Caruso Redivivus

November 2, 2021

By Neil D. Garguilo

     Christmas, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1965.  The voice came up through the stairway into my tiny room as I lay in bed as a youth of 12 years old.  The voice had strength unheard of to my naïve ears.  The high notes were exceptional and hard to believe.  There was such “timbre” to his voice.  The songs were so wonderful.  The album so unique.  The most wonderful carols ever like Silent Night, The First Noel, Joy to the World and a very unusual song called Guardian Angels sung with such vocal beauty.  This last song is so moving and haunting.  To this day, I just love it!  Who was this singer?  This unique voice?  This unbelievable voice belonged to Mario Lanza.

     My father loved all the great Italian singers of that era and had many of their LPs.  Such talented singers included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jimmy Roselli, and Perry Como.  He also played the great operatic star Enrico Caruso from a prior time period.  But Mario stood out.  He stuck in my mind.  To this day I hear his voice and beautiful songs over and over again.  There is something about the “greatest” that I am drawn to whether in sports, film or singing.  And in my opinion he had the greatest voice of all time.  He was “The Voice…”

     Mario Lanza was born in Philadelphia, PA on January 31, 1921 to Italian immigrants.  That same year his idol, Enrico Caruso, died.  Mario Lanza was not his real name but a feminized version of his mother’s name, Maria Lanza.  His real name was Alfredo (Freddie) Arnold Cocozza.  It is good they changed his last name since Cocozza in Italian means “pumpkin.”

     His mercurial rise to stardom was marked by such high notes and, sadly, a swift demise.  He, too, was drawn to the family’s Victrola early in his youth.   His favorite singer was the great Caruso himself.  In his teens he was well versed in operatic arias and plots.  His mother who was quit a singer herself noticed her son’s voice and started him on voice lessons with a well know local teacher named Irene Williams.  Then, fate shined on him.  The famous conductor Serge Koussevitzky was in Philadelphia when he hears Freddy (Mario) sing.  He was dumbstruck at the wonderful voice emanating from this young man.

     In 1942, the maestro made immediate plans for Mario to sing at Tanglewood, the famous music venue in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts.  He sang the role of Fenton in Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Alas, a world war was raging and Mario was soon drafted.  While in the army he sang and appeared in two Army productions, Frank Loesser’s On the Beam and the acclaimed Moss Hart’s Winged Victory.  At the end of the war he met the love of his life, Betty Hicks and married.  This marriage produced 4 beautiful children: Colleen, Ellisa, Damon, and Marc.

     Following the war, more training took place with Enrico Rosati, a very famous vocal teacher.  This study must have paid off since he signed a contract with Columbia Artists and toured as the tenor in the Bel Canto Trio with soprano Frances Yeend and the baritone George London.  Again, fate turned its illusive eyes towards him.  While singing at the Hollywood Bowl with Frances he was noticed by the great movie producer Louis B. Mayer of MGM.

     His life from this point on was forever altered.

     The star was rising very fast and so was the stress.  In addition to his MGM contract, he signed a recording contract with RCA Victor.  Then, on April 8, 1948 and April 10, 1948 he performed in the tenor role of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for the New Orleans Opera Association.  Faster and faster his career shot up.  His first motion picture was released in 1949 called That Midnight Kiss.  It was a smash hit making Mario Lanza a screen star overnight.

     But the stress started to build and its outlet was in the form of heavy drinking, excessive eating and extreme dieting.  These last two issues plagued him since he would shoot up in weight during filming.  He was only 5’ 7” and would start out at 170 pounds and then rapidly climb up to 260 pounds.   It was noticeable on film causing editors issues on how to fix.  They did the best they could.  This rapid weight gain also led him to strange dieting.  For instance, he flew to Italy and entered Rome’s Valle Giulia clinic for the purpose of losing weight for an upcoming film.  While in the clinic, he underwent a controversial weight loss program called “the twilight sleep treatment” which required its patients to be kept immobile and sedated for prolonged periods.  His excesses caused him to have heart problems.

     His star was on the ascent.  In 1950 the Toast of New Orleans was released.  Then, in 1951, Mario fulfilled a dream come true by playing his idol Enrico Caruso in the film The Great Caruso.  This was a major success in every way and brought Mario’s star to its apex.  This film was the most profitable one for MGM in 1951 and set a record gross at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, grossing $1,390,943 in ten weeks.  In addition, the film’s soundtrack issued by RCA Victor became the first operatic LP to sell one million copies.  All of this great success was followed in 1952 with Because You’re Mine—popular at the box office but not a critical success.

     Many stars feel that everything should revolve around them.  No different with Mario.  At one of his greatest moments—working for MGM—he had artistic deputes and was replaced as the star of The Student Prince in RCA. You really have to follow what the studio says or wants.  However, his voice was used on the soundtrack for the movie and RCA Victor released the LP which became the first million-seller soundtrack album. 

     From this point, Mario left MGM, made several recordings and appeared in radio and television shows until 1956 when he stared in Warner Brother’s movie Serenade.  In May 1957, Mario and his family left for Italy.  While in Europe, he performed for the Queen of England in several sell-out recitals, and made his final two films, The Seven Hills of Rome in 1957 and For the First Time in 1959.

