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Celebrate Italy’s Creativity, Culture and Entrepreneurship in Canada

Three of Italy’s luminaries--a cultural curator, a coffee exporter and a wine producer--share their secrets to success

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After the dark Middle Ages, visionaries such as Leonardo da Vinci brought Italy’s art and culture to light and created masterpieces that have stood the test of time. Since this awakening, Italy has thrived, and on the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, some of today’s creative leaders have brought their rich culture to Canada for the IT@CA event on October 25th, at the Toronto Design Exchange.

We had a chance to talk with three of the featured luminaries: Riccardo Illy, Rosanna San Paulo, and Angelo Gaja.


Riccardo Illy attained Managing Director position in illy Caffè family business in 1992. He later served as the company’s Vice President.

Riccardo Illy at IT@CA event. Photo by Giulia Emanuela Storti
Riccardo Illy at IT@CA event. Photo by Giulia Emanuela Storti.

Magnifissance: How did the illy story begin?

Riccardo: Before the Second World War, Francesco Illy built a perfectly sealed container, put roasted coffee inside, took away the air, and substituted the air with nitrogen.

Magnifissance: Wow, was he the first person to package coffee that way?

Riccardo: Yes. He started the business in 1933, producing coffee and chocolate. In 1956, my grandfather died quite young. My father took over, and later on, in 1965, he also started producing tea with an Indian brand. I am the second of three brothers. I entered the company in 1977. After a few years, I suggested that to avoid confusion about the brand we needed to get rid of tea. 

The illy Caffè in the Royal Gardens of Venice. Photo courtesy of illy
The illy Caffè in the Royal Gardens of Venice. Photo courtesy of illy.

Magnifissance: Sole focus on a coffee then? 

Riccardo: Yes, and I also introduced the single blend. When I entered the company, we had over 20. I reduced it to just one blend. This is one of our strengths that enabled us to grow in Italy and abroad, because wherever you go, you see an illy sign logo; and you will find the same taste and flavor. That’s important.

Magnifissance: This year is the anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci, what do you think would impress him most about illy?

Riccardo: I think he would love the fact that we’re committed in technology, but in art as well. 

Our production workflow utilizes cutting edge technology, so everything is automated. Everything is computerized. We use some unusual technology, for example a laser to detect the degree of grinding of ground coffee.

So, I’m sure that Leonardo da Vinci would love this, but on the other side, we are committed in art to communicate. My elder brother Francesco introduced in 1992 the art collection of cups, the  important painter that painted the very first collection was Sandro Chia. He’s Italian but he’s living in New York City. He painted the first collection with the masks, he normally paints masks. By chance, he said, “Okay, I will paint an additional one,” so he made seven instead of six cups. So, there are seven. It is one of the most rare cups, and to find it on the Internet is very difficult.

Magnifissance: Coffee came to Italy after da Vinci’s death, and went on to become a big hit during the Italian Renaissance. How has coffee and brewing changed since then?

Riccardo: At the beginning, coffee was prepared as an infusion. So, they just roasted the beans, ground it and put the water on the top, just how you would make tea. At the end of the 19th century, the espresso machine was invented. That means that the water is pushed through the ground coffee with a high pressure. My grandfather in 1935 invented the first, let’s say, modern espresso machine, because they first used steam for the pressure. But the problem is that to have a higher pressure, you also need a higher temperature. But then you would burn the coffee—you’d get a bad taste. So, my father thought, “If I divide the two sources, so I heat the water but then I press the water with a pump, I can increase the pressure without increasing the temperature.” 

Magnifissance: If you could sip espresso anywhere in the world, where would it be?

Riccardo: That’s a great question. I would say the first city that came in my mind is Cape Town. My grandmother on the side of my father was of half-Irish and half German origin, her father was born in Trieste, but she was born in Johannesburg. I paid a visit to Cape Town in 2011, and I really love the city. It’s a wonderful place to see, the climate is nice, and I would sip a cup of coffee on the seafront in some nice restaurant.

Cape Town at Sunrise, South Africa. Photo by Tim Johnson.
Cape Town at Sunrise, South Africa. Photo by Tim Johnson.

Magnifissance: That’s nice. It’s a kind of family connection.

Riccardo: Yes… and tradition.


Angelo Gaja is the Owner and President of Gaja Winery, known for its Barbarescos and Barolos in Piedmont, Italy.

Angelo Gaja at IT@CA event. Photo by Giulia Emanuela Storti
Angelo Gaja at IT@CA event. Photo by Giulia Emanuela Storti.

