things Italian. As a result, “La Dolce Vita University” spans 165 entries that immerse the reader in a kaleidoscope from the greatness of ancient Rome to the ebb and flow of Italian society today.
The book’s subtitle of an “unconventional guide” is certainly apt, with Gambescia highlighting many uncommon and unexpected aspects of the Italian experience that are missing from most tour books. This includes a celebration of the Italian love of jazz, a consideration of the surplus number of centenarians in Sardinia, praise for the odd-looking cookie brutti ma buoni (translated ugly but good) and a tribute to Rocco, the patron saint of dogs.
Italy’s influence on the world is also detailed, from an overview of the numerous Shakespeare plays set across the country to beloved pop culture exports, including the tune “Volare” and the classic film “Divorce Italian Style.” Given the book’s title, there is, of course, also a nod to the great Federico Fellini and the concept of being Felliniesque.
Even for the most obvious points of historic interest, Gambescia successfully culls the most wonderfully esoteric aspects of each story. She explains the theory of a Kabbalah influence on Michelangelo’s depiction of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, why Italians are famous for using dramatic hand gestures while conversing and offers some long overdue praise for the comically maligned Italian navy. (A Henny Youngman putdown on the fleet ― “Why does the new Italian navy have glass bottom boats? To see the Old Italian Navy” ― is cited as example of the navy’s mythic unseaworthiness.)
Gambescia happily noted that she had a wealth of material to choose from. “A country could feel really good if it had one golden age,” she says. “Italy has had three golden ages ― ancient Rome, the Renaissance and the third golden age that is happening right now. Italians, more than any other people, know how to be in the moment and live. Italy keeps being able to reinvent itself.”
One thing that is missing from Gambescia’s book are photographs of her subjects. Artist Lanie Hart has laced the book with generous helpings of delicate illustrations and the author stated that she preferred this approach, because putting a photographic component to the text was problematic.
“It was originally conceived as an eye candy/brain candy thing,” she says. “But it is expensive to have full color throughout. And I did not want this to be a coffee table book because no one reads coffee table books.”
Hopefully, enough people will be reading “La Dolce Vita” to encourage Gambescia’s publisher to commission a sequel. And her optimism is strong enough to fuel the groundwork for another book.
“I have committed myself to write at least one essay each week,” she says.
For more, visit ladolcevitau.com.
Praise for La Dolce Vita University
The title―La Dolce Vita University―captures the great virtues of this reader-friendly book perfectly: it’s delicious and educational at the same time, which each virtue reinforcing the other. Dulce blended with utile, as the great ancient Roman poet Horace recommended.
This book sustains that combination masterfully. It’s is a complete delight to read, but (as a professor of Renaissance literature for many decades) I’m happy to report that the authors know their stuff. The research is careful and the analysis is intelligent and witty. I learned amazing new things about dozens of topics – Artemisia, Burano, Casanova, Dante, and onward through the alphabet to zanni. La Dolce Vita University also seasons lots of popular myths with just the right number of grains of salt. It’s written in prose as clear, bright, crisp, and lively as a spring morning in the Dolomites. Add to that graceful but also playful prose, the talent of skilled story-tellers, and it’s no wonder that the entries stay so fascinating.
La Dolce Vita University makes me crave a return to Italy, and helps me daydream that I’m already there. Like an ideal platter of antipasti, it’s made of deliciously varied bites you can pick your way through. If you want – or want to give a friend – an appetizer that will rouse up a hunger for the glory and festivity of that wonderful place and its’ no less wonderful culture, this book is perfect.
―Robert N. Watson, PhD
Distinguished Professor of English, Associate Vice-Provost for Educational Innovation, UCLA
Imagine it as a dessert course of dark chocolates, filled with exotic fruits and nuts, packed with her parents' knowledge and love of history and art, her grandmother's epithets, and her own wisdom and wit, Italian, American, global. The chocolates are alphabetically listed, described and presented beautifully, and offered as something to dip into as you wish. You open it, choose the one you think you will like best, then another, and another. Suddenly it’s gone. Because Carla wears her scholarship lightly, you don't feel over full, but what a feast!
