The Little Town That Stole My Heart

Chances are if you are Italian American and live in Upstate, NY, you have roots in or near Cervinara Italy. Cervinara sits in the province of Avellino, located outside of Naples in the region of Campania, the second most populous region of Italy.  Located in the fertile plateau close to the Partenio Mountains, Cervinara  lies between the Neapolitan and Benevento areas, and is known for its very fertile soil and resulting agriculture. The name Cervinara is said to be linked to Ceres, the Goddess of Harvest.

The journey from Avellino to Cervinara
“It’s no easy,” I was told several times in Avellino, when I inquired about the route to Cervinara.  Many in Avellino do not speak English, so my very limited Italian language skills were tested to the max.  Undaunted by the lack of clear direction,  we decided to rent a little Italian car and find the town on our own.  Within an hour or two, we gave up on finding the non-existent road signs and headed back to our hotel to seek assistance.

Once again, we were told “It’s no easy!”  I asked the front desk worker for a driver to take us there, which is a no-no on a Sunday. “It is a holy day and no one will leave their families to take you.” Finally, we were told that the hotel staff was able to secure a taxi and driver to take us there, but could only stay a few hours and it would be costly (a holy day interruption fee, I guess).  We were disappointed about the time restriction and the crazy price tag, but we eagerly headed out to Cervinara, giggling the entire time about how hard it was to get to my family’s homeland.

La mia famiglia
Carmine Pitanello, my grandfather, never wanted me to visit his hometown because he felt his family came to America to be American.  He never understood the need to go back to a place that his family left to seek a better life.  He left Italy behind, and along with it, the language and desire to ever see it again. Given the year, 1911, it’s understandable.  Italy just invaded Turkey over the disputed Libya and it was a precursor to World War I. Times were very tough and many families made the hard trip to America in hopes of living a better life. The trip to Cervinara on this day was an inconvenient one, but one that I needed to make in spite of Carmen’s feelings.

Carm was known in his new hometown of Troy as “Jimmy” by anyone who was not Italian and “Oil” to those who were.  Jimmy, because he wanted more than anything to be accepted as an American and what is a more American name then Jimmy.  Oil, because he left South Troy early in the 40’s to move to Lansingburgh, where people were considered affluent.  Hence…he must have struck oil to afford to move there.  Truth be told, it was my wonderful and determined grandmother who bought the large Victorian home in “the burgh” that many of my family shared for years.

Gram (Mary Addeo) hails from a town in Avellino, but was born an American.  Oddly, she had a more appreciative and preferable view of Italy and identified herself as Italian.  My memories as a child are of her speaking Italian in the house not my Cervinaresi grandfather, keeping the Italian traditions of food and family alive for us.  I laugh as I recall her referring to people she did not like as “those Americans” while she was a born American.

Back to Cervinara
On the brilliant Sunday afternoon that my husband and I finally arrived in Cervinara, it seemed like the entire town of approximately 11,000 were out strolling the streets and park in the town’s center. I held it together as we passed the sign announcing we arrived, but inside I knew that I was experiencing a dream come true and one that I held onto tightly when I thought my traveling days might be over.

The eventful stroll
We stopped briefly at what we might call a convenience store/bar for a quick adult beverage and to people watch from across the park that was surrounded by gorgeous mountain foliage.  Something told me this building hasn’t changed much since my families’ departure; the bathroom was in the back with a hole in the floor and windows uncovered to the outside.  After we finished our beers and our unconventional bathroom break, we decided to blend in with the locals and take a stroll.

Perhaps 20 steps later, we were tapped on the shoulders.  So much for blending in.  Two lovely men asked if we were Americano.  “Ci,” I replied. “Siete qui per vedere la famiglia”? (Are you here to see family?) they asked in a combination of broken English and Italian.  I told him yes, that mia famiglia was from Cervinara, and I showed him my grandfather’s birth certificate.  One gentleman smiled and said, “Follow me.”

Somehow we knew it would be okay to follow the man as the other headed uphill for home with kind goodbyes and wishes of good luck shouted out to us.  We walked up and down the small hills lined with neat little homes still not knowing why this kind stranger wanted us to follow or even where he was taking us. My husband and I admit it wasn’t terribly smart to follow a stranger in a strange town in another country, but our hearts knew it was going to be fine and our feet followed our hearts.

We stopped at a corner house; small, cute and immaculate.  Joe (our new friend and guide) started yelling into an open window.  Out came a lovely woman who was a dead ringer for Carmine and Mary’s oldest child, my Aunt Catherine. Stunned, we could not believe our eyes (still dry) at this point.

I would have guessed that this woman was a relative if I saw her anywhere in the world, but here I was in our hometown in Italy.  Still, how did we know this was not some kind of scam? After all, I am an American skeptic by my grandfather’s design.  Unfortunately, we were struggling to communicate with each other.  Then, suddenly, this woman said something that both my husband and I could understand that suspended any trickle of doubt we had.  “Mia Americano famiglia lives in Troy, New York and I have been to Lake George.”

She mentioned cousins in South Troy, but I do not know many of my South Troy cousins. My grandfather was considered a social climber and was probably shunned a bit. He, his sisters and only brother have long passed and when that happens families drift apart, even Italian ones.

Time was passing fast and our taxi driver was pacing the streets looking for us, we had to leave. We were offered food, our cheeks were pinched and I was even chided for marrying an Irish boy.  I told her not to worry, we lasted 40 years.

My new-found cousin walked us down the street arm in arm and I could tell she did not want us to leave, but our choice was made by a driver who made it known that his Sunday dinner and family were waiting for him. We hugged good-bye and sighed as only Italians can. The sigh said, “Things are good, but could be better with a bit more time together.”

On the way out of town, heading for the gorgeous hills, we passed a church and I screamed “Arrestare!” I was not leaving without heading into the Catholic Church, Santa Maria Dele Valle, where my grandfather was baptized.  Mass was ending and I stood spellbound. It was small, humble and much worn by the years. The awareness set in that many family sacraments were celebrated within these walls during goods days in our Cervinara.

My eyes are no longer dry
I left the church, unable to seek assistance from the parish priest, who is often the best source for family information in Italy.  On the way back to the cab, I turned the corner of the church and saw a huge plaque on an exterior 2014-02-14_1254wall honoring Italian soldiers.  I did a quick scan, knowing time was running out and found Sold. Vittorio Pitaniello. My  father’s name was Vittoria Pitaniello. This soldier was probably an uncle or cousin who gave his life in the war and unbeknownst to us, they were named for him.

As we drove away from this hard-to-find hometown of my ancestors, I started to cry. My emotions finally took their toll on me, as I found out so much, yet so little about my family in a very short time. As the tears came, so did the realization of what the trip to America must have been like in 1911 for this struggling family of seven, who left behind the fresh grave of their eighth child who passed away that same year. It is a pretty isolated Italian town by today’s standards; however, the awareness of what taking that trip from Cervinara to Avellino, then onto Naples (without a car) to board a ship to New York to the America of their dreams to meet their sponsoring family in Upstate NY, was eye-opening and gratifying.  Only those truly motivated for a better life were making such a trip as many other immagrants did. Motivated to be American… and Jimmy made it!

If you want to learn more about Cervinara visit