Most teens only dream about traveling halfway across the world once they graduate high school.
Lakeside High School graduate Thomas Herzberg, however, left for Florence, Italy, four weeks after graduating in 2007 to turn his passion of cooking Italian food into a career.
The Martinez resident returned home a few weeks ago after attending the Florence University of the Arts for two years.
"I'll never forget it," said Herzberg, who recently turned 21. "It was definitely the experience of a lifetime."
When he left for Italy at the age of 18, Herzberg said he didn't know a single person there or a word of the Italian language.
"I never studied it, and (now) I speak it almost perfectly," he said. "When you're around it, and you hear something everyday, it's really not that hard."
One reason he aspired to attend the school, Herzberg said, was because of his maternal grandfather, who came to America from Vallelonga, Italy, when he was just 16 years old.
During his tenure at the school, Herzberg earned degrees in wine expertise and wines of Tuscany, as well as five other cooking degrees, including expertise in Italian and Tuscan foods.
The school has a four-year program, but Herzberg managed to finish in two.
Herzberg, who took three culinary arts courses at Lakeside, said the environment of both the city and the school were much more relaxed than in America.
In Florence, he lived in a 300-year-old renovated studio apartment and walked nearly four miles every day.
"I'd say the biggest difference is the walking," he said. "I did not have a car and walked everywhere."
Herzberg also learned how to prepare a variety of Tuscan, Sicilian and other Italian dishes. Among his favorites were ribollita, a Tuscan soup made with day-old bread; pasta besciamella, a dish with a creamy Italian sauce; and papa al pomodoro, a thick Tuscan soup.
Pizza, however, still remains his favorite food to make, he said.
While contemplating job offers at restaurants in New York, Herzberg is lending a hand at Roma's Pizza in Augusta, where he started working when he was 16 years old.
"I really didn't get my passion for cooking until high school when I started working here," he said. "I think of it not as much a job as it is a passion."
When visiting during Christmas break and the summer, Herzberg also would help out at the Augusta pizza parlor, said owner Damiano Esposito, whom Herzberg also called his mentor.
"He's always been a go-getter," he said. "He's a quick learner."
During his last year of school in Florence, Herzberg interned for nearly 50 hours a week at a restaurant owned by the school. He even implemented the calzone recipe from Roma's Pizza at the restaurant in Italy.
"It was the No. 1 selling (item) at the restaurant," he said. "We ended up selling out everyday."
At some point, Herzberg said he'd like to open up his own pizzeria.
Esposito, originally from Naples, Italy, said he believes Herzberg will be able to achieve that goal.
"I think he's got all the right attributes," he said. "I think that is his No. 1 passion. Otherwise, he wouldn't have talked his dad into sending him halfway across the world."
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