Little Italy: local language school connects residents on a cultural level

Melinda Harris has been taking a trip to Italy every summer for several years. But it wasn’t until she began studying Italian at School Amici that she started to enjoy it in a different way.

“Until I learned Italian, I don’t think I really appreciated the culture,” she says.

For seven years, Harris made the one-hour drive from Wilmington to the school in O’Bryonville once a week for the two-hour class.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have School Amici,” she says. “I give all the credit to them. The teachers … they’re patient, they’re thorough.”

They’re also native speakers, which makes a difference, in Harris’s opinion. She reads Italian daily now and tries to listen to Italian news at least once a day to maintain her skills.

School Amici is a little Italian oasis in the sea of German heritage that is Cincinnati. It was founded in 1984 by a group of four friends: Federico Bilotti, his wife Agatha Da Vita, and Paul and Linda Wallpe. The idea for a school was born from second-generation Italians who wanted to get closer to their cultural roots, Bilotti wrote in an e-mail. He now lives in Aprilia, Italy, a small town in the Lazio region.

The friendships that grew among both students and teachers made Bilotti think of the word “amici” (“friends” in Italian) as an appropriate description of what he and Paul Wallpe wanted to do: bring newly emigrated Italians together in a fun-filled promotion of their Italian culture.

Michele Alonzo in Italy

By 1986, the group was too large to stay in their originally improvised location and they moved to Sacred Heart Church in Camp Washington. Bilotti was transferred to Europe in 1991 and a core group of teachers, including current director Michele Alonzo, continued offering the classes. They were later held in East Walnut Hills, Clifton, and Rookwood Commons before landing at the Academy of World Languages in O’Bryonville, where it’s been for ten years.

School Amici also has partnerships with “sister schools” in Italy in Siena, Sorrento, Todi, and Recanati.

Alonzo, who’s been director for 20 years, said he’s definitely seen an increased interest in learning Italian in the past few years, as well as an increase in dual-citizenship applications. The enrollment averages 40 students, divided into four levels from beginner to advanced. The classes fill up quicker and the mailing list he started grows every year. The school’s Facebook page has 1,500 followers.

There have been students who have traveled to Italy to the town of their ancestors, some with just basic Italian and others who have studied longer, and even taken classes in Italy.

“Some students have told me that they used the Italian learned at School Amici to get around cities, ask information, order at restaurants,” says Bilotti. “They are very excited when they can use the vocabulary and expressions learned in classes.”

A small percentage takes the classes because they do business in Italy or work for companies connected to the country.

“I think many people also like the social aspect of the Italian classes at School Amici,” Alonzo says. “They meet people with their interests, make friends, sometime go out together after class. All of this is an important component.”

For retiree Gene Pancheri, who often traveled abroad for work, learning Italian was something he just dabbled in at work and at the University of Cincinnati. Then he found School Amici and it got a bit more serious.

“It was native speakers, friendly people, convenient times,” he says. Now he’s a dual Italian-U.S. citizen, a process he started 16 years ago, and he’s written a book about the origins of his family in northern Italy.

Pancheri goes to Italy three or four times a year and he almost always visits Trentino, where his family is from. Much of the research for his book required reading church records. Luckily, he could talk to the locals who helped him translate and transcribe those records.

“I found out my family had lived in a castle,” he says. “We were captains of the castle for almost 200 years.”

Students make bruschetta during a cooking class.

Pancheri praised the school for the lessons, yes, but also the extracurriculars that come with the sessions. “Michele arranges cultural things like Italian cooking lessons or a movie night. He’s very good at providing a total Italian experience,” he says. “That’s one of the things that sets the school apart.”

New student Maria Barrow realized that studying Italian with an app on her phone wasn’t enough for her. She went to Italy last year and, she says, “I couldn’t make one word come out of my mouth. I’d never had a conversation. It was just me on my phone.”

Fast forward to last month when Barrow enrolled in a language school in Bologna. “I went because of how poorly I did when I was there.”

She was impressed with how much progress her fellow students made after just two weeks. So she decided to find a school in Cincinnati. An internet search returned School Amici and she will attend the next session, which begins January 9.

“I like the idea of showing respect to people in a country by learning their language,” Barrow says. “The most important thing is I tried it on my own and realized I couldn’t do it. I did a good job of learning to hear it.”

As Pancheri mentioned, there is more to the school than just classes. In addition to the cooking classes and movie nights, Alonzo organizes picnics and potlucks with a group of native Italians who live and work in Cincinnati to make the students feel part of the Italian community. He organizes a school exchange program where families host Italian students for a school year.

Alonzo is also a point person for dual-citizenship seekers.

“Year by year, School Amici has become a fulcrum for everything Italian,” he says. “And the power of word of mouth is amazing. We have students coming from Dayton, Wilmington, Springboro, Mason, and Lawrenceburg.”

For Paul Carmichael, who’s been attending School Amici for five years, he wants to learn the language for several reasons.

“It’s the language of my ancestors and I heard it all the time growing up,” he says. “Our family still practices our Italian traditions.”

His wife is 100 percent Italian but doesn’t speak the language. Their daughter, who studied Italian and lived in Rome in 2011, speaks it very well.

“We visited my wife’s family in Abruzzo and they spoke little to no English,” he says. “We had to communicate with them in Italian. Each time we visited, the conversations got a little better, as my Italian improved.”

Eric Lombardo has been attending classes for about ten years with friends Dominic Lemma and Michael Trotta. He’s been to Italy five times and speaks the language as much as possible when he’s there.

“Getting tips about the culture and customs from native Italians is also very important,” he says. “I have enjoyed all the teachers I have had over the years and enjoy reconnecting with them.”

Bilotti surmised that maybe the growth in popularity of the school and Italian in general is the love of the good life. “Italian has become synonymous of good food, innovation, poetry, exploration, sainthood, art, good wine, fast cars; in a word: satisfaction and naturally we all search for satisfaction in life,” he says.

School Amici is located at 2030 Fairfax Ave, Cincinnati 45207. The next session begins Jan. 9, 2019. For more information, call 513-681-0224 or register at School Amici.






Read more articles by Jan Angilella.

Jan Angilella is a freelance journalist, blogger, and publicist. She's been in the communications industry for more than 25 years. She's also mad about Italy. Read about her adventures there on her blog Remember: no 's' on cannoli.