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Davis Island News - October 2003 | Davis Island News - December 2003

Weekly Planet - January 2004 | Tierra Verde News - February 2004
Harbour Island News  -  March 2004 | Tampa Tribune - June 2004

St. Petersburg Times - February 2005
The Island Reporter - October 2006
St Petersburg Times - March 2007
St. Petersburg Times - November 2007


Davis Island News - October 2003

Culture Lives Through Language

      Sometimes its diffi-
cult   to   pinpoint   the
moment    when    lan-
guage  is  diluted then
lost.  The result that is easily  seen  is  culture swirling     down     the
drain.  Roberto Alvarez
is   teaching  conversa-
tional   Italian   classes throughout  the Tampa
Bay  area  and he sees
"the       loss"       daily.
"Italians are by nature
very    proud    people"
Alvarez said, "I believe Italians,   or   for   that
matter  any  nationality should  strive  to  keep
this   pride   alive   and
they     should    begin


are formed, and  the  pride that  my  students  feel  as they  return  to their  roots and begin a deeper under- standing   of   their  culture and its traditions".  Alvarez stresses   that   you   don't have to be Italian to enjoy his  class,  "but you will be Italian    when   it's   over.  Actually  this   is   a   great learning    experience    for those  who  are planning a trip  to  Italy  and for those who  are simply interested in   learning   more   about Italy and its culture".
     In  September,  Alvarez and   Cellini  Restaurant  in South  Tampa are present-
ing  an  innovative concept

doing  so  by  returning  to  their base, their language".  Alvarez realizes  that
as  the  son  of   immigrants   he   was
fortunate    to     be    raised    in     an
environment    where  Italy's  customs became   a  part  of  American  life."   I
meet    many   people  whose  parents
were   told  to  speak  English  by their parents   who   were   told   to   speak
English  by  their parents.  So it's easy
to  see  that   some  American-Italians  haven't  been  exposed  to the Italian  language   for,  in  some cases, over a century."
     For  this  reason,  Roberto  Alvarez begins   his  lessons  with the  basics,
"My   classes   are   very   simple   and
very    fun.     It's   great   to   see  the
progress,   the   new  friendships  that


in   the   Art   of   Italian Cuisine.   The combination of Italian food and Italian language have  created,  "Eat  Italian, Learn    Italian"    Monday   nights   at Cellini.   Be  among  the  first in Tampa
to  experience  six wonderful nights of Italian  food,  culture,  and  Beginner's Conversational   Italian  lessons.   The Fun will begin on September 15th and continue   every  Monday  from  7-8pm through      October     20th.       Cellini Restaurant      is    located    at    5427 Bayshore      Boulevard.     For     more information  you  can  contact  Roberto Alvarez
     Enrollment       is     limited,       pre-registration  is  recommended and can be done by visiting Alvarez' website at www.learnitalian.us.


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Davis Island News - December 2003

When in Rome…

If  you  believe  in the wisdom of “When in Rome  do  as  the Romans do”, you won’t get an argument from Roberto Alvarez. He says,  “If you stop for a moment and think about   the  frustration  of  the  inability  to communicate    when  visiting   a    foreign country  absolutely,  take  some language skills     with    you”.     Alvarez    teaches conversational  Italian classes in locations throughout     the     Tampa    Bay    area, depending  on  the   amount  of  time  you
have  to  listen  to the “Professore” he has plenty     of     success    stories.      “The
friendships, the  good times, the discovery of   those  out-of-the-way  places, it’s all a product  of  your   ability  to  communicate
with  the  locals”.  Alvarez  stresses that a more   enjoyable   vacation  doesn’t  mean fluency  instead,  “what   you  will  learn in
my  classes  will  more  than prepare  you
and  put  you  in  a  comfort  level  that will
lead to a memorable vacation”.
Alvarez is the son of a Spanish  father and an  Italian mother who came to  the United States  after   World   War   II.    Following
twenty  years  in  the  world  of   television sports  broadcasting,  locally with UPN 44 and Sunshine Network, he says “I’m doing something  where  I can honestly say I am helping   people”.  Since  January  Roberto has had nearly two  hundred people attend his classes, “when the learning experience is fun the result is people enjoying

