Just Like Nonna’s House

Has the pandemic not affected you, either physically or mentally?

If so, then you are on a very short list.

COVID hasn’t wrecked you physically, you say? You can be sure it’s taken some measure of psychological toll.

Businesses that eventually went dark during the pandemic – whether because of state mandated shut downs, staffing shortages, or supply chain issues – made some suffering worse: as if the threat of physical or mental illness wasn’t intimidating enough.

One such business was one of our favorite restaurants, a place called Sam’s Italian American, located in Albany.

I could tell you it was a favorite because of the menu, the staff, the simple “old school” decor: it was all that and much more. Whether you ordered a plate of braciole, vodka sauce, or clams and linguine, you could be sure your plate overflowed with the flavors of your past, the aromas of childhood.

One reason it was such a favorite of ours stands out: either our son or daughter (I forget which, although my wife claims it was the latter) walked through the wall papered entrance of the restaurant, immediately proclaiming “it smells just like Nonna’s house in here.”

Just Like It Used to Be

I’m not sure if that moment cemented my fondness for Sam’s right there: I do know that, as I’ve recalled it repeatedly, I took my child’s proclamation as a way to knock the momentum from any pandemic related funk – vowing to continually search for the simple and the satisfying, that way of life that reminds me of just like Nonna’s house.

Nonna Rosina, next to my grandfather with his fork

With the help of my wife, I tend to pay more attention to my natural surroundings – animals, trees, flowers, the sky – just like we used to at Nonna’s house.

Play is becoming a bigger part of life. Just like I used to with the brick facade of Nonna’s house, bouncing a rubber ball, watching it explode off the brick and into my baseball glove for hours on end.

The social scene was big at Nonna’s house. Friends, family, neighbors would all stop by (remember the “drop in”?), eventually sitting at table for coffee, and what comedian Sebastian Maniscalco refers to in his memories as “company cake.”

Whether sitting for a coffee with my 100 year old great aunt (shout out to Zia Maria) or a post-mass Sunday brunch with a bunch of my cousins, the replication of that decades ago social life isn’t just necessary now: it’s critical.

When you look at the post pandemic landscape, it’s a horrendously ugly map: inflation, shootings, a senseless war wrought by a douchebag dictator, a general disrespect towards other humans, and the very sanctity of human life.

The concept of faith, family, and meals shared together, whether on a Sunday or any other day, is a dying breed here in America.

We need to do what we can to keep it on life support.

It’s not just an Italian American thing either. I believe that, once upon a time, most of us shared these common and important values.

A place like Sam’s was always a respite from the craziness, the confusion that permeates the outside world – bringing back the memories and emotions, the way of life that seems long past, that felt just like Nonna’s house.

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In Defense of “Remember When”

Remember when is the lowest form of conversation.”

The above is a favorite quote from television’s The Sopranos, delivered and made famous by the late great actor James Gandolfini.

I used to be able to see that point of view: to express boredom with individuals that spoke of nothing but the past.

My belief is when Soprano said this, he pictured the clichéd form of Remember When: the heroics of a high school playoff game, first loves, snapshots in time where the hair is less gray (or there at all!).

I’ve come to disagree with this nugget of Soprano life advice. Navigation of the late fifties age will do that to a guy.

If Tony were able to fast forward to this era of unrest (I’ll refer again to what Eagles founding member Don Henley might call “a graceless age”), he’d agree with me: Remember When is an elevated, and necessary, form of conversation.

In post election, post social rage, (hopefully soon) post covid – why wouldn’t you want to reach back into your archives for golden moments with more frequency?

When the future may be less bright than imagined, why not temper approaching clouds with images from your past?

In the fragmented remnants of years 2020-21, why wouldn’t I want to drift back in time to my grandmother’s kitchen, to when my kids were young, or back behind the mahogany bar at my family’s restaurant?

In Remember When, I recognize legacy. When you acknowledge or explore your roots, there is no possible way (for me, anyway) to celebrate success without giving credit to the tables that were set so neatly for me before any opportunities came along.

Remember When is remembering where you came from, and ensuring that remains the spotlight on your life.

Remember When helps you keep loved ones close. The ones we’ve lost. The mentors, the teachers, the rule breakers.

I often return to the idea that a man, or woman, passes away twice: first, the physical death, and then when no one speaks their name again.

Remember When is helpful to keep them alive and vibrant, even if only in a symbolic sense.

It was, and is, the vision of my grandparents still vibrant in their sixties, seventies, and beyond.

Not just them, but the vision of their house as well. The house they had built, paid cash for (against all odds). It would serve as the backdrop of my life for over 40 years.

