Shoemaker’s Son: How Rocky Marciano Ignited Italian America

As a boy, I vaguely remember the older Italian men, inside and outside my circle, having discussions of famous athletes of the day, and their inspiring rise to fame.

No doubt you’ve heard of some of them.

Names like Berra, Williams, Rizzuto.

Mantle. DiMaggio.

One that stands out in particular was Rocky Marciano. If the name sounds unfamiliar, he retired as the undefeated heavyweight boxing champion. I grew more curious as I heard the name Marciano in those influential circles.

To describe his rise to glory to that pinnacle as unlikely would be a kind assessment.

Unlikely to survive illness as an infant.

Unlikely to escape the factory life that consumed his father’s life.

Unlikely to become great in a brutally physical sport with his raw, limited skills.

With one sledgehammer of a right hand, the unlikely story no longer resembled a fairy tale, but the ignition of a suppressed culture and an inspiration to millions of immigrants looking for a ray of light, a shred of hope.

An American with Italian roots became heavyweight champion.

According to a piece by writer Al Bruno in La Gazzetta Italiana:

(Marciano) achieved the unthinkable and unimaginable to become boxing world champion. “Get out of this factory and be somebody important,” Marciano’s father, Pierino, a native of Abruzzo, would repeatedly urge and remind his oldest son: fueling him emotionally to do something “special” and rid himself of oppressive factory work and imminent poverty. Young Marciano feared poverty most for his parents and he wasn’t going to let that happen.

I often compared the physical and mental makeup of my grandfather, Sebastian, to Marciano: a short, compact frame, always moving forward, in a relentless space of grit and determination.

Like my grandfather, Marciano’s work ethic may have been the single determining factor in the successes of his life. According to Bruno, “Marciano was on a ‘no-lose’ mission to achieving greatness and he did so by simply out-working and out-conditioning all foes.”

Marciano, remarkably consistent and disciplined, spent hours in the gym, sparring, performing hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups, and putting at least seven miles of roadwork a day.

Similarly, Sebastian performed his jobs like a man possessed: as any true Calabrian would.

As Stanley Tucci described his Calabrese grandparents in his best seller, Taste“my grandparents left the extreme poverty of Calabria and… knew nothing but labor. All of that labor was dedicated to survival and creating a life with only the most minimal of creature comforts. Nothing went to waste, and luxuries were unheard of.”

Sebastian, as well as my Sicilian grandmother, went through a similar arduous journey.

Sebastian, looking dapper at my wedding

I’m unsure if my grandfather was at all influenced by Marciano. He was a man of few words and many deeds. A true representative of the “old-school” way of thinking.

I do know that he, after finishing a shift at the factory, would quickly move to our family’s first restaurant, Jack’s in Troy: a bartending shift awaited, to occupy his night.

Was he, in fact, under a subtle influence of the Friday Night Fights of the day? Watching boxers struggle to the apex of the maximum fifteen rounds, as he fought through never ending hours of shift work?

I’d like to think that, in a quieter moment, he stood behind that bar capturing renewed inspiration, watching the athletic struggles of the small screen.

Marciano, against all odds, became heavyweight champion, igniting a culture into social prominence. Sebastian became the champion of his family, determined to leave the poverty of Calabria behind.

For me, and others in our family, he transformed himself from a poor Italian immigrant into the heavyweight of our times.

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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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Up With the Birds: Nature Appreciation, and My Growing Sicilian Tendencies

When I was a younger man, things were pretty straightforward, without much confusion.

You were expected to act a certain way. Dress a certain way. Treat your elders with respect. Show up to the dinner table most nights, but especially on Sunday afternoon. That was a non negotiable.

Once I turned 12, it was time to stop slacking and help out in the family business, albeit on a very part time basis. Household chores were a necessity as well, whether in my parents’ house, or the modest brick ranch where my grandparents’ lived.

