Tapestry Suppers: Italian Summer Lunch Benefiting Mercy Corps

Our Italian hosts, from left: Valentina Cogoni (Sardinia), Enza Sebastiani (Rome) and Rita Corona (Naples).

Our next event is a collaboration among three women from different parts of Italy whose life paths brought them to the Bay Area. Their stories speak of grit and determination in building a life for themselves in a new country and culture, even when things don’t turn out as planned. This lunch takes place in Palo Alto, on Sunday, June 25 with proceeds benefiting Mercy Corps. Join us by purchasing a ticket on Eventbrite.


Where did you grow up? Please describe what your hometown was like.

Valentina Cogoni (VC):

I grew up in Sardinia.  My family lived on a farm that was approximately a mile away from civilization in the south west region of the island.  The town was nice and unpretentious.  Life was simple.

Enza Sebastiani (ES):

I grew up in Rome, in the Monteverde Nuovo neighborhood, near Gianicolo, known as one of the most beautiful Roman vista points, and Villa Doria Pamphili, the largest park in Rome, which is rich in natural beauty, 17th-century architecture, art, and history. That park was my sanctuary and still is. I love running, hiking or biking through the park early in the day, when the morning light emerges through the pine forest to illuminate the park’s 17th-century statues and fountains.  It is also the perfect spot for picnics and reading my favorite books. Rome is a multi-cultural city of languages, food, music, art, architecture. “La dolce vita” came to life in the fresh waters of Fontana di Trevi, spreading throughout the many Nasoni, public fountains where you’ll be able to drink the freshest water in Europe. I feel blessed to call Rome my home of birth for this and many other reasons, especially for its FOOD!

Rita Corona (RC):

My hometown is the small district of Portici, 6 km (~3.5 miles) south of Naples. Portici was the most densely-populated community in Europe, the second-highest in the world after Shanghai. At least, that was the case when I left.  Portici is a very tight community and I used to know a lot of people there. I grew up in a large family, with five siblings, there was never a dull moment in my family life.  I used to have many friends there at the time.

Valentina with the child she was caring for at the time, and the reason that brought her to the US.

What were the circumstances that brought you here?

VC: I used to babysit a child with Cystic Fibrosis.  My boss was a summer professor at Stanford and asked me to travel with them to Stanford one summer to help care for the child. I was 22 years old then.

RC: I met my ex-husband while working at an American Navy Base in Naples. I was lucky to have that job since the unemployment rate was high then, but even higher now. My ex was a security guard who would often check my I.D. at the gate. We started talking, and soon after, we got engaged and decided to move to California because he wished to be closer to his daughter from a previous marriage who was six at the time. So I decided to come, thinking it would only be a temporary move and that we would return to Italy eventually. I was 26 when I came to America. I moved to Monterey and lived there for 10 years before moving to the Bay Area where I’ve lived for the last 20 years.

ES: I moved here in 1991 and I was scared to death when I boarded my first flight to Los Angeles on an Alitalia Boeing 747.  I never flew before that 15th of December, always travelling by train, bus or car. In Rome, I worked for a multinational corporation producing black boxes and inertial navigation systems after graduation. It paid the bills, but the dream of making movies never vanished and so I left for Los Angeles to study filmmaking and theatre. I was accepted at UCLA’s “English for Professional Business Communications” program, the only program that would take immigrants.  Film and theater schools at both UCLA and San Francisco State accepted only 34 students a semester, so I took courses in improvisational theater, film editing and film history on the side.  I wanted to make a living as an independent filmmaker. As I didn’t win any scholarships, and I was too “fresh off the boat” to receive any grants or loans, I have always worked incredibly hard to support myself while studying.

California is very expensive, particularly Los Angeles. It didn’t take long to understand that, as a foreign student, I couldn’t afford rising tuition fees so I started to explore other markets. Eventually I headed north and fell in love with San Francisco, where I continued my studies at City College of San Francisco, Film School and UC Berkeley.

Pictures of Enza (the youngest) with her parents and siblings (left), and with her elder sisters Anna and Rossella (right). These pictures were taken in Terracina, on the Tirrenian coast, near Gaeta, south of Rome.

How did it feel to leave your home country and what were your hopes for life in America?

ES: I arrived in Los Angeles very unprepared from a cultural standpoint. While books might give you lots of theory about a culture, living in that culture is the real deal, the moment of truth. I had only one reference point, a boyfriend I met in Rome years before.  In my new life overseas, we were an item for less than two weeks. We were both very young and I was going around speaking with a thick accent, a cross between Italian and British.  The culture shock going from Rome to America was huge. I arrived during the Rodney King race riots in LA.  I remember thinking, “If I get a bullet, no one will know me”.

