On Sundays at 1:30 p.m.—TV on and set to NYC Life Channel 25—the famous “Brindisi” (Drinking Song) from Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata inevitably lures me from whatever I am doing around the house and glues my attention to the show that is about to begin. I am swiftly pulled into a universe of culinary wonders that would make anyone stop in their tracks. The show is Brindiamo! and Ornella Fado its elegant and dynamic hostess and producer. For the past seventeen years, Ornella has led viewers into the fragrant, tantalizing havens of Italian cuisine in New York City and its environs as well as in Italy. She has introduced viewers to countless noted chefs, fine restaurants, and mouth-watering recipes, many of which become staples of cooking repertoires at home. For this interview, we met in one of Ornella’s favorite NYC restaurants, Norma Gastronomia Siciliana, where I fell in love with cannoli all over again. It was such a pleasure to learn about Ornella’s fascinating journey to creating Brindiamo! and get a few recommendations on where to celebrate the reopening of New York City, Italian-style.
You come from a classical music and dance background, and you have also performed in musical theater and on television in Italy. What was your initial dream?
I wanted to be a ballerina. In fact, I moved from my town in Calabria to Rome because the Prima Ballerina Étoile of the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome, Diana Ferrara, invited me to be part of her national dance company. So, I went to Rome as a ballerina, but very quickly I switched because I was very curious. At 17, there I was living in Rome by myself—we’re talking about the 80s—with so much work and opportunities. I really threw myself into auditioning for everything because I wanted to experiment. I remember an audition for this famous variety television show “Fantastico 6.” Because I was a ballerina, I went to do the audition in my pointe shoes, and everybody looked at me funny; I was very conservative with my chignon and my leotards. The choreographer, Franco Miseria, said: “let’s look at her, she’s so different from everybody else.” I got the job; it was ten dancers, five Italian and five Americans. That’s how I started to work on TV, and I loved it.
I did other TV shows like “Un altro varietà,” and “Cinema che Follia” with dance shows based on movies. Then I started exploring the possibility to do “commedia musicale,” which is Italian musical theatre, and I did this fantastic show with Massimo Ranieri. I was only 20-21; at that age you don’t even realize what is happening, you actually think it’s normal because your friends are doing the same. That was a two-year experience: touring 365 days a year. I also did commercials and auditioned for movies for small roles as a dancer, for example in Fellini’s Intervista (Interview) and in Zeffirelli’s Otello. Then I did something that changed my life: an audition for the first private television in Rome, GBR television. They were looking for the brand ambassador of the channel. So, I got the job and was inside the studio 24 hours a day. That was when I discovered that my love was being on television as a hostess, and that is who I am now.
But, of course, destiny wants different things. Yes, I changed my career from dancing to acting to hosting, but then I went to see A Chorus Line. I fell in love with that show and auditioned. I got a part and met the person who would become my husband and father of my child; he was the music director of A Chorus Line in Italy —and that’s how I ended up coming to America. We met in 1991, got married in 1992, and a year later my daughter was born.
How did you get the inspiration for creating your “Brindiamo!” show?
So here I am in America, a young Italian woman speaking no English, with the idea of teaching her daughter about Italy. While my daughter was growing, I was fixing my interests based on her needs. She was four years old—we’re talking about almost 25 years ago—and at that time there was no Italian after school program. So, I created “Danza e Musica,” to teach Italian through dance and song. This project actually became an after school program for her school. Thanks also to my daughter, Carolina, as she started to do a lot of modeling and acting, I realized that the kids auditioning were too mature for kids’ dance classes but too young for adult dance classes. I created a class called Showbiz Kids for children that were serious about show business, children auditioning on Broadway.
I also realized there was no TV show for Italians abroad and decided to create one. I worked so much in television that I had an idea of what I needed, and I built it from zero. I met a good cameraman, Brett, and we started this new adventure 17 years ago. First, I decided to create a collection of DVDs about Italian restaurants and call that Brindiamo!. I began filming in Italian but right away I understood that I was going to cut out the rest of the population by only speaking in Italian and thought, ‘well, they will have to deal with my accent.’ I filmed at a lot of great restaurants, and our team grew. Then there was something about the NYC Life channel I really liked, it was very New York and trendy and I wanted to be on that channel. So, I gave them one of my DVDs with pictures from the first photo shoot I did. The program director at NYC said they chose my show because it was the only DVD that came with a cover and professional pictures; they receive a lot of shows on DVDs marked with a marker. But they knew everything about my show just by looking at the cover. That’s how Brindiamo! started – the first broadcast was on October 6, 2005.