When my cousin Anthony got too busy with life to mow my grandparents’ half acre of land with the smallish 20″ cut push mower, and trimming hedges that covered the entire fence line, he handed the reigns to me.

I always wondered why he would perspire so much, in the summer heat, doing that job. It didn’t take me long to find out.

Between navigating tree trunks, pushing up inclines, and squeezing through shrubs with their sharp, pointed branches, being my grandparents’ personal landscaper turned out to be an intense job, manual labor that I couldn’t outsource to other relatives even if I tried (and I did try).

When the chore was done, mower and trimmer put away, t-shirt wrung out from two plus hours of sweat accumulation, I was hoping to go into the house to an offer of a couple of gallons of cold water.

The refrain remained the same: “How about a nice, hot cup of coffee?”

Nonna Rosina’s Wild Kingdom

That yard, with its plentiful gardens, grape vines, and fruit trees was the source of some confusion during my teenage years.

I had never seen animals quite like the ones in that yard. Birds were bloated, squirrels had the shape of Sherman tanks, and chipmunks ran wild in numbers that I had never quite seen on my own property.

Nonna, who always indulged in recycling before it became cool, didn’t waste a morsel of food. If it wasn’t eaten at the family table, it made its way to the patio or the grass, for the birds and animals to enjoy.

Obviously, this wasn’t regular bird food. If there was leftover spaghetti, that went out. Snack food that didn’t get eaten? Out the door.

When she was done making her 20 pounds of homemade bread crumbs with whatever stale bread she had lying around the house, she was more than happy to spread the scraps around for the squirrels hiding in the bushes, waiting for the latest bounty to drop.

The only thing that wasn’t offered was the obligatory cup of coffee. These animals probably had a no caffeine rule for their diet.

Any confusion ended there. My grandmother willingly put them on the high carb plan, probably admonishing them for being “too skinny” and “not eating enough.” Like all good Sicilian grandmothers do.

Nowhere to Be But Home

Since we were all encouraged to spend the majority of time at home these last few months, venturing elsewhere only when necessary, the three of us (including my son) took advantage of nicer early season weather, with a lot of that time spent on our back deck.

My wife planted her usual number of herbs and flowers, with some pots added later. We noticed, during morning coffee sessions on the deck, the birds and animals in the yard seemed more prevalent.

Maybe it was just the fact that I was no longer commuting to an office and developed more of an appreciation, but the yard seemed more alive than ever.

The bird species we observed each day were plentiful: cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, cedar waxwings, finches of different colors, robins, orioles, doves, and a coopers hawk or two that used our property for his personal hunting ground.

And, of course, we had squirrels take over the land in large numbers.

My wife had always tossed out bread and other items for the birds to enjoy if we weren’t going to use it. Now, as I began spending more time than ever on our deck, I started doing the same: lining small pieces of bread along the wooden rails, then flinging some to the ground below, waiting for the bird buffet line to form.

Just like any good Italian grandmother.

It didn’t stop there, however. When we did have a couple of guests this summer on our deck, or a nice socially distanced dinner party, I found myself defaulting to the same type of service standards that Nonna made obligatory:

“Want some coffee?”

“A little more on that plate? I’m going in the kitchen…”

You’re finished?? We still have some left on the stove!”

You might think I (or my wife, for that matter) do it just for the guests. That wouldn’t be the case. Whenever I offer coffee, or espouse my love for what we just put on a guest’s plate, or compliment them on their eating prowess, I’m staying true to my genetic code. In a small way, keeping a flame of tradition still flickering; even if it is getting more difficult to do these days.

The guests are the recipients, but there’s no mistake I’m doing strictly for myself.

My grandmother gave, nurtured, and cherished her closest relationships with symbols of unerring hospitality. As I grow older (but not old; let’s get that straight right now!), those symbols that I recognize as part of my bloodline are my obligation to move forward.

Fine feathered photos by Gabrielle DeGiorgio

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