The Charger Blog

Italian Pizzeria Owner Teaches Students in Tuscany the Art of Pizza Making

As part of a class activity, students studying at the University’s campus in Prato, Italy, recently visited a local pizzeria, where the friendly staff welcomed them and gave them a hands-on private lesson on how to make a perfect Neapolitan pizza.

October 6, 2022

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Gerardo Tortora (in white) demonstrates how to make a pizza.
Gerardo Tortora (in white) demonstrates how to make a pizza.

Kelsey McDonnell ’25 spreads sauce over the dough she’s just formed into the shape of a small pizza, then tops it with fresh mozzarella and a drizzle of olive oil. Her instructor then guides her as she slides the peel under the dough and carefully puts the pizza in the oven built into the wall beside them. Her classroom? A family-owned pizzeria in Tuscany, Italy. Her teacher? The restaurant’s owner.

McDonnell, a psychology major, is spending the semester at the University’s campus in Prato, Italy. She, her professor, and several of her classmates recently spent part of an afternoon at Pizland, a pizzeria just a short walk from the campus and a popular local spot for students.

“I eat here all the time – I even brought my parents here when they visited,” she said. “I was really looking forward to coming here to learn how to make pizza. When I’m back in the United States, I will be making pizza, now that I know how.”

Gerardo Tortora guides Kelsey McDonnell ’25 as she makes her pizza.
Gerardo Tortora guides Kelsey McDonnell ’25 as she makes her pizza.
‘Good for the students to try this type of pizza’

McDonnell and her classmates took part in the cooking lesson as part of a lab for their “Cultural Understanding of Food and Cuisine” class. The restaurant was closed for lunch but open to the students who had their very own lesson making Margherita pizzas – a typical Neapolitan pizza – with Gerardo Tortora. He first demonstrated how to make a pizza, serving it to the students to try before they made their own.

The students’ professor, Leonardo Borsacchi, Ph.D., helped translate as students learned from Tortora, who then gave each student their very own lesson. He explained how to gently flatten the dough after letting it rest, how to spread sauce on it, and, after adding the mozzarella and the oil, how to properly pick up the pizza with the peel and slide it into the oven.

Part of the University’s meal plan for students studying in Tuscany, Pizland is one of the many local restaurants that regularly hosts students. It has been welcoming and feeding Chargers since the University opened its Prato campus ten years ago. The restaurant’s menu is simple – it serves pizza – but Tortora has been known to make other dishes especially for students.

“I’ll make pasta or appetizers for the students, but the students coming here for dinner usually ask for pizza,” said Tortora. “I love working with young people at the pizzeria. This is a typical pizza place, and it’s good for the students to try this type of pizza.”

Students enjoy a private pizza making lesson at Pizland in Prato, Italy.
Students enjoy a private pizza making lesson at Pizland in Prato, Italy.
‘A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’

That type of pizza is the Neapolitan style, as Tortora hails from Naples. The pizzeria is decorated with pictures and mementos of Neapolitan culture, as well as photos of Italian actors and soccer memorabilia. It gives students a cultural immersion as well as an authentic culinary experience.

As part of the lesson, students compared the pizza they were making to the pies they are familiar with in the United States. They also learned more about the ingredients in the dough as well as the toppings.

“It’s not cheese, it’s mozzarella,” explained Luca Tortura, Gerardo’s son who was there to welcome students and offer a smile and words of encouragement.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – where else will I be able to take a cooking class in Italy with Italians?” said Sarah-Jayne Sellers ’24, a national security major. “We also talked about the different types of pizzas in Italy and the ingredients in them, just like we discussed in class.”

Paul Bourgeois, Ph.D., CRC, NCC, speaks as part of a dispatcher stress training.
Emily Kelliher ’24 (left) and Sarah-Jayne Sellers ’24.
‘They make you feel very welcome’

The course aims to give students an understanding of Italian culture and the links between food, culture, and history. Students complete a food journal as part of the class, describing three meals they’ve eaten each week and discussing the ingredients. They also consider whether or not the dish is typical of a particular region – for example, if they visit Sicily and eat lasagna, they know it is not a dish commonly eaten there. The journal is a way for them to continue to learn as they’re enjoying Italy’s delicious food.

The hands-on activities, such as the lesson at Pizland, are a key part of the course. Other hands-on activities have included cooking classes at the University as well as olive oil tastings, enabling students to learn the differences between different pressings and levels of quality.

“These kinds of activities are important because they give students a look at what we’ve discussed in the classroom,” said Dr. Borsacchi, a professor at the University’s Prato Campus. “They are great opportunities for students to have fun while learning about the close relationship between food, culture, and the Italian lifestyle. The way we eat pizza differs from what they are used to. For example, we don’t typically drink water with pizza or precut it before serving it. Students also learn that you can make great food with very few ingredients.”

McDonnell, the psychology major, and her classmates stayed at Pizland after their lesson, enjoying the lunch that they’d just made and chatting with the staff and each other. The pizzeria has become part of the University’s Prato Campus community, and McDonnell says she always looks forward to stopping in for a meal.

“The food here is amazing, and they make you feel very welcome,” she said. It’s fun to be here with Luca and Gerardo. I think this is the best pizza in Prato!”

Gerardo (left) and Luca Tortora inside Pizland.
Gerardo (left) and Luca Tortora inside Pizland.