Souls of the Kitchen: Il Giorgione

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Sparkling with inspiration and eager to reminisce in the exquisite tastes and effervescent energy they had just said farewell to, George and Monica Kessler shook my hand for the first time after they had just returned home from the land of pasta and gelato. Anxious to share what they had seen, heard and tasted in their brick-and-mortar Italian restaurant on Devine Street, they spent the first few minutes with me gushing over Italian delicacies. George asked if I’d like to taste his homemade limoncello to which I naturally obliged. I giggled to myself when I heard Monica whisper to her husband, “Are you sure she’s 21?” I smiled and assured her that I was.

George met Monica in January of 2000 at a small church they both attended in Hoboken, New Jersey. Monica laughed when she mentioned that they met while volunteering for a welcoming committee, something she said was very unlike the two of them. Once they became briefly acquainted, George asked his now-wife of 15 years if she’d like a ride home after Mass one Sunday. Monica politely declined, adding that she lived just down the street. After a short walk home together the couple went on their first date a few weeks later on Valentine’s Day. They both ordered the same thing, a burger and a beer, from the Mile Square Cafe in Hoboken — a date the couple would recreate for the following 16 years.

In September of 2010, to celebrate George’s 50th birthday, Monica surprised him with a trip to the Casa Ombuto cooking school in a remote Tuscan town. He had just been laid off from his job as a travel agent and the couple was searching for where life would take them next. On the final evening of their stay, after feasting on fresh seafood and glasses of Italian wine, the culinary instructor, Paola, turned to George with an idea. She had been observing George throughout the week, noting his natural ability and evident passion in the kitchen. Paola insisted that the couple try to open their own restaurant. A moment in time in a centuries-old stone farmhouse planted the seed of a wild idea — a family-owned, Italian restaurant that would eventually be known as Il Giorgione.

With bubbling excitement and clarity for what the future held, the Kesslers headed home to the states and started planning — but not without hesitance. Thanks to 30 years working as an accountant, Monica quickly became utterly risk-averse.

“I’m not a dreamer,” Monica said as she turned to look at George. “But I married one.”

In December of 2011, the Kesslers packed up their lives and George’s new degree from the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan and moved to Columbia, the city of George’s alma mater and a place he called home for 12 years. Nine months later, Il Giorgione opened its doors and has since been filled with the sounds of forks scraping plates clean, clinking glasses of chianti and bellowing laughter.

The fresh mozzarella that is made in-house daily is stunning. The Rigatoni al Dorato will make you beg for the recipe. And the Italian wine selection will make any customer pretend it’s Friday night and order another glass, or three. But what really keeps Columbians coming back in religiously? What is it that could make someone come into Gio’s every Thursday and Friday night, week after week? The answer is a man in a USC baseball cap and his characterful wife and partner.

It is no secret to Columbia locals and newcomers alike that the capital city is growing — filling quickly with new places and faces. And while Columbia is no Manhattan when comparing square mileage, it’s easy to feel like a very minuscule fish in a vast, continuously growing pond. Expanding surroundings can have us Cola-townies longing more than ever for the kind of place where the owner knows you by name. This is what George and Monica have accomplished with Il Giorgione.

The magic lies in an enthusiastic greeting from Monica when you walk through the door, a warm hug from George when he visits your table, your favorite glass of wine sitting in front of you before you have a chance to order. George and Monica Kessler have a unique gift, one that has transformed their tiny Italian eatery into one of the most beloved restaurants in the city. Just like the authentic trattorias that litter the streets of small Italian towns, all who walk under the awning lined with twinkling lights into Il Giorgione will leave as family.

For more Souls of the Kitchen check out @messykitchgirl on instagram.

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