Above: Mario Foah shows his numbered, 19th century St. Francis of Assisi manuscript near Luciana Foah’s oil of an Italian streetscape.
Envision a romantic movie and dream in Italian voices?
Fantasize about rich Italian red sauces and anchovies?
Dream that hearing classical music lifts us mortals to heaven?
Meet all of the above in Robert (Dahlan Roberto) Foah, trained orchestra conductor and world-traveled multimedia expert with installations from Australia to Rio, and his father, Mario, a young 95, who was knighted by the Italian government for opening the American market to Italian specialty food companies. Mario also founded the North American Specialty Food Trade Association, which owns and operates the Fancy Food Show.
From the view atop the city, the Foah walls are filled with paintings of wife and mother Luciana, pillboxes from Nigeria to New Orleans, century-old photographs from Naples, furniture and silver from the 1800s. The living room houses a 1923 hand-calligraphied edition (No. 189 of 300 copies) of the works of St. Francis of Assisi.
Jaffe: How did two Jewish Italians end up in Buckhead?
Robert: The short story is my great-uncle Enrico Leide, a cellist and conductor, was the founder of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra from 1920 to 1930. He married a Candler (Coke heiress). I doubt they (the Candlers) knew at the time what his religion was. The longer version is I started in the Bronx, went to college in Kentucky, taught photography, worked for the United Nations, commandeered one of the first audiovisual companies, and installed World’s Fair pavilions for the United Nations in Korea, Kenya, Italy and Vienna, Austria.
With Ph.D. studies in art history and a master’s in photography and music, I now conduct the Atlanta Musicians’ Orchestra, a community orchestra, which performs six times a year, three of which are at the Breman Jewish Home. There are around 40 very accomplished musicians. We also have both open rehearsals and concerts for the residents of the Breman Jewish Home. It is an honor to rehearse and play there.
Mario: My Sephardic maternal grandfather, Lazzaro Leide, was the head rabbi of Naples, Italy, circa 1906, where he traveled around Sicily, Senigallia and southern Italy, performing Jewish ceremonies. He was also a kosher butcher and was a huge influence in my life. Later in life he was knighted by the Italian government.
In 1939, with $10 in my pocket, I took off for America, where I studied forestry in college and worked at a dude ranch in Colorado to send money back to the family in Italy during and after World War II. As luck would have it, while at the dude ranch, I met the Buitoni family, who manufactured Italian specialty foods. Moving back to New York to work for them, I learned the food business and started my own company, which we still run today. Representing various factories, much of the food you see in tubes (onion paste, sun-dried tomatoes, anchovy paste, garlic paste) we make privately labeled for others along with our own Amore and Montali brands.
Jaffe: Your late mother was the artist?
Robert: Yes. She painted in oils and excelled in collage. She exhibited in many shows and repeatedly won first prize.
Mario: Luciana and I were married for 60 years; I proposed over a dinner of pasta after three dates. We were married less than three months later. In terms of her art, she was very quick, producing a major piece in two to three weeks. She had no patience for watercolors. I think her best work were the collages. Her trademark was stairs leading to an empty chair. As you see, the oils show bold peach and lime tones. The views of Italy are very sentimental, of course.
Jaffe: So where do connoisseurs like you dine in Atlanta?
Robert: Sotto Sotto in Inman Park is really the best Italian dining.
Jaffe: Best vino?
Mario: Brunello Tuscany.
Jaffe: What’s the key to running a successful overseas business from here?
Mario: In Italy we are now employing the fourth generation of our own workers. We have to train Italian workers to have an American work ethic and teach Americans how to eat like Italians. Also, my other son, Lou, runs the business from Atlanta. I have scaled down to five hours a day.
Jaffe: What’s in the future?
Robert: With my wife, a producer/director, we are working on a live performance and world premiere of “The Birth of Color” with the famed Cantate chorus in Budapest. This is actually a frequency opera, telling the story of creation by combining modern physics with string theory — vibration creating the original light and dark. I hope to bring it to Atlanta and am searching for just the right venue. I will continue to mix business with art.
Jaffe: What’s the secret to your longevity?
Mario: I have a younger girlfriend in Italy, where I travel every month or so. We Skype almost every day.
Robert: He’s amazing. He eats three good meals a day, but no snacking. All the medicine he takes is an aspirin!
I teased father and son that their conversing in Italian to each other reminded me of my parents speaking Yiddish in their own “private” club. The most charming gesture was the departing father/son kiss before Mario scooted off to his private workout training session.
Mangia bene, ridi spesso, ama molto: Eat well, laugh often, love much.