Tag Archives: Montepagano

Abruzzo and my mother

Abruzzo is never far from my mind.  I am planning a trip of my own later this year. But, as always in April, my thoughts turn to my late mother Louise Pergolini Tucker. She would have been 89 this week. Not only was she born on the 10th of April but she also died on her 81st birthday. So the date holds even more significance and bitter-sweet memories.

Ironically, our mother never visited Abruzzo, but she was our link to her parent’s place. We are connected by a long line of people with the names of Pergolini, DeAngelis, Mezzacappa, DiRocco, Fagà, Marini, Marani, Ettore, Tassone. Villages like Morro d’Oro, Rosburgo, Montepagano, Montorio al Vomano, Notaresco, Scoppito, Roio Piano and more.

Through the years photos kept our migrant grandparents in touch with their family. Travel was not easy, money was short.

The first picture below shows our great-grandmother Sofia DeAngelis with her youngest child Vittorio Pergolini taken in Roseto degli Abruzzi. Vittorio was born in 1910, a year after his older brother (my grandfather Giovanni – John ) left for America. The brothers met 50 years after this photo was taken. Four of Sophia’s six children emigrated to ‘L’America’.

The next photo is of our mother’s grandfather Nicola Mezzacappa,  from Morro d’Oro, Abruzzo, pictured on the front porch steep at Thompson Street, Philadelphia in the 1940s. He left his wife behind until he got settled, then sent for his family, which included my grandmother.

The third photo shows the brothers:my grandfather John, my grandmother Anna Mezzacappa and Zio Vittorio. It was taken in Rome when John and Anna made their one-and-only trip back to Italy in 1963. The brothers first met on this trip.

The last photo shows more of Louise’s Abruzzo influences. Her own mother, our grandfather’s brother’s wives and a neighbour at a beach house in Delaware, cleaning up after a clamming expedition and meal, no doubt.

Click for a slideshow of images.

Vittorio Pergolini Sofia DeAngelis

Vittorio and mother Sofia, Roseto degli Abruzzi

Nicola Mezzacappa

Nicola Mezzacappa, from Morro d’Oro to Philadelphia

Anna and John united in Rome with Vittorio, 1963

Anna and John united in Rome with Vittorio, 1963

Pergolini women

The women cleaning up after a fish dinner.

It’s almost unfathomable to us now, with ease of travel and modern communication methods, that brothers could not meet until they were in their 50s and 60s. But they wrote affectionate letters and sent photos back and forth to maintain the relationship. Thanks to the relationships they kept, some of us have been fortunate to meet our mother’s cousins and their children and grandchildren. The journey of discovery, not only of our family, but of the beautiful rich culture of Abruzzo, continues.

For all of our mother’s modernity, forging her way in the new world, there was no denying her Italian roots. Last year, before I started this blog, I wrote on my other blog about Louise’s love of Mussels. Soon after, on this blog I wrote about the connection with her heritage symbolised by the dish Scripelle ‘Mbusse. Food is surely the biggest connection to ones heritage.

I’m reminded of Louise’s resistance to make lasagne because it was so labour intensive. After all she had six children, a part-time job as a nurse and a home to run. But we always convinced her to make lasagne for special occasions. She didn’t make her own pasta though. No, she was a modern woman who knew where to buy the good stuff!

Her lasagne was truly worth the wait. She never used a recipe. Feeding a large family was intuitive for her. For quantities, she worked back from how many people she needed to feed on the occasion. Then she doubled it in case any unexpected guests arrived. Nothing could be more embarrassing than to run out of food!

Louise’s lasagne was a tightly packed, multi-layered affair, and in hindsight was more like a timballo. Traditionally a timballo from the Teramo region is made with super-thin crepes (screpelle) instead of pasta. However, Louise used layers of fresh egg pasta, mozzarella, a homemade tomato sugo (starting with ‘un soffritto’ of garlic, olive oil, carrot, celery, onion and herbs) with minced (ground) beef, some vegetables like zucchini or eggplant if in season and topped with more mozzarella and pecorino cheese.

It’s surprising that I don’t have a photo of my mother’s famous lasagne to show here. Maybe one of my siblings has a photo of the Christmas table to share. If you’re reading guys, send me your photos!

