In this post my Uncle and I share some of our experiences of growing up Italian-American. We then compare them to the first time we experienced the country and culture of our ancestors during our trips to Italy.
Growing up Italian-American in Dyker Heights 1941-1952: Sam Serrapede, Jr.
My Maternal Grandparents, Josie and Sam Serrapede, followed the Italian custom of naming their children after ancestors within the family line. Grandpa Sam’s Italian name was Sabato, in honor of his paternal Grandfather. To differentiate father from son, my Uncle Sammy was named Sabbatino in Italian. That translates as roughly as Sam, Jr. in English. As a child he was called Junior. My late Mother was the last one who could address him that way. I’ve always known him as Uncle Sammy and that’s how I’ll address him within all the postings.
Sabbatino Serrapede, late 1940s.
On September 1, 2014 we began recording our memories of the Muro and Serrapede families. One of the first discussions we had focused on what it was like growing up Italian-American in Brooklyn and then experiencing Italy for the first time as adults when we vacationed there.
My Uncle was born in 1941 and grew up during the time Sam and Josie lived at 1167 66th Street in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn. “The entire world was Italian,” he told me. “Until I went to McKinley Junior High School. It was then that I became aware of the Irish-American and Norwegian-American children that lived here and there in the area.”
Grandma Josie shopped for fresh foods every day. On 66th Street and 11th Avenue were located 4 stores she frequently shopped at. These small stores each had a specialty and were owned by families that lived in the community. At Aiello’s Grocery Store, she bought freshly made ricotta cheese. Faicco’s Pork Store, which is still in existence as of 9/1/2014, was a main source of home made mozzarella and pork sausage. On 11th Avenue and 67th Street was a fruit store. She’d also stop by Hermann’s Grocery store on 66th and 11th Avenue. Nearby was Fusco’s Candy Store owned by Dick Fusco whom it was later discovered was part of the Colombo crime family.
Experiencing Italy for the first time: Sam Serrapede 1997
These patterns of shopping daily for fresh food for the day’s meals was a pattern my Uncle saw when he and my Aunt Kathie vacationed in Italy in 1997. Uncle Sammy found Rome to be too touristy to get into but felt that he experienced first hand something of the traditional quality of Italian life when he and Kathie stayed at Castelnuovo Berardenga , small town 9 miles south of Siena. The town is located in a rural area.
My Aunt and Uncle rented a villa house at the base of the mountain near a winery. Each day Aunt Kathie would go to the town square with Uncle Sammy to enjoy a very leisurely meal. Since she speaks fluent Spanish and can also converse in basic Italian, she took care of ordering coffee each morning and dinner each afternoon. The town inhabitants did not speak much English and the character of the town was not influenced by tourism.
My Uncle said that the emphasis on fresh produce and freshly cooked food each day was very close in spirit to the way Grandma Josie approached her role in shopping and preparing the family meals.
Growing up Italian-American in Dyker Heights 1953-1960: EmilyAnn Frances May
My Mom was born Emily Leatrice Serrapede. In Italian it would have been Emilia Letizia Serrapede. Her first name was in honor of her paternal Grandmother, Emilia Pappalardo Serrapede. Her middle name was in honor of her maternal Grandmother Letizia Scotti Muro. When I was born my Mom had no such desire to call me Emilia. Instead she named me Emily Ann and insisted the older generation always address me as Emily Ann. When asked if I was named after my Italian Great Grandmother Emilia my Mom was quick to reply, “No! She’s my baby and I named her after ME!”
So much for following old traditions!
As a child I remember being Italian-American as synonymous with pasta, pizza, calzones and church bazaars. I disliked eating meat as a child. Even though I loved visting my paternal Grandparents Al and Blanche Terry there were times I did not enjoy the visits because of the predominance of meat heavy meals. I loved even more the visits to Grandma Josie and Grandpa Sam Serrapede’s home, especially when it was a holiday.