Job hunting consisted of reading the classifieds section of the L.A. Times and other newspapers, dialling number after number from street payphones. No iPhones, computers, internet or job search engines back then. I eventually found my first job as an assistant nurse in a clinic called “The Hidden Garden”, in Beverly Hills. This is where famous Hollywood people went to recuperate after plastic surgery. I was paid $3.25 an hour as I was a student with an F1 visa and the owner had to “pay taxes” for me.  I had the night shift and would prep dinner for the patients, making sure they had enough fluids in their diet to aid recovery. They loved my cannelloni ricotta and spinach, my salads and the “Macedonia” (fresh berries and fruit salad).

VC: The plan was to be in the Bay Area only for the summer.  Then, my boss signed up to take a West Coast Swing dance class and there I met my ex-husband.  Three months after returning to Italy he came to my parent’s home and asked me to marry him. Once married we lived in a 1-bedroom flat in Palo Alto.  As we had very little money I didn’t care for fashion or entertainment.  I loved music and was able to buy myself a Walkman that saved my life – it allowed me to listen to Italian songs which were hard to find in the US. At that time the airlines had little restrictions so I was able to bring to this country all the little foods that reminded me of home.

RC: I left Italy with a fiancé visa; my ex-husband’s mother was also stationed in Naples as a Navy personnel. Our families met and the move to America seemed to be a good idea at the time. Before leaving, I had mixed feelings of sadness and excitement. I had high hopes for a better life in U.S., better incomes, travelling and visiting the country, discovering a new world and new cultures. However, I was sad to leave my family and to move so far away from them. I missed the food, language and culture of my birth.

What were the first few years of American life like? Was it easy to adjust to American living – in terms of diet, language, fashion, music, entertainment, etc?

RC: When I arrived in 1987, it felt as if I landed in a food desert. Nothing tasted good at the beginning. Chinese food was the closest cuisine to my liking. I literally was in culture shock. I couldn’t believe how people could lunch at a 7-Eleven, for example, or at best, at a fast food restaurant, and call it lunch or dinner. Fast food tastes so bad to me. I can never feel satisfied with mainstream American food. When Thanksgiving came around, I couldn’t understand why people would get so excited eating turkey.

Local fashion and style trends were another thorn in my side. It was frustrating to be always asked if I was going somewhere nice when I dressed my “normal” way regardless of the day’s schedule. I eventually gave in after years of living here, to start wearing flip flops and jeans everywhere, which is unfortunate. However, I feel like I don’t fit in with everybody if I dress like an Italian or even a European. As for as music and entertainment, I started enjoying live music becoming very familiar with Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, and live performances. I still enjoy it very much.

VC: The first years were hard and exciting at the same time.  I was learning to be a wife while studying intensively to learn English and working three jobs to learn about American culture. I was a babysitter for three children, I was a hostess in an Italian restaurant in downtown Palo Alto and assisted an Italian professor teaching at the Palo Alto adult school.  My husband was in the MBA program at Stanford and we needed all the help we could get.

ES: I studied English for five years, but in Italy they teach you British English so I had to learn American English once I got here.  It was tough without the support of family and friends, and I split up with my boyfriend on Christmas Eve.  It felt like I didn’t belong, and that my only asset was that I was young and good-looking. As I was working and studying full-time, I didn’t have a lot of time to socialize.

Regarding the food, it was difficult in the beginning and I couldn’t eat Italian except at home.  Thanksgiving dinners and BBQ’s were great, but there wasn’t the quality and variety of eating establishments like we have now. So, I was eating at home mostly.  It wasn’t easy making friends, because they didn’t know who I was, and because Los Angeles is a very transitory city.  I could only make friends with other immigrants, mostly from Italy.

What were your first impressions of America upon arrival?

VC: I thought I landed in heaven.  It was so clean, plentiful, organized and spacious.  I could bike everywhere and use the pool at Stanford.  People were so friendly.

RC: I was lucky enough to land in Monterey and lived there for 10 years before moving to the Bay Area. Even though Monterey Peninsula is a stunning place, I always felt that it lacked a sense of community and culture, the type of culture I was accustomed to in Italy. Perhaps this is due to the fact that if one is born and raised in the same town it is easier to connect to others. Looking back and comparing Monterey to the Bay Area, I see the lack of community is even greater here in the Bay Area where the distances are greater. In general, I still find that everything needs to be planned way ahead of time here in U.S., and that there is a lack of spontaneity in social life and lack of community.