themselves  while  they  learn”.  Most of his  students  or  “amici”  (friends) as he refers to them, are interested in not only learning   to   speak   but  also  learning about  the  culture of Italy because they are   either  going  to  Italy  or  they  are interested   in   reconnecting  with  their Italian  heritage. “The reward is receiving a  postcard  from  a  former student who says  she  is now communicating much better  with  her  Italian  grandmother  in New  York.  Then last week another pair of   former  students,  attorneys  Colleen and  Frank  Russo,  emailed me while in Italy  to  say  that they  were  having the time  of  their  lives  because  they were successfully conversing with the Italians in Bologna. That’s why I love sharing my knowledge and experience”.
In  January,  Alvarez  will  be offering his Beginners  Conversational  Italian  Class at   Castellano  &  Pizzo  Italian  Deli  in Tampa. Every class will include a dinner prepared  by the deli’s chefs. This class will  meet from 6-7pm on Tuesdays from January   13th  through  February  10th . Classes  that  begin  in January will also be  held  in  Feather  Sound,  Largo, St. Petersburg,   and  Palm  Harbor.   Class sizes  are  limited and pre-registration is required. Enroll by contacting Roberto at
727.492.6653 and www.learnitalian.us.


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Weekly Planet - January 2004

Hungry Minds
In this Italian class, students eat, drink and talk Italian


Before  I  see  Roberto  Alvarez,  I hear his quiet, careful voice. Though he is obscured by  towering  shelves  burdened  with fancy culinary  delights, I walk toward the sound. I  pass  fragrant loaves tucked beneath the front    counter,    beyond   heavy   shelves burdened  with  wine,  away  from  the  big pans   of   hot   lasagna   and   the   cooler sporting  dozens  of  fresh  cheeses. There in  a  nearly  hidden  dining  room, Roberto Alvarez  is  facing  a  small group of people and  slowly enunciating an Italian phrase -- "KOE-may    see   KYA-ma?"   The people repeat   it  back  to  him.   "KOE-may  see KYA-ma.      " What     is    your     name?
Tampa's   Castellano    &    Pizzo    Italian Gourmet  Foods  isn't just a restaurant and deli tonight.  It's doubling as a classroom -- an  especially  sensual  one. The students echoing  Alvarez  and  taking  notes pause from  time  to  time  to  sip  wine and snarf steamy  mouthfuls  of  pasta  from  the hot buffet table nearby.
One   huge  pan  on  the  buffet  cradles  a nearly  perfect  version  of "pasta fantasia." That's rigatoni bathed in creamy sauce and dotted  with  fresh tomato, verdant broccoli crowns   and   fat   coins   of    bracciole -- sausage,   pine   nuts,   raisins,  ham  and Romano  cheese.   Beside  it  is  a  frosty, chilled  bowl  of  crisp  Caesar salad, fresh pats  of  butter  and a basket of handmade Italian bread.
When  the students arrive, they are able to help   themselves  to  dinner,  heaping  big spoonfuls onto paper plates. They sit at tables     with     cheery,    green-and-white checked      tablecloths,     an      imitation grapevine   above  sporting  plastic  grapes and   fake  hydrangea  blossoms.   Behind them,  the  deli's  regular  customers come and  go, hauling take-out bags bulging with lasagna and rice pudding.
Italian   music   wafts   from  a  CD  player. Some  of  the  students buy bottles of wine from  the  deli's collection, while others sip tea  or  soda.   Halfway  through the class, a waiter quietly makes his way among the tables,  passing  out  tiny  cups of fuchsia-colored, raspberry gelati.
Such a civilized way to learn.
"I wanted to learn Italian, and it's a fun way to  do  it," explained Dr. Raphael Martinez, 30,  a  Brandon  pulmonary  physician who was   among  the students.   "It's easier to learn   phrases,   it's  less  tedious  than  a regular  class. It's more fun. And, you don't have to cook."
Another  student, who plans to visit Italy in the  future,  said  that she wants to be able to  converse  with  the  natives:  "It's  not a college   environment.   There   aren't   any grades, it's convenient, and a non-stressful environment, plus you get dinner."
She  said  she  would  like  to learn how to order   food   in   Italian,  a subject  Alvarez routinely  addresses  on  this day, the third weekly   session   of   a  five-week  course costing $175 per person. By the end of the very  first  one-hour session, the class had already  learned  useful  phrases for dining, like    "il vino e buono"   (the wine is good);

