Over the past 16 years, Patty Civalleri has traveled to the deepest corners of our ancient past and has become a renowned expert on Italian history and travel.
A historian, writer and artist, her best-selling travel books showcase her intellectual enthusiasm that has driven her through lost caves, ancient tombs, rarely mentioned independent museums and churches and historical personalities that have been missed over time.
Patty is the co-author of the book, Becoming Trader Joe, the founding story of America’s Sweetheart retail grocery brand, with the “real Trader Joe” himself, Joe Coulombe. Joe’s voice can be heard in every single sentence as he tells the brilliant, deep, humorous, and sometimes even touching founding story of Trader Joe’s.
We had the chance to interview the author recently.
NM:How/why did you become an expert on Italy in particular?
PC: Years ago, my husband and I took a trip down through France, then down through Italy. That was my first trip to Italy. We stopped in many cities, but oddly, I found it difficult to leave Florence. I don’t know why. But needless to say, we had to get back home. For the next few years, we traveled with the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA to many ancient sites around the world. Oddly, I couldn’t stop thinking about Florence. Eventually, another opportunity to travel through Italy came up, so we went. Once again, we visited Florence which, this time, felt strangely comfortable. When it was time to leave, I again found it difficult to leave. Years later, I needed a work break, so I booked an AirBnB in — guess where? — Florence for a couple of months. This time, I went alone, and walked her streets, drank her wine and fell in love with her extremely deep story. That love turned into my first book, which led to a book on Venice and a book on Rome as well. Doing the research has been one of the single most enjoyable jobs of my life. I am clearly in for the long haul!
NM: What about the country is so special to you? What fascinates you about Italy?
PC: I absolutely love the stories of Italy’s emperors and artists, of empires and awakenings, of love and loss. Her history is SO DEEP but easy to understand if you take the time. Traveling with the Cotsen Institute for nearly two decades taught me how to break history down into ‘nibblicious’ little parts, then reassemble them back together in ways that make it easy for casual visitors to understand. Everyone loves stories, and I believe that people really learn through stories rather than memorizing names and dates.
NM: I am going to be traveling to Abruzza soon for a tour of the wine region… Do you have any recommendations of what not to miss in this region?
PC: Unfortunately, I am not well-versed in the Abruzzo region. But if wine is your thing, most folks visit the Tuscany region automatically. For me, Tuscany is very similar to California’s Napa Valley in that it is pretty over-touristy and over-priced. Most Californians know to visit the Paso Robles winery area and even the up-and-coming-Temecula Valley area where the owner/vintner still pours your wines (with love) during a tasting. Not so in the touristy Napa – or Tuscany for that matter. When I was in Rome recently, the locals gave the same kind of advice for Italy: Tuscany has good wines, but it is crowded and expensive. Now if you want really GOOD wines, you must go to Apuglia! So, I went down south to the ‘heel of the boot’ to Apuglia (aka Puglia) and fell in love with their deep-bodied, velvety, smooth fabulous reds. My fav grape from Puglia: the Primativo grape. Wow!
NM: Do you have a favorite place or memorable trip to Italy that you might share some memories of?
PC: Hmmm, this is a tough one. It was probably the time I went to Florence alone for a couple of months. The first morning that I awoke and looked out the window, I thought “Why does this city LOOK this way?” It is clearly stuck in a medieval dream, with its palazzos and towers, and ancient-looking streets. The pursuit of answering that question only served to bring about more questions, and more. I found myself going to museums, visiting libraries, going online, talking to universities, and visiting with locals in order to answer the myriad of questions that kept coming up.
Then one day, it hit me: Florence is where a whole bunch of familiar guys (Michelangelo, DaVinci, Raphael, the Medici, Donatello, Dante, Botticelli, Petrarch, Machiavelli and SO MANY MORE) collectively participated in a huge social movement that ended the Dark Ages (aka the Middle Ages, the Medieval times), and moved Western culture into the ‘enlightened’ age that we all enjoy today. That social movement later became known as ‘The Renaissance,’ a French term that means ‘the Awakening.’ Without that Renaissance, we could very well still be living in something similar to the Dark Ages.
Many cultures today have still not ‘awakened’ from their own dark ages yet. You know them as the one that do not honor freedom of thought, democracy, human rights, and individual dignity. You know them as the ones that feel it is important to dishonor women, kill people for land rights, and squelch individual freedoms. I wonder if/when those folks will experience their own Renaissance, and move into an enlightened age of freedom. And all of that came out of looking out a window and wondering.
NM: Can you tell us about Becoming Trader Joe, the book you co-authored. about the founder of Trader Joe’s. What was it like to collaborate with Joe Coulombe?
PC: This book project came about because Covid literally killed the huge global travel industry. Since I was authoring travel books, I too was out of business for a couple of years. A friend came to me with Joe’s story and asked if I could help him to get it published. Of course, I had to read it first. And boy, what a story – I loved it instantly! So, after some fixing, mending and prettying up, we signed a contract with HarperCollins to publish and very soon after, Joe passed away. I have since taken the responsibility to ensure that Joe’s incredible ‘David & Goliath’ story gets out to the public.
It is Joe’s founding story of building the foundational philosophy of the company that is considered to be America’s sweetheart retail brand. It comes complete with anecdotes, fun food facts, and the things that kept him awake at night. Not only is it a really compelling read, it is also a terrific business primer for any entrepreneur that is struggling to differentiate their business from their competitors. It has been a bestseller since its release, and I couldn’t be more proud that Joe’s story will not be lost to history.
NM: What’s next for you …. what new places are on your exploration agenda?
PC: The world is always beckoning me with new places to explore. And of course, my readers are brimming with suggestions of where I should write about next. I think I have 1 or 2 Italy products left to create, then who knows which country will be next. I am enjoying the process of re-imagining the tourist industry, and coming up with new ideas and ways for us to travel. The old ways have taught us to herd travel, over-crowd, and continually damage our ancient Cultural Heritage sites. I am coming up with ways to circumvent that process by providing the tools to help travelers to spread out in a way that is easy, inexpensive, and will maintain their independence during their trips. It’s just a matter of thinking a bit differently. Additionally, being plugged into the industry, I am in a lot of social media groups related to travel. I read daily about travel agents that were unhappy with the kind of clientele they get, and of travelers that were unhappy with their travel representatives. I think that is because there is nothing in the market that properly aligns a travelers wants with a travel agent’s specialty, and vice versa. I will soon come out with a (free) tool that I will make available to anyone that wants it. It will be designed to color-match a traveler’s interests with the travel agent’s specialization, and vice versa. I think this little printable tool will smooth out a lot of roads to be traveled!
Photos Courtesy of Patty Civalleri.