Remembering the massive vegetable gardens that my cousins tended. That grapevine that my great uncle Mariano pruned with painstaking care. The fig tree, homemade wine, wooden arbors with roses draped over the sides.

Remember When is the Sunday dinner: time spent with cousins, aunts, uncles et al around a crowded table, made even more crowded by the plates and platters of food that my grandmother had spent the better part of two days in preparation.

In 2022, of course, everything is different. The gardens provide no food, the shrubs I used to trim are overgrown, and the grape vine is a skeleton shadow of the past.

I would always see my grandparents, spending time most days at that house. Now, I occasionally visit them at the cemetery, just a few miles away.

I’ll tell you, however, that doesn’t make me sad. It makes me grateful. For the good times had, the memories that can never fade, my “lightning strikes” luck of being born into the family that I was.

Those memories are most meaningful in the sense that they began the final chapters: a conduit to the beginnings of the next, the new generation.

Even though I’m older now, I still consider myself part of that new generation.

A new generation that can reflect, looking back, as well as towards the future with the words remember when.

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Just Who is “Nonna,” Anyway?

As the pace of this blog ebbs and flows, and more posts are added and shared via social, it’s heartening to note that new readers are coming aboard: in fact, there’s more than just a few of you here, enjoying these essays new and old.

With that, it’s justified that I reintroduce the central character in this decade long online story, especially for those of you that might not be intimately familiar.

That character is my grandmother, who my two kids grew up calling “Nonna.”

Rosina Tagliarini, who would eventually become Rosina DeGiorgio by marriage, emigrated to this country in the late 1920’s with her mother and her sisters from a small town in Sicily: Acquaviva Platani, in the province of Caltanisetta.

Escape From Oppression

Unlike many immigrants who came to America to escape poverty, my grandmother’s family had to leave to evade constant threats of organized crime. Her father was specifically targeted, not buckling to kickback and payoff requests: individuals that wanted their share of government warehouse reserves that he protected to ensure local residents were fed and nourished through the war years.

Me, with my Nonna, late 1960s

She came here with her mother, and sisters. Her mother Maria, my great grandmother, was who I called Nonna when I was really young. She held a special place in the home my grandparents had built here in the late ’60s, a modest brick ranch, surrounded by gardens and fruit trees spread out over almost an acre of land.

The family matriarch, she was an ordinary citizen here, but not so in Sicily. She ran an apothecary, known in her small town as a healer. In her later years, I would bring macaroni with butter and cheese to her, with my little six year old hands, as that was all she cared to eat.

My grandmother’s sisters also came here, two of them with notable influence on me, as well: Nicolina, who I dubbed the “Last Sicilian,” and Carmela, who watched after us youngsters with a caring but steady hand during lunch hours (we walked home from elementary school for lunch) and after school.

She also had two brothers, named Lillo and Franco. Fond memories of mine include “Uncle Frank,” who would visit from Italy occasionally, and was my first exposure to a man who I thought was a jet setting world traveler (People could come here from Italy so easily? Amazing!).

His sister showed how thrilled she was by his visits, rolling out her version of a red carpet. A prolific cook already, my grandmother went full throttle when company was coming. A visit from Franco assured a large number of arancini (riceballs, see photo), a Sicilian street food and family favorite. I’m salivating now, just writing this.

Married With Children

A few years after arriving, she married my grandfather Sebastian DeGiorgio. Their marriage was an ongoing success story, lasting 64 years until his passing in 2000. They had two sons, my father Joe (yup, I’m a junior) and his younger brother Anthony, who died tragically as a teenager months after I was born.

Parents never get over such a life changing event, but Rosina’s strength and resolve to carry on through her grief to provide support to her family was undeniable. It’s one of her traits that I remain in awe of, to this day.

After stints of factory work, what she called “piece work,” she took over sister Carmela’s restaurant in the late 1950s. Known as Jack’s, that was a successful venture for my family for 10 years, until acquiring another restaurant, this time with my dad: the Trojan Tap Room, where I spent 25 years of my working career myself.

Aside from her prowess in a professional kitchen, she was an accomplished home cook as well. For family, friends, acquaintances that dropped by – there would always be an offer of something off the stove, if you were to sit at her table. If nothing else, a cup of coffee and sweet treat was required to have.

Bound to a strong family unit, she had a tight knit group of friends – Mary Marino, Flora DeCurtis, and Maria Commis come to mind immediately. She shared faith centric friendships with these ladies, as practicing her Roman Catholic faith was of utmost importance, in line with the dedication to her family and her life’s work.

She lived a full 96 years, most them robust and energetic. Constant movement was her calling card, at first as survival mechanism (as an immigrant, you’d better have hauled ass), then subsequently as a path to success: expending every shred of energy in support of family.