what   the  word  "prego"  means  (please, excuse   me);   and   how   to   pronounce "gnocchi"    (NYACKI),    the    word   that denotes an Italian dumpling.
Alvarez    also   recommends   easy-learn language    books    and   provides   audio lessons    on    his   website.   When   his students  feel ready to chat, they just call him up and yak in their new language.
He   is   happy   to   accommodate  them. "Italian  is  so  rich -- everything about it is fun,"  he  said. "I want to see them learn."
A  similar  class,  but  earlier  in  the day, meets  Saturday  mornings in Clearwater. The     Italian    word    for    breakfast    is "colazione,"   and   the   group   munches pastries  and  downs coffee while learning Italian   at   Panera   Bakery   at   Feather Sound, 2285 Ulmerton Road.
At   one   time,   Alvarez   was   a   sports broadcaster, but he quit his full-time job at WTOG-Ch. 44   to   pursue   his  passion: teaching  the  lilting  Italian  language and the history of his ancestors.
"It's   a   one-man   crusade  to  keep  our heritage  alive,"  he  explained after class. "This  was  something  I always wanted to do. I thought, 'If I put my heart and energy into it, I know there is an interest in it."
He  is  a  private  instructor,  not  affiliated with  any college or university. He attracts students  with convenient class hours and locations,   a   low-key  approach  and  an emphasis on personal attention. Currently,   he   teaches   five  classes  in various  parts  of  the  Bay area, including Palm Harbor, Largo, St. Pete and Tampa. The   next   series   of   classes  starts  in March.
The  class  at  Castellano  &  Pizzo is his largest,    maybe    partly    because   the students  appreciate  the  excellent  meal and uniquely convivial atmosphere. Alvarez  tacks an extra $25 onto the $150 regular   cost  of  classes  to  pay  for  the buffet.
Paul  Castellano,  who represents the fifth generation  of  his  family  to  operate  the business  in  Tampa and Ybor City, hopes Alvarez'   efforts  will  provide  his  already highly  successful  enterprise  with  a new dimension.  The  South  Tampa restaurant and    deli   specializes   in   fine   grocery products  from Italy, hot and cold take-out dishes,  baked  goods  and  breads,  cold cuts,    cheeses    and   wines,   imported gourmet  items  like  high-quality vinegars and  olive  oils.  It  also  houses a popular catering service.
"Most  of  the  students  are  customers," Castellano  said after the class had left. "I thought it was a neat thing. They come to our  café,  they  try  our food, they learn a little  Italian.  It started a little slow, but all of a sudden, everybody jumped on it."

Food     critic     Sara     Kennedy    dines anonymously  and the Planet pays for her meals.  Contact her at 813-248-8888, ext. 116, or sara.kennedy@weeklyplanet.com. Restaurants   chosen  for  review  are  not related to advertising.


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Tierra Verde News - February 2004

