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Conference will trace the history of Italian-Americans in region

Monday, April 10, 2000

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In Italy, Frances Malpezzi's uncle ate so much polenta that, after coming to America, he never wanted to see another molten mass of corn meal again.

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Learn more about the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Italian American Program


"My uncle's hatred of it was intense," said Malpezzi, who grew up in Masontown, Fayette County, and now teaches English at Arkansas State University.

But the staple of Italian peasants is now the star of Italian-American restaurants, gourmet magazines and specialty food stores. Malpezzi calls it "The Gentrification of Polenta," and she'll explain how it happened at "Italian Americans in Western Pennsylvania," a two-day conference that opens April 28 at the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in the Strip District.

"We're going to talk a lot about the process of change," Malpezzi said, "relating especially to Italian-American families beyond the first generation, who came to associate polenta not with the poverty of Italy, but with family ties and with roots."

Malpezzi's maternal grandparents, Rocco and Frances Capello, left Monteu da Po in the Piedmont region early in the 20th century, settling first in Rillton, a Westmoreland County mining community, before moving to Masontown.

Although their son wouldn't touch it, the Capellos still cooked polenta, serving it on a wooden board and cutting it with string.

"My mother cooked it and now I make it, although it's never quite as good," Malpezzi said. "The consistency is always hard for me to get right. I think it's probably emotional associations rather than actual taste. Not to mention it's hard to get decent baccala when you're in Jonesboro, Ark."

Her mother used baccala -- dried, salted cod -- or chicken in preparing the accompanying sauce, which she served over the polenta. She also baked leftover polenta with cream and cheese.

Polenta, Malpezzi said, "is one dish that men in the family cooked too. It takes a pretty strong hand to stir it, so you'd often get the men involved."

Malpezzi co-wrote her paper with her husband, folklorist William Clements, with whom she wrote a book, "Italian-American Folklore," published several years ago by August House. It details proverbs, songs, games, folk tales and remedies, superstitions and food traditions.

The conference, sponsored by the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, begins with a keynote address by Italian historian Stefano Luconi of the University of Florence, who will talk about how and why the Socialist vote declined among Italian-Americans in Pittsburgh after World War I.

"We chose him because he has done the most published writing on Italian-Americans in Western Pennsylvania," said conference organizer Nicholas Ciotola.

In the two years since Ciotola was hired as coordinator of the historical society's Italian-American program, he's conducted many oral history interviews, set up a program Web site and published a fund-raising book, "Boundless Lives: Italian Americans of Western Pennsylvania," chronicling the history of 100 families here.

"One of the observations that I made when I got to the History Center was that there was a large number of people researching and writing on Italians in Western Pennsylvania," Ciotola said. "Since we have this program and collection at the History Center, I've been trying to build this institution as the center of this research that's been done. We had a round-table discussion last year to introduce people to each other and to each other's research, then took it to the next level" -- that is, a conference.

Because some of the presenters are academics who normally write for their peers, the conference is an opportunity to get their research before a wider audience.

Not all of the presentations are papers. Laura Baccelli Vondas has produced a short video on "The Tuscans of Pittsburgh," which she will show as part of a session on "The Italian Immigrant Experience in Pittsburgh." That session also will feature Jennifer McGaffic's report on Italian-American widows in Pittsburgh from 1900 to 1945, titled "Survival of the Fittest."

Architect Terry Necciai, who grew up in Monongahela, will talk about the diversity of the Italian community in the Mon Valley.

"Some communities, like Monongahela where 25 percent of the community is Italian, are very heterogeneous, and almost every district of Italy is represented. In Dunlevy, almost everybody is from Tuscany, and in Greensboro, there are eight families from one place in Calabria," said Necciai, who also will trace the chain of migration to coal towns in the valley.

Ciotola's paper, "Inventing Ethnicity," will look at how second- and third-generation Italian Americans have expressed their heritage since the 1960s through groups like the folk music and dance troupe I Campagnoli and Franco's Italian Army.

There is a $15 fee for attending the conference, or $10 for Historical Society members and students. A genealogy workshop, in which participants can learn about researching their Italian-American families, will be held from 1 to 3:30 p.m. April 28 and costs an additional $10.

For a conference brochure and registration, call 412-454-6433 or visit the program's Web site,

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