Instead of Louise’s lasagne I will show you our modern American mother of Italian heritage, caught between cultures and managing both with great legs, and a martini…or two. Salute!

Louise at age 38 or so, already the mother of 5.

John (Giovanni) Pergolini – my grandfather the tailor

Two recent articles have inspired me to write about my late grandfather John Pergolini, longtime tailor.

First, a review of a documentary about Italian tailors, which I have yet to see (Men of the Cloth – a film by Vicky Vasilopolos). The review is written by fellow Abruzzophile Helen Free on the Abruzzo Blogger Community site.

Second, an article on Teramonews.com details honours given to the 105 year old Master Tailor (Maestro Sarto) Altobrando Rapagnà in the little village of Montepagano, in the Teramo region of Abruzzo, my grandfather’s and Maestro Rapagnà’s home town.

My big sister Ann and I have great memories of our grandfather (Pop Pop we called him) and his wonderful creations. Nowadays we live on other sides of the world from one another (thank heavens for Skype, eh) but we share a love of family history. Being close in age, we have many similar memories.

Ann recently told me that it was Pop Pop who encouraged our mother Louise to buy a sewing machine for us when we were pre-teens because Ann had already expressed a wish to learn to sew. We both took lesson from the local Singer Sewing Machine school but Pop Pop taught us the real secrets to good tailoring and how to properly finish our work. He would magically pull a bit of thread out and unfurl your morning’s work, telling you to do better if your sewing was not to his standard. He was incredulous that we had learned how to make buttonholes with a machine and not by hand!

Family legend goes that Pop Pop refused to make our mother’s wedding dress because he was worried he wouldn’t do a good job. The lace and other fabric for the dress had been a gift from a family friend in the cloth trade and was quite valuable. When Louise went to her final fitting the day before the wedding Pop Pop went with her. He was not happy with the outcome. They accepted the dress then once at home, Pop Pop took it apart and remade it, cursing in Italian that he should have done it himself in the first place.

Ann and I have been to Italy many times now, together and separately. We’ve met cousins and uncles and exchanged stories, picking up more information and language on each visit. Although we have both studied Italian, we are far from fluent. We were telling a cousin about our grandfather’s habit of always touching our clothing (or our friend’s clothing) to decide the quality of the cloth. If Pop Pop liked the fabric he would say in English, with his thick accent “nice-a  stuff-a”. We learned that day in Italy that the Italian word for fabric or material or cloth was ‘stoffa’.  All along he had been speaking Italian to us but we had never realised it! How much more did we miss?

When we were small, we would often have a new outfit of clothing at Easter and Christmas, mostly overcoats and snow pants made of wool which Pop Pop had leftover from big bolts ordered for his home tailoring business.  We might be lucky to have a bit of pale blue wool and some navy trim on a lightweight wool jacket, or a tweed winter coat, hat and snow pants that we could zip at the leg to put on over our shoes. I’ll never forget some of the great outfits we had and some of my mother’s fabulous coats and jackets.

Below I’m sporting a coat, pants and hat fit for a Pennsylvania winter!

Me at about age 3 in one of Pop Pop's creations. A winter coat and snow pants fit for a Pennsylvania winter.

Me at about age 3 in one of Pop Pop’s creations

After my grandparents were both gone, some of Pop Pop’s old artefacts such as tailoring tools, a button box and old photos from the Italian Tailors Beneficial Society of West Philadelphia’s annual dinner dance, ended up with Ann.

Being clever and an artist, Ann has made a few ‘oggetti d’arte’ to commemorate our grandfather and his ‘forbici d’oro’ – golden scissors. Click on any of the photos to enlarge.

A tailor can never give up his art and craft completely. Up to the age of 90 Pop Pop could be found at his local dry cleaner’s shop in Atlantic City New Jersey where he had retired after our grandmother died. Sitting by the sewing machine he would replace missing buttons and repair buttonholes by hand.

Right up to his death at age 93, Pop Pop put on his suit each day. Under his lapel he always had hidden two sewing needles. In his pockets were a thimble and a scrap of paper wound with some black and some white thread. He was always ready.

Now, the art and craft of the tailor may be endangered. Let’s hope it’s not.