Adapted from Il Cenacolo San Francisco lecture, San Francisco Italian Athletic Club March 17, 2022
My paternal grandfather was born in Atri Abruzzo in 1894 and emigrated to America at the age of 18. My paternal grandmother was born in Casoli di Atri Abruzzo in 1906. Both of her parents died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919. Concezio married Giovannina in 1926, and together they had four children originally in Tuckahoe New York, and then, from 1935, in Philadelphia, where Concezio worked for the US Army in the Philadelphia shipyards.
My father was born exactly one month before Black Tuesday 1929. His first ten years were spent as an American boy in the depression. His second ten years were spent as an American boy in the WWII era. Italy was the enemy for a time. He shushed his parents when they spoke Italian in public. Being Italian was not exactly patriotic, and Ezio was always a patriot.
Ezio taught himself English, excelled in school, and attended Temple University on a scholarship from a local political wardsman who admired Ezio’s tenacity.
Ezio met Anne Green, a tall, beautiful Philadelphia girl. I grew up on the story that they met in a West Side Story moment, their eyes meeting across the room as they each danced with a different date at a fraternity party in Philadelphia.
One year later, Ezio and Anne married, Ezio graduated Temple, and he was quickly drafted into Army Intelligence and sent to Saltsburg, Austria. He was proud to say his task was to root out communism. His role was to interview Austrian war brides and reject visas for any suspected communists.
Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I never saw an Italian Flag or and Italian-American magazine. We ate spaghetti and meat balls, of course, but the pasta was soft and the meat balls were large. I was an American girl in South Jersey. Joe Namath was my heart throb.
But then came a crush that would last almost two decades. From the soldier boy to the brutal husband, Al Pacino stole my heart.
But it was thirty seconds that changed my life.
If I may imitate, “Da, da-da, da, da-daaaaa.” The Statue of Liberty is reflected back in the eyes of the hopeful, and my family history (the part I romanticized) was told to me in thirty seconds. My family were immigrants from Italy. Italy! Rome! Venice! Florence! I was eight or nine or ten, and while some Italian Americans protested the depiction, to me, The Godfather was not a mafia movie any more than Cinderella was the story of a Medieval prince. The Godfather was the missing piece of my own family history on the big screen–I did not understand the plot whatsoever, and I did not focus on the guns, or the violence, or the racism, or the animal brutality, or the sexism. I saw the big romantic wedding, the Italian neighborhoods, the whole foot-in-the-door experience of vegetable vendors, undertakers, musicians and actors, and tradition. Tradition I had not experienced. And the spoken Italian language. And connection to this romantic old world where one naked shoulder scandalized me into a life-long fascination and drive to discover my family roots. Suddenly, I felt connected to something beyond South Jersey, where tradition was limited to fireworks on the fourth of July, the annual St. Joan of Arc Carnival, and drives to the Shore. And skating on open lakes.
My quest was academic but tenacious and led to years of discovery. I learned Italian at UC Berkeley, spent my junior year in Venice, traveled to meet my extended Italian family, and began a connection that has led to the present day. I’ve written a novel based on an Italian woman painter, Sofonisba Anguissola, titled Lady in Ermine: The Story of a Woman Who Painted the Renaissance, the research for which led me to ultimately restore the house from which Giovannina Lattanzi departed in 1926. My romantic dedication to discovering my Italian roots goes back to the ingrained fascination sparked by that thirty second immigration scene where young Vito Corleone sees the Statue of Liberty. I have to admit, I still get choked up when I see that scene.
All of this is to say that I have, in fact, traced my roots to Abruzzo whose motto “forte e gentile” so beautifully sums up this lush, hospitable region.
Abruzzo is in central Italy due east of Lazio and is divided into four provinces. The history of Abruzzo is informed by its geography. Bordered by the Adriatic Sea and a ring of mountains crowned by the 10,000-foot-tall Gran Sasso, Abruzzo is called the Green Region of Italy, having the greatest percentage of open space, from deep, clear rivers to mountains visible from every part of the region. Cinghiale and freshwater prawns are specialties of these mountains. Vongole e pesce are specialties of the mare. Arrosticini is a local specialty of savory grilled sheep on skewers.
Historically, Atri was called “Hatria” after which the Ancient Romans named the “Adriatica,” the Adriatic Sea.
Abruzzo is a both a mountainous agricultural region, a fishing region, and a dolce vita coastal and ski experience.
I like to ride my bike along the Adriatic coast. On one side of me is the crystal blue sea. On the other side, the hilltops are sprinkled with ancient towns and dotted by alternating farms of grapes, olives, tomatoes, sunflowers, wheat, grapes, olives, tomatoes, sunflowers, wheat.
The red wine is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a wine that is always good. A bad bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is not made. The land and sun cannot help but yield delicious grapes. Rich, chewy, delicious, and usually a very nice price point. If you have a chance to visit Abruzzo, a mere two-hour drive from the Rome airport, the selection of Montepulciano is incredible. I’ve been at pizzerias where the house red wine may cost five euros and be too delicious to leave a drop behind.
The white wines are Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and Pecorino d’Abruzzo, both delicious, light, crisp food white wines.
The rose style is specialized: Cerasuolo, “cherry of the sun,” favored in the summertime.
Because of the abundant herbs in the mountains, Abruzzo specializes in digestivi from Cent Erbe to Genziana, and hundreds of local variations. The digestivi in Abruzzo span every conceivable flavor.
The naturally growing liquorizia is made into confection licorice that is out of the world, made into every conceivable shape and variation. In Abruzzo, it is known that Anise and licorice are not the same thing, the first being a plant and the second being a root. Each of our American guests to date has disputed that until they get their samples at the candy shops in Atri.
Today you can go to a market in San Francisco and buy a brown bag of cut and dried pasta from Abruzzo for just shy of $7. In Abruzzo, that same bag is 70 cents, but you will mostly eat fresh pasta with a chew you will desire again and again, it is so satisfying.
The olive oil in Abruzzo, and I imagine in most of Italy it is this way, is produced by local farmers who still bring their hand-picked private yields to the vechio frantoio that crushes the olives into a paste from which the delicious green oil is squeezed. We enjoyed watching the fresh press at Oleificieria Pavone in Atri last October. We brought a five liter can of olive oil home in a suitcase and divided it into bottles for gifts. Our Californian friends relished this oil. They saved it for dipping and never used it to cook. Everyone agreed the fresh pressed Abruzzo olive oil had to be savored.
Tourism in Abruzzo is wonderful. You won’t encounter much English outside of Pescara, and the summertime beach life is relaxing and carefree, yet vibrant.
The hilltops are dotted with small villages and ancient cities like Atri, Chieti, Macerata, and Aquila. The beaches are lined from Pescara to Giulianova with lidoes that rent reclining chairs and umbrellas, but may well be booked far in advance by returning families. My husband and I joke that when we return to our town, the Roseto Beach v. Pineto Beach debate comes up within three or four sentences in every conversation, so important is your annual beach selection.
To the south of Pescara, you find former fishing piers called “Trabocchi” that have been transformed into gourmet restaurants with unimaginable artistry in seafood. You do not want to show up without a reservation.
The world has great fascination with Italy, and Americans may be among the most fascinated as we retrace our roots around the globe. Abruzzo is not overwhelmed with tourists. There is room and culture to relax and rejuvenate.
I am proud to discover my roots in Abruzzo.