Pennabilli helped Anna Bonavita recover. Now the Edina woman hopes to return the favor.
Bonavita was living in Italy and mourning the death of her husband, Italian-born Massimo Bonavita, when she first encountered the medieval hilltop town in the Emilia-Romagna region in 2017. A friend brought her there, hoping to renew her spirit.
“She wanted to show me there is much beauty in the world that can still be discovered,” Bonavita said.
The cobblestone streets, the crumbling fortresses, the surrounding forests and fields, the trattorias serving traditional delights all worked their magic. But Bonavita noticed more than soothing beauty and hospitality in the town of 2,700 residents. She also saw that Pennabilli — like so many other Italian towns far from the tourist zones — was dying.
“The population is disappearing. There are no jobs for young people, so the young people leave,” Bonavita said, as she described sharing the narrow lanes with mainly older residents. Yet, she feels this town with its unusual history and uncommon charm deserves to thrive.
So in the midst of her own recovery, she hatched a plan to help the village recover, too.
Bonavita believes that cooking and language lessons — especially with her distinct vision of pairing students with residents as part of the experience — could help revitalize the economy and population and bring tourist attention to the hidden gem. That idea grew into Esperienza, a nonprofit designed to save small Italian villages, beginning with Pennabilli, by drawing visitors with immersive language and culinary experiences.
The energetic Bonavita is not new to building an organization from scratch. She and her husband founded the Italian Cultural Center in Minneapolis in 2006. The duo first plotted an Italian film festival, and realized that they needed to fund it. They did that by teaching Italian language classes. Now, the Italian Film Festival is in its 10th year, but the language classes remain the main feature of the center.
We recently spoke to Bonavita (which translates to “good life”) about what she calls “the next step in my Italian adventure.”
Q: You aren’t Italian, so what spurred this idea?
A: Yes. I am Bulgarian. I came to the United States in 1992 looking for work because of the end of the Cold War. But I was constantly dreaming about the world I left behind — and that includes Italy. At a certain point, I decided that beside dreaming, I can do something.
As a child, I grew up watching Italian films, singing Italian songs. Italian culture was very popular in Bulgaria. Then I met my Italian husband. We started the Italian Cultural Center together.
When I saw Pennabilli, I knew I wanted to do something. It is a very rich place and definitely worth fighting for. The tendency is for these towns to disappear. But some of them are so culturally rich and beautiful that they represent the patrimony of humanity. It isn’t just Italy — they are important to the world.
Q: I recently returned from Italy, where Florence was packed with tourists.
A: There are so many places in Italy that are worth seeing away from the crushing crowds.
Esperienza: It means “experience” in Italian. Its purpose is to inspire people to explore rural Italy and in this way to revitalize the area as well; to offer deep immersion experiences, instead of just visiting the big cities. Mass tourism is counter to what we offer, for someone who wants to explore in-depth. We start with one town, focus on it, develop the model, and once the model is sustainable, we apply it to another town. Italy has thousands of beautiful villages that are dying.
Q: Tell me about your immersion programs.
A: What is special about our language program is in the morning you study four academic hours with a teacher, and in the afternoon, you do on-the-job training — to the pizzeria or to the bakery or to the meat shop or to the museum — and you’re going to be helping for an hour or so. You have to introduce yourself, answer questions, you make meaningful contacts with people who come in and you will learn on the job. This type of learning is only possible in a small town. In a big town, it will be difficult to make arrangements.
For the culinary program, we learn how to make pasta with a local woman. Each of us has our own instructor. Italian cuisine is very different from French; French cooking comes from royal chefs. Italian cuisine is cuisine of the housewife, so we are, at the home of Pellegrino Artusi [famed author of “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well,” self-published in 1891], learning from the women.
There is a cooking class with a Michelin star chef of molecular cuisine. We visit a special orchard by a famous Italian agronomist where one can taste the forgotten fruit and hear stories about how the owner is saving seeds from remote villages, monasteries and castles. In Modena, we dine at the top restaurant of the world [Osteria Francescana].
Q: What makes Pennabilli special?
A: There is a Michelin restaurant in town. A monastery that has such gorgeous masses in the morning, seven museums, all of them very interesting. When our travelers came last year, some were suspicious that it wouldn’t sustain their interest. In the end, they didn’t want to leave because they felt they hadn’t experienced everything. We are offering immersion experiences and helping revitalize a place that we love. In a way, we are doing cultural conservation.
Every morning I was there, I would wake up, go to the top of one of these hills with a castle, explore the ruins, do a little bit of yoga, look around and feel like I was in the center of the world.