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Looking for the real Italy in Minnesota? The Italian Cultural Center can help

Luciana Consonni Pellizzer didn't think she--or her Italian culture--could survive the cold of Minneapolis. That's why the Italian-speaking Swiss native wasn't happy when she and her husband, Giuseppe Pellizzer, unexpectedly had to move to the Twin Cities in 1991 for his post-doctoral research. "If it had been our choice, we would never, never have been in Minneapolis," she said.

While the couple planned to stay only the three years Giuseppe's project required before returning to Europe, they've now lived here for more than 20 years and don't intend to leave. The Italian-inspired life they've created here with friends, and via the Minneapolis-based Italian Cultural Center (ICC), has proven more hospitable than the elements.

Italian culture does create warmth, says Anna Chernakova, who with Massimo Bonavita and several others in 2006 created the non-profit ICC, which offers Italian language and other educational programs, and Italy-related cultural events.  "It evokes emotional response in us right away," she says. "It speaks a lot of the human heart."

A Mythic Nation

A Bulgarian native who's long appreciated Italy; Chernakova notes that for a small piece of land, Italy has a remarkably high concentration of geniuses in art and science. Inspired by a few millennia of beauty, style, and passion, many Americans have a mythic view of Italians, which encouraged Bonavita and Chernakova to make the culture more widely known and appreciated in the Twin Cities.

"I got to know a few students of Italian and started realizing the myth about Italy and I thought this myth has to be used for something good," Chernakova said. "We'll use the myth to be the magnet to bring people together in one place."

Beyond the Olive Garden

The ICC draws Italian-Americans, such as Karen Sauro, who want to learn more about the culture and connect with their roots. Sauro, a landscape designer from Woodbury, spoke an Italian dialect growing up with her grandparents in St. Paul. "The ICC wants to bring Italian-Americans and lovers of things Italian together to represent the true [Italian culture], going beyond what people just see as a snapshot of the Sopranos or the Olive Garden," she says. "There's certainly much more to Italian culture than you might see just driving by."

Consonni Pellizzer is also concerned about keeping her Italian roots alive. Unlike previous generations of Italian immigrants, who left some of their culture behind in order to assimilate, today's immigrants are successful professionals who want to preserve their language and heritage, Chernakova says.

Discovering the modern Italy is a goal for the ICC's 60 adult and 36 child students--an important goal, according to Consonni Pellizzer. "Some of the students who come here also say that what they like is that it's not only that they learn how to pronounce or construct [the language]," she says, "but it's also about learning what Italy is now and how it became like that--the modern part."

The Center's seven university-trained teachers are from Italy and bring their own diverse heritages into the classroom, giving students a glimpse of life in some of the small towns and villages that make up the country's "cultural universe," Chernakova said.

A Passion for the Contemporary

Chernakova and Bonavita themselves met and fell in love in a small Italian town near Bologna, where Chernakova, who had been living in America for a number of years, was visiting a friend. Asked to escort Chernakova, who spoke no Italian, around the city for two days, Bonavita ended up returning to the United States with her.

Their desire to show Twin Cities residents the real Italy has led them to select films by modern Italian directors for the ICC's third-annual free film festival, held in collaboration with the Italian Film Festival USA and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD). The festival will run March 25-27 at MCAD.

Many people are familiar with classic Italian cinema, Bonavita says, "but we saw the contemporary directors that are not so well known in the USA. They describe the Italy of right now--for example, the problems of the Mafia in the south of Italy and immigration."

Filmgoers also can take in the ICC's monthly Italian film showings, held in conjunction with MCAD and the Istituto Italiano di Cultura of Chicago. This year's films, says Bonavita, are dedicated to the story of Italy in recognition of the 150-year anniversary of the country's unification.

Among the ICC's offerings besides film are talks by well-known visiting Italian architects and a range of classes, all in partnership with other organizations. Last year it cooperated with the Italian Consulate of Chicago and the University of Minnesota's School of Architecture to present an exhibit of photographs of the work of renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. And in February it sponsored one of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts' Third Thursday open houses, celebrating the opening of a major traveling show of works by 16th- and 17th-century Venetian masters. (Several ICCers showed up in Venetian Carnival costumes and masks.)

"We are a small organization and we see ourselves as a catalyst for interesting Italian-themed events to take place here," Chernakova said. "We have small resources but together with other partners we can do a lot."

Looking Ahead

The ICC also partners with the Minnesota Opera and plans to offer Italian cooking classes. According to Sauro, Americans are primed for learning more about Italian cooking. "I think in really subtle everyday ways--through food mostly--the Italians have worked their way into the hearts of many," she says. "They continue to do so through the arts...but also soccer!"

While promoting Italian culture among Minnesotans, the ICC seeks also to encourage an exchange with Italy, Chernakova says. "I never thought it should be a one-way street," she explains. "When you are in Italy you realize that Italians are actually fascinated with America, especially with the energy, the optimism that you feel in America. I could imagine translating some of the optimism to them."

Consonni Pellizzer is optimistic about the ICC's efforts to bring Italian culture to Minnesotans, and about bringing elements of Italian and European design here through her company, Vestiges, which offers a line of collectible kitchen towels. (Bonavita and Chernakova are entrepreneurs as well, introducing Minnesotans to the somewhat under-the-radar tradition of fine Italian chocolate through their Bonavita Chocolates.)

American design sometimes puzzles Consonni Pellizer, however. She contrasts the elegance of skyscrapers with bulky, seemingly inefficient American appliances and furniture.  "All the science and knowledge are put into some things and forgotten about in those little things," she says. "I think they should keep going at the same pace. But maybe that's also America's charm."

In turn, more and more Minnesotans appear to be charmed by the warmth, style, and beauty of Italy, which the ICC continues to offer in a variety of forms and venues.

Susan Klemond's last piece for The Line was a look behind the scenes at the Holidazzle parade, in our December 2010 issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

From left, Bonavita, Chernakova, and ICC children's program director Nassim Rossi at the MIA celebration of Venetian Renaissance art.

Bonavita and Chernakova: "We use the myth of Italy to bring people together."

Bonavita and Chernakova contemplate a Paolo Veronese.

Luciana Consonni Pellizer, in green hat, chats with Italophiles at the MIA.

All photos by Bill Kelley

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