Italy’s Cappuccino-no

Italy  is  the land of the outdoor cafe where Italians  love  their  “caffe” almost as much as  they  love  their  mammas.   The deep, rich,  and  black  espresso  is  the drink of choice  especially if Italians are lingering in a  cafe  after  11am.  “Italians won’t drink a cappuccino        after       11am”        says Conversational   Italian  instructor  Roberto Alvarez.    “Like   wearing   short  pants,  a cappuccino  after 11am is giveaway you’re a  tourist,  especially an American tourist”. Professore    Roberto   should   know,   he travels  to Italy  every year and while there, like  all  Italians he spends a lot of his time in   cafes  drinking  espresso.   “The Italian reasoning    does    make    sense.    They consider  a cappuccino  too heavy on your stomach, much  of  that has to do with the milk that is added to an espresso to make cappuccino.    You   have   to  realize  that Italians  eat  lunch  around  at  two  in  the afternoon    so     they    believe    drinking cappuccino    after    11am    dilutes   their appetite  and  they  want  no  part  of that”. What  about  a  cappuccino  after  lunch or dinner?   “Mai,  never”  Professore Roberto says, “Again when you have a stomach full of food the last thing Italians want to add is a  heavy cappuccino.  They would drink an espresso   or  a  “digestivo”  to  help  them digest their food”.
Professore   Roberto  began  teaching  the customs   and   language   of  Italy  in  his Beginners Conversational Italian classes in the Tampa Bay area in March of 2003. His trips   to   Italy   began   long  ago.   “I first stepped  onto  Italian  soil  in 1978. Having been  raised  by an immigrant mother from Naples  being  in Italy was an extension of

my    upbringing.      While    I   was   very comfortable with the country, its customs, and  its  people  still  there  was  much to learn,  but  I  did know about the unwritten cappuccino   rule”.     While   learning  the language is the centerpiece of his fun and stress  free  classes  Professore  Roberto does  provide his students with a thorough understanding  of the customs and culture of  “Il bel Paese”.   “It’s  all  about  comfort and  I  want  my students to be extremely comfortable   with   being    in   a   foreign country.   With  comfort  comes  joy and I want them to enjoy Italy as much as I do”.
Professore   Roberto  invites  everyone  to enjoy   the   fun  and   learning.   Whether you’re  planning a trip to Italy or interested in  learning  more about Italian culture and customs    he   guarantees   you’ll   enjoy yourself.   New    classes    in   Beginners Conversational  Italian or “ The Five weeks of  Fun”  as  Roberto  describes  his  time with   you  begin  in  March  and  again  in April.    You    can    choose  among   five locations  St. Petersburg, Feather Sound, Largo,  Palm Harbor,  and Tampa. The St. Petersburg  class  will  meet on Thursday evenings   at   the  Panera  Bread  on  4th Street North, March 4th  through  April 1st from    7-8pm.     The    Tampa   class   at Castellano  and  Pizzo  Italian  Deli which combines   “Eating   Italian  and  Learning Italian”  includes  dinner  with every class. Private    lessons    are    also    available. Enrollment in the “The Five weeks of Fun” is  limited  and pre-registration is required. Contact Roberto at
727.492.6653 and visit his website at www.learnitalian.us


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Harbour Island News - March 2004


Pizza, that’s Amore


Conversational  Italian Instructor Professore Roberto delightfully pats his stomach when he says, “I had pizza nearly everyday when I  spent a month in Naples but I must admit
I  couldn’t  finish  the  meter”.  Pizza by the meter,  or  “pizza  a  metro” is the signature serving  at  the self-proclaimed “L’Universita di Pizza” the Ristorante da Gigino. Located in  the  town  of  Vico  Equense  outside  of Naples  but  closer to Sorrento the “pizza a metro”  is  exactly  that, a pizza that is one meter  in length and about one-half meter in width.   “The menu says one meter of pizza will  serve  five  people,  trust  me that’s five hungry   people”.  Professore  Roberto  also says  the  chefs  will if  you like, quarter the pizza  and  place different toppings on each quarter.   “There  are  37  different pizzas on the    menu    with   toppings  ranging   from “cozze” (mussels) to “pancetta”(bacon).  By the  way  I  was only kidding about trying to eat  a whole meter” he laughingly says, “but that  day if it was my favorite “la margherita” it might have happened”.
While    the   Etruscans  and   the   ancient Romans  laid  the  foundation,  pizza as we know  it  took  shape  in  Naples in the 18th century.    La Margherita,  which  is  topped with  fresh  tomatoes,  fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella,   was  created  and  named  for Margaret  of Savoy the wife of Umberto I the king  of  Italy.   “Some may argue but in my opinion  Naples  is  the  city  for  pizza.  It’s unlike  what  we eat here because the crust is  very thin and slightly soggy in the center while  the crust on the outer rim is firm. The pizzas  are   also  cooked  in  wood-burning ovens  that  are  over  800 degrees so when you  order a pizza, it comes to your plate in a  couple  of  minutes”. Professore Roberto also  attests  to  the Italians hearty appetite by   telling  us  that  individuals  will  eat  an

