Since 2011, the Stone Fabricators Alliance’s (SFA) annual Tour of Italy, conceived by Ronald Hannah of Cadenza Granite & Marble and in conjunction with Tenax, has brought well over 100 North American fabricators overseas to experience the Italian stone industry. Machinery and tool manufacturers such as Breton, CMS and Comandulli, along with visits to material processors like Cereser, Antolini and the quarries of Henraux, are typical stops for the ever-changing itinerary.

More unique visits, such as a 2015 stop to the Istituto Paolo Brenzoni Arte del Marmo, a technical school for the Italian stone trade in Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella, Italy, are always a special treat and welcome diversion from machines and stones. Visiting for a second time in 2016, the SFA decided to take the relationship further by initiating a student exchange program, bringing two of the school’s students overseas to experience U.S. fabrication shops and the American way of life.

The visit included a donation from the SFA presented by Dan Riccolo, the SFA director orchestrating the new program. The planned informal ceremony turned out to be a bigger deal than anticipated, being presided over by the mayor of Sant’Ambrogio, as well as a journalist documenting the event for the local newspaper.

The program comprised two students from the school visiting three various SFA host companies — each visit lasting a full week, consisting of various time spent in and around the fabrication shop and city. Pietro Di Franco and Stefano Blaj were chosen due to their academic excellence by the school’s liaison Anna Maria Ferrari.

Pietro and Stefano began their adventure over the Atlantic with Eric and Amy Rolseth of Astonia Stone Artisans in Rogers, MN. Their first American experience was the drive from the airport in the Rolseth’s large SUV, quite a novelty for them, being used to the subcompacts of their hometown roads.

Arriving at the shop, greeted by a newly installed 5 axis Donatoni Sprinter saw from Italy, must have given them a little comfort and familiarity, with the operation still fresh in their minds from their studies of CAD/CAM at the school. Along with typical fabrication shop activities, the students also got to visit American homes under construction, and were able to aid in the digital templating phase of the job.

The Rolseth’s provided the students with some cubic material and basic sculpting tools to be able to show off their skills in between other shop activities. To show their appreciation, they carved out three-dimensional logos for the hosts from the blocks provided.

Living with strange people in a strange land presented the usual awkwardness, both for the students and the hosts. The students, both extremely polite, were a little shy at first, particularly about helping themselves to the Rolseth’s refrigerator. According to Eric Rolseth, “We were warned that they wouldn’t ask for food. Case in point, one night we had dinner at 6:30 p.m. and Pietro wasn’t very hungry and didn’t eat much. We put leftovers in the fridge and told them to please help themselves whenever they wanted more. They would never open the fridge and look for anything, not even a bottle of water. Anyway, Stefano said goodnight and told my wife that Pietro was still hungry. Of course she overreacted and made him eat nearly an entire cow at 9:30 p.m. He did not go hungry again.”

From Minnesota, it was time to move on to the next host, by now fully addicted to American cheeseburgers. When asked how the burgers are in Italy, they simply replied, “Italian burgers are to Americans as the Olive Garden is to Italians.”

Week two began at Dan Riccolo’s fabrication shop, Morris Granite in Morris, IL, a suburb of Chicago. Their first look at a major American metropolis was done high above the city in the comfort of a helicopter. Back on the ground at Morris Granite, the usual shop activities resumed, and the students were once again surrounded by Italian machinery, a GMM Rotex saw and Sirio bridge polisher in this case, among other Italian brands like Ghines and Sasso. During the week, Dan organized a field trip to the nearby Kohler plant showing them a large American factory and some new products being produced.

The Kohler tour provided privileged access to their design studio and R&D department, as well as visiting their artists in residence program, working on cutting-edge new concepts for the kitchen and bath industry. The students were intrigued with the caliber of design happening here and observing how the design phase leads to innovative products was a great educational experience for them, opening their eyes to different possible career trajectories. Their own design studies from their school made much more sense now, seeing the process full circle, from concept to end user.

Again, the students showed their appreciation by leaving behind the Morris Granite logo, carved in limestone.

In between shop activities, the students were treated to a healthy dose of the Second Amendment, getting to shoot a variety of pistols, rifles and even machine guns.

The last visit was to Israel and Ashley Reynolds of Legacy Natural Stone Surfaces in Findlay, OH. The students once again took to the skies as Israel, a licensed pilot, gave them a ride in his plane, complete with co-piloting duties.

Back at the Legacy shop, Pietro and Stefano were beginning to realize the extent of the Italian influence in America, this time having access to a Denver 5 axis saw, and a GMM edging machine, and yet again, the week concluded with the students leaving behind a personalized logo.

After three weeks in the U.S., it’s safe to say that they got to see and experience quite a bit of our way of life and the workings of a typical American stone fabrication shop. They also came to realize just how powerful the influence of their home country is around the world.

Reunion in Verona

Just a few weeks after their American adventure, Pietro and Stefano got to meet up with their hosts again, now considered good friends, during this year’s Marmomacc in their hometown of Verona, Italy. Stopping by the SFA exhibit, Dan Riccolo greeted them with new t-shirts with the classic Scarface line, “Say hello to my little friend!” as a memento of their firearms experience. Other students and faculty from the school were also on hand, all agreeing on the success of the program and listening to the stories being told by both the students and the hosts.

The journey ultimately concluded in true Italian fashion with an elegant dinner served in Pietro’s home, all hosts agreeing that this was the highlight of the experience.

The SFA will continue to offer and even expand this program in the years to come, with offers to host students not only from Italy, but from Croatia, Slovenia and the United Kingdom as well.