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Never Trust a Thin Cook and Other Lessons from Italy’s Culinary Capital

Eric Dregni Dregni

Publication Year: 2009

I simply want to live in the place with the best food in the world. This dream led Eric Dregni to Italy, first to Milan and eventually to a small, fog-covered town to the north: Modena, the birthplace of balsamic vinegar, Ferrari, and Luciano Pavarotti. Never Trust a Thin Cook is a classic American abroad tale, brimming with adventures both expected and unexpected, awkward social moments, and most important, very good food.

Parmesan thieves. Tortellini based on the shape of Venus's navel. Infiltrating the secret world of the balsamic vinegar elite. Life in Modena is a long way from the Leaning Tower of Pizza (the south Minneapolis pizzeria where Eric and his girlfriend and fellow traveler Katy first met), and while some Italians are impressed that "Minnesota" sounds like "minestrone," they are soon learning what it means to live in a country where the word "safe" doesn't actually exist-only "less dangerous." Thankfully, another meal is always waiting, and Dregni revels in uncorking the secrets of Italian cuisine, such as how to guzzle espresso "corrected" with grappa and learning that mold really does make a good salami great.

What begins as a gastronomical quest soon becomes a revealing, authentic portrait of how Italians live and a hilarious demonstration of how American and Italian cultures differ. In Never Trust a Thin Cook, Eric Dregni dishes up the sometimes wild experiences of living abroad alongside the simple pleasures of Italian culture in perfect, complementary proportions.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Other Works by the Author, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-9

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pp. 10-13

I simply want to live in the place with the best food in the world. My scope has been narrowed to Italy: the country of beautiful chaos, the land of the dolce vita. But where in this nation of nearly sixty million people can I find the ideal meal? I learned the language by living in Lombardia for almost two years, attending..

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Vicolo Forni

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pp. 14-19

The little street below the new apartment Katy and I are living in is a miniature Italy. The older women in their strollers with little bambini so bundled up that they can't street. He puts a whistle to his lips to get people's attention,their backs against the wall while the big truck insists on fit-enter the market for fresh rolls with raisins. The first section...

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Permesso di Soggiorno

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pp. 20-22

The stamps in our passports from the Malpensa airport allow us three months in Italy. Technically, if we're eve rwork. In reality, they will tell us to register at the questura,. "Yes, yes, this is true, very true," he says as though lost...

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A Page Boy in Pavarotti's Restaurant

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pp. 23-25

Modena is home to Maserati, Ferrari, and De Tomasocars, but far more important, to Luciano Pavarotti....

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Sleeping with Nuns

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pp. 26-30

Our apartment in Vicolo Forni used to be the chapel of a convent dating back to the fourteenth century. Latin inscription is carved into the walls, wooden beams two feet wide hold up the terra cotta ceiling tiles, and floor to ceiling, arched windows open up to the food market and the tiney...

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Il Cappuccino

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pp. 31-35

We didn't have a say in choosing the bar we'd frequent.Maurizio's bar, Il Cappuccino, is directly below our kitchen window, and he greets us nearly every time we go in or out of our front door. If we didn't go to his bar, who knows what would happen? Even so, we never go there often enough to make him happy...

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Lord Arnold and the Knight

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pp. 36-41

My fantasy of being a highly paid travel writer by writing columns in the local Italian weekly is shattered when I cash my paycheck of $60 - the sum of a month's work. To pay the bills, I convince myself that going undercover as an English teacher will yield great insight into Italian culture and I won't have to compromise my literary dream. After all..

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Terror and Courtesy at the Esselunga Supermercato

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pp. 42-45

I'm terrified of little old Italian women. In the crowds at the market, they jab their elbows into my gut as they hard push their way to the front of the line. These aged tycoons can easily barge through a squadron of large men waiting in line, and no one says a word...

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Foiling the Cheese Thieves

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pp. 46-47

To escape from the abundance of pork fat in my diet, Itour a cheese factory. My editor, Roberto, does publics tacked two stories high as far as I can see, the subject of the...