entire pizza as an appetizer!
The “calzone” which means trousers gets its  name  from  a  pair  of  pants that are folded  over.    Professore  Roberto  says they   also  are very  common  in  Naples and  are   “filled  with  anything  you  can imagine,  ricotta   with   salsiccia  is  my favorite”.  In  Sicily  you’ll  find  the  pizza that  was  introduced  in  America  in the late   70’s.     “Labeling   it   deep-dish  is somewhat   accurate.    I would  say   it's thicker    than    Neopolitan    pizza   and certainly   not  as  plain  as focaccia.   In Sicily  you  here  the name “sfincione” for their  pizza.   It’s also very good, I believe the  fresh ingredients in Italy make all the difference”.
Italy’s   food,  culture,  and  customs  are constant    topics   of  conversation   with Professore  Roberto  who  will  begin new five-week  classes,  which  he calls “ Five weeks  of  Fun”  in  April.  In  Tampa  the Beginners   Conversational  Italian  Class combines   “Eating  Italian  and  Learning Italian”.    The   fun   will   take   place  at Castellano  &  Pizzo Italian Gourmet Deli in  Tampa  on  Tuesday  evenings from 6-7pm  beginning  April  13th  through May 9th.    Every  class  will  include  a  meal prepared  by  the  chefs  at  Castellano & Pizzo.   In  April you can also join him for the   “Five   weeks  of  Fun”  in  Dunedin, Largo,  St. Petersburg, and Palm Harbor. Whether  you’re planning a trip to Italy or interested  in  learning more about Italy’s “Dolce  Vita”  he  guarantees you’ll enjoy yourself. Enrollment in the “Five weeks of Fun”   is  limited  and  pre-registration  is required.     Private    lessons   are   also available.        Contact      Roberto       at
727.492.6653   and  visit  his  website  at www.learnitalian.us


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Tampa Tribune - June 2004

Drinking In Italian


Amy Spurr(left) and Joey Sarlo, were at Gianpiero's Pick of the Vine wine store
taking a class to learn Italian.

Published: Jun 3, 2004

SOUTH TAMPA -  The  students  jot  notes and  sip  wine  while  mellow  Italian  music plays in the background.
``Benvenuti,'' the instructor says. Welcome.
The classroom is  a  section  of Gianpiero's Pick  of   the  Vine,  a  South  Tampa  wine shop.  There  are  no  exams  here,  just 13 students  in  a  relaxed  environment  trying to   learn  about   the  Italian  language  and culture.   Some   of  the  students   enrolled because  they're  traveling  to Italy and want to  learn  how  to  say  ``Good  morning''  or ``I'm  lost.''   Some  are  Italian  by  heritage and   want   to   learn   about   their culture.
``Cent'anni,''   the  instructor  says,  offering a  toast  -  May  you  live  to be 100  years. ``So   if  you're  with   somebody  that's  99, you  don't  want  to  give  them  that  toast,'' the  instructor  says.  The  students  laugh, Glasses clink.

The Instructor
Roberto  Alvarez's  father,  Giuseppe,   was born in  Spain of Sicilian heritage.  Alvarez's mother, Emma,  is  from  Naples, Italy.  His parents  met  in  Naples  during  World War II,  married  and  moved to Chicago after the war. Alvarez, the fourth of five  children, was the first born in the United States.
``My mom,  every  time  she  was pregnant, she got  on  the  boat  and went to Italy,'' he said.
Alvarez   spoke  a  good  deal  of Italian  as a  child  and  majored  in  communications  and  Italian  at  Indiana  University. He  also attended   the   Universita   di   Bologna   in Bologna, Italy. After graduating, he returned to   the   United   States   to   be   a  sports broadcaster.  His  19-year  career  spanned six  states,  including  about seven years in Tampa.
After  leaving  the  business  to do freelance television   work   in  Tampa,  he  eventually shifted   careers  to  teach  Italian.   ``It was something   I  always  wanted  to  do,''  said Alvarez, 48.  ``I  guess  I  had to wait for the right day, the right time and the right place.'' He said  South  Tampa  residents  had  few opportunities to  learn  Italian  outside  of  a classroom when he started tutoring in 2002. He wanted  to teach the language and show ``there   is   more   to  Italy than  Mafia  and meatballs.'' His   students  learn  everything from reading  a  menu  to  determining shoe sizes. He  offers  individual  instruction  and teaches  two  classes  in South Tampa and one each  in  Palm  Harbor,  Largo  and  St. Petersburg.   ``The   big   thing   about   the classes is,  it's  fun  and it's stress free,'' he said.    ``It's     not    really    a    classroom environment. This  is  something people are doing  because   they  want  to.   They're ... having  fun   and  learning  something  while having fun.''

