Good food has been bringing family and friends to the dinner table for eons; and not just for sustenance. We gather around the table not only to share a meal, but to share in each other’s company; to share stories; to connect.
This is something Donna MacDonald-Rizzo learned through a series of adventures and now subtly teaches at Eataly Boston’s cooking school, La Scuola, while also teaching fun things like how to roll gnocchi.
Before we became students in her Pasta 101 Cooking Class, Donna was gracious enough to share how she ended up here in Boston dispersing her Italian knowledge to happy participants. After getting to know this uber cool chick on a personal level, we understand why Eataly Boston tossed her a chef’s coat. We also now have great admiration for this intelligent chameleon who has wisely turned life’s experiences into a wealth of knowledge and discovered her passion.
Donna started her first lesson as the youngest of four in a working class family just outside of Washington, DC in Falls Church, Virginia. What the family lacked in financial wealth, they made up for in community involvement and family commitment.
Donna’s dad was a fireman and her mother a hairstylist. The Roman Catholic couple lived a standard suburban life, working hard to provide food and necessities to their four children. Generally, Donna’s mom was in charge of the meals. Now, as any parent can appreciate, appeasing four different palates and appetites can be a challenge. So, one day she sat down the clan and asked each of them for their favorite meal. And so, a small and reoccurring menu developed. However, it just so happened that Donna’s dad was also the cook at the firehouse. So, on his days at home, he would occasionally throw some variety onto the table. Donna relished evenings like taco night. They were exotic, had variables, and somewhat foreshadowed her culinary future.
Donna didn’t realize how much she craved those variables until she moved to California. As a young PC programmer and systems analyst, Donna moved to Redondo Beach. Astounded simply by the assortment of vegetables in the produce section, she took a picture and mailed it home. This place was different; it was exotic, it would be her home. And so, Donna made Cali her home, eventually finding herself in LA and setting up camp in IT for a Law Book Publishing Company. But, she didn’t stay in IT for long. She made the most of the opportunity, investigating the cogs and wheels of running a business by working in different departments. She even developed an in-house tax preparation software for the firm.
But, there was still a yearning to learn more.
So, Donna started taking classes. She dabbled in screen writing and took acting classes. But, she really fell in love with dancing, and deeply. So much so, that she eventually taught dance at night.
When one grows up in a family that struggles financially, job security becomes an important spoke in adulthood. Taking risks to follow one’s heart’s desire doesn’t make sense; especially, when things are going well.
This was the case for Donna. Even though she was developing all of these passions, she couldn’t leave the safety of her day job. So, she continued her studies at night and remained practical during the day. With that practicality, Donna realized she couldn’t afford a home in the LA area. Being an analyst, she looked at the West Coast and found lots of undiscovered value in Portland, Oregon. Without hesitation, Donna packed her belongings, headed north, and started her 30’s in a completely new environment, but still working for the same company.
Now she really had security. And soon love.
When she first moved to Oregon, in her own words she, “hated it!” She was ready to head back to L.A., and then she met John.
John, a Massachusetts native and photographer, was on the West Coast for business. But, in no time, he was also packing up his things and heading to Oregon to be with the woman who would eventually be his wife, and to whom he would introduce an entirely new world.
John entered a project with Kodak. They sent him 150 rolls of film to see what images he could capture. His subject? The wineries of the North West. This project impacted his career in a massive way. His images started to become well known, as did he with the vineyards.
Soon, the technology market started changing. Donna, always analyzing, saw things were shifting. And so, in a very uncharacteristic way, she said good-bye to security and quit her job. John’s business was doing so well; he needed help. So, she ended up managing the studio, and in the process was introduced to the wonderful world of wine making and all of the fine cuisine (and chefs) that come with it.
Eventually, international wineries started to notice John’s work, and his career flourished, with images appearing in magazines like, Wine Spectator and Bon Appetit. In fact, he became so well- known he ended up with a book deal. And what a sweet deal – he would head to Italy to photograph a book titled, Italian Food Artisans Cookbook, giving them both rare access to many of Italy’s most respected chefs and wineries.
This trip was a defining point for Donna. She fell in love with Italy, but, also with the passion and talent of the vintners and chefs. This was the couple’s “rock star” period. They quickly became friends with famous chefs, traveled, and enjoyed fine wine and great food. Donna used her business skills to run the business, but also started freelance writing. She even contributed text to John’s books.
But then 9/11 happened and business quickly changed. In fact, it went away.
The couple regrouped and tried to figure out where to go next. On a trip to Europe, a friend mentioned they could rent a house for 400 Euro a month. Move to Europe without a job? A pretty big risk for the analytical play-it-safe girl from Virginia. But, what the hell, if not then, when? So, Donna went for it. She put her house on the market, and headed to Barbaresco, Italy.
John, whose grandparents were both Italian citizens, was able to get citizenship and work and so Donna started to make their home.
She would invite over other ex-pats and new friends for big dinners. These were glorious dinners with lots of wine and food and great conversations. The food was important, but Donna realized that she was recreating those big taco dinners from her childhood. Coming to the dinner table is so much more than just food, it is also about family.
But, Donna isn’t the type to be satisfied just at home. And so, she continued writing and got a few things published. She also started helping at the wineries, tasting different wines, and learning to trust her palate.
Because of John’s chef connections, Donna still enjoyed access to meeting and watching talented chefs cook. Just like before, she found their passion intoxicating; she knew she always wanted to be around these talented people.
And so, she started a specialized tour business, focusing on these chefs and vintners, as well as offering cooking lessons.
But, the touring business was seasonal. So, for the other nine months out of the year, Donna started to teach English to Italian businesses. One of her major clients was the cherished Italian company Ferrero, the company that makes Nutella and Ferrero Rocher. And, even though she was there to teach English, she actually ended up helping identify and implement the company’s change management program.
As romantic as living in Italy is, it doesn’t stop time. Both of their fathers had died, but both mothers were ready for them to be closer to home they started to think about moving back to the U.S. In fact, back to John’s home town- Boston.
Donna, the perpetual student, the teacher and guide, the business owner, the lover of culinary passion and Italy, the analyst, and the woman who knew that sitting down to a good meal meant bringing friends and family to the table started a job search. And what do you think she found that fit all of her qualifications PLUS put her in the position to work with passionate and talented people? You might have guessed, the job that encompassed all of her skills was the head chef of Eataly Boston’s cooking school, La Scuola.
As the Chef of La Scuola, Donna gets to share all of the wonderful knowledge she’s collected through the years. She is also surrounded by talented chefs who possess skills that allow them to turn common place fish that might be tossed aside into a magical dish. Or pastry chefs who delicately create tasty and beautiful little treasures that might be held by a queen. Eataly provides her with the family and passion she has always craved and recreated.
It may seem like an extremely circuitous route to get to where she is. However, after taking her class and seeing her charisma in action, we see where those acting classes came into play. Hearing her methodically describe the steps to making pasta, you understand how her business and analytical experience is important. All of these pieces of her life have come together to make her the ideal la maestra for La Scuola. And, although she has always craved being around talented and passionate people, what she might not realize is that she is just as much one of them. People want to be around her! Brava Donna, you’ve stolen our heart and reminded us of the importance of finding your passion and living it!
Lei un vero talent!
– The Haute Life