Institute for the Ages CEO Tom Esselman turned his passion for pizza into philanthropic gold.

By Hannah Wallace

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It all started in his mother’s kitchen. Tom Esselman, now CEO of Sarasota’s Institute for the Ages, learned as a child to cook with his Italian mother. But it was while living in England as an executive for Hallmark that Esselman’s passion for pizza became a philanthropic calling.

When he was expected to make a contribution to his children’s school fund raiser, Esselman put a personalized pizza party up for auction. The winning bid was £2,000, and Esselman was called upon to make pizzas for the winner’s 40th birthday party—about 80 people. “I probably made 22 pizzas,” he says, laughing.

Now, pizzas are the basis for all of his philanthropy, from kids’ parties (he makes a “bomb shelter” pizza with leftover toppings topped by a pepperoni and cheese shell) to sophisticated grownup gatherings (a Thai chicken pizza and a “Rhode Island” pizza with fresh mushrooms, spinach and feta cheese).

For his part, Esselman prefers Italian sausage, mushrooms and green peppers on his pizza, but currently, his most popular offerings are a margherita and a chicken fajita with Monterey Jack cheese.

Of course, his passion for Italian food doesn’t stop at pizzas; he’s also started making his own pastas and would love to experiment with breads. "Now that there are so many varieties of whole grains and whole wheat flours, you can make breads that are a lot healthier,” he says. And every Christmas he makes and distributes his grandmother’s biscotti, which he and his siblings knew as “Noni’s cookies.”

“The thing I spend more time doing than cooking is exercising,” he says. “If I didn’t, I’d be in real trouble.”

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