Why I moved to Pittsburgh from Italy
Tucked behind bustling Walnut Street in Shadyside sits Primadonna, a fine Italian leather boutique. The Filbert St. shop is sophisticated and modern with stark white walls and glossy black accents. Expansive windows allow a glimpse of the array of leather goods displayed inside, under a pair of glittering chandeliers.
It's a stretch from the pink and green beach theme of the location's previous occupants, the clothing boutique, Palm Place.
The person behind the sleek and modern Primadonna Collection is Barbara Gambotto, who arrived in Pittsburgh from Rome about a year ago with her husband, Fabrizio, and two children. Her goal: to open the country's first Primadonna Collection franchise, a popular retailer throughout Europe.
On any given day, you're likely to be welcomed to the store by the warm and smiling Gambotto. A petite blonde who exudes style and is often dressed in black, Gambotto is doing her best to master English as she engages customers in conversation or talks glowingly about her unique shop.
"There's nothing better than fine Italian leather shoes. You won't find products like the Primadonna Collection's anywhere else," she says. "I'm so happy to get to share these products with American women."
The Italian goods include fashionable and reasonably priced leather boots, sandals, heels, flats and handbags ranging from casual to formal. The store has been a success since opening last November.
And now, with her family flourishing in Pittsburgh, Gambotto is planning to open a second Primadonna Collection store in South Hills Village in November and another in Ross Park Mall in the spring. In addition, she bought a vacant lot in Squirrel Hill and is working with an architect to design a building. She hopes to break ground in early 2014.
"The building is going to have four retail spaces on the ground floor and there will be condos that I'll sell on the upper levels," Gambotto says. "I haven't decided if I'm going to rent out the retail spaces or start more businesses myself. We'll see."
On a roll here in her new hometown, the ambitious business woman started in an altogether different kind of career—archaeology.
"I've always loved archeology, but I knew it was time to do something different," she says. "I wanted to be making a better living to provide for my family."
Gambotto and her husband, a soccer coach, have two children, Lidia, 8, and Sergio, 4.
Beyond that, Gambotto was also unhappy with living in Rome. "Crime is normal in Rome," she says. "I never felt safe with my children."
She had a terrifying experience that solidified her decision to get her family out of Rome. One night while she was home with her children, she was woken by a loud noise when an intruder broke into her home. While she managed to scare off the intruder, she called the police only to be told there was nothing they could do.
"That happens all of the time in Rome," she said. "They can't respond to every emergency call because there are so many."
With her mind open to new career opportunities, she met with someone from the Primadonna Collection, which led to her decision to open the company's first franchise in the United States. The store was already "wildly popular" throughout Europe, she says, and a retailer she frequented often.
Knowing American women's passion for fine Italian leather, she thought it was a natural.
Perhaps most importantly, it also provided the opportunity she needed to leave Rome and start fresh with her family.
As for her husband? "I told him what I wanted to do and he said 'Sure, why not?'" Gambotto says.
The decision to locate the store in Pittsburgh came soon after. Her brother had been enjoying living in Pittsburgh for nearly 20 years.
"He always said living in Pittsburgh was fantastic," Gambotto said. "I knew we'd be better off in Pittsburgh than any other city. After being here and experiencing it for myself, I really think it's the best city in the world."
In less than a year, they arrived in their new city.
While securing visas, making traveling arrangements and finding housing, Gambotto was also orchestrating the remodeling of the retail space for her store and was prepared to open it as soon as she arrived in Pittsburgh.
Since the store's opening, the number of customers has been growing steadily. She thinks it's due to the quality of the Italian-made leather products and the selection of footwear.
Additionally, Gambotto said she's also experienced nothing short of the warmest of welcomes from Pittsburghers and loves the close-knit, small town vibe of the city.
"The people in Pittsburgh are fantastic," she said. "Everyone that comes into my store is lovely and friendly. They are very understanding that English is my second language and have patience with me."
One of her most memorable experiences was when a customer left her store after shopping and returned with a hot cup of coffee for Gambotto. "I was so surprised," she says. "It was so kind. You'd never see that happen in Rome."
Gambotto is also ecstatic about her house in the north suburb of Fox Chapel.
"In Rome, I'd open the window in the morning and just see buildings and cars," she said. "At my home now, I open the window and see deer, squirrels and trees. It's so lovely."
Her children have adjusted well and her husband Fabrizio helps her with the management of the store, but hopes to soon find work as a soccer coach.
"I always tell my children that life in Pittsburgh is a good life," she said. "I hope the city stays this way for a long time because my life here is a dream."