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A Conversation with Giovanni Elia | See previous interviews

Giovanni Elia
Professor

Giovanni Elia

Are you following the Copa America? Which countries' teams are you rooting for?

No, not really. Although I follow soccer and used to play as a goalkeeper. Because I like to dive for the ball, I went from soccer to volleyball back in high school but haven't played since.

Where were you born and raised? Please tell me about your family and your upbringing.

I was born and raised in a small town, Grottaglie, in Puglia, Southern Italy (the heel of the boot!). In my town, which was small, we had to travel to go to middle and high school, maybe 20 miles. I had friends in both towns and it was fun, I went to all the volleyball games. I remember my upbringing as being always in nature because it was close to the coast in low hills, with lots of olive groves and vineyards, and very hot. In the summer, we were always out on bikes or hiking and there was no issue of safety, nobody was concerned about kidnapping or danger. Summers were wonderful and we would explore. I never went to the gym, instead we climbed trees and hiked and swam, and we were always at the beach. My mom was a stay-home mom and my dad was a police officer. I have two siblings, my brother has a consulting company in our hometown, my sister is a lawyer and works for the Italian government in Rome. My wife and I visit at least once a year, but it's always less time than we would like.

Can you share a beloved recollection about your youth?

Playing soccer on the beach and in the water, and just going crazy, being young and enjoying life.

Are you a musician or singer? In which languages?

I play guitar but do not consider myself a musician. I sing in English, Spanish, and Italian. When I was younger, I thought that opera was music for old people but I started to love it after I left Italy. My favorite operas are Rigoletto and Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

In a face off against Mario Batali in Iron Chef Italiano, what specialty would be your winning culinary creation?

I would make a plate typical of my town, pasta with rapini and anchovies, sautéed with garlic. It is easy to make and delicious, no doubt about it!

Was there ever something that you were told you could or should not do, that you did anyway, and it was THE BEST THING EVER?

Going the beach at night in Italy. We would sneak out at night and go when it was a full moon and the water was warm and it was so beautiful.

Can you please share an anecdote that illustrates a contradiction in your personality?

I consider myself someone who is calm and who weighs risks and benefits, but I've always enjoyed riding motorcycles. I've had motorcycles ever since I learned to drive. So it is something contradictory for me to be very quiet and rational, yet I have driven a motorcycle at 120 miles per hour. When I went to San Diego for my fellowship interview, I didn't feel safe riding in California and sold my bike. I often think about buying another, but the traffic here makes me think twice. Once, in upstate New York, I rode past a long, huge line of cars in traffic and got pulled over by a policeman in a car (who identified himself as a member of the SWAT team, and had a huge gun) and, after I apologized that I had just moved from California, he let me go without citing me.

What is a phrase in Italian that just doesn't translate well into English?

There is a phrase from Rigoletto, "La donna è mobile," that describes a woman as lighthearted or free-spirited. English is much more precise than Italian or the Latin languages, which are more colorful and can have many shades of meaning.

Are you a generous gift giver? How do you know that a gift is perfect for its intended recipient?

I think I am a generous gift giver. I try to put myself in the recipient's place and, of course, it depends upon who it is and the occasion. Something that is almost always welcome is flowers, but I try to find blooms that are uncommon, maybe a plant. I tend to choose what I, or my wife, like and it is nice when someone, like a hostess who has invited us for dinner, is impressed with our choice. I try not to cross the line and give a gift that will create work like orchids, which will likely die!

When have you realized that you were addicted to something and what was the upshot of that realization?

My brother and I were addicted to motorcycles and we would do anything to be on them. That addiction has diminished and now I love chocolate, any kind, but preferably dark chocolate. If there is chocolate around, I am going to have it. Good pasta is an addiction. Alcohol for me could never be considered an addiction because, in Italy, we grow up with wine, it was part of every meal. My favorite wines are strong, reds, like Primitivo, which is the genetic precursor of Zinfandel, and is made in my area. In fact, most of my old friends have vineyards and make wine in Grottaglie.

What can you share about your grandfather?

My grandfather, Francesco, was an entrepreneur. Before the war, he helped build part of the military airport, which was a huge venture in our town. Afterward, he had a pasta factory, where I often played as a little child.

Giovanni at 4

Grazie, Giovanni, this was delightful.

- by Oralia Schatzman

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