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Mold Makes a Good Salami Great

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pp. 48-50

Now that my eyes have been opened, I notice this fondness for pork everywhere. Modenese photographer Franco Fontana, who shoots photos for the weekly, pieced together photos of ham next to babies and pork is paired with log legged models in ironic collages of hungry desire. Another artist painted copies of...

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"The Poor Meatball!"

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pp. 51-54

I fooled myself that I was going to support Katy by writing for the weekly newspaper and teaching a couple of English classes at Lord Arnold. Even though I've studied Italian and have already lived in northern Italy, Katy steps in and becomes known throughout Modena as the best..

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Rats in the Canals, Peacocks in the Piazza

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pp. 55-61

...It's difficult to understate the importance of the paizza in Italian life. One day in Modena's Piazza Grande, new electric buses are on display. The next day, schoolchildren show off dozens of dumpsters that they painted with bright pictures to cheer up the city and endorse a clean...

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The Bicycle Thief

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pp. 62-67

Bicycle bells ringing through the streets convinced us to stay in Modena. The town center is roped off to cars, so old one-speed steel bicycles with Ferrari stickers on them stumble over the stone roads. Where bike lanes intersect, special stoplights with little green, yellow, or red bicycles give the right-of-way. Most of the bicyclists ignore the warning lights but...

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Treachery and Treason amid the Subcommittee of Vespa Paint

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pp. 68-71

In Italy, motor scooters are not just inexpensive transportation or kitsch artifacts. As with many things Italian, scooters are another reason for a good argument. I have an old Lambretta scooter back in Minnesota, so I decide to accept the invitation to infiltrate the weekly meeting of the Vespa...

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Norman the Conqueror

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pp. 72-77

Signor Truffino announces to everyone at Lord Arnold School that we have a new head teacher who will oversee all the English-language teachers. Neil hails from California and has a laid-back can-do attitude. On his first day at the job, Neil and I walk to the bar next to Lord Arnold School for an espresso. He tells me that before this job, he was living in....

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Eat Your Hat, Cowboy

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pp. 78-80

Nowadays, the only hats worn regularly have been relegated to sports and war, baseball caps and helmets. Perhaps a couple of exceptions would be the occasional appearance of hats on the heads of the trendy or the cold. I remember refusing to wear a hat during a Minnesota blizzard and warming...

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A Night at the Opera

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pp. 81-83

Igrew up listening to punk rock—Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Jodie Foster’s Army, etc.—so I thought it might take a while to appreciate the highest Italian art form. I was wrong. My only real exposure to opera was through cartoons of Bugs Bunny as “The Bunny of Seville” or Elmer Fudd singing his heart out to “Kill da wabbit!” over Wagner’s cascading orchestral...

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Four, Five, Sex . . .

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pp. 84-87

One of my classes at Lord Arnold is composed of four middle-aged women who all speak at the same time. Somehow they can listen to the three other women chattering away and add their own comments simultaneously. I admire the cognitive ability of these women to process and produce at the same time. I was raised never to interrupt and to let others...

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Lessons from Guido

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pp. 88-98

Inever have much luck with the Italian mail system. One day when I bring a postcard into the post office, the mailman tells me I have to pay more because there are too many words on it. Not understanding how this could make the slightest difference, I ask him, “Why?” He looks at me as though I’m...

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pp. 99-102

The Corriere della Sera newspaper recently announced that the government in Rome is proud that Italy has only about thirty thousand laws. Opposition politicians estimate there are more like one hundred thousand, but no one’s quite sure, which seems a bit worrisome. Either way, Italy has more laws than probably..

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A Risky Subject

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pp. 103-109

The Italian word argomento doesn’t mean “argument,” but it might as well. When I hear a discussion of an argomento, or subject, it sounds like an argument to my ears, at least it did until I had a real fight, or lite (pronounced LEEtay). You haven’t...

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Casino or Casinò?

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pp. 110-114

Working as a journalist in Italy isn’t done for the pay, but for the perks. My editor, Roberto, orders me to come to the newspaper office right away—it’s always right away—for a very important and lucrative assignment. Journalists are the same the world over. They smoke too much because of the stress of their deadlines and never have a moment to....

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Commie Pigs?