ES: The day I arrived, as I got off the plane at LAX, I thought they were shooting a movie.  There were cops taking a black guy in handcuffs, and it was very brutal.  I was looking around for cameras, and then someone told me it was real, not a movie.

I was really happy with the spaciousness that California had to offer, because Rome is a densely-populated city environment and living spaces are super tight. The natural beauty of Los Angeles was amazing, Malibu, Topanga Canyon, Santa Monica.  No wonder they call it the “city of angels”.  I was blown away by the old Getty museum, the outstanding Roman villa.  LA was so big.  I loved the architecture of the Griffith Observatory, and movie sets.  Disneyland.  The Chinese Theater, the endless beaches. California is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

In Rome, we have the Coliseum and Forums. In California you have gorgeous natural parks and the constantly innovative high tech industry.

Since then, has life here supported or erased those impressions?

ES: My initial opinion didn’t change. Too much violence, racism and too many guns. But the natural beauty is still stunning. California is ahead of the rest of the world in both science, technology and going into the future.

VC: I have fond memories of this country and I am very thankful for the opportunity and trust I’ve been given.  I have worked hard and conducted myself with honor and respect.  The Bay Area is changing in front of our eyes and I no longer feel the connection I once had.  The cultural and financial shifts has disarmed me and I don’t feel it is a healthy place to live.  Undeniably, I do feel lost in a sea of people I have little in common with.

RC: I have learned to accept the reality and the culture of the place I live and as a way of life. If one really pays attention, one can find interesting and beautiful things everywhere in the world.

Is there anything that you miss from your home country?

ES: I miss the social life and getting together with family members and friends on the spur of the moment without relying on schedules and a rigid time management structure. Today we can eat really wonderful meals in California, especially in San Francisco.  People put care into their food.  But I miss having the time to enjoy it.  Your life is sucked into work here. It’s tough to find the balance between personal life and work.

VC: The loyalty of my family and friends, the social etiquette, those looks that speak a thousand words without a single utterance.

RC: I still miss my family, food, fashion, and the spontaneity in human relations.

Will you be cooking any family recipes for the event?

VC: Anne (our venue host and Tapestry Suppers board member) chose the menu for us.  She is a phenomenal cook and a food connoisseur.  I love the menu because it is simple, basic and nutritious.  I grew up eating pasta e fagioli (fresh borlotti beans and pasta).  It definitely has its origins in the Italian countryside tradition similar to what I grew up with.  Frittata is also a very common dish where I come from.  It is easy, colorful, rich and comforting.

ES: Pomodori ripieni con riso (stuffed tomatoes with rice) brings a smile to my mind, because I can see my Mom and Grandma in the rustic kitchen in Tuscany making that dish.  It was refreshing because it was tomatoes from our backyard, lots of fresh basil, Roman mentuccia (mint), rice, and extra-virgin olive oil.  Everything was organic with fresh ingredients from our land.

The other dish is Broccoli Romana, lightly baked with extra virgin olive oil that my father adored in the summer.  It can be served warm or cold with a fresh lemon vinaigrette.

And the stuffed zucchini (Zucchini Ripieni).  When my Mom asks “what do you want to eat when you come home in August?”  she know this dish is at the top of the list. (Hers is better than mine.)

RC: I will be making Insalata di Polpo (Octopus Salad), which is representative of the typical diet in Southern Italy. It is based on fresh fish and seafood with plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits.

Are there any other anecdotes about your immigrant experience in America that you would like to share? 

ES: I started working as a waitress after quitting my job as an assistant nurse in LA, working at my friend Luigi’s restaurant on West Pico Blvd.  Shortly after, the Rodney King race riots began.  The restaurant had bullet holes, there were no cars on the street, and Luigi wanted to keep the restaurant open.  Then a huge rock smashed the front window, and all the glass flew inside near the pizza oven.  Luigi grabbed the cash register, dumped it into a trash bag, and we ran out to his car to get away.  We left so fast that we didn’t even bother locking up the restaurant.  It was terrifying. After those riots, I was seriously thinking of going back- I didn’t think I could live in such a violent society.  But I was too young, too proud, and too stupid to give up and go back.  I am glad I didn’t, but I do miss Rome. I wish I could split my year between the Bay Area and Rome.

VC: Come to America when you are young, come when you are full of drive, dreams and energy.  Never forget where you come from and trust your heart.  At the end there is nothing like home.

  • To attend this lunch on Sunday the 25th, head over to Eventbrite to purchase tickets and register.
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