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Paesani in Pittsburgh

An oral history project documents the lives of Italian Americans in Western Pennsylvania

Tuesday, September 29, 1998

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Separated by 60 years and united by a common heritage, two men sit at a table in a yellow and white, 1950s kitchen for one reason: Angelo Dozzi has stories to tell and Nicholas Ciotola wants to hear them. "My name is Angelo Dozzi and I was born Dec. 29, 1911, in Frisanco, in the northern part of Italy. When I was 6, I started school and the war broke out."

 
Nicholas Ciotola, right has been interviewing Angelo Dozzi, who stands next to him near the hardy kiwi vine in Dozzi's back yard. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette) 

As he speaks, Dozzi's words travel into a small microphone clipped to his chest and down a wire that leads to the tape recorder on his table. For more than two hours, he talks about his life in Italy, about coming to America, about his jobs with the beneficial society and the grocery store and the mayor's office.

From time to time, Ciotola glances at his yellow legal pad and offers up another question. It's a gentle grilling that aims to elicit from Dozzi the story of his life.

Hired in the spring as coordinator of Italian American Programs at the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, Ciotola (pronounced chio'-to-la) is spending much of his time collecting oral histories from immigrants and their descendants. Born in New York in 1972 and raised in Lancaster, Ciotola is half Italian: His mother comes from a family that has been in America for generations; his father's parents emigrated from the town of Ateleta in the Abruzzo region in the early 1920s, settling in White Plains, just outside New York City.

But Ciotola never got to know his grandparents, Nicola and Albina Ciotola.

"My dad's dad died when he was 4, and my grandmother died when I was little," Ciotola says. "That's one of the reasons I got into Italian-American history. Going into people's houses and asking about their history allowed me to learn about my own family."

Ciotola was pleased to find a strong sense of ethnicity among the 250,000 Italian Americans in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

"There's a lot of Italian-American organizations in Pittsburgh and a lot of pride," so many that there's even a Coalition of Italian American Organizations.

Ciotola earned his bachelor's degree in history from Penn State, then a master's in history from the University of New Mexico, where he specialized in immigration history and oral history. In 1995 and '96, he was director and principal interviewer for an oral history project documenting the history of Italian immigrants and their descendants in Albuquerque. He later expanded the project into an exhibit of photographs from 1880 to the present.

Ciotola hopes to turn the oral histories here into a similar exhibit.

His salary and projects are funded and directed by the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania's Italian American Advisory Committee, which has raised more than $500,000 in pledges under the leadership of architect Louis Astorino and honorary Italian consul Joseph D'Andrea.


His goal: A museum

A history museum dedicated to the Italian-American experience in Western Pennsylvania had been D'Andrea's long-held dream, until plans for the History Center got under way. Now D'Andrea and Astorino are working with Ciotola to build the center's artifacts collection and perhaps produce a book or documentary video on Italian-American families and their traditions.

D'Andrea, a former Romance languages teacher who emigrated from Molise in 1948, had what he calls his "awakening" in 1976, during America's Bicentennial. "I was surprised that many Americans knew so little about the countries of their ancestors," he said.

As honorary consul, D'Andrea is the bridge between Italy and America, introducing many to their roots through his research here and in Italy.

While most Italian families in America come from Southern Italy, the first wave of Italian immigrants came in the late 1800s from industrialized Northern Italy, where men already had learned the skills to work in coke ovens and steel mills. Immigrants from Sicily and Tuscany came then, too, to provide the food products and services the industrial workers needed.

 
  Angelo Dozzi holds a photograph of himself made in Pittsburgh in 1929. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

In the 1920s there was a mass exodus from the south, and after World War II, from Calabria, one of the more depressed areas. Today's immigrants, D'Andrea says, are the business and professional class - researchers, doctors, engineers and investors who prefer to call themselves "Italians living abroad."

While Pittsburgh has no Little Italy like New York and other cities, it has instead a Little Abruzzo in Bloomfield, a Little Sicily in the Strip, a Little Tuscany in the Mon Valley. Immigrants from certain regions and even certain towns tended to stick together in the new country.

In Leechburg, D'Andrea says, you can still find people who can speak the dialect of the Piemonte, the French-speaking part of Northwest Italy.

"It's spoken more here than in Italy now."

Morningside Italians tended to come from Calabria, and some of their descendants favored the legal profession. "Most of the Italian-American lawyers and judges are from the Calabresi," D'Andrea said.

In the 1920s, wealthy Sewickley families imported Italian gardeners from Calabria who still have descendants living in Sewickley.

In his oral histories, Ciotola now is focusing his research on the beneficial unions that were established by immigrants, both to help them assimilate and to preserve the traditions of the old country.