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pp. 115-117

Ithink my friend Antonio is a spy. He seems a little too obvious, though. He claims he works for a publicity company, yet he jet sets off to NATO conferences in Brussels and Geneva. He explains how he avoids getting locked up or questioned during his “vacations” in Moscow. He gives long, academic speeches...

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Never Trust a Thin Cook

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pp. 118-121

Si mangia bene, si paga poco! (you eat well, you pay little) is the Italian paradise and the best possible review a restaurant can receive. While making a gesture of filling up a fat stomach, my Italian friends tell me I have to visit Trattoria Ermes. Italians hate to wait in line at restaurants, but this place is...

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Angry Noodles

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pp. 122-125

Friends back home think Katy and I spend all of our timein Italy sitting around drinking large amounts of espressoteaching is more my specialty. After all, giving lessons is justtell him my friend Stefano from Brescia flies first-class aroundhis lessons because he has finally been offered a job as a trav-for another class. He has already quit his job. ?The first night,...

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Walking over Death

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pp. 126-127

Signs of death are all around in Italy. Churches displaybones of martyrs and important citizens. Obituary post-...

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Super Pig Trotter

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pp. 128-131

Although it seems impossible, the Modenese have discovered something heavier than lard, called zampone, which loosely translates as “big shank.” The rear legs of pigs are packed with salt to make prosciutto. The hams are periodically poked with sharpened horse bones, which are smelled by the..

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Reggio's Blockheads and Bologna's Baloney

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pp. 132-136

To greet people in Modena fresh off the train from Bologna, a huge line of graffiti is spray painted on a brick wall, “GRAZIE ADIO NON SONO BOLOGNESE!” (Thank God I’m not from Bologna!). Town pride runs deep in Italy and has a name, campanilismo, or loyalty...

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The Secret World of the Balsamic Vinegar Elite

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pp. 137-141

Vinegar is not taken lightly in Modena. One store on the main street has a couple of very small bottles of the traditional balsamico in the window—behind bars—priced at $150. Aweeklong vinegar conference features the mayor and food dignitaries from around Italy and the world. Not until my second...

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Pet Pigs

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pp. 142-145

Every day in Italy has a saint. In fact, there are not enough days in the year for all the saints. La Festa di San Antonio is today, and one of my students explains that many churches open their doors for owners to bring their pets to be blessed. Since...

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Buon Natale!

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pp. 146-149

The couple at the tabacchi, or tobacconist’s, are always thrilled to see us. Usually, the gregarious clerk and her husband say “ciao” no less than eight times before and after I buy stamps for a postcard. Even after I shut the door behind me, they are still...

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Sunny Italy

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pp. 150-156

The A1 autostrada, is known as the Highway of the Sun because it leads to the balmy climate of southern Italy. Today, on Christmas Eve, it’s an enormous parking lot as far as the eye can see. Katy and I are scrunched into the backseat of Sonia’s dad’s car, and we’ve been completely stopped for about half an hour...

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The Hot Springs of Ischia

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pp. 157-160

Getting to the island of Ischia is no easy task. Lugging heavy backpacks through downtown Naples is not the ideal way to sightsee this densely populated city, so we head straight for the ferry. Although some boat trips have been canceled due to the rough waves, our captain risks it. Once out at sea, we...

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Naples at New Year's

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pp. 161-169

"Naples is probably the most beautiful city in Italy," many of my northern Italian friends who have been there tell me. Others, who have only heard television reports from the south, immediately make gestures of people stealing, being handcuffed and tossed in the clink. "Just be careful they don't trick you!"...

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San Geminiano and the Festival of Fog

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pp. 170-173

Back in Modena, the lines stretched all the way out the doors of the cathedral to see the bones of San Geminiano, the town's patron saint. Roberto told me that the legend says that Attila the Hun and his troops were coming down through Italy, so San Geminiano performed the miracle of covering Modena in the fog...

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Soccer Season

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pp. 174-181

When Italy won the World Cup, fans stripped naked and bathed in the fountains. Train conductors refused to work, and the whole country came to a standstill. Modena suffered thousands of dollars of damage as statues were knocked down and shop windows cracked. It was all great fun, I was told...

