Flavor profile: George Kessler

When George Kessler came to USC in 1978, he never imagined he’d one day run a popular Italian restaurant on Devine Street, within walking distance of campus. At that time, the Hoboken, N.J., native hadn’t even picked a major.

But the future co-owner of Il Giorgione, which Kessler opened with his wife, Monica, in 2012, had a passion for cooking even before he arrived at Carolina. Using recipes he picked up from his Italian-American grandparents, the young student quickly developed a reputation as someone who knew his way around a kitchen — even if it was only a dorm kitchen.

“I lived in the Wade Hampton Hotel, on the corner of Main and Gervais, and every week we’d all pitch in $5, buy a bunch of stuff, and I’d cook for everybody on the hall,” he recalls. “We’d get a jug of Carlo Rossi wine and have a huge Italian dinner almost every week.”

“All my friends would say, 'You should be a chef!’ I was like, ‘Eh, whatever.’ ” I just didn’t have anybody pointing me in that direction.

That all changed after a study abroad experiencein Urbino, Italy. Kessler had been studying Italian since he arrived at USC, and his grandparents often spoke the language around the house, but actually visiting the old country turned an interest into a passion.

“That’s when I really fell in love with Italy,” he says. “My family’s from a certain part of Italy, but when I was over there we traveled all over the country and I really started to understand just how diverse Italy is as a country. All the different regions with different foods, different wines, different dialects, all the history — I was just blown away.”

Now a psychology major, he nonetheless signed up for any and every class that had anything to do with Italy. “Language, film, literature, history — didn’t matter,” he says. He even toyed with one day teaching Italian.

Instead, Kessler found himself working his way up the ranks of the restaurant industry. He also spent several years as a travel agent, which afforded him ample opportunity to revisit the country that impressed him as an undergraduate and to continue his education as a chef.

“That study abroad experience was 30 years ago, but it really laid the groundwork for opening this restaurant,” Kessler says now. “I never got to teach Italian, but I’m able to teach people about Italy through food and wine. We encompass as many regions as we can, with different dishes, with the wine, the music, the photographs on the walls, everything.”

To make Il Giorgione as authentic as possible, Kessler learned to make fresh mozzarella from a deli owner in Hoboken, researched traditional recipes and even recruited former USC Italian professors Fausto Pauluzzi and Tonino DiGiacomantonio as unofficial consultants.

“I’ve kept in touch with them no matter where I’ve been over the years, and they’re all over this restaurant,” says Kessler. “They were so instrumental in getting this place off the ground, and they both still come in. Fausto’s in here about every week, even just to stop by and say hello. They’re mentors for life, man, since I was a young kid here at USC.”

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For additional profiles of alumni restaurateurs spicing up the Columbia dining scene check out the February issue of USC Times, available at 25 racks around campus. 

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