A recent statement by Pope Francis (who I’m sure she would have loved) summarized it beautifully, and inspired me here:

“It is striking that the Lord spent most of his time on Earth living an ordinary life, without standing out. It is a beautiful message that reveals the greatness of daily life, the importance in God’s eyes of every gesture and every moment of life, even the most simple.

That was her, in a nutshell. Simple life, with every day well spent. Diminutive in stature (under five feet), but with an outsized personality. Her influence is still felt, every day.

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The Family Ties That Bind, and the Greatest Grilled Cheese Ever

 

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Aunt Carmel, center, with my great grandmother Maria, and family friend Maria Commis

If you’ve been with me on this journey somewhere over these 130+ blog posts, you’re intimately familiar with my thoughts, and the specific love and admiration I have for all things family.

You’ve met the individuals who I consider the titans of our little tribe, many of them more than once: my Nonna, who arguably is the reason I started putting my fingers to a keyboard. My great aunt, also my godmother, dubbed the “Last Sicilian.” You’ve met Dominick a number of times, as well as Mariano and Antonio.

All amazing people, with equally amazing stories, that I feel compelled to share with you.

But there is one glaring omission: one that has gone for far too long and needs to be rectified.

This sin of omission happens, perhaps, for the lack of key memories. This family figure passed away when I was just a boy, not even yet a teenager.

I called her Aunt Carmel, but Carmela Tagliarini Prezio was my great aunt, my grandmother’s sister, who came here with her sisters as part of the immigration wave of Southern Italians and Sicilians to this country.

Between around 1880 and 1924, more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States, half of them between 1900 and 1910 alone—the majority fleeing grinding rural poverty in Southern Italy and Sicily.

My “Aunt Carmel” had such a giant personality and family care taking instincts that she had a chance to supplant her sisters, my grandmother and godmother, as being my favorite. She just left us a little too soon to find out.2386CD98-AD99-461C-8DB6-E6ED78E53819

Her story (and their story) emigrating to the wintry slop of New York from sunny Sicily, is a dramatic one. Although I believe the connection between Italians and organized crime is an overblown stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood cinema, a true crime story was happening in Sicily to drive my grandmother’s family out.

My great-grandfather, Calogero, was running a warehouse for the government in Sicily. The local branch of organized crime targeted him as a revenue source, which he had no interest in complying with. The situation became more extreme with a warning gunshot to my great grandfather’s foot, and the future decision was made to flee Sicily when they could.

Aunt Carmel was like many other Sicilian immigrants: hard working, entrenched in her faith, and centered around family. There were mighty struggles, and good times, throughout her life. Her husband, Anthony Prezio, carved his path as one of our family’s first entrepreneurs (and restaurant owners) after holding a series of jobs.

If you’re familiar with immigration history, many of those that came to America (Irish and Italians included) were offered only the most menial, sometimes dangerous, manual labor jobs.

For some Italians, the only way for upward mobility was to start a business, in an attempt to control their own destiny.

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Celebrating life and love with family

My connection with Aunt Carmel was a close one, as the family was tight knit, living on the same block on the same street, as many immigrants were to do. My grandmother lived directly across the street, so us kids would bounce back and forth between houses as necessary.

The most consistent memory of my aunt was as I was coming home from elementary school for lunch, stopping at her house to be fed. Since my parents and grandparents were working outside the home, Carmela invited me into her’s for many wonderful meals.

Her specialty  was a toasted cheese sandwich: not a grilled cheese, mind you, but a cheese sandwich made crunchy and melty within an actual toaster oven. Fantastic.

Being the spoiled child that I was (remember, I had more than a couple of Sicilians to provide meals, making sure I was well fed) I remember asking her if we could have something else after a long succession of lunch time toasted cheese.

Looking back on my adolescent complaint of “toasted cheese, again?”, I would love to travel back in time, just to have one more of those sandwiches.

But the sandwich is only symbolic, wouldn’t you say?

To my younger self, that sandwich meant comfort, safety, security. A place to turn where there was nowhere else to go, however temporarily.

Carmela, along with her sisters Rose and Nicolina, represented all that was right with the world. Whatever trivial matters could go wrong in the life of an adolescent me, they were the port of refuge that provided that comfort and security.

And that was the ladies. The men, once they came home, reinforced it all.

It’s said we are a country divided, here in 2020. It’s thought very few of us can be trusted, and we’ll need those sources of comfort and security to believe that, as in the early 70’s at Carmela Prezio’s kitchen table, “all is right with the world.”

More than that, reflection on the generosity, faith, and kindness they all displayed instill in me the belief that we aren’t really divided at all: just a little lost, and trying to find our way.