     The end came swiftly and, for me, it is hard to believe such a man, a star dying so young.  In October 1959, he developed a severe case of advanced phlebitis.  Then, he suffered a fatal heart attack on October 7 and could not be revived.  His family and the world were shocked and brokenhearted.  To make matters worse, a scant 5 months later, on March 11, 1960, his beloved wife Betty died and joined him in eternal bliss.  Mario could be at rest with his love and have no further pressures to perform and to be a star.  He was 38 years old.

      A man with such a voice had enormous pressure and responsibility to perform at “his peak” each and every time.  A story of his idol is recounted that while he was backstage prior to opening, Caruso appeared nervous.  Someone asked him: “Why are you nervous–you are the great Caruso.”  He apparently answered and I paraphrase: “I do not have to be 100% but 150% each time I go out to perform.”  Unique personalities, unheard of talent, unbridled magnetism, and enormous success only can add to the need to perform at the “peak” all the time and, hence, tremendous pressure.  I do not envy them…

     Lanza was the first RCA Victor Red Seal artist to win a gold disc and the first artist to sell two and a half million albums.  The Red Seal is a classical music label whose origin dates back to 1902 and represents “premium-priced records made by top-tier artists.  In 1998, a Golden Palm Star on The Palm Springs, California, Walk of Fame was dedicated to him.  Further, he was awarded two Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: a Star for Recording at 1751 Vine Street, and a Star at 6821 Hollywood Boulevard for Motion Pictures.  Mario’s short career spanned popular music, opera, radio, TV and motion pictures.  It is unbelievable.  His legacy lives on in the influence he has played in the 3 Tenors lives: Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and countless others throughout the last 62 years since his death.   His recordings and films are available on CD and video and are still earning money to this day.   

     I have come full circle with my idol.  I fulfilled a bucket list item when my wife and I along with friends, Joanne and Frank, visited his museum in Philadelphia on October 2, 2021.  The museum is located at 1214 Reed Street.  It was a wonderful day to be with all his memorabilia and to hear a great presentation by the curator and president, Bill Ronayne.  Then, our friends introduced us to The Victor’s Café where we enjoyed wonderful food served by employees singing opera.  What a day to remember Mario with!!     

     Mario put his whole heart and soul into his singing.  He himself stated:  “I sing each word as though it were my last on earth.”  So true that his idol’s son, Enrico Caruso, Jr. said of him: “Mario Lanza was born with one of the dozen or so great tenor voices of the century, with a natural voice placement, an unmistakable and very pleasing timbre, and a nearly infallible musical instinct.  His diction was flawless, matched only by the superb Giuseppe Di Stefano.  His delivery was impassioned, his phrasing manly and his tempi instinctively right.  All are qualities that few singers are born with and others can never attain.”  He was “The Voice!”  Mario Lanza was “Caruso Reborn,” in the opinion of many music aficionados.

     Dad, thank you for playing Mario Lanza’s songs as I was growing up.  It connects us even though you are not with me.  Long live Mario Lanza and my Dad who introduced me to him.

Facts and data credited to The Mario Lanza Museum and Wikipedia.

About the Author:

Neil D. Garguilo is a retired business manager and leader.  He is retired but currently writes for the Italian Sons and Daughter of America newspaper, La Nostra Voce.  He also authors a blog to be found at     Neil G. – Medium, Crusaders for America.

One of Italy’s Former Treasures – Alitalia

October 23, 2021

By Joanne Natale Spigonardo

It’s hard to believe that Alitalia recently took its last flight. Alitalia had been in operation since 1947. It was a premier carrier and Italy’s world airline, with Rome Fiumicino as its main hub. Traveling on Alitalia in its hey days was luxurious even in economy class. Alitalia had excellent food on board, and white glove service. It’s sad that Alitalia has been in decline for decades, but for me it still remains very special, and one of Italy’s former treasures.

I have a personal history with Alitalia, as I traveled for the first time on an Alitalia airplane when I came to America as a five year old. I said to my Dad, I’m going to work at Alitalia one day, and I did. I worked there for 17 years and started in my 20’s. It was glamorous for me, as I always dreamed of traveling, and doing it when I was young made it even more exciting. Alitalia believed in quality, and not quantity, like many Italians believe in. It was all about the made in Italy brand, of the finer things in life. This was not the best business plan for the ever expanding travel and price challenges.

Working there was a dream come true. It was great to decide on Thursday to take the late flight out of JFK to Rome and spend a glorious weekend among the fabulous food and cypress trees. Flying standby was an adventure because you could never be sure if you would get on the flight, so those last minute whirlwind trips were for the young and free. I’m so happy I got to do it. It was truly la dolce vita!

My everyday work was stressful, as I worked with a lot of VIPs, but I got to meet many famous people like local newscasters, journalists, movie stars, and musicians. One of my most memorable encounters was with Luciano Pavarotti when he ran the Pavarotti International Voice Competition in Philadelphia. He and his entourage traveled each year on Alitalia. While I didn’t meet Pope Benedict in person, he did travel on Alitalia. Note his photo with President Bush and Laura Bush below. Like many of us, traveling on Alitalia was truly divine.

Pope Benedict with President and Laura Bush

Working at Alitalia was all about style. Can you imagine getting a full wardrobe designed by Giorgio Armani? My uniform consisted of blazers, skirts, blouses, scarves, rain-coat, and camel hair coat. It was fantastic to stay at a first class hotel while being fitted by a personal Alitalia tailor in New York. I still have the many beautiful silk scarves by Versace, Ferragamo, Valentino and others, that I purchased at a discount, in the eclectic onboard boutique. It was truly a fabulous experience.