―Denise Scott Brown FAIA, Int. FRIBA and Robert Venturi FAIA, Int. FRIBA
Excellent! Bravissima! Delightfully informative, a book to enrich any reader’s life with a greater appreciation of Italian culture―even in everyday experiences here at home, from visiting an art museum to dining in a local Italian restaurant, or from cooking for friends and family to the usage of common expressions and words. Not to mention, it might just inspire you to hop on a plane!
―Commendatore Professor Carlo Sclafani
SUNY Distinguished Professor and Former Chairperson of the Modern Languages Department at Westchester Community College
Carla is the consummate Italian. Mille grazie for sharing your extensive knowledge, insights and fascinating little-known backstories with such affection and humor!
Author, The Tucci Cookbook
An enlightening, entertaining guide to the history behind so much of what we love about Italian cuisine and culture. As a chef and cooking enthusiast I enjoyed the variety of information and perspective on the Italian and Sicilian culture. From antiquity to today, reading this special history written with color and style is a pure joy for the food aficionado and any lover of Italy. You won’t want to miss reading through any part of this book.
―Chef Bert Cutino, CEC, AAC, HOF, WCMC
Co-Founder/COO, The Sardine Factory Restaurant, Cannery Row, Monterey, CA
La Dolce Vita University is an authentic full immersion in Italian culture, history, art, traditions and more. Fun, funny and informative. Brava!
Founder, Food, Stories, Trave1
An obvious love of all things Italian is evident in every essay of this quirky, delicious, and absolutely delightful book. From A to Z topics are peppered with insights, memories, fun factoids and the intrigues of history. Whether you are a seasoned globetrotter or an armchair-traveler, La Dolce Vita University will inspire you to dig deeper into the magic and allure of Italia.
Secretary, Board of Trustees at Katonah Museum of Art
The enthusiasm that Carla brings to her work is unmistakable and contagious. La Dolce Vita University merits many “students” and readers who share a passion for Italy.
―Comm. Stefano Acunto
Hon. Vice Consul, Republic of Italy
I believe that most rewarding travel experiences are those that engage the senses and enrich you emotionally and intellectually. Reading La Dolce Vita University is a great armchair vacation that captures the essence of Italy. This is the one book to read before visiting Italy – or to put you in the mood for your next one.
Founder & Director
Ciclismo Classico and Travel Vision Journeys
From the Author
The mini-essays that follow each treat a topic that I found surprising, intriguing, quirky, fun, or some combination of those qualities. Collectively they begin to express what I find so endlessly captivating about “the Boot.”
Their organization appears as alphabetical. But nothing is ever quite that straightforward when it comes to Italy. Even if you choose to read these mini-essays sequentially you may very well feel as though you’re wandering the mysterious alleys of a medieval town, the hidden viccoli of a larger city or even along the serpentine canals of La Serenissima. Unexpected connections emerge and fresh discoveries await around each corner. Or perhaps you’ll choose to dip in and out of this volume at random. Either way, just relax―you’re in Italia!―and enjoy the passeggiata. It will lead you to new insights and marvelous revelations, as it has, on my own journey, for me.
Readers who are planning to visit a specific Italian city or region may wish to consult the special Traveler's Index at the end.
Italy is a glorious and fascinating mosaic. Consider the following passages just a few of its glittering tesserae.
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entertain and make you want to board the next
plane to “The Boot.”)
As a personal note, my wife and I have been blessed to have the most wonderful foreign exchange students live with us. One of our favorites, an Italian girl, has had her family "adopt" us. We visit them, they visit us, plus we talk all the time. I brought up several of these little stories to them, and they were amazed that I, an American, would know such things! It was really fun!
If you have any interest in Italian life and culture, take a break from the "I bought a villa in Italy" books, and give this one a chance. You will be amazed!
Hopefully she will come out with a sequal.