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From olive oil to ‘House of Gucci,’ this mother-daughter duo is giving Arlington an Italian flair

Julia Franchi Scarselli announced her return home from high school one day calling out to her mom, or mamma, in a thick Italian accent.

She had just transferred from a class of 50 kids in a small British private school in Milan to the much larger Washington-Lee High School, now Washington-Liberty.

“I remember driving up to the school thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is an airport? Like, where did I land? I don’t know anybody,” Scarselli tells ARLnow.

Scarselli grew up in Milan with her father and Sara Gay Forden, who had spent two decades covering the fashion industry and luxury goods. This became fodder for her 2001 book “House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed” and the basis for the eponymous 2021 movie starring Jared Leto, Adam Driver and Lady Gaga.

Forden moved to Arlington to cover antitrust for Bloomberg in D.C., bringing Scarselli with her. The two clung to stateside vestiges of Italy when they were homesick, frequenting the Italian Store for wine and cheese and an Italian church in D.C. just to hear the language.

Scarselli struggled with her Italian and American halves, says Forden, but was quick to pick up cultural differences. Forden recalls that when her daughter burst home, saying mamma, she made the following observation:

“Americans, when they get an idea in their head, they just go for it in a straight line, bound and determined. Nothing will dissuade them until they reach their goal. Italians really know how to live.”

“Julia,” Forden replied, “if you figure out how to bring those two things into balance, you will figure out how to live.”

This balancing act has animated Scarselli’s career path and life since. It lead her to start an organic extra virgin olive oil company, Libellula, which bridges her American and Italian roots and maintains her Arlington ties.

Libellula olive oil bottle (courtesy photo)

Going to the roots

Libellula sells organic extra virgin olive oil produced by six Italian family farms, which use sustainable methods to preserve ancient olive groves threatened by climate change.

Customers can purchase gifts and subscriptions, adopt groves and take retreats where they can participate in the harvest, taste fresh-pressed olive oils and learn how to pair them.

Scarselli has been working on Libellula since she was a student at Smith College, though the brand officially launched a year and a half ago. Its U.S. warehouse, in Maine, has been a boon for the local economy, leading the Maine International Trade Center to recently name the company the Foreign Direct Investor of the Year.

Today, Scarselli oversees bringing oil to fine-food retail partners around the U.S. when not at her day job with the World Economic Forum in Geneva. Her father, who lives in a medieval town outside Rome, works with the farmers. She travels between Italy and the U.S. for work, taking time to visit her mom in Arlington.

“It’s like bringing together the best of both worlds: the Italian love for food and community and appreciation for culture and nature.. and the American desire to to seek those out,” she said. “I think there is no one like an American that can like pragmatically get stuff done, right?”

Forden praised her daughter for never backing down from the challenges Libellula presented: running a business, navigating family dynamics and working with family farms impacted by climate change.

“She feels it’s almost a lifeline for her,” Forden said.

Perhaps Scarselli gets her tenacity and patience from her mother. Forden moved to Rome without a journalism job and pounded pavement until she started writing for an Italian newspaper, then Dow Jones, before landing a gig with the “Bible” of the fashion industry: Women’s Wear Daily.

Covering the rise of Italy’s fashion families — Armani, Versace, Ferragamo and Prada — Forden cultivated the sources she needed to chronicle the rise, fall and rebirth of Gucci. Her 2001 book pieced together family dysfunction, diverging narratives and the various players who vied for control of the company, with a cinematic flair.

“I wrote it with the big screen in mind,” she said. “I just really felt that the themes in the story were really eternal.”

She faced stiff competition, however. Around the time of her book’s release, Martin Scorsese told Variety he intended to make a Gucci movie based on another book, the contents of which Forden had re-reported in “House of Gucci.” It was not until 2018 that momentum picked up for a movie by Ridley Scott based on her work.

“It was a Cinderella moment,” she said.

Fittingly, when the movie premiered in Britain, Forden brought along Scarselli, to whom she dedicated the book.

“She was three when I started and five when I finished,” Forden said. “I dedicated it to her because I wanted her to know why her mom was so distracted during that time.”

Coming full circle 

Like her mother, Scarselli had a moment when Libellula came full circle: when her olive oil hit the shelves of The Italian Store in Arlington.

From the beginning, Scarselli wanted her olive oil on its shelves because of her memories buying wine, cheese and tomato sauces there, as well as its commitment to telling the stories behind the products they carry.

“The Italian Store was a natural fit… [and] very much a one of the founding kind of partners that we’ve had in our community,” she said.

General Manager Mike Tramonte, whose father Robert founded the store in 1980, says he was taken by Libellula’s story and Scarselli’s Arlington ties, as his wife also attended W-L. The store not only sells the olive oil but also adopted a grove.

“Every chance I get, when someone walks by the olive oil shelf and I see them looking, I tell the story and point to the picture of our groves and trees, and say, ‘That’s where it comes from.”

Many Italian Store products come from sourcing trips the family takes to Italy but, as the store cemented its reputation, Tramonte says product-makers have started seeking out the store.

“Never before did an Italian person come to us from Arlington,” he said. “That’s a cool way the product came right to our doorstep — and was born here in a way.”

Julia Scarselli and her father, Camillo Franchi Scarselli, in an olive grove in Italy (courtesy photo)

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