In 1999 Alitalia closed most of its 52 offices in North America, and many worldwide. The Philadelphia Office was impacted and I was without a job. As we were leaving the office for the last time, the phone was ringing, I couldn’t help but to answer the phone and help the passenger. Alitalia was all about customer service, style, and class, something that is disappearing from travel today. Working there will always remain as one of the accomplishments that I am most proud of.

Alitalia’s VIP Lounge

About the Author: Joanne Natale Spigonardo

Joanne has many years of experience in travel to Italy, Italian art, history wine and cuisine. She is an advocate for Italian immigrant women, and the author of White Widow, which is available on Amazon. For more information about Joanne please visit her Linkedin page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/joanne-spigonardo-b4824a9/

A Hidden Treasure of Italy – Artist Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi – Self Portrait

By Joanne Natale Spigonardo

September 17, 2021

We all know the many great Italian masters of art.  There are too numerous male painters to mention. However, the ones that automatically come to my mind are Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Caravaggio. 

Artemisia Gentileschi is one of the most famous women in the history of art.  She was born in Rome in 1593 and worked along side of her father, Orazio Gentileschi, also a painter and student of Caravaggio. Her father was her mentor, and even though, her mother died when she was only 12, Artemisia had a gentle and strong role model in her father. Artemisia also studied the Baroque style of Caravaggio. Her style is known for its natural form and color. Her works come to life in a surreal and energetic burst of light.

Artemisia was raped by artist Agostino Tassi, who refused to marry her, but she was avenged in court where he was accused of the crime.  Her life was one of repression, rage, and unfairness.  Artemisia had a good father who encouraged her to study in Florence and she was soon married to a Florentine who supported her talent. Artemisia was the first woman to enroll in Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (the Academy of Arts and Drawing). She painted her first portrait entitled The spirit of Cesar in the Soul of a Woman at age 17.  Her work often depicts myths where women are warriors facing battle.  One of which is, Judith Slaying Holofernes. Her painting suggests the plight of women then and now. Her voice is telling us to fight suppression and use talent and intelligence as a weapon.  Artemisia was also celebrated artist in the court of the de Medici family, that aided her popularity and success.

The spirit of Cesar in the Soul of a Woman
Judith Slaying Holofernes

Artemisia paved the path for the many wonderful famous women artists in history.  She died in Rome in 1652.  She is a true treasure of Italy. Her story and talent gave inspiration to  many women artists, for example, Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), Elisabeth Louise Vigee le Brun (1755-1842),  Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), and many others that are too numerous to mention.  

About the Author: Joanne Natale Spigonardo

Joanne has many years of experience in travel to Italy, Italian art, literature, film, history, wine, and cuisine. She is a lover of nature and beauty.  She is an advocate for Italian immigrant women, and the author of White Widow, which is available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/White-Widow-Joanne-Natale-Spigonardo/dp/B085DT65DB.  For more information about Joanne please visit her LinkedIn page:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/joanne-spigonardo-b4824a9/.

Nusco – My Hometown

Panorama of Nusco, Province Avellino

By: Joanne Natale Spigonardo

August 27, 2021

When I think of Nusco, Province Avellino, I think about a jewel nestled in the past, untouched or spoiled by commercialism. It is located in Compania, in Southern Italy, and is east of Naples.

Nusco, is my hometown, which I left as a five year old, many years ago. It has remained pristine with its proximity to valleys, mountains, and breathtaking views. Nusco is known for its medieval festivals, ancient Lombard ruins, and the Cathedral of Saint Amato. Nusco dates back to the 9th Century AD.

With much of its history in the Renaissance, Nusco hosts reenactments of period parades, and concerts. It celebrates the feast of Saint Amato on September 30th each year. The festivities include entertainment for all ages, with classic food and music.

Lombard Castle, Nusco

There are many homes that are hundreds of years old and are still inhabited by new generations of the original families. It is a place of traditions and beauty, with simple but spectacular nuances of an undiscovered treasure. The quaint homes are a testament for outstanding construction and architecture. Many are pastel painted, and the soft colors embrace the warm southern sunshine of the region.

Nusco Streets
Renaissance Parade, Nusco
Statue of Saint Amato, Nusco’s Patron Saint

Nusco, has many culinary delicacies, like everywhere else in Italy. In particular, Nusco is known for its buffalo milk mozzarella, which is used in its unique pizza margherita. Also, Nusco celebrates its truffles and mushrooms on wonderful handmade tagliatelle con tratuffi. For those with a sweet tooth, the artisinal gelato, and local strufulli pastry are a must.

If you are looking for a timeless village that is on the road not taken, you must discover Nusco, and the many beautiful villages nearby. I hope you get to visit my hometown!