Magnifissance: Angelo, your family has been involved in wine production since the 1850s, what’s it like growing into the family business?

Angelo: Yes! I belong to a family that is involved in wine production. The winery was founded in 1859, so I represent the fourth generation. This is in Piedmont, based in a small village called Barbaresco. I grew up there. We work in our winery with an indigenous grape variety called the Nebbiolo. That’s a special grape variety that’s been planted in Piedmont for 800 years, and today it has a very strong identity linked to the territory. 

Italian region Piedmont, located about 100 kilometres (62 mi) south of Turin.
Italian region Piedmont, located about 100 kilometres (62 mi) south of Turin. Photo by DDZ Photo.

We own Gaja winery. We own 100 hectares, 240 acres of a vineyard, and we produce the Barolo and the Barbaresco. Both wines are made 100 percent of Nebbiolo grapes. I believe that we’re artisanal people. We don’t buy grapes. We don’t buy wine. The winery has a limited production. Often, we don’t have enough wine to sell in the market. But I believe we’re special because of that, and we’re very proud in producing these two wines that are considered the super-vino wines in Italy. 

Magnifissance: They call you “The King of the Barbaresco”. What is it that makes your wine special? 

Angelo: I believe that it was my father that already raised the definition, being a king of Barbaresco. We devoted a lot of time to improve the quality of our Barbaresco, and we were recognized for trying to make the quality of the Barbaresco wine more known and recognized. And yes, they probably call me the king of Barbaresco, but locally. 

I believe that Italy has many opportunities. Italy has the largest number of native indigenous grape varieties, some producing a tiny quantity while others in larger quantity, like Pinot Grigio, Chianti, Barbera, and Prosecco, of course. The wines are different, unique, and original. I believe that this in the long term will be a benefit for Italy. Moreover, we have a large number of wine producers and a large number of artisanal people. I believe that artisans are special, artisans are a group of people who have passion and are motivated. 

Magnifissance: Sounds wonderful! Can you share with our readers how the Italian wine and winemaking process has changed since the Renaissance?

Angelo: In my area, in the past, the red wines were aged in big oak barrels. They were kept there for seven, eight years, losing some kind of freshness. So I believe that now there’s more interest in keeping the integrity of the wine.

Magnifissance: What can we look forward to in the future for Gaja?

Angelo: Elegant wines—not blockbuster, but elegant wines. I am very, very lucky having my three children all dedicated to the future of the company, I’m very optimistic about Gaja’s future.


Rosanna Purchia is the Superintendent of the San Carlo Theatre and a renowned figure in the Italian theatrical circles. 

Rosanna Purchia at IT@CA event. Photo by Giulia Emanuela Storti
Rosanna Purchia at IT@CA event. Photo by Giulia Emanuela Storti.

Magnifissance: Could you please share with our readers about the San Carlo Theatre’s current productions, and perhaps some of your favourite performances?

Rosanna: For me, the best performance that we made last year, is  Pagliacci, by Ruggero Leoncavallo, directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca. Daniele Finzi Pasca is a young director that came from Cirque du Soleil. He created a new way to see Pagliacci. Not in a realistic way but in an oneiric way. It was such a poetic performance with beautiful sets and costumes.

Magnifissance: What would you like Canadians to learn about your home [Naples] and it’s art history? 

Rosanna: Naples is an art city. They know the best way. Pizza and mandolini. The best way. It’s a box full of treasures, and culture, humanity, and energy.

Magnifissance: Is it true that it was Verdi who suggested expanding the orchestra pit at the Teatro San Carlo?

Rosanna: Yes. Verdi came to Naples, and he wrote two operas for Teatro San Carlo. He wrote Luisa Miller and Alzira. The only symphonic work that Verdi wrote was for the San Carlo. It’s a wonderful quartet he created for the first musician of the Teatro San Carlo opera house. It’s the only one. You will find opera by Verdi, but never symphonic plays by Verdi. That was unique for Naples. He decided to make the pit much bigger to have a very big orchestra for his opera.

San Carlo Theatre
The theater of San Carlo opera house in Naples. Photo courtesy of San Carlo Theatre.

Magnifissance: What are you thinking of doing next? 

Rosanna: Our orchestra, at the moment—I’d love to bring my orchestra to Toronto, I think I spoke with our ambassador about bringing my San Carlo orchestra to Toronto next year.

Magnifissance: What’s the best seat in the house? 

Rosanna: It’s really great because in each seat of Teatro San Carlo, you can hear and see very, very well. Of course, the royal box is the royal box for King Charles of the Bourbons. The royal box is the most beautiful.

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