Students Give University’s Tuscany Campus Meal Plan Five Stars
For students who study abroad at the University’s campus in Prato, Italy, eating at local cafés and restaurants as part of their meal plan is not only delicious, it is an experience that creates a sense of being welcomed like family.
September 26, 2023
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
Noah Iott ’25 sits at an Italian café having lunch with several classmates. They were taking a break after their morning classes, enjoying plates of pasta, and reflecting on their experience abroad.
The students had been at the University’s campus in Prato, Italy, for more than a month at the time last fall. They were seated around an outdoor table, where they shared stories and laughs as they discussed their tasty meals and culinary discoveries.
“I’ve noticed a big difference in the food here and in the culture around meals,” said Iott, a business management major. “I wasn’t used to breakfast being a pastry, but now I get one after class. Life is good.”
“The quality of the food is so much better here than back home,” added Liam Orsini ’24, a national security major. “It is much fresher. Most things are locally sourced.”
‘It makes me very happy’
The students were eating at Caffè Buonamici, a café just a short walk from campus that is on their meal plan. Students receive vouchers for each meal in Italy – even for snacks and gelato – that they can present at several cafés and restaurants near the campus. There are also restaurants in Florence – a short train ride from Prato – on the meal plan, all located a short walk from the train station so that students who are traveling can also get something to eat.
As they discussed their favorite local places and meals, the students were enthusiastic about how much they were enjoying the food on their meal plan.
“I’ve been getting this amazing Nutella pastry,” said Sarah-Jayne Sellers ’24, a national security major. “It’s everything Nutella, and it makes me very happy. I get one at Magnolfi every day.”
‘There’s enough variety on the meal plan’
Designed to offer students plenty of options, the meal plan also includes a few restaurants that do not serve traditional Italian food, such as kebobs and Chinese food. Many restaurants offer options for those with special dietary requirements, and many change their menus regularly, ensuring variety and the chance to try something new.
Although many menu items – such as pizza and pasta – were familiar to students, dining in Italy served them a variety of opportunities to explore the differences between Italian culture and what they were used to back home. Besides their surprise that breakfast is typically coffee or tea with a pastry or sandwich, students also noted that restaurants don’t typically begin serving dinner until 7:30 p.m. – later than they were used to. Emily Kelliher ’24 was surprised by how a familiar food was served in Italy.
“At home, pizza is sliced so it can be shared,” said Kelliher, a national security major. “It isn’t pre-sliced here. Everyone receives a whole, uncut pizza. And it’s good. There’s also enough variety on the meal plan here that I don’t need to go anywhere else to eat.”
‘Become part of our Charger family’
That’s the experience that Lara Pugi, program coordinator at the University’s Tuscany campus, hoped to cook up for students. She grins as she says that coordinating the meal plan is one of her favorite parts of her job. She has personally tried the restaurants on the meal plan and ensured they offer an excellent menu for Chargers.
Pugi explains that the restaurants on the meal plan were selected based on the staff, the food they serve, and their proximity to the campus. She is regularly in touch with students – and restaurant staff – throughout each semester to gather their feedback and to adjust the meal plan, if necessary.
“As a parent, I know food is very important,” said Pugi. “It’s a critical part of the students’ experience abroad – not just because they need to eat, but because it’s an important part of experiencing the culture.
“I understand it can be challenging to be abroad, to get out of their comfort zone,” she continued. “I am going to make things work for them. If they’re comfortable with the food and they eat well, their experience will be even better. For me, it’s a big honor to be a part of this for them.”
Some of the restaurants on the meal plan have been feeding Chargers since the University opened the satellite campus more than a decade ago. The cafés and restaurants are family-run, and they’ve welcomed members of the University community into their families. That, says Pugi, is an important part of the meal plan experience.
“When restaurants become part of our meal plan, they become part of our Charger family, too,” she said. “They love having our students there. They tell me how much they enjoy them, and that they create a very positive atmosphere. Students get to know them, and they become like family.”
‘They’re a part of the community’
For Francesco Colella, who owns Mokha, seeing Chargers come into his family’s traditional Italian restaurant puts a smile on his face. Located near the campus and a very short walk from the facility where students enjoy a weekly recreational Sports Night, Mokha is one of the most popular restaurants on the meal plan. Students enjoy eating lunch and dinner there, and some Italian classes even meet there over Italian cuisine.
Colella, who has been serving members of the University community for more than ten years, has always gone out of his way to make them feel welcome. Whether it was introducing some American dishes to the menu – including Caesar salad – to make students more comfortable (something he says his Italian customers also enjoyed) or changing the menu, he has endeavored to make dining in Italy as enjoyable for Chargers as possible.
“They can eat the most famous Italian dishes here, such as lasagna,” he said. “And every day, we introduce new ingredients and flavors so they can learn and discover Italian culture. They’re always very nice and polite, and we enjoy welcoming them and having contact with them.”
“They are very important to us, and we feel they’re a part of the community,” adds Domenico Colella, Francesco’s son. “Students have had Thanksgiving dinner here, and we cooked dinner the American way to make them feel at home. We celebrated with them, and we were so glad to be a part of it.”
‘They welcomed me back’
Students say the staff at the restaurants on the meal plan have always been committed to whetting their appetites for learning about culture while making sure they left full and happy with their meals. Dora Crespo ’26 recalled a recent conversation with Luca at Pizland when he also took on the role of Italian teacher.
“Luca helped me with my Italian pronunciation,” said Crespo, an international affairs major. “He’s so nice, and I always have a great experience there. At another place, they taught me how to say the names of the pastries.”
That hospitality was something that stood out to the students. They were impressed by how staff went above and beyond to connect with them, to welcome them, and to make sure they had a delicious and memorable meal.
Iott, the business management major, says that of all the things that make enjoying the food in Italy delicious, the service and the welcoming nature have been among his favorites.
“For most of the places on the meal plan, we see the same staff every time we go,” he said. “That helps us get to know each other. I went to one of them a month ago, and then I just recently went back. Not only did they remember me, they remembered what I’d ordered, and they welcomed me back.”