About the Author: Joanne Natale Spigonardo

Joanne Natale Spigonardo

Joanne has many years of experience in travel to Italy, Italian art, history wine and cuisine. She is an advocate for Italian immigrant women, and the author of White Widow, which is available on Amazon. For more information about Joanne please visit her Linkedin page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/joanne-spigonardo-b4824a9/

AVE Maria -Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Feast – The Procession

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel

By: Neil Garguilo

     You can feel it in your bones.  It’s calling you.  A yearning inside your “being” builds up.  Once summer begins it slowly gets overwhelming.   And now it is back since the pandemic has been lifted.  Yes, it is Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Feast, O’Giglio e Paradiso and it ran from Wednesday, July 7th through Sunday, July 18th. I was beside myself and once it was official that the Feast was on, I made arrangements with my buddies who I know over 60+ years to come for the festivities.    History…tradition…the old neighborhood…Italian…American…love of family…and friends…it is back after one year absence to continue its pull on our hearts and minds.  It’s the Feast!!!  And it is 117 years old and still ticking…     This year was going to be extra special–I decided to make another trip to the Feast.  Please keep in mind that this was no simple decision since I live in Freehold, NJ and it is basically 1hour and 15 minutes into Brooklyn.  However, it is never that easy.  There are so many connections (Garden State Parkway to NJ Turnpike, etc.) and pot holes and accidents and overall congestion.  Sometimes I reach my destination after 1 hour and 45 minutes and I am exhausted and “harried.” Another thing is the expense.   Most people outside of the tri-state area do not know the cost of tolls.  When I visit it costs around $30!  But, after the dancing of the Giglio on Sunday, July 11th, I was coming back on Friday, July 16th to take part in the Procession of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel no matter what.  This second trip took on a spiritual element since the Blessed Virgin was calling.

     As is always the case, we all meet up for lunch.  Most times it is at world famous Bamonte’s—a legendary place for 121 year!  Oh, did we eat–hot peppers and bread to begin; two portions of hot antipasto followed by stuffed peppers and baked clams.  Then the main courses: Benny and I had the veal pizzaiola with potatoes and string beans; Mike had a delicious chicken valdostana dish made with fontina cheese and prosciutto.  I could not resist ordering a side of fusilli macaroni for my mother’s sake since this was one of her favorite types of pasta.  Then, we had some lemon gelato that was outstanding.  Yes, we rolled out of there and we definitely needed to walk.  A mass was held to honor Our Lady at 3 pm.  Then, from the church steps you could see the statue of Our Lady being brought out and, then, placed on the float.  At about 4 pm the procession began with some wonderful words from Msgr. Jamie J. Gigantiello.  The band played some of our traditional music and off we went.  We moved toward Union Avenue where we made a left and continued to Richardson Street where we made a right onto Lorimer Street.  Benny and I followed and we cut off after the procession met up with the first block of Withers Street.  This was where our cars were—parked under the BQE or Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.     But this process was special for me.  I followed along behind and next to some Haitian devotees who may be part of our parish or are devoted to Our Blessed Mother.    They were singing in their native tongue which I found to be very touching.  In between and among these songs was Ave Maria. 

It reads and sings as follows:

               Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus,  et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, Ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.  Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death.  Amen.    

A group of 100 or so parishioners solemnly followed as the float with Our Lady made the turns on each block.  As we passed, Scapulars of Our Lady were handed out to the faithful.  In the year 1251, in the town of Aylesford in England, Our Lady appeared to St. Simon Stock, a Carmelite.  She handed him a brown woolen scapular and said, “This shall be a privilege for you and all Carmelites, that anyone dying in this habit shall not suffer eternal fire.”   In time, the Church extended this magnificent privilege to all the laity who are willing to be invested in the Brown Scapular of the Carmelites and who perpetually wear it (www.sistersofcarmel.com).  My mother was devoted to this Scapular and said her rosary every night with it next to her.  I trust that the Lord has received her into Our Lady’s hands. 

     And so it went.  Different songs of devotion but always coming back to Ave Maria.  What a wonderful song this truly is.  And with each step I remember my youth attending Our Lady of Mt. Carmel grammar school and being trained in the life of a Christian by the Sisters of St. Joseph.  Then, from there, onto Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School where the Christian Brothers refined what I have learned.  My final spiritual step was taken at Fordham University and the Jesuits.  But it all started at the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.

     May she, the most pure and blessed of all women to have existed, come and be with us once again, like of old.  When all was simple, pure and traditional as we went about our business, the business of a Catholic life.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.   

About the Author:

Neil D. Garguilo is a retired manager who spent a good portion of his life working for well-known companies like FedEx and Hertz. In his retirement, he loves to write about growing up Italian in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY.  He is part of the Italian Sons and Daughter of America (ISDA) and writes articles for their newspaper, La Nostra Voce.  Other interests are travel, reading, exercise and helping others.

Ben Nostramo, Mike Massone, Neil Garguilo

Italian Neighborhoods -A Taste of Paradise

Brooklyn the OG of Italian Neighborhoods

By Neil D. Garguilo    

In my slice of Little Italy (aka Williamsburg, Brooklyn) in the 1960’s and 1970’s we had everything at our fingertips when it came to food.  Everything was in a 5 block radius from our homes and mostly was within 2 blocks.  Oh, and the food was so good…When you leave this time and place it becomes increasingly difficult to find these food places such as butchers, bakers and fish mongers.  But, lucky me I found one 2 miles away from my home nestled into a little mall.  Its name is Tuscany Marketplace.   I will compare and contrast this new wonderful place with my hometown memories of delight.