New York City plays a central role in your show. You have highlighted so many restaurants and chefs here, and viewers can learn to cook various Italian specialties from the chefs’ demonstrations. Tell us more about the concept behind your show.
I love everything about New York! I feel I’m a New Yorker, I’ve lived here 30 years, more years than I lived in Italy. Even the way I run a business is more like a New Yorker than an Italian, keeping the American straightforward concept of getting right to the point, because Italians can have shows that are ten hours long! I wanted to create a show that featured Italians outside Italy and to showcase what it’s like to live as an Italian in America. I thought that food would be an interesting subject for everybody, for any ethnic group. If I talk about Italian food, chances are that anybody may enjoy it. Often people here wanted to bring me to Italian restaurants that weren’t authentic. So, this was a great way to showcase authentic fine Italian restaurants, showing food directly cooked in the kitchen. Now you know everything about restaurants through bloggers and social media. But 16-17 years ago, the kitchen was only for the chef and for the people who worked there. The fact is that they all opened the door to me in a very natural way and I was going into the hearts of the restaurants. And Brindiamo! also welcomes Italian celebrities in America that I interview.
As New York City reopens, do you have any particular recommendations where we can celebrate our return?
There are so many places, I will only name a few. We are here today in a typical Sicilian restaurant, Norma Gastronomia Siciliana – it has two locations. Then I love La Masseria and Masseria dei Vini; they’re both in midtown on the West Side. I did a lot of shows with them when I talked about Puglia. There’s another fantastic place that actually helped us during Covid. Last year I became a U.S. citizen, so we went to celebrate on this beautiful rooftop in the Financial District called Ampia. We were very safe on the rooftop in the open. Last year, for Brindiamo’s 15th anniversary, I did a photo shoot on that roof. In Brooklyn, there is Marco Polo, I did several shows with them, and also Enoteca and Pasticceria Monteleone. They are close to each other. Angelina’s in Staten Island is a beautiful place. In Queens, I did a show at Trattoria L’incontro and Trattoria Ornella. I haven’t filmed in the Bronx yet, but I love Roberto’s in Little Italy in the Bronx. And to mention Westchester, there is Rafele Rye.
You also take your show on the road and showcase cuisine from various regions in Italy. What is most important for you to transmit to your viewers when you travel abroad?
It is important for me to film episodes in Italy, to show Italy now, and to show the territory and the beauty. If we have a bottle of wine on the table, it’s just a bottle. The label gives you an idea and you can be attracted by it, but when I go to Italy and I show the vineyards and the cantinas, I tell the history. So even if you don’t try the wine, you have an idea of the history of that region and the story of the wine. When I go there, we showcase the typical cuisine of each region; there are subtle differences even between towns of the same regions.
Any new developments in your career and in your show?
During Covid I had to recreate myself. The isolation taught me that all this material that I put together in 17 years has an amazing value. I was invited by Samsung TV Plus to open my own channel. In October 2020, I launched a linear channel, 24 hours a day of all Brindiamo! shows in Italy. Now I start to think as a CEO of a channel because I’m inviting other producers to have shows on my channel. I created a very interesting concept called “My Talented Friends” where I invite friends of mine that have created an artistic work like a documentary or a short movie. First, I introduce them and then I give them the opportunity to showcase their work. I want this channel to be the channel for Italians outside Italy: what they do when they’re not in Italy. After my launch on Samsung TV PLUS in Italy, new digital platforms are interested in carrying the Brindiamo! Channel in Italy and England.
To learn more about Ornella Fado and her work, please visit her website.
Top photo: Ornella Fado toasting with a good glass of wine and homemade gelato in front of Gran Caffè L’Aquila in Philadelphia, where she filmed an episode of Brindiamo! Inna Race Photography