One, the Ateleta Beneficial Society in Bloomfield, was founded by immigrants from the same town as Ciotola's father's family. Ciotola's grandmother's sister, Frances Colangelo Sciullo, immigrated in the 1920s to Bloomfield, where her daughter, Michelina Sciullo Mastroiani, still lives. She and her husband, Phil, in fact, are members of the Ateleta Beneficial Society.

Ciotola is interviewing Dozzi because he is one of two surviving founding members of the Beneficial Society of North Italy, established in East Liberty in 1930.

"Ideally you'd like to go back a number of times" and continue the interview, he says. "In the building of that relationship, the person becomes more comfortable and willing to divulge more. I think that's the most important aspect of what we're trying to do here, because it allows people to tell their history in their own words."


'Ate polenta every day'

An isolated village in the foothills of the Italian Alps, Frisanco is on the way to nowhere. There is only one road leading into and out of this picturesque town of stone houses with red canal-tiled roofs, and Dozzi's family - parents, grandparents and four children - lived on the hillside above it, in an ancient four-room house.

The kitchen, warmed by the fireplace used for cooking, also served as the room for family gatherings. The house had no running water or indoor toilets; spring water was carried from the fountain in town.

"We ate polenta every day in Italy, but bread was too expensive to buy," Dozzi says.

"How did you eat the polenta?" Ciotola asks.

What a question, Dozzi's amused look says.

"You grab a piece of polenta and a piece of cheese, then eat one and then the other!" He demonstrates with his hands, pulling imaginary polenta and cheese from the table and popping them into his mouth.

Cornmeal to make the polenta was just about the only thing the family had to buy. In the summer, Dozzi's grandparents lived on their farm, about two miles from town.

"We produced our own milk, our own cheese, butter, eggs and all. We didn't have to buy anything." They grew their own grapes, pears, apples, plums, walnuts, chestnuts, lettuce, escarole, celery, beans.

"Growing up as a child, I had a wonderful life. I loved my grandparents on both sides. They were wonderful people."

But for a year after the Austrian army invaded on Nov. 1, 1917, "we had no food, no provisions of any kind."


The path to America

After the war Dozzi's father, who had worked in America from 1905 to 1910, returned to find work here because there was none at home. During the 1920s he mined coal in eastern Ohio, sending money back to his wife and children.

Dozzi came over in 1928 with his father after one of his visits home. While the elder Dozzi returned to Ohio, Angelo came to stay with his mother's brother, a contractor who lived in East Liberty.

The neighborhood was mostly Italian then, with many men working in the building trades. Within a few weeks, Dozzi was apprenticing as a tile setter and learning English at night at Westinghouse High School.

But with limited construction work available during the Depression, Dozzi had to find other jobs. For two years, he worked at a grocery store on Larimer Avenue for no pay other than three meals a day. Pittsburgh Mayor William McNair hired him as his receptionist in 1935 - mainly, Dozzi says, because he was Italian and the mayor wanted to learn the language. After working for Westinghouse Electric Corp. during World War II, he returned to work at his trade, setting tile.

In 1930, Dozzi was one of about 35 immigrants who formed the Beneficial Society of North Italy, meeting first at the Kingsley House and later in a building next to the grocery store. He was president of the society in 1947, when members erected a new brick-and-stone lodge building with their own hands on Nelson Street, just off Paulson Avenue. It had a dance floor, bar, kitchen and bowling alleys, and a bocce court out back. It was, in many ways, a lot like the small-town clubs in Italy, where members would go to dance and play card games like briscola and scopa.

In the spring, the club donated to the History Society the cornerstone of the building, which closed 11 years ago due to declining membership and is now owned by the lumber company next door.

Dozzi has been back to Italy twice and hopes to go back again next year with his two sons. Victor, the elder, lives next door; the two families share a gently sloping back yard in which the Dozzis have created a kind of little Italy. There are two rows of grapevines; a kiwi arbor, a bountiful pair of chestnut trees and others bearing filberts, hazelnuts, quinces, plums and pawpaws. And a bed of radicchio, the green, leafy kind, which Dozzi puts in salads.

Does he miss the old country?

"In a sort of way, not really. I enjoy the privilege we got over here. It's nice for a visit, but that's it."


'Try to keep a balance'

This is Ciotola's second visit to Dozzi's house; he will go back at least once more, refining his questions to get at the details of a life that is, in many ways, representative of the Italian experience in America.

He has interviewed about an even number of men and women.

"You try to keep a balance between the two," Ciotola says. "Most come from the south, from small towns, agriculturally based. The majority of women didn't work outside the home. They talk about the family and food traditions, and the men go into their working career."

Ciotola has never been to Italy, but, like Dozzi, is planning a trip for next year.

First stop, Ciotola says, is Ateleta.

"That's just as important to me as seeing the Colosseum."



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