Consul general Lorenzo Ortona and his journalist wife, Sheila Pierce Ortona, help bridge the Bay Area’s Italian American past and future.
A visit to San Francisco’s Italian consul general typically begins with talk of not dinner but dessert — specifically, zabiaone. That’s because the friendly Labrador that belongs to Consul General Lorenzo Ortona and his wife, the journalist Sheila Pierce Ortona, is named for the dessert of the same deep golden color. They call her Zaba for short, and on a recent afternoon, she was sporting a blue-and-yellow Golden State Warriors collar featuring the City skyline.
The influence of the Italian American community in San Francisco can hardly be over-stated. And this cosmopolitan couple — he’s Italian, she’s American — are uniquely suited to the task of connecting the City’s Gold Rush era Italian heritage with a younger generation arriving to try to strike gold in Silicon Valley.
Ortona comes from a family of Italians representing their nation abroad; his grandfather, Egidio Ortona, was a longtime diplomat whose career highlights included serving as the Italian ambassador to the United Nations and then to the United States. And while Lorenzo Ortona is a lawyer by training and steeped in family knowledge and tradition, he says his secret weapon to working successfully in the United States is his American wife, who helps him make sense of American customs, such as our early dinner times — at least, compared to his hometown of Rome, where a 9 p.m. dinner is typical.
Two decades ago, Sheila was reporting from Rome for American publications after attending Columbia Journalism School in New York. In 1998, the couple met while ice-skating near Villa Borghese gardens; they married in New York in 2004 and now have two children, 13-year-old Luca and 10-year-old Sofia. Both youngsters attend the Italian immersion school, La Scuola International School, which opened in 2002 and now boasts more than 300 students between kindergarten and eighth grade.
Even as Sheila says that there is nothing to fully prepare someone for the foreign service, she clearly relishes the role. “What a job to represent the country I love most after my own,” she enthuses, dressed in a periwinkle Armani sheath. That’s intentional, of course. “Always be representing Italy somehow!” she says with a grin.
Before California, where they’ve been since September 2016, the couple were posted in Belgium and Israel. And the month before they moved to San Francisco, a massive earthquake shook central Italy near the town of Accumoli. Almost as soon as the couple arrived, local Italian associations reached out, offering to fundraise. Looking thoughtful behind his signature round-frame glasses, Ortona remembers a dinner at Acquerello, attended by the late mayor Ed Lee, as an early example of the depth of connection between Bay Area Italian Americans committed to international philanthropy and aid.
In terms of making a lasting impact, four years is both a lengthy appointment and a short stay for a consul general. But three years into the Ortona family’s time in San Francisco, it’s obvious their legacy will last well beyond their tenure. One of many projects they have been working to help shepherd toward its next phase is the relocation of the Museo Italo Americano. Currently located in Fort Mason, the Italian heritage museum will eventually move to a bigger, more beautiful new home at 940 Battery, where it will become one of the largest Italian cultural centers in the nation.
“People think the job is glamorous when they see photos of us at events,” Ortona notes. “But that’s just a small part of the job.” Working in coordination with the main U.S. Embassy for Italy, located in Washington, D.C., it’s his job to oversee the well-being of Italians in the U.S., acting as a point of first response for the western region, which spans not just states such as California, Montana, and Washington, but also Alaska, Hawaii, and territories farther out into the Pacific Ocean, including Guam and the Mariana Islands.
In his time-consuming post, there is also an economic development side, which includes working on delightfully practical initiatives such as several newly introduced direct flights between the Bay Area and Italy, including San Francisco to Milan, and Oakland to Rome.
Travel between the two hasn’t always been easy. Today, everyone knows North Beach is an Italian culture and dining destination. But that’s only because it was built over 150 years ago as immigrants from northern Italy traveled to Northern California for the Gold Rush, taking on tremendous roles in building the City and its various industries, from fishing to refuse management. (By comparison, the Italian immigrants that landed on the East Coast tended to hail from the southern part of the boot-shaped nation.)
One of the most obvious examples of this lasting influence dates to 1904, when Amadeo Giannini, the son of Italian immigrants from Genoa, founded the Bank of Italy. One of the few financial institutions operational in the days immediately following the 1906 earthquake, it later became the influential Bank of America. In the century that followed, three Italian American mayors — Angelo Rossi, Joseph Alioto and George Moscone — have led and overseen major transformations in the City, including the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, a major redesign of the City’s transit system, and a cultural revolution or two.
With such a vibrant local community to support, the Ortonas are working to open the consulate more often. The welcoming back patio was just redone, and an outdoor pizza oven will soon arrive from Sicily to round out the renovated garden. In a very literal sense, Ortona explains, “This is the house of Italians.” Thoughtful accents demonstrate how the stately red brick and white Pacific Heights building is more than a bureaucratic center, though plenty of that is handled here. Ortona leads programs promoting Italian language and culture, and he also officiates weddings in the consulate. He takes special pride in the being the first Italian consul general in San Francisco to officiate the wedding of a same-sex couple.
For Ortona, observing a new generation of Italians arriving and already working in Silicon Valley reminds him of the importance of learning from ancient history. Ortona grew up in Rome, and he says that the prosperous innovation in the Bay Area of today makes him think about the lessons of his hometown. “San Francisco is what Rome was in terms of shaping the world,” he explains. “We have to be humble and remember that what we say today will live on in history.”