     Let’s start off with the private butchers.  We had several, with one on the corner and one around the corner.  There were two others on Metropolitan Avenue, a mere 2 blocks away from my home.  The meat sold by these butchers were just better than the stuff we get in the supermarkets today.  I am not sure if the meat was USDA choice or a cut above choice.  I doubt it would be prime due to cost.  And, speaking of cost, the meat by comparison to today was lower in price when comparing “apples to apples” so to speak.  I have a fondness for butcher markets since I worked for several for about 5 years in my youth, mostly delivering the meat the customers ordered.  This was a great service since you knew the butchers for years and trusted them.  A little tip and you could have your sirloin steak without leaving your home.  These places were quaint and friendly with saw dust thrown on the floor so you wouldn’t slip.  The meats were neatly displayed in the refrigerator and looked “so fresh.”  Some of the butcher names I remember fondly were Phil, Rex, and Nicky.

     Now let’s switch to grocery stores.  Did you say “around the corner?”  Yes, it was called Anthony’s, after the son’s name.  The parents were Italian immigrants and I remember them so well.  They were nice and hard working.  Although I must add that the mother and son argued a lot.  It was part of the lore of the store.  You had all the ingredients you needed for that sirloin steak you just bought: potatoes, lettuce, and Italian bread.  Then there were the cans of tomato, paste, canned veggies, detergent, soap and paper goods including toilet paper.  And, it was all in a very tiny store!  At Anthony’s you could also get a wonderful sandwich made for lunchtime.  I remember seeing his helper make a tuna sandwich on Italian bread with imported Pastene tuna.  He cut open most of the loaf, poured the can of tuna olive oil on one side of the bread and smashed the tuna directly from the can onto the same side of the oil.  He then took mayonnaise and spread it on the other side of the bread and for the “topping on the cake” he sliced a red onion and placed it on the tuna.  WOW!  Delicious…There were many other grocery stores throughout the neighborhood which are too many to mention here except one: Tedone’s.  She was the aunt of my childhood friend and made the best fresh mozzarella in the whole damn world!  She worked her little store on Metropolitan Avenue for years.  Such longevity…

     The trek for a great fish place was not too long– about 5 blocks.  It was called the Grand Street Fish Market and it was the best in the whole neighborhood.  It was spanking clean with loads of fish.  I remember as if it was yesterday my mother taking me to “get some fresh fish.”  I liked going to this store.  Reason?  There was the heavy set owner with a white apron on…he wore black rimmed glasses and had a black 2 day old beard.  But that is not the reason.  It was his delicious deep fried French Fries.  “To die for”…he had the potatoes cut thick and then he would swoosh them into the deep fry basket and in a few minutes you’d have your fries.  He would throw them into a brown bag and add plenty of salt with his silver shaker.  Mmmm…the bags were greasy with oil spots but who cared when you were a kid.  I think he also deep fried shrimp and clams for the adults.  When mom made fresh flounder I ate it!

     Now, onto the vegetable store.  We had one on Metropolitan Avenue and one on Graham Avenue.  I think Grand Street had one too.  But they all sold the most fresh veggies of all kinds.  As I grew up, my mother would take her weekly bus trip to Greenpoint to shop.  The vegetable stands were run by Korean families and they too sold fresh vegetables of all kinds.  I liked to go to Greenpoint since it bustled with activity with all the blocks of stores selling everything from appliances to clothing to food, etc.  Of course, mom took me to the Manhattan Triple Decker for their famous 3 tiered sandwiches.  Breathless…

     Let me not forget these two other areas of gastronomic pleasures: the pork store and the bakery.  The pork store was truly unique.  It was one block away on Lorimer Street and was run by an immigrant Italian husband and wife team.  Their sausages were the best in the world (well, my small world) and made fresh daily.  I remember being in the store and seeing all the hanging ceiling cheese, aging as the days went by.  The store was always clean and spotless.  And the owners looked like they worked so hard.  God bless them.

     Last on the list were the bakeries.  I will highlight two.  The first one was on Jackson Street and Graham Avenue and it was a German-run bakery called the Withers Street Bakery.  Oh, the German apple pie was just too delicious.  It had a marbled white/black glazed top with scrumptious apples that I can taste right now.  It was worth the four block walk.  The other bakery was very famous.  It was called DeLuca’s and was located on Havemeyer Street.  This family really knew how to bake.  I remember mom sending me for the St. Joseph’s Pastries (Zeppole di San Giuseppe) every year on March 19th.  They would make the filling two ways like most Italian bakeries do, one with cannoli cream and the other with silky custard cream.  My mom taught me to remember each St. Joseph’s day because my grandmother name was Josephine and my father’s middle name was Joseph.  Momma, I still do…love you all in heaven.  

     Before we leave my old neighborhood, I would be remiss not to mention some famous beverages.  One classic was the Manhattan Special made and located on Manhattan Street, of course.  It was pure expresso coffee soda in a unique glass 12 oz. bottle.  It was strong but “oh so good.”  The other famous drink is out of business.  It was called Kist Soda Pop.  The flavors were so good.  There were orange, peach, pineapple, lemon lime, grape, and cream soda.  For 15 cents you got 12 oz. in a nice glass bottle.  We went to our friend’s father’s beverage distributorship on Withers Street to obtain these classics on hot summer days after some street games like punch ball.  What fun!  By the way, both companies distributing these thirst quenches were owned and operated by Italian-Americans.     

