Small Town Memories

Recording memories of the SHARPSVILLE, PA, AREA from the 1940s to the 1970s, one story at a time.

Category: Family

CONTI FAMILY: Return to Pofi, Italy, Part III

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!

“Pofi Panorama” by Anelli Giacinto [Source: http://www.tripmondo.com]

THE CONTI FAMILY: Return to Pofi, Italy

Part III: A Journey of My Own

By Gary Conti

Preparations

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

In red: Province of Frosinone in which the Comune di Pofi, Italy, is located.

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

My wife Kimberly and I as tourists in Pofi, Italy, 2007.

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! 

Pasta Carbonara. [Source: http://www.taste.com.au]

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.

A street in Pofi, Italy. [Source: Pinterest.com.]

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.

See also:

THE CONTI FAMILY: From Pofi to Sharpsville, Part I

THE CONTI FAMILY, Part II: An Italian Christmas, A Golden Childhood

ANGEL’S CASINO: Here Came the Bride

ITALIANS IN SHARPSVILLE

MOM AND DAD DeJULIA

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CONTI FAMILY: From Pofi to Sharpsville, Part II

by Ann Angel Eberhardt

THE CONTI FAMILY: From Pofi to Sharpsville

Part II: An Italian-American Christmas, A Golden Childhood

By Gary Conti

An Italian-American Christmas

The Conti Family: my parents, Shirley and Frank Conti with Justine and myself, c. 1968, Sharpsville, PA.]

Among the many things I remember about growing up with Italian blood, the most vivid is the celebration of Christmas. Christmas Day was a big deal in the homes of non-Italians but to us, it was like the dessert. The main course was Christmas Eve and wow! What a main course! When I awoke on the morning of Christmas Eve the scent of Christmas was the tuna tomato sauce cooking. That more than anything was Christmas to me. It became a Christmas Eve tradition many years ago in Italy because tuna could be had by the poor very easily. The smelts, the cheeses. etc. were like singing “White Christmas.” We always had one of my father’s best friend, Rocco Bernard (Bernardo), over for any holiday and he was as much a part of it all as tuna sauce. When he became ill and later passed, it stopped being the event it was.

Midnight Mass was the only time I remember looking forward to attending mass. That’s still not easy to come clean with considering my cousin is a priest and writes books on the faith that are read all over the world. In fact, when we were headed to Italy and my wife wanted to go on a special tour in the basement of St. Peter’s that required special permission, we could not get an answer for six months. Email after email. In a final attempt, I used his name and bingo! Within 36 hours we had the reply.

We would always go to Christmas morning brunch at my Uncle Pat and Aunt Rose’s. In the evening we were either there or at Aunt Theresa’s or Uncle Sub’s. At night the men gambled at the table with piles of coins going to the winners. It ended around 1:00 a.m. as my father had to go back to work at Shenango Furnace that morning. The walk home was short because, like many Italians, we all lived within a rock’s throw it seemed!

The fact that their parents died when the kids were still young had to have made that bond that much tighter. In fact, My grandfather’s lifelong friend, Luigi Gori, wanted to take in my father and Uncle Tony because their older siblings, Theresa and Sub, were only 17 and 18, but they became adults overnight and did a great job.

My Father, Frank Conti

My father, Frank Conti, standing outside car with his brother Sebastian and his wife, Josephine, inside. Taken at Alice Row on Cedar Street, c. 1940s.

For a guy that had to quit school and go to work at 16, my father knew everybody! He would take me downtown from our house on Second Street almost nightly and once on Main Street, it seemed like every car honked, every person waved and stopped and talked.

I will never forget the nicknames of my father’s friends — Popcorn, Slugger, Lefty, Peder, Cho Cho, Moochie, Queenie, Bimbo, Farmer and on and on. Some I knew much better than others, but I remember those names and faces at 55 years old like I did at 8. It was a part of my childhood.

During The Korean War, he trained as an Engineer in the U.S. Army at Camp Rucker, Alabama, and Fort Benning, Georgia.

For over 30 years, my father worked as a millwright at Shenango Furnace, a company that operated blast furnaces in Sharpsville for most of the 20th century. For a number of those years he worked with his father’s best friend Luigi (Louie) Gori who was a crane man at the plant. Luigi was one of the several guys who immigrated to Sharpsville with my grandfather.

A Golden Childhood

One spring afternoon in late 1960s my father and I were coming back from fishing in the river and saw that the DiMarco’s, owners of a neighborhood grocery market on Mercer Avenue, were closing their store. My father knew the family his whole life, having grown up across the street from the bar and store. My father stopped to talk with Mr. DiMarco and, on that day, he gave my father shelves from the store that my father kept until his own house burned in May of 2015.

“Home for Christmas.” Frank Conti and Pete “Lum” Garnick, c. 1950

A handful of years later, Mr. DiMarco’s son became a star on Sharpsville’s football team and became my favorite player mainly because of his name, Dino DiMarco. That was a beautiful Italian name that I loved to hear over the P.A. system! It just sounded Sharpsville. In fact, I remember that, at around 7 years old, I made my father laugh once by asking if everyone in Sharpsville was Italian! It sure seemed that way to me.

Even though my father lost his parents at a very young age, he sure seemed to realize how to be a parent. The guy did everything a father should, little things that a kid never forgets the rest of his life. I remember the day he took me to Farrell to buy my first ball glove. He made an event of it. He picked a Spaulding Carl Yastrzemski Triple Crown model that I think about every day.

As the great basketball coach Jim Valvano once said, Italians celebrate everything by eating! After buying the glove we went to the Eagle Grill. This place, along with his all-time favorite restaurant, the White Rose, were the only places where he would order Italian food: only Italian food made by people with vowels at the end of their surnames!

My father, Frank Conti, with my daughter, Jenna Theresa, 2004.

He would take me to the backyard to hit pops and grounders so many times I lost track. Walks, fishing, coffee stirs! I had a childhood you could not buy from me with gold.

My father is still going strong at 90 years old. He loves history, Sharpsville and its sports teams, as well as Notre Dame. He lived for 35 years on Eighth Street until his house burned down in May 2015. He currently lives in an assisted living home in New Castle, Pennsylvania. He looks back on his life as Sharpsville being his first love. Sharpsville is Heaven to him and Alice Row is a place he wishes he could go back to. They were dirt poor but he thought they were rich because money could not buy happiness.

Over the years family and friends may pass away, but memories never fade. My family had very little when they left Italy but my father to this day, at 90 years old, says he would go back in a heartbeat. It was bigger than rich or poor. The humble beginnings in Pofi, Italy, of Luigi and Mattia have led to grandkids who became a doctor, a leader in the education system in Texas, a priest who is known the world over for his books, and many others who have reached a level that would not be possible without those immigrants building and paving a path.

— Gary Conti, SHS 1981, Sharpsville, PA.

[The last installment of this series will be published next month: “The Conti Family, Part III: Return to Pofi, Italy.”]

See also:

THE CONTI FAMILY, Part I: From Pofi to Sharpsville

THE CONTI FAMILY, Part III: A Return to Pofi, Italy – A Journey of My Own

ANGEL’S CASINO: Here Came the Bride

ITALIANS IN SHARPSVILLE

MOM AND DAD DeJULIA