The Wine Shop Owner
Gianpiero Ruggeri's  first  visit  to the United States, more than  40  years  ago, wasn't a positive   experience.     The    then- aircraft mechanic   studied   for   a   month  in  Fort Worth,  Texas,   where   he  saw  people  in ``spandex   and   winged  glasses   [eating] 5-inch steaks.''  `The idea that I had   about the  United  States  was,  `Eww,  these  are

barbarians. This is not  for  me,' '' he said. Circumstances   changed.    Ruggeri  was born in Saudi Arabia to Italian parents and spent much of his life  there.   He  met his wife,   Louise,  an  Ohio  native,  during  a tango   lesson.    But  when  Iraq  invaded Kuwait   in   1990,  Ruggeri  and  his  wife moved to Italy and later settled in Tampa.  Ruggeri   had  spent  time  in  his  uncle's winery.  So  when  he  moved to Tampa in 1991, he took a job  as a wine  adviser  at Simon's     Market    on    South   MacDill Avenue.   He   opened    his    wine  store about  three  years ago.  ``I decided I may not  make  a  fortune,  but  I  can make  a living,'' said Ruggeri, 51.
He and   Alvarez  spoke  last  year  about having an  Italian  language  class  in  the shop, 2506 S. MacDill Ave. The first class was in May.   ``Taking Italian lessons in a wine shop  is  by  itself  very  unique,  and people  come  in  here,  they  have  some wine   and   learn  a   language  in  a  very relaxed atmosphere,'' he said.

The Students
One  month    from   their   50th   wedding anniversary, Bud Alexander's  wife, Betty, died.  Alexander,  a Sunset Park resident, decided   to   date  again  several  months later. In July, friends set him up with Cleta Lang. Their  blind  date  was at Starbucks on  Bay  to  Bay  Boulevard.   Lang  didn't expect  much  but  soon  found  they  had much in common. ``I  guess at heart I'm a [1950s]  girl,  and  he's  just  a great guy,'' said Lang,  64  and  twice  widowed. ``We both wanted to get married.  We're  going  to  have  a church  wedding.  We  may be foolish, but there's no fool like an old fool.''
They got engaged April 10 where they first met - Starbucks.   He   proposed  quietly. They drank coffee  to celebrate.  ``We're a little  schmaltzy,''  Lang  said.  ``My friend said, `Why didn't  you  broadcast  it? You might've  gotten  free  coffee.' 
'' Alexander,  73,  said  Lang's personality and     beauty     wooed     him.    ``We're compatible,'' he said.  Combined, they will have 11  grandchildren.   They  will  marry Sept. 18  at  St.  John's Episcopal Church and leave  for  a  20-day  trip  to Italy soon after. They   will  visit  Naples,  Florence, Rome and Venice.
Alexander said Alvarez's course will make the honeymoon easier. ``He emphasizes a   lot  on  what  I  call  `tourist language' '' Alexander said.

The Classes
Five-week  classes  in  beginners  conver- sational Italian are  available  at  Ruggeri's store and   at   Castellano   &   Pizzo   on Henderson Boulevard. Classes cost $175. A three-course meal is included in the fee for Castellano &  Pizzo.  A glass or two of wine   is   available   free  for  classes   at Ruggeri's   shop.   Alvarez   is   accepting registrations for September  classes. 
For   information,   call   Alvarez  at 
727.492.6653 or visit www.learnitalian.us.
Reporter Josh Poltilove can be reached at (813) 835-2105.