Tuscany Marketplace in Marlboro, New Jersey

     That was then; this is NOW.  What is a boy from Brooklyn to do to find great food?  Well, well… welcome to “A Taste of Paradise” in Marlboro, NJ called Tuscany Marketplace!  I found my nirvana and favorite place to obtain my Italian food desires.  It is a multi-faceted store snuggled in a little mall literally 2 miles down the road from my home.  For New Jersey, that is considered “close.”  The story goes something like this on Sunday morning.  My wife says: “Neil, we need to watch our diet.  Let’s have a salad with slices of chicken and avocado.”  My first reply was “sure” but later in the morning I am overcome with Italian Family Dinner pangs resulting in me saying: “My love, for old time sake, can we go to Tuscany and get some sauce, meatballs, twisted Italian bread and some pastries?”  And off we go smiling all the way to my special place.

     Yes, Tuscany has everything including a wonderful butcher shop to fine fruits and vegetables to an outstanding bakery.  You can also get fish but only prepared Italian style.  Please don’t forget their great deli and those sandwiches he makes—oh, WOW…….are they good.  He has a list of over 42 sandwiches made on regular Italian bread (12”) or signature panini and wraps.  When I visit my sister I bring her a sandwich which we share for lunch (yes, they are that big).  We are now working our way down the list and hope to try all the sandwiches by the fall.

     Here is a place where you do get Prime cuts of meat.  The display is inviting.  The big Tomahawk Steaks make your mouth water.  Then, for Sunday, I always stop buy for the bracioles—one beef and one pork.  Mmmmm…

     It is funny that one of the owners is Anthony (like my boyhood grocer’s son).  The other is his father Vinny.  They are both hard working Italian-Americans with a great business sense.  They are very innovative and present the food in a logical and tasty way.  They have great customer rapport too.  And all their employees seem happy since they are all so helpful.  May God bless them all.

     Now, let’s get back to the food.  When my mother was alive and living with us a few short years ago she would always ensure we had daily fresh Italian bread.  Momma would say to my wife: “Denise, please remind Neilly Boy to pick up some bread on his way home from work.”  Sure as the sun rises I used to get a call late in the afternoon from my wife to remind me: “bread.”  On my way home from work I would pass my favorite store and pick up some delicious Italian bread.  Sometimes I got lucky and it was warm.  Momma was so happy eating this bread.  Her dentures would rattle as I laughed that she was “gnawing” at the bread.  By the way, I gained 10 pounds while she was living with us!

     Next to the bread section are the bake goods.  I can’t stand it!  So good!  All types of cookies, pastries, pies and cake including my favorite, Italian Cheese Cake.  Oh, those rainbow cookies, those pignoli cookies, those macaroons, those pistachio cookies, those, those, those, etc.  Let’s not forget the pastries like those delicious cannoli, napoleons, sfogliatelle, etc.  I see I am gaining weight again.

     Their deli section is always jammed.  We now have to take a number from the ticket machine.  Hard working people don’t have to worry since you can get a home cooked meal here at the counter.  There is everything you could want.  All the Italian specialties like eggplant any way you want (e.g. parmigiana, rollatini, etc.), chicken Marsala, meatballs, stuffed flounder Florentine, and all sorts of pasta dishes I can’t name here since the list is too long.  Then, there are the other wonderful deli items like homemade potato salad, macaroni salad, coleslaw and all sorts of delectable food stuff.  Do not forget their unusual food offerings like a pastrami or corn beef stuffed knish (Mmmm) and egg rolls stuffed with Italian treats like eggplant.  WOW!  And they cater too.  Plus, they carry Manhattan Special Expresso Coffee Soda!  What more can a guy ask for…

     Next up is a pizza joint called Molto!  It is ready to open soon and I can’t wait.  I bet it will remind me of Brooklyn Pizza.

     So, there you have it.  Neil found his food haven in New Jersey thanks to this fine establishment called Tuscany.  The saying goes and I paraphrase: “You can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take the Brooklyn out of the boy.”  Thank you Tuscany for a taste of paradise.  Thanks, too, to all the store owners of my youth who have given me lasting memories.

About the Author:

Neil D. Garguilo is a retired manager who spent a good portion of his life working for well-known companies like FedEx and Hertz.

In his retirement, he loves to write about growing up Italian in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY.  He is part of the Italian Sons and Daughter of America (ISDA) and writes articles for their newspaper, La Nostra Voce.  Other interests are travel, reading, exercise and helping others.

Neil Garguilo

Join Me on My Dream Vacation to Italy

Grand Canal – Venice

By Judy McMurtry

May 15, 2021

My journey will begin in late August into early September to ensure that I am there to enjoy the Venice Film Festival, which is the oldest film festival in the world.

Starting to make my dream a reality while flying over the great Atlantic Ocean in style and comfort, while enjoying a delicious meal onboard a luxury aircraft, relaxing in the comforts of my favorite airline.

Oh, how I long to take to the skies to places that many people only dream of visiting. I have a burning desire to visit Italy to taste the great food, indulge in the fascinating cocktails and wines. I love to delight my palate with the creamy sensation of the many flavors of gelato. 

My journey will begin on Delta Air Lines, in a spacious Delta One suite, sipping on mimosas and enjoying the wonderful food and entertainment onboard. Building up my anticipation of arriving into Italy and visiting all of the magnificent shops and picturesque sites. 

