For all Philadelphia's claims of being an "international city," the last of its once-grand corps of European diplomats almost pulled out last year.
World diplomacy is shifting to the vast cities of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Aging nations need to make new trade ties in those places. Canada shut its Philly consulate in 2012. Italy was ready to do the same.
But the Italians stayed. Advocates argued that the country, with its flat economy and crushing bureaucracy - and a commitment to change all that from energetic Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, 39 - needs friends and trade partners, and can find more here by updating old ties to the big Italian American communities.
So on Wednesday, Italy's ambassador to the U.S., Claudio Bisogniero, was at the Union League to gather a new Philadelphia-Italy Business Council, headed by Pepper Hamilton L.L.P. partner Joseph Del Raso, and listing two dozen Italian American and Italian-friendly prominenti.
This is not about another costly public "trade mission," said Del Raso. "If you want that, call American Express and go on vacation."
Nor is it just about boosting imports, said Bisogniero. "We are extremely satisfied with our level of trade with the U.S.," thanks to American consumption of Italian wine, biotech, aerospace, and fashion, he said. "Where we can do more," he added, "is on the investment side." Italy is second only to Germany as a European manufacturer - but its family-owned firms need capital and distribution partners.
Bisogniero also stumped for the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a free-trade deal to ease food-import rules and speed business-dispute resolutions. When that passes, Italy wants to be Philadelphia's gateway to new European opportunities.
John Leone, CEO of Bonney Forge Corp. in Huntingdon County, says his company bought a unionized factory in central Italy and found sophisticated Italian designers and skilled workers outperforming Swiss rivals. "Are they the cheapest in the world? No," Leone said. "They are the best."
If Italy makes life easier for business, Americans discouraged by taxes and regulations at home will be more eager for opportunities in the old country, said John Aglialoro, chairman of UM Holding, Haddonfield.
Later, the ambassador headed to City Hall to thank Common Pleas Court Judge Annette Rizzo and the professors, teachers, and business donors who have rallied to another new effort, Il Convivo (more formally the "Local Observatory of the Italian Language"). Their mission: to resuscitate the teaching of Italian in Philadelphia-area schools - thanks to grants from businesspeople like Frank Giordano, and developer Dan DiLella, who is funding Italian-language instruction at his alma mater, Roman Catholic High School.
Rizzo praised the new Italian consul in Philadelphia, Andrea Canepari, for his energy and vision. Canepari said plans call for an Italian Week, an Italian Restaurant Week, and improved ties to Florence, Philadelphia's "sister city."
"We want to support that resurgence" of Italian in Philadelphia, Rizzo, a Penn grad, told the group. "Study beyond one's borders opens up the world: research, law, medicine, public policy, art, the whole human experience. We so appreciate your sharing that message with us."
After a long decline, she noted, interest has revived in the Advanced Placement test in Italian for college-bound Americans.
"The numbers are improving," the ambassador said, "but we are not there yet."