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St. Pete Times - February 2005

Vacationing In A Second Language

For some travelers, brushing up - or even immersing
themselves - in a foreign language is all part of the

By JANET K. KEELER, Times Staff Writer
Published February 27, 2005


[Times photos: Keri Wiginton]

Roberto Alvarez counts to 30 with his Italian-language class held at Bellini Restaurant in Dunedin. Alvarez, who teaches his students phrases they can use when traveling, also teaches Spanish at Castellano & Pizzo in Tampa.

DUNEDIN - If it's Wednesday, it must be Italian class at Bellini Restaurant.


Between bites of chicken marsala and sips of red wine, the language of love tumbles willingly, if not always expertly, from the mouths of a couple-dozen adult students.

"Sono Americano," booms teacher Roberto Alvarez. In unison, his charges repeat.

Paula Harvey takes notes while she drinks a glass of wine during Roberto Alvarez’s Italian class. Harvey, a first-grade teacher from Safety Harbor, is taking the class with her husband, David. They are making their fourth trip to Italy next month

And there's more.

"Sono turista." Repeat.

"Sono Perso." Repeat.

I am American. I am a tourist. I am lost. Perhaps a circuitous way of getting to the point, but a lesson in conjugation and gender-specific translations nonetheless. (A woman should say "Sono Americana.")

When in Rome, it is nice to do as the Romans do, but if you don't speak a lick of Italian that won't be easy. The same holds true for French, Japanese or Spanish. For some people, picking up a bit of the local language before a trip makes the journey more satisfying and comfortable.

Phrase books, audiotapes and classes at community colleges or from private tutors (tip: middle and high school language teachers welcome additional income) are excellent ways to learn essential phrases before traveling abroad.

There is also growing interest in immersion courses, where the vacation itself is all about learning a language. Dorlene Kaplan of ShawGuides Inc., which publishes online guides to recreational and educational travel programs worldwide, says listings for immersion courses have increased 30 percent in five years. The most popular are in Spanish, English and Italian.

For instance, at Academia Hispanica in Cordoba, Spain, vacationers can attend weeklong classes in Spanish, English, French and German. Language Studies Abroad in Carson City, Nev., arranges language classes from Ecuador to France, from Japan to Austria. Millenium Language School in Carcavelos, Portugal, offers instruction in more than 20 languages including Vietnamese, Estonian, Hebrew and Arabic. (For more information, see the accompanying box.)

The price to learn a foreign language varies from less than $20 for a book to $2,000 or more for a weeklong package that includes room and board, but not air fare. Roberto Alvarez's five-session series is $185. And for that you get dinner and materials.

Paula and David Harvey of Safety Harbor are among the would-be Italian speakers at Bellini on a recent Wednesday. She's a first-grade teacher, and he's in insurance sales. They are making their fourth trip to Italy next month and want to communicate better with the people they meet.

"It's a very humbling experience when you see how many languages they (Italians) speak," Paula Harvey says. "I think it's a sign of respect to try to speak their language."

She says that while she and her husband have been able to get along on past trips, they felt "stupid" more than they'd like.

"When people visit the U.S., they make such an effort to speak English," she says. "I think we should do the same."

Alvarez, who also teaches Spanish with a side of dinner at Castellano & Pizzo in Tampa, hopes to get his students past the feeling-silly phase by teaching phrases they can use when traveling. In his lessons, he gets goofy, and that helps quell uneasiness.

"E facile means "that's easy,' " he tells the class. "What you don't want to say is sono facile. In one of my classes a lady said that and all the men dropped their pants."

The students laugh because they know from a previous lesson that the woman said, "I am easy." In just a few hours, they gain confidence and the ability to order a meal. It's a bonus to get the joke.

Alvarez's classes draw people planning trips and also those wanting to learn more about their heritage. Lisa Martino, a massage therapist in Tarpon Springs, is doing both: Her father was born in Naples, and she hopes to make her first trip to Italy in May.

