La Dolce Vita

Sheila Syty and her group, Il Circolo Italiano, prove that some Americans want a cultural exchange richer than ordering pizza.

Less than two years ago, the conversation and culture group was only an idea. Syty was learning to speak Italian in order to converse with her in-laws, who live in Italy. “At first we were able to scrape together four or five people who wanted to speak Italian,” she says. The concept resonated with people, and soon the group had attracted more than 80 members.

The group’s latest endeavor, Pazze e Pentole (which translates roughly as crazy women and pans), is a chance to bring true Italian cuisine to the Midwest.

“People get most excited about the food of Italian culture,” Syty says. She and event director Nina Mehta-Young lead the class, which will make baci di giulietta, Veronese butter cookies sandwiched together with dark chocolate, and an Italian lemon-flavored liqueur called limoncello. (The latter means the class has a 21-or-older age requirement.) They’ll go over recipes that use the extra lemons and add dashes of Italian cooking wisdom — all at the historic Bisceglia Italian Cultural Center.

“Everything’s at a slower pace,” Syty says, explaining her interest in Italian culture. “There’s a quality of food and commitment to aesthetics.” Middle-schoolers, retirees and those in between are all lured in, she adds. They come because they want to travel or reconnect with their heritage.

Mehta-Young, a British ex-pat, has a European perspective. “Americans feel more pressure these days to make an effort to be sympathetic to others’ culture,” she says. When she moved to Kansas City, she had trouble filling her Italian classes. These days, they’re overflowing. The cookie recipe is hers; she makes them for her relatives every Christmas.

Syty’s Italian is still a bit shaky, but her cultural immersion has made the trips to her Italian mother-in-law’s home much more fun. The language that her in-laws speak is no longer foreign to her, and now she helps them in the kitchen, too.