Like Juliet, I fell madly in love in Verona, Italy. My romance was not with a strapping young Romeo in tights, but with a local family and the fresh pasta they’ve been making since 1962.
Nearly 50 years ago, Giovanni Rana, patriarch of this big, Italian family that invited me to join them in Verona, began selling fresh stuffed tortellini to post-war housewives. Having tasted the freedom of a career, these liberated women were more than happy to snatch up the homemade products Giovanni peddled door-to-door from a basket attached to the bright red used Moto Guzzi bike he bought for a whopping $10.
As far as his customer’s families (and even disapproving mother-in-laws) could tell, Giovanni’s pasta was every bit as fresh and delicious as the pasta they’d previously spent long afternoons mixing, rolling and stuffing.
Before long, Giovanni couldn’t keep up with the demand. He had to hire helpers to join him on his long table covered in flour.
By the time Giovanni invited me to visit his Verona home and the factory he erected one building at a time around it (it literally surrounds his original homestead), his stuffed tortellini has been joined by 200 other products and spread to 38 countries. And that long floured table now has 2500 employees.
About the only thing that hasn’t changed is Giovanni’s commitment to making the world’s freshest and best pasta. He still shows up every day to sample and give his nod (along with full-time taste testers) to the fresh ingredients that go into his products. Even the chickens who lay the eggs for the pasta dough are provided with a special nutritious feed. Not just any old eggs will do.
And while many big companies have begged to buy Giovanni out over the years, he simply can’t trust his products and indeed his Rana family to a corporate entity.
“I don’t make pasta so I can rake in the most money I can. I do it because I want people to love the pasta that I love. To me, my customers are all family,” he explained through a translator.
In Italy where food is practically a religion, Giovanni, thanks to clever TV ads, is a bona fide celebrity, second in name recognition, he jokes, only to the pope.
And this year, Giovanni is inviting 150 Americans and their guests to Verona to dine with him and his family. I was among the lucky second group to take Giovanni up on his offer of an all-expense paid trip to the cobblestoned streets of this medieval city.
Not only did I meet his entire family and dine at his family’s estate (the one they bought on Lake Garda after the company became the number one fresh pasta brand throughout Europe), but I visited Juliet’s famous balcony, the 12th century frescoes of Basilica Saint Zeno, Verona’s patron saint, and the 16th century Antica Bottega del Vino that has one of Italy’s largest wine cellars with, among may other rare wines, a cognac from 1840.
The final gala, hosted by Giovanni, his son Gian Luca, his wife Antonella and his grandkids, Giovanni and Maria Sole, was held at Villa San Viglio, a16th Century estate that, over the years, has also hosted Winston Churchill and Princess Di. I got the chance to play food stylist, to dance to a 12-piece orchestra oozing Frank Sinatra tunes and, best of all, to sample dozens of Giovanni’s pasta recipes, all created right in front of me.
Romeo and Juliet’s Verona romance didn’t end well, but the love affair I began with Giovanni Rana and his warm and welcoming family is destined to last forever.