Column: A slice of Italy, 4,000 miles away

Lisa-JardineThe renowned Italian composer, Giuseppe Verdi once said, “You may have the universe if I may have Italy,” and I’m inclined to agree with him.

However, the long distance and expensive airfare from here to Verdi’s paradise forced me to find something a little bit closer to home in order to get my Italian fix. What I discovered was a truly magical place tucked away in Tuckahoe, The Westchester Italian Cultural Center—where Italy comes alive for everyone.

When I arrived at the center, I was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful building in which it resides. It looked like a distinguished private club. The 1913 building was the original Tuckahoe Village Hall, housing the library, mayor’s office, police headquarters, the bank and even the jail. Most of these can still be seen inside if you look closely. The Generoso Pope Foundation purchased the building in 2006 and then underwent a multi-million dollar renovation.

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The wine cellar representing wine from all 52 regions in Italy.

The philanthropic organization was founded in 1947 by Generoso Pope, an Italian immigrant who came to America in 1906 at the age of 15 with $10 in his pocket. He went on to own one of the largest sand and gravel companies in the world, responsible for building much of New York City’s skyline.
The Tuckahoe building houses both the foundation and the Italian Cultural Center, a non-profit mostly funded by the foundation.

 
I spent the morning with Patrizia Calce, the program director for the center. She was born and raised in Milano and started with the center when it opened back in 2007.
“I like to think the West­chester Italian Cultural Center is Westchester’s best kept secret. Our mission is to preserve, promote and celebrate the rich heritage of classic and contemporary Italian culture. We want you to feel like you are in Italy when you walk in the doors,” Calce said.

It’s obvious that Calce is very proud of the center and all it has to offer. The building lends itself beautifully to the many diverse cultural activities the center provides. Italians are known for their food and wine. So, of course, the center offers cooking classes for adults and children in their professional teaching kitchen and wine tastings out of their extensive wine cellar representing all 52 regions in Italy. There are musical programs in the theater, lectures in the boardroom, art exhibits in the gallery as well as research and study in the expansive library.

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Director of Programs Patrizia Calce in the Westchester Italian Cultural Center’s library. The library features more than 3,000 volumes in Italian covering all genres. Photos/Lisa Jardine

The place is simply amazing, and the membership fees are extremely affordable. A yearly family membership is only $150.

They open their doors to the community at large—not just their members—hosting culinary and cultural experiences to schools and seniors as well.

“We’ve had schools come and make masks for Carnevale, and, in our culinary workshops we make pasta from scratch and pizza too. The kids love making fresh fettuccine to eat here and then bring home,” Calce said.

The center is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and stays open later when there is an evening program. Looking over their bi-annual printed brochure, I can see how one might spend a lot of time here. There are book presentations on Wednesdays, genealogy classes on Saturday mornings, afternoon films on Tuesdays and Mommy and Me Italian lessons during the week. And those are just the regularly scheduled gatherings.

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The multi-room holiday presepio display. Photo courtesyWestchester Italian Cultural Center

This fall, the center has an art exhibit by Joseph Genova entitled “Visions of Italy,” which runs through Nov. 16. On Nov. 8, there is an evening Verdi concert and reception and, on Nov. 23, they will host a presentation entitled “The Beauty of Raphael.”

All events are open to both members and non-members. Their annual Presepio Napoletano, the event the center is renowned for, begins on Dec. 6 and runs through Jan. 11. This multi-room nativity scene is a reproduction of an 18th century Neapolitan presepio, the Italian word for crèche. The lively exhibit portrays a bustling village located at the base of Mount Vesuvius and is so substantial, it takes many volunteers to set it up over the course of two full days.

The way in which the center acquired the figurines is a true Christmas miracle and was the subject of a New York Times story in December 2011.

“Our center is not just for Italians, as our motto says, ‘we are here for everyone.’ In fact, almost 40 percent of our members aren’t Italian and they are the most active members. People attend our programs and they start out as strangers, but they always find a common ground and they end up as friends,” Calce said.

Next July, the center is doing something they’ve never done before. They are going on an off-site excursion and a pretty fantastic one at that. Professor Joseph N. Spedaliere of Concordia College will personally escort a custom-tailored trip to Italy for 10 days, staying in Bologna, Siena and Rome.

“Professor Spedaliere has a deep knowledge of the culture and people of Italy. You can feel his passion—he’s a walking encyclopedia of Italy,” Calce says.

The trip is open to member and non-member adults and includes hotel, meals and day trips.

Sounds like Verdi would thoroughly approve.

To get more information about the Italian Cultural Center, visit the website at www.wiccny.org, where you can sign up for email notifications.
Upcoming special events:
Visions of Italy Art Exhibit
Now–Nov. 15
Professor Spedaliere’s Lecture on Etymology Nov. 7
An Evening With Verdi Nov. 8
Chef’s Night Holiday Feast Nov. 22
Presepio Napoletano
Dec. 6 through Jan. 11, 2014
Otello Dec.13
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“I’m always on the lookout for a great story, an amazing restaurant,
an unusual day trip or a must-see cultural event in Westchester County.”
To contact Lisa, email
lisa@hometwn.com.
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