Aunt Carmel passed away when I was only 12 years old, so our relationship never really had a chance to blossom fully, but we are kindred spirits even now as she enjoyed writing her thoughts down as much as I do. And her sisters were the gift to me that kept on giving.

It’s with the memory of their guidance that I use to find myself, each and every day.

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My Italian Grandfather, and 5 Ways I Observe the Magic of October

IMG_4197A favorite story of my grandmother’s that she used to tell me – which took place just after my grandfather and she were married – is the tale of how unrecognizable he was coming home from work, his face, hands, and arms stained black from the grime and soot of being underneath a locomotive as part of his job.

Like many Italian immigrants, he was tasked with employment of the most arduous physical labor, the only jobs that were made available to immigrants at that time.

As she recalled the story, we would sit at the kitchen table drinking coffee, and she would make a face attempting to replicate how stunned she was at the time. Pure shock.

I’m sure he stunned her more than once, with his determination, grit, and drive. The smile on her face, once this version of the story ended, said it all. Years after he passed, she was comforted by this small memory as she finished the remnants of her cup, in the kitchen where I spent much time in my formative years.

What’s really stunning is he came to this country as a teen with his younger brother and father, (his passport photo is below) with his father returning to Italy shortly after. With limited grasp of the English language, equipped with the skills of only a teenager, America, even with its opportunity, was sure to be a rough ride for him. YoungPop

Reflecting on his beginnings and the life he lived, progress he made here, how he and other family members paved the way for my generation – it makes my grandfather one of my heroes.

He was human, but to me seemed infallible. When I look back at the persistence that was required of him to do what he did, I’ll shake my head in disbelief. He was part of an amazing tribe, that we may never see the likes of again.

October is a special month, not only because of the federal holiday that celebrates our heritage – which, for a lot of us, has extended from one day into an entire period of reflection and celebration – it’s also the month my grandfather was born.

I’m not the one to get into the Columbus controversy, numerous attempts to rewrite history, or how so many people protest “off the cuff” without knowing that history (“What?? I saw it on the internet…it must be true!”).

My wife and I stay happy in large part to avoiding rage inducing news programming, so I’m not your most reliable or updated source for the trendy, swirling “Columbus hate.”

Columbus Day can be seen as a segue to the more important Italian American Heritage Month – not as a celebration of an individual, no matter how storied or maligned – but to celebrate an entire cultural narrative, one that may have finally felt worthy of inclusion into America’s history with the induction of Columbus Day.

img_0906It’s a month to reflect, to think about grandparents, great aunts, and uncles who provided influence. In some cases, massive influence.

It’s a month to keep traditions alive, even for someone like me who thinks about breathing new life into them every day, October or not.

I didn’t attend a parade, paint my face with shades of red and green, or wave a flag, other than the one you see here that adorned the west side of my back deck. I can say that my participation in seeing this month as “our” month wasn’t noticeably different than my normal day in July or December.

Maybe you’re curious – if there was no parade attendance, or face paint, how exactly does one celebrate Columbus Day or, more extensively, the magic month of October?

img_0904Well, it’s about the food, of course – The morning of Columbus Day, after proudly displaying the flag on the deck, my wife went Italian with the breakfast selection making this frittata. Full of protein, fats, and (perhaps) garlic powder, it also featured delicious greens – spinach and kale, sauteed to perfection.

Reflection is key, as well – pictured here are my Nonna, img_0912and my great aunt. The initial inspiration for this very site, they are always top of mind, and we salute them repeatedly during this month. In this photo, I like to think they are planning a menu, or perhaps conspiring on chores and tasks for their grandsons.

Speaking of “saluting” – it’s not month specific, but my wife and I celebrate the good fortune in our life whenever we can. Life isn’t “social media perfect,” there are always challenges, whether imposed by the world or challenging ourselves. It’s always worth a toast when we can overcome those challenges and enjoy ourselves.

img_0902Express some gratitude – again, not specific to October, or even November, but always good to reflect on where you are, where you came from, and God willing, where you’re going to go. Articles here typically focus on the past – but I can be as future oriented as it gets. And with a bounty like what’s pictured at left (taken at my cousin’s house), how can you not at least feel a little grateful?

Just a little more reflecting – the couple pictured below, in my eyes, were damn near perfect. Married for well over 60 years,  my grandparents epitomized the immigrant success story, and became my singular focus when I decided to start writing for fun again. From the stories I’ve heard in the past, and continue to hear from relatives who knew them well, I ascertained I had a wealth of material to work with.

img_0995.jpgThey are reason enough to celebrate October with a dynamic fervor – and every other month as well.

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