by Ann Angel Eberhardt
This is the last in a 3-part series on finding one’s roots. In this story, Sharpsville’s Gary Conti visits his father’s hometown in Pofi, Italy, and makes many joyful discoveries. If you are inspired to research your own family’s history, a good place to start is familysearch.com. Give it a try and, if your search brings interesting results, tell us about it!
THE CONTI FAMILY: Return to Pofi, Italy
Part III: A Journey of My Own
By Gary Conti
A lifelong desire of mine was to visit Italy and finally the dream was coming true: the date for departure was set for October 10, 2007.
One of the most exciting time of my life was during the months leading up to the trip. Preparations may have been a lot of work, but work that was both fun and rewarding. When Tony, the man from Pofi who had emailed me in January, called me the first time, we became friends during our hour-long conversation. Later, he called while on a business trip from Toronto to Cleveland and we arranged to meet at the Quality Inn on Route 18 in Hermitage, Pennsylvania (previously known as Hickory). As he pulled into the parking lot there were many people around but when he got out of the car and saw me, he seemed to know who I was. I asked how he knew and his response floored me. He said, “You have the facial features of Pofi!” Wow!
He went on to say that family research had been his hobby for many years but, until he found the Scurpa family that he was looking for, he had never heard of Sharpsville. That changed fast. As we exchanged emails and did research for my planned trip to Italy, he could see as I did the ship manifests of person after person from Pofi and surrounding towns who listed Sharpsville as their final stop. He didn’t have much time because he had to make a meeting in Cleveland so we soon parted, promising to keep in touch.
We’re Off to Pofi, Italy
Finally, October 10th came and my wife and I were off for 10 days in Italy. I am not a good flyer after a very bad flight from Arizona to Pittsburgh back in 1988. This time, the meds I was told would put me to sleep never did a thing, so I watched two classic movies, Niagara with Marilyn Monroe and The Roaring Twenties with James Cagney, twice each to help the time go by.
Finally, we landed in Holland and ran to the gate to catch a final flight to Rome aboard Air Sweden. We arrived in Rome late morning and I thought it looked like any other city and was not impressed at first. That changed when the lights came on at night! Everything lit up, The Trevi Fountain, Spanish steps, every place in the city just seemed to come alive at night.
We ate at a cafe that looked like we had seen it before and eventually we figured out why. It was the cafe early in the movie Roman Holiday, so now I watch that movie whenever I can for the memories of the trip.
Then came the trip of 60-plus miles south to Pofi on a double-decker train, a kind of transport that I’d never experienced before. As we approached the area of Pofi, the first thing I wondered was why would anybody leave this amazing beauty to come to Sharpsville? It was everything you think of in the Italian countryside: beautiful massive mountains everywhere with whole towns built up the sides. It would be like standing in the middle of Sharpsville and seeing every town around it at once. Amazing!
We were enjoying the view so much we missed our stop and ended up at the other side of Pofi. We were in trouble, like being out in Hartford, Ohio, and wanting to be in Sharpsville with no car! I went into a little store and began trying to explain what our issue was and starting to tell my surname and those of others from Sharpsville. We had a ride in seconds.
Arrival in Pofi
I just wonder if we were the only Americans to visit Italy and end up being taken to our destination by a Russian because that is just what happened. Thank God she spoke English! We were dropped off at my friend Tony’s home on the same property that held his restaurant and inn. He was back in Canada by this time but his family put up the welcome sign and offered food. People from around the town heard of our arrival and started coming to see us.
The food, as great as it was in Rome, was a step up in Pofi: peppers from the garden, pasta carbonara, salads with wine, limoncello (a lemon liqueur) and a brandy I’d never heard of called Grappa (Italian moonshine!) I wasn’t seeing very clearly after a couple of drinks. And this was just the lunch! After we spent a few hours at Tony’s house, we arranged that I return in three days for a trip to the town of Pofi to visit Tony’s son and the Comune.
A Visit to the Comune di Pofi
This time I traveled by myself. It was very early in the morning and I couldn’t help thinking how people that lived in Pofi could take a train to work in Rome every morning. How great would it be to do that from Sharpsville to Pittsburgh! This time I got off at the right station in the beautiful town of Ceccano. On the mountain by the tracks sat a church 1200 years old!
As I looked around I realized I had another issue. The plan was for me to call Tony’s son from a pay phone, a convenience that was still around in Italy. The problem was they did not operate like the ones I had known back in the States. I was stuck again. I started walking around looking for help when an Italian woman asked me, Gary Conti from Sharpsville, for directions. Wow! I couldn’t help her but she helped me by finding someone to assist me with the phone.
When Tony’s son picked me up at the station and took me right into old Pofi, we did what all Italians do first: Go to a cafe for espresso.
What an amazing town! Old cobblestone streets with alleys running between homes and a medieval tower with a clock at top of a hill. Nothing like that in the Shenango Valley for sure! This day the town was having an Italian-style flea market and people were everywhere.
We went to the comune (municipality office) where Tony’s son introduced me to whomever came in. I worked at the time for UPS and when an Italian UPS driver came in and was told I was a co-worker he smiled and laughed.
From there the clerk took us to a rack on a wall with books of surnames on the side and said, as he helped a man renew his driver record, to look them over and see if I see a name I know. Immediately I saw Conti, Gori, Campoli, Fornelli, Depofi, Molinari, DeQuili (DeJulia) Campagna, Rossi, and on and on. Every single book had names with ties to Sharpsville and were names I had known forever.
Another thing I found out that day was that Pofi had other things in common with Sharpsville. Pofi’s population (about 4,200 inhabitants) was almost right on the button with us. The town and the outlying area reminded me so much of both our town and South Pymatuning. The landscape changed from town to rural area in just seconds.
One of the men then told me something that surprised me. He said that as many people who made the trip to America and never returned, there almost as many who worked a few years and returned to Pofi and bought property. He told me that I was without question looking at some land that was bought with money made in the mills of Sharpsville. That was something that I had never thought about.
The Journey Continues
The next few days marked the end of the trip. I really hated to leave. The people of Pofi had given me bottles of homemade wine that somehow made it back through customs and did not break and did not last long back home.
Since that trip, I keep finding new information. About a year ago at work, I received a call on my cell phone from Tony. He was helping someone in Ceccano, Italy, who had deeds with family names but did not know the location of the place in America they had moved to. Tony took a look and told her that he not only knew where this town called Sharpsville was but knew someone who lived there! He gave me a name I did not know. When I searched for it on the internet using Google, I learned that it was again a well-known name in Sharpsville with the Italian spelling. The names on the deeds were Gabe Develli and his sister! Gabe was a friend of my father’s and his son Tony and I played basketball on the championship team at St. Bartholomew’s together. It goes on!
— Gary Conti, SHS 1981, Sharpsville, PA.