Delta First Class Cabin

I will land in the beautiful city of Venice; it is an extraordinary city on the water. Venice is an incredible city because of the arts, small historic hamlets, nature oasis and mountains, fortified citadels, noble villas and holiday resorts by the sea and lake. I will check into the breath taking “The Gritti Palace, which is from the luxury collection of the Marriott Hotels. I will wake up to a beautiful view of the city, after resting in the comforts of this glorious room.

Mariott Gritti Palace – Venice

While I enjoy room service overlooking the grand canal, I would plan my day full of spontaneous fun crazy adventure. I plan to relax and explore the city by taking to the atmospheric waterways. Keeping with my wonderful luxury theme I would visit the stunning Ca d”Oro Palace.  I will finish my visit in Venice with a historical walk through the Jewish Ghetto. I would finish my evening with a sophisticated concert at the Venice Jazz Club in the Dorsoduro quarter. I will enjoy a delicious dinner at Ristorante dalla Marisa.

It is a known fact that the canals of Venice are among the world’s most romantic places to visit.

My final stop will be the glorious city of Florence. According to Wikipedia, “The city is noted for its culture, Renaissance art and architecture and monuments. The city also contains numerous museums and art galleries, such as the Uffizi Gallery and the Palazzo Pitti, and still exerts an influence in the fields of art, culture and politics.” After reading about the rich culture of Florence, I decided to jump on Rail.Ninja high speed train to Florence to embrace their fabulous culture.

Keeping with the Marriott theme, I will check into the beautiful Westin Excelsior and wake up with this magnificent view of the city. I will enjoy a lovely brunch at this beautiful hotel, before taking to the streets of Florence to explore the rich culture of this historical city. I plan to just relax in luxury and rejuvenate after several months of being restricted to travel. 

My vacation will end with a smile on my face and joy in my heart, as I prepare to travel back to the United States.

About the Author – Judy McMurtry

For 33 years, I was the person behind the scenes of successful businesses making it all happen. Driven by my passion for leadership development, I had a successful and diverse leadership team. My name is Judy McMurtry, and during those years, I thought I had it all. Maybe you’ve been there too. 6 years ago, I realized that I was stuck and wanted more than just a career in someone else’s corporation. That is when I decided to retire from the corporate world and start a new chapter in my life. On this journey I have been trained and mentored by world-class leaders. I am equipped with the tools, resources, and experience to help any team improve productivity, performance, and profitability. Now instead of leading successful teams myself, I help leaders find success through their teams and grow organizations, from the outside-in. If you are looking for a team transformation, email me at jmexcelconsultant@gmail.com and I would love to sit down for a free exploration for together we can transform your team.

Return to Travel

By: Karen Titus – May 1, 2021

With the potential of return to travel and Europe loosening restrictions and opening borders, I am optimistically creating a trip to Sicily.  Sicily is easy to reach, you can connect through Europe to either Palermo or Catania and many carriers offer service year round.

So what to do in Sicily, where to stay, when do you go? Do you drive, ride bikes, vespa?  Since I have never been to Sicily it is like a blank canvas that I get to paint

My ideal getaway would be spend a few days on a the beaches of the Tyrrhenian Sea or the Mediterranean Sea and read a book under an umbrella.  Ideally, I would be able to walk to a café with a view of the sea to have lunch, enjoy the fresh foods a sparkling water for me please rather than still.  Over lunch, try to take in conversations if possible and meet new people.  After a long lunch and walk, return to the beach for the late afternoon and watch the change in colors in the sky and water as the sunsets

After a day of sheer relaxation and having your senses touched,  jump on a vespa and go to a  local restaurant for delicious dinner al fresco that lingers and lingers and then on that most fabulous way home, you know you have tomorrow to do it all over again.

Ideas to consider:

Visit the Eastern part of Sicily, specifically Catania.

Rent a villa, they rates range of course based on time of year but for Spring time, you could rent a villa from a wide range of prices, from $150 USD a night to over $1200 per night or higher, depending on what amenities you may want.    During the day, you can spend time on the beaches of Playa.  Here you are close to the foot of Mt. Etna, and have history of a volcano and the sea stretching out ahead of you.  I may never even open my book because of the beauty of nature.   In Playa,  are plenty of restaurants along the beach and you can make a reservation in advance for a table.  You can enjoy all the flavors of the town.   

There are several beaches in the Catania area in addition to Playa, here are few including a dog beach.

Lido Cocoa Beach

Lido Azzurro

Dog Beach by Lido Azzurro

Renting a Vespa is fairly simple to do, as long as you have a valid driver’s license. Or you can even rent a bicycle for a minimal cost per day.

While I am in Sicily, I am going to take some time to try to trace my roots as my grandfather came from Sicily.  I will look into the family names and see if I may any extended family.  Even if I am not able to trace any distant relatives, I will get a feel of history and bring me a little closer in my heart to my Pop-pop.

Happy Travels!

Karen loves to travel and spent 15 years with Delta Air Lines exploring all parts of the globe.  AS an avid animal lover, I have a few rescue animals at home and am involved in the community through volunteer programs, and helping those who are underserved.   In between that, I am looking for my next adventure.

For more information about Karen, please visit: 

https://www.linkedin.com/in/karen-titus-22b4a1b

Italian Easter Traditions

Easter Egg with a Surprise!

