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Vivi bene! Students studying abroad learn the Italian secrets to living well

Students learning to make homemade pasta

For Eleanor Baker, ’15, a study abroad journey to Italy to learn about the Mediterranean diet yielded valuable insight on the benefits of certain foods and preparations, but she discovered something more — a recipe for life and how to live it. “They really take the time to make small things count,” said Baker, a graduate student in Nutrition and Dietetics. She said the relaxed simple life in Italy helped her connect some of the pieces of the puzzle for healthy living, like taking the time to really enjoy life and putting your heart and soul into whatever you do.

“Our trip to Italy opened my eyes to what the secret ingredient of love really means in a recipe,” Baker said. “You could taste the pride and tradition that has been cultivated and grown in their agricultural practices for years. I saw blissful simplicity in their food, as well as their culture.”

Baker was one of 19 UNF undergraduate and graduate students who participated in a 17-day study abroad trip to Italy last spring. Guided by faculty from the Nutrition and Dietetics Flagship Program in the Brooks College of Health, students learned how social, psychological, historical and cultural factors impact food, nutrition and society in the regions of Umbria and Tuscany. In addition to lectures and discussions on the Mediterranean diet and the history of Italian cuisine, students also got a crash course in Italian language related to food and participated in cooking demonstrations with an Italian chef. They also went on guided experiential learning excursions across the region to visit producers of olive oil, flour, wine, chocolate and cheese and visited markets almost daily where locals sold everything from fruits and vegetables to bread and nuts.

The Mediterranean diet

Clearly one of the highlights of the trip, now in its fourth year, was meeting with Dr. Adalberta Alberti, a renowned authority on the Mediterranean diet. Having co-authored a groundbreaking article on the diet in Nutrition Today in 2008, Alberti is among many researchers who have touted the benefits of the eating patterns in the region. “It is such an honor and privilege to have Dr. Alberti participate in our study abroad course every year,” said Dr. Catherine Christie, associate dean of the Brooks College of Health and the nutrition graduate program director. “Working with Dr. Alberti, students experience the importance of research, as well as the practical application of the diet while in Italy. Dr. Alberti helps them understand from a research perspective why well-designed studies on diet are so critical to our profession,” she said.
Italian pizza
The Mediterranean diet, when compared to the typical American diet, is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, low-fat dairy, legumes, seeds and nuts; lower in red or processed meats, sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, and refined grains; and moderate in alcohol.

The diet is thought to have significant benefits in both general and nutritional health not reproducible with supplements or tied to particular ratios of protein, fat or carbohydrates. The Mediterranean lifestyle revolves around the importance of native foods grown locally and consumed fresh, and also includes extensive family time and physical activity.

Learning from the best 

In addition to meeting with Dr. Alberti, the UNF students met with Italian cookbook author and educator, Marialucia Luongo, to learn more about the diet and how it interacts with the food supply and food distribution systems in Italy.

Each day the group traveled to small villages where native foods are grown, and each night at their villa there were cooking classes with Rosa Di Donna, a spirited instructor and chef. “No recipes are to be seen there — only the ones ingrained in the memories of the chefs, the recipes passed on from generation to generation,” said Amber Saunders, ’16, who went on the trip and recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics. Saunders said during their evening instruction they learned some critical rules of Italian cooking — the worst violations were mixing certain foods, identified very clearly by Di Donna. “She would say, ‘Forbidden! It is a SIN.’ Mixing onion and garlic in the same dish was among the greatest of sins followed closely by mixing fish and cheese or, worse, fish and onion,” Saunders said. Some rules definitely contradicted their preconceived notions about Italian cooking: meatballs are never served with spaghetti.

Di Donna taught the Ospreys traditional ways of making known and less-known Italian recipes, and the students got hands-on experience learning the correct way to prepare the food, always with lots of opportunities for asking questions. Afterwards — in true Italian fashion — they enjoyed sharing their meal together each night while they recounted their daily adventures. The students also learned about the Italian culture and language from their guide, Catia Melani, who embodied the Italian spirit through her warm and caring support and vast knowledge of Italian history, art, architecture, religion, and most importantly — its people.

Tuscany, Umbria and the local fareVilla Pieve in Corciano was home for the UNF group during their stay in Italy.

The UNF group’s home base was Villa Pieve, a structure built during the 1800s around an ancient Catholic chapel called “Pieve.” The little church, complete with centuries-old frescoes and furniture, was constructed in the 1400s and is still perfectly preserved today inside of the villa. Situated on the Umbrian hillside, Villa Pieve offers a spectacular view of the nearby ancient fortress, the green valley and the medieval town of Corciano — a place where history, religion, art, food and culture were and still are intertwined. The gracious staff at the villa made the trip unforgettable for the students. Rossella Vasta and her family, who own and protect Villa Pieve, made the students feel at home while introducing them to the Italian traditions surrounding family, friends and culture. For the UNF study abroad, the villa was an ideal central location in the heart of the country.

Daily excursions took the UNF travelers to the small towns of Camucia, Cortona, Perugia, Spoleto, Norcia, Orvieto, Gubbio, Siena, Assisi, Montepulciana and Pienza — each known for the production of a particular food or recipe. The jaunts through the Italian countryside included lunch at a Tuscan vineyard, a tour of an organically sustainable farm known for its artisanal production of ancient grains and legumes and a trip to an olive oil producer. The group visited an artisanal chocolatier who used native nuts and dried fruits in her sweets, as well as a local cheese producer, where they tasted eight different varieties of the famous and unique ‘Pecorino di Pienza’ cheese. While visiting a local granary, the students witnessed the milling of flour for pasta making using machinery from the middle ages.

All along the way, students and faculty shopped at markets for fresh ingredients to incorporate into their dinners, while taking in the rich history and beauty of Central Italy. The group spent an afternoon in the Tuscan village of Cortona, the setting for Frances Mayes’s food-driven memoir, “Under the Tuscan Sun,” and traveled to a Brunello di Montalcino vineyard where they learned about grape cultivation from the field to the bottle. A trip to Perugia introduced the group to their first Italian pizza and the essential principle of pizza parsimony: three ingredients or fewer ensure all of the flavors can be truly savored. 

The Ospreys sampled traditional Italian sausages and salami, ate world-famous truffles in the northern Perugian town of Gubbio and took in the Tuscan landscape while dining on a hilltop in Pienza.

A Transformational Experience

“Spending two weeks in Italy is a dream come true for our students,” said Christie acknowledging that the annual trip is an amazing laboratory for nutrition students to experience the food, culture and nutrition principles of one of the healthiest diets in the world. “They are truly immersed in the Italian food culture and appreciate its strong focus on traditional fresh and local foods from farm to table,” she said. Jacqueline Shank, director of the undergraduate nutrition program, Claudia Sealey-Potts, associate professor, and Zhiping Yu, assistant professor from Nutrition and Dietetics, joined Christie on the more recent study abroad, which received support from the University of North Florida’s Division of Academic Affairs, the International Center, the Brooks College of Health and a Transformational Learning Opportunity Grant.

Addie Steele, a senior studying nutrition and dietetics, acknowledged that the experience was much more than just an education on culture and cuisine. “From my perspective and from what I've witnessed, the Italian people seem to innately enjoy what they are doing, when they are doing it and whom they are doing it with,” Steele said. To her, it was clear that — from shopping in outdoor markets for fresh ingredients to the cooking itself — the Italians she met embraced the entire process of preparing a meal. 


“These observations have inspired me to incorporate this mindset more into my own life so that wherever I am — I am all there.”