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.