Grandma Josie was a phenomenal cook and she did it all without an extensive array of equipment that is commonly used in gourmet cooking today. Lunch or dinner at her house was a joy. In the summer meals consisted of the squash, tomatoes and other vegetables grown in the back garden. There was always pasta. There would be meatballs or pork sausage but never in large quantities. Rather my Grandparents preferred baked or broiled fish and sometimes chicken.
My Mom and I would help out in the kitchen while Grandma Josie created pasta magic making the pasta dough on top of the large bread cutting board she had placed on top of the formica kitchen table. The dough was cut into narrow ribbons using a serrated wheel like cutter and laid on top of a sheet in her bedroom to dry before cooking. There was never a restaurant that could compare to the lightness and flavor of her home made pasta.
n addition to fine food, my limited world view of Italy was heavily influenced by films and pop culture. Famous Italians were singer Connie Francis and Mousketeer Annette Funicello. Being Italian-American meant you had a sense of humor about your ethnic identity and weren’t afraid to laugh about it, especially when Lou Monte sang “Peppino the Italian Mouse”.
Impressing other children on the block with the accomplishments of one’s cousins, Aunts and Uncles was also part of the experience. For some reason, my friends and I never bragged about our parents or siblings. We’d just try to outdo each other with how pretty a Godmother was or how rich an Uncle was or how smart some cousin was.
There was a very real awareness of our Irish-American and Scandinavian-American neighbors at the time I was growing up. We knew about their cultures from such events as the annual parades in Bay Ridge celebrating St. Patrick’s Day or the Norwegian Day Parade. Yet, we never socialized after school and never–ever–were encouraged to think about dating or marrying out of the Italian-American community.
Much of that talk influenced my friends but when I was about 7 years old I developed my very first crush on the older son of our neighbors down the block. His dad was of Norwegian descent and his Mom was Italian-American. Tall, blonde, athletic and friendly he fit my childhood need to see a Prince Charming in real life. Whenever I read the stories from “My Book House” in 2nd grade I’d imagine Charlie Johansen as the Prince or the hero who rescued the maiden from the wicked witch. I was frequently told that his parents were not happy in their marriage and I should remember that. This was told me to me by my friends’ parents.
At home my Mom and Dad would say Dyker Heights was a small world. I didn’t need to think about boys or marriage yet and should concentrate on getting better grades at school. Unlike Grandma Josie, my Mom bought all food at the supermarket. Raviolis were frozen and pasta sauce came out of the jar. Life was all about driving from one place to another and the emphasis was always on buying something new.
EmilyAnn, First Holy Communion, 1960.
The bouquet was borrowed from the girl who had her photo taken before me. My parents disapproved of the large bouquets and fancy updos the other girls were getting. The photographer commented “E peccato!” (What a pity!”) when he saw I didn’t even have a pair of fancy gloves, either. The dress my Mom, Grandma Bessie and Aunt Maureen had first selected was even plainer than this. I had to refuse it many times before they finally let me select this dress which I liked very much. Bessie and Maureen were my Father’s Mother and Sister, respectively.
My only aspirations as a little girl were very simple: work in a dress shop, wear high heels everyday and have a better wardrobe than Barbie. I wasn’t interested in the marriage and baby carriage as much as travelling around the world and having my own social secretary. It became very important that I have pierced ears and beautiful gold hoop earrings.
Each year my parents refused telling me it wasn’t necessary to identify with the other girls who wore more jewelry each year they grew older. This gave me an early indication that my parents were out to remove the ethnic identifiers from my list of things I liked. This became more evident as the years went on and which I’ll share as the story advances.
Given such impressions of this third generation childhood you can be sure my first experience of Italy as I stood in front of the Byzantine Gate of The Old Town in Agropoli was completely unexpected.
Discussed and notes taken: Sunday, September 7th, 2014 4:15 p.m. EST
Written: Monday, September 8, 2014 7:00 P.M.