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Truffles and Cotechino

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pp. 182-185

"Yankee go 'ome! Yankee go 'ome!" someone yells in to the receiver as Katy holds the phone away from her ear. Rather than worry that this is some sort of terrorist threat against the Americans living in Modena, Katy says nonchalantly, "Here, Eric, it must be another one of your crazy friends," and hands me the phone. A friend of Marina's, Walter, is on the phone, and after repeating his anti-American rant...

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Porn and Puritans

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pp. 186-188

"Mamma mia! I'd like to have the job of painting those posters!" says my visiting friend Dan when he sees the porn posters around town with all the dirty parts covered with gray paint. The porn cinema is located next to a touristy pizzeria, across the street from a playground, and in the same building as a church. Looking in from the street, I an see the lobby has a big brass statue of a...

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La Tivù

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pp. 189-191

Living in the center of town surrounded by brick buildings, we have terrible reception for the TV (or "la tivu,", as it's called here) Down at the bar, Maurizio gets perfect reception. He explains he has an electrician friend who tapped into the big antenna on the roof and ran a line down the outside of the building. The work had to be done on a Sunday, so the ...

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Politics, Italian Style

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pp. 192-196

It's election season again. Anyone who can get hold of a bullhorn is marching up and down the Via Emilia first thing in the morning stumping for their party. Enormous posters of smiling politicians munching on cigars are tacked up wherever there's wall space - even over all the porno movie posters with the swaths of gray paint covering the dirty parts....

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The Art of Eating

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pp. 197-200

"Please don?t be offended if I ask you something," one of my students said shyly. "I've heard that in America sometimes the people - not you, of course- take the food home that you don't eat in restaurant. You call it 'doggy bag,' but these American people-other people, not you- don't give this food to dog but eat this old food. Is it true?' when I tell him it's very common, he awestruck, ...

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Eating Venus's Navel

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pp. 201-203

“If you manage to make tortellini, when you return home to America, you’ll have lots of friends!” says la nonna, the grandmother of one of Katy’s students. We’ve gathered for a day of making fresh pasta at la nonna’slittle house. After she shows us the Moto Guzzi that belonged to her late husband, we’re..

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Back to High School

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pp. 204-208

"You want me to teach high school kids?' I ask the principal of a local Modena high school. "They'll eat me alive!" He assures me they are very well behaved and respectful, but I remember attending a year of Italian high school in Brecia and my out of control classmates. The students stay in the same classroom all day, so the teachers must enter...

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La Ferrari

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pp. 209-217

It's Sunday morning, and the sound of mosquitoes flying everywhere wakes me up at 5 a.m. The scary little plugin insecticide device won't get rid of the bugs this time. Then I realize the buzzing emantes from Maurizio's bar below us, where the regulars are watching the Formula One race, live from Malaysia. I consider asking him to turn down the TV, but then I hear...

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Touch Your Balls for Luck!

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pp. 218-221

A recent survey reported just under half of Italians believe in the evil eye. My students assure me those people are gullible and scared. When I tell my Italian high school students that we Americans are terrified off the number 13 - no thirteenth floor of skyscrapers, no room number 13 in hotels, no row thirteen on planes - they think we're crazy....

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Why Would You Ever Leave?

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pp. 222-231

I t’s spring, and the fog has lifted from Modena. Even the bum is sporting slick new sunglasses. These shades make him look more like the Unabomber than someone to pity enough to give alms. Eventually, he shaves his face—perhaps to get a better tan—and puts on shorts for summertime. Vicolo Forni is finally...

Parli Italiano?

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pp. 232-239

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pp. 240-241

Auro e Alberto the crazy musicians; Sonia Arcaro for show-ing us the south; Sebastiano and Rosaria Ascione forgli spaghetti alle vongole; Bruno Baccari and his Moto Parillas;...

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About the Author

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p. 242-242

Eric Dregni is assistant professor of English at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and dean of the Italian Concordia Language Village, Lago del Bosco. He is the author of several books, including In...

E-ISBN-13: 9780816670505
E-ISBN-10: 0816670501
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816667451

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2009