Today we meet Elissa Ruffino, an Italian-American communications expert. After two decades as the head of public relations at The National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), she now teaches at Marymount University in the US and John Cabot University in Rome.
Elissa, tell us about yourself. You have Italian ancestry. Where is your family from?
About me- a very proud American of Italian descent who managed to visit Italy early in high school with my Latin class and the Sisters (nuns) who taught us. At 15, I realized how deep my roots were embedded in my soul when I left after that Easter trip. The rest is history! Both maternal and paternal grandparents were born in Italy (Palermo/Salerno/Agrigento and Santa Maria Ligure). They cover the very north and south. After leaving Italy, they never went back except for my grandfather Giuseppe to marry another woman after my grandmother died at an early age of 60.
What is it that sets an Italian American apart in the United States?
One can always recognize the uniqueness and comradery with another Italian American- their warmth of character, desire for inclusivity, understanding and big and small Italian traditions. I have noticed the traditions are countless if the ancestry is on the maternal side.
What is the thing you love most about Italy and why?
Pretty much EVERYTHING including graffiti etc. No, really I love the strength and creativity of the Italian people. Their openness and strength (forza!). They always reply—"Why not!" without hesitation.
What is the Italian habit that you like to keep?
I am a gift giver, be it my time, conversation, food prepared, entertaining at my home, or something small (a thought). I would NEVER show up at someone's home or when returning to see colleagues in Italy without a gift. It's the warmth in our hearts that keep everyone close.
What is the Italian city you most enjoy returning to and why?
ROMA! My work career brought me here often with the most incredible experiences but better than that- teaching at John Cabot University in Trastevere is now and for several summer sessions, previously my favorite. Being in Rome for long periods enable me to become part of the fabric of Trastevere, a neighborhood as well as catch up with several media colleagues whom I worked with in Washington, DC. Florence used to be carved in my heart since my first visit and while studying there while doing graduate work at Georgetown University. But upon returning many times and most recently in 2019, I was shocked at how American brands (Disney/Victoria's Secret etc.) have taken over the elegant city.
What is the Italian food you just can't give up?
Cacio e pepe pasta in Rome!
What is the first thing you taste every time you return to Italy?
Of course the gelato and cappuccino at Bar San Calisto, every morning! By the way, the first thing I do is say a prayer at St. Anthony in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere to thank God that I am here.
What is the Italian dish you enjoy cooking the most?
Eggplant parmigiana, my grandmother's recipe with my mother's sauce!