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  • Never Been Home
    One author teaches readers about Italian history, culture, and cuisine without ever visiting Italy
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    People fall in love with Italy without ever even visiting. Just ask Janice Therese Mancuso, an Italian American who is yet to visit the Motherland but who writes about its people and its history with deep admiration and even longing in the self-published novel Con Amore (2006). Living in North Carolina and raised in Long Island, she has never traveled to Italy herself, but her father came to the United States when he was 8 from Trapani in Sicily and her mother's father came from the Naples area. Mancuso's novel, though set in Long Island, features characters that are Italian chefs (from Italy) and their recipes. Readers, as a result, get the chance to see the perception a hyphenated Italian has of Italy's culture, history, food, and most of all people.

    In the book, the protagonist Janine, who Mancuso admits shares many qualities with her, is a professional chef who creates recipes for an olive oil company headquartered in Puglia in Italy. Like the author, Janine never has been to Italy but Italian food is her specialty - and she's been invited to a conference for professional chefs about the history of Italy and Italian food in America.

    Her past comes back to haunt her at the conference when her ex-boyfriend James, known among his fellow Italians as Giacomo, turns out to be the owner of the olive oil company that hired her and is at the conference trying to win her back. On top of that, James' uncle, the great Chef Buonappi, decided to host the conference in the first place because he will choose his protégé among the invited chefs, so he can retire from the business.

    When the characters emerge from behind the stoves, the novel becomes filled with romance, intrigue, suspense, and even a bit of mystery. There's Stefano, the arrogant Italian bachelor who wants his way with Janine; Alicia, the vegetarian chef who gets on everyone's nerves; Marco, the sexy Italian who steals some of Janine's attention; Tovina, the sweet pregnant chef; Antonio, the easy-going immigrant, and Donatella, an Italian professor who is stern but fair.

    Still, the novel's driving force is to educate people about Italy's history and cuisine through the guise of entertainment. A large chunk of the novel is devoted to the daily history lessons that Donatella shares with the chefs before they are broken up into groups and sent off to create recipes. Unlike most novels, this one comes replete with souvenirs - recipes, lots and lots of recipes. From manicotti torta (which is a family favorite, says Mancuso) to chocolate pasta cake, the recipes will have your mouth watering.

    For someone who has never seen Italy firsthand, the author certainly is drawn to all its parts and writes about it as if she has witnessed its beauty. Alberobello, a Pugliese town famous for its trulli or cone-shaped roofs, takes center stage in Con Amore because the author became fascinated with the region when conducting research for the novel.

    Mancuso admits to taking many virtual tours of the land of her ancestors, and even writes the same of the novel's protagonist Janine. Her aim was to use Janine and the other characters as a vehicle, to promote the Italian culture. "I've always been proud to be Italian," says Mancuso. "I remember when I was a little girl, I thought everybody should be Italian, everybody wanted to be Italian."

    Her assessment of Italians comes shining through in her passages. She knows them intimately even if she hasn't stepped foot on Italian soil. Early in the novel, James is luring Janine out of one of the conference's opening events, and she's concerned with how their relationship will look to the others. She asks James what he thinks, and he responds, "Well, almost everyone here is Italian. What do you think they're thinking?" Clearly, James is alluding to the sexual, flirtatious nature of Italians - and the idea that life is like one big theater for Italians. These are the people who go to the piazza everyday to see and be seen. Mancuso knows this - and now her readers do, too.

    Indeed, Mancuso has the reader draw conclusions and tie ideas of love and food together throughout the book. The title Con Amore, which means With Love, is the name of Janine's restaurant in the book but also is meant to show that food is love in Italian culture. "Italians do everything with passion - art, music, everything in culture," says Mancuso. "So much has come out of Italy. I think [Italians] put a little extra into everything they do."

    She's not just impressed with the ingenuity or emotion of Italians. Mancuso is attracted to Italy's people, and she lets readers know it through Janine, who is clearly drawn to Italian men. Although Mancuso says she has always found Italian men to be a bit too traditional and the culture a bit too patriarchal when it came to dating, she could relate to the character's piqued interest and therefore wrote it into the story. "Italian men are gorgeous," says Mancuso. "I go to a food show in New York every year, and we spend most of our time at the Italian booth, not only for the food. You look at the people, and the women and the men are beautiful."

    Make no mistake, however, Con Amore is no romance novel. In fact, Mancuso gleefully recounts how an 80-year-old reader of the book, who thought the history lessons were a bit much, told her that the book was "intelligently written and the love scenes were classy." Of course, the love story wasn't the purpose of the book. It was a side note. The real goal was to educate people about Italy. "I'm amazed and fascinated at all the wonderful contributions Italians have made and why nobody is blowing the horn for Italians," says Mancuso. "So, I figure I'm going to start tooting the horn."

    Besides teaching Italian cooking classes, Mancuso is planning to write a prequel and sequel to this novel. She's also working on a project for Italian History Month in October, for which she will be taking votes on the 31 most notable Italians via a soon-to-be-up and running Web site. For more information on her work, visit www.jtmancuso.com. Her other mission: To find a way to Italy, so she can write with even more zest about the people she obviously loves. "I'm working on it," she says. Her readers surely hope she gets there because that means she'll bring them along in her next novel.

    For more information on Di Meglio, visit www.francescadimeglio.com.

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