"I think planning is 90 percent of the excitement," she says.

It makes sense to teach language over food, Alvarez says, because some terms are already known and that helps with pronunciation.

"Il vino e buono," he says to the class. "La pasta e buona. Buena is Spanish and that's the Thursday night class."

Yes, the wine and pasta are good.

Rick Steves, host of the long-running PBS series Europe Through the Back Door, applauds any effort to speak to locals in their language, but hopes the lack of fluency doesn't stop anyone from travel.

"I've traveled happily for four months a year for the last 25 years in countries that don't speak my language," Steves says by phone from his base in Seattle. "I hope people don't limit where they travel by where they can communicate."

English is now the common denominator in the European Union, he says. "It's the language of commerce, travel and the Internet."

On a recent trip to Amsterdam, Steves noticed that the only signs in Dutch at the airport were at first-aid stations. The other signs were in English.

Sometimes, nonverbal communication succeeds as well as words, he says. Flapping your arms like bird wings and saying "tweet, tweet, tweet" at a post office will let the clerk know you want airmail stamps. Afraid you'll look nutty? Get over yourself, he says.

"If you're a bumpkin American traveler, which most of us are, and you go to Prague or Madrid, you'll stand out like a sore thumb anyway," he says.

"Don't try to be cool. Try to be honest, eager and wide-eyed, and happy that you are experiencing a new culture."

But if you are communicating in English, speak slowly and enunciate clearly, he advises. Don't use slang or contractions. "Howzit goin'?" may be lost on the the ticket clerk at Munich's crowded hauptbahnhof.

If you are attempting a foreign language, Steves adds, get Neanderthal. Speak in short, clipped sentences with only the essential words.

"I must sound like a caveman sometimes," Steves says.

Start sentences with por favor, bitte, sumi masen - whatever is appropriate. A polite "please" or "excuse me" goes a long way in Mexico City, Berlin or Tokyo, even if those are the only words you know, Steves says.

Europeans are charmed by laid-back Americans, says this budget traveler's guru, so there's no reason for the language-challenged to be nervous.

"We are like puppies there," he says. "However, it's still polite to assume they don't speak English."

That's Alvarez's theory, too.

"The idea is to be able to say something more than "mmmmm' to the waiter," he tells his students. "The idea is to speak."

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at 727 893-8586 or krieta@sptimes.com


For more information on Roberto Alvarez's Italian and Spanish classes in Dunedin and Tampa, call him at 727.492.6653 or visit www.learnitalian.us

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St. Pete Times - November 2007

Top Bruschetta off with bold flavors

Bruschetta is the toast of the appetizer table, limited only by
your imagination and pantry.

By Janet K. Keeler, Times Food and Travel Editor
Published November 7, 2007

Pronouncing "bruschetta" may be the most difficult thing about making the savory Italian

There have been times I've mumbled the last part of the word, not knowing if the "ch" in the middle is soft Champagne or hard (cantaloupe).

"It's pronounced brew-SKET-uh," says Roberto Alvarez, who teaches Italian language classes around the Tampa Bay area (call 727.492.6653; www.learnitalian.us). "I was just at an Italian-American club meeting and had to set them straight."

In Italian, Alvarez says, the c-h letter combination almost always makes a hard k sound. Say "chianti." And, don't let this blow your mind, but bruschetta is singular and bruschette is plural. That's why Carrabba's menu lists "grilled bruschette" for its plate of toasted bread with tomato topping.

One more thing about language. Bruschetta is the bread, coming from the Roman word bruscare, which means to roast over coals. That makes sense, since bruschette are toasted slices of bread. Without toasting, the bread would get soggy and fall apart when the juicy topping is piled on.

The good news here is that you can put anything on your bruschetta. It doesn't have to include tomatoes and garlic. You don't even have to make the mixture from scratch. Marinated mushrooms, artichokes or eggplant, even prepared roasted peppers and olive tapenade are good places to start.

Alvarez likes his bruschetta with cannellini beans, a squeeze of lemon, olive oil and black pepper.

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