By: Joanne Natale Spigonardo

April 3, 2021

One of the fondest memories of my childhood is celebrating Easter with my family. On the day after Ash Wednesday, my Mother would start planning for the festivities. Lent was always observed diligently with no sweets to be consumed until Holy Saturday at noon. Her planning was truly appreciated when we got a chance to break into our surprise Italian Easter Egg. It was always dark chocolate with a little toy surprise.

We also baked and baked for days, we made sweet and savory treats. Our kitchen was a haven for Easter bread, cookies, ricotta pie, and la pizza ripena or la pizza rustica. La pizza ripena, is a pie filled with salami, parmiggiano reggiano, and fresh basket cheese. All of these recipes are hidden treasures brought back from our home town, Nusco, Italy. These traditional wonders are those that we savor still today.

Pizza Rustica – La Pizza Ripena

After a sumptuous feast of homemade pasta with a meat sauce that cooked for hours, grilled lamb, roasted potatoes, asparagus, and many more dishes, the meal would end with a Colomba di Pasqua. The family was around the table, telling jokes and enjoying each other’s company. No matter how full we were, we always had room for this delicious cake with candied fruit with a glass of Prosecco.

Colomba di Pasqua – Traditional Easter Cake

I hope all of you have a wonderful Easter celebration, and take time to remember your Italian roots, make new memories with your family, and toast to a beautiful Spring!

About the Author:

Joanne has many years of experience in travel to Italy, Italian art, history, wine and cuisine. She is an advocate for Italian immigrant women, and the author of White Widow, which is available on Amazon. For more information about Joanne please visit her Linkedin page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/joanne-spigonardo-b4824a9/

Private Boat Tour to the Blue Grotto

By: Linda Thatcher Raichle

March 2021                                                                   

In June 2019, we had the pleasure of spending 11 magical days cruising from Rome throughout the Mediterranean Sea including stops in Italy, Malta, Greece and Croatia. Anticipating our stops along the Italian coastline, we pre-arranged a small, private boat tour for ourselves and 2 other couples. Our tour included the services of a local captain and tour guide. We spent a glorious day cruising along the Amalfi Coast with stops at the Furore Fjord, LiGalli Island and the Blue Grotto. Our day included time for swimming, snorkeling and a stop for lunch at a small restaurant nestled among the high cliffs of Positano overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. 

The highlight of the day included a stop at the Blue Grotto (Gotta Azzurra) a jewel of a sea cave located off the coast of Capri in the Bay of Naples. As we approached the Grotto, we were met with a floatilla of boats bobbing and weaving in the turbulent sea near the cave. We heard a cacophony of shouts from the boat captains wanting their occupants to have a chance to see the Grotto.  Since visitors may only enter the cave in small, official Grotto rowboats at low tides, time is of the essence and a sense of urgency prevailed amongst the chaos.

When our turn came, we were instructed to quickly climb into the official rowboat and lie flat so we could enter the ever-decreasing small mouth of the cave as the waves ebbed and flowed. The rowboat captain stood in the boat with his oars poised high while shouting orders.  I was positioned in the stern next to our somewhat larger friend. A former football player, whose wide berth was limited by the size of the boat, his head seemed to protrude far above the limits of the small cave entrance.  I worried he would be injured as we entered the small opening of the cave and expressed my concern.  He agreed and tried to wiggle his way further down into the rowboat while pushing my head down shouting “get lower” to give him more room.  Years afterwards, we continue to laugh about the scene we must have created.

Once inside the Grotto, we sat up and the chaos of the past few minutes was immediately hushed by the brilliance of the turquoise water.  The reflection is caused by sunlight entering the cave from outside and inside through an underwater breach, creating bluish-green colors depending on the time of day and weather conditions. We were among only 4 or 5 boats in the Grotto at the same time.  We slowly made our way around the cave in quiet reflection admiring the stalactites (gallery of the pillars) and the underwater rocks shown through silver reflections.  The rowboat captains began to gently sing O Solo Mio with the melodious tune softly echoing in the cave.

We were captivated and awed by the Grotto’s beauty. While we spent only about 5 minutes in the cave, we emerged with a sense of serenity having witnessed the beauty that only nature can create. 

This is Italy.  It is sometimes chaotic and crazy, bubbling with turbulence and energy, but always revealing something new and seductive…always wanting us to return. 

About the Author: Linda Thatcher Raichle, PhD

Linda’s quest to become an Italian citizen began when she found her Sicilian grandfather’s birth certificate in the back of her cousin’s closet. After a 5-year quest, she is now a proud dual citizen of the US and Italy. Linda and her husband, John, a semi-retired surgeon and avid photographer, have enjoyed their retirement years “Dolce far niente”(the sweetness of doing nothing) by traveling extensively throughout Europe and Asia.  Italy is a frequent and favorite destination.  They look forward to more travel as the COVID restrictions are lifted.

Resources

The 10 Best Blue Grotto (Grotta Azzurra) Tours & Tickets 2021 – Capri | Viator

The Grotta Azzurra, Italy’s Amazing Blue Grotto (allthatsinteresting.com)

Blue Grotto (Grotta Azzurra) – Isle of Capri, Italy – ItalyGuides.it

The 3 Tenors O Sole Mio 1994 – YouTube