As an Italian American kid growing up on the East Coast, I had plenty of exposure to my grandparents’ nation of origin.
My grandfather on Mom’s side was outspoken, confident, and humorous. He owned Romano’s Bakery in Rutland, Vermont, had ten children including Mom, and a small dog that hung around the kitchen and drank water out of a coffee cup. When the dog begged at the breakfast table, Grandpa would let out a huge laugh and say, “Get your own cup.” Nick Romano was a tough businessman but a softy when it came to his grandchildren. One day I asked him for a jelly donut. Instead of giving me one, he taught me how to use the donut filler and set me up with a parttime job. To this day, I can’t look at a powdered jelly donuts without thinking of my grandfather.
My mom’s youngest brother, Ralph, was my favorite uncle on that side of the family. He was the first professional radio broadcaster I ever met and, in fact, was my inspiration for going into the media business. After Uncle Ralph retired at age sixty-five, he became a stand-up comic, doing free shows for nonprofit organizations for the rest of his life. My dad’s family lived close to us in Norwalk, Connecticut. Every Sunday, without fail, we visited Grandma and Grandpa Ventrella on Aiken Street. Grandma made homemade pasta under the grape vine just outside her kitchen. Chickens roamed the yard freely, and several cats lived in the barn next to the large garden and the old-fashioned well. There was a party every Sunday at Grandma’s.
My uncle Louie, Dad’s brother-in-law, was my favorite on Dad’s side of the family. He ran a lawnmower repair shop in New Canaan, Connecticut. Uncle Louie was always whistling, always seemed happy, and loved talking about his favorite team, the New York Yankees.
Both sets of grandparents immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, so both of my parents were born in America but spoke fluent Italian. That made it difficult for us kids to decipher what they were talking about at times.
My dad owned Ventrella’s Barber Shop in Norwalk; taught me the trade; and over the years, we worked side by side. He also taught me everything I needed to know about Italian culture. I learned about the difficulty of growing up Italian in America in the early 1900s. There were less than flattering nicknames tagged on my dad and his siblings when they were growing up. I heard some of it myself in the 1950s, but it was mostly from kids with bad manners, ignorant parents, or both.
We learned to follow Italian heroes of our time, like Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, and Rocky Marciano. Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Mario Lanza were favorites among my older relatives. My dad told me stories about the war, and how Hitler and Mussolini teamed up for a while before both were crushed by the Allies.
Most of my uncles on both sides of the family served in the US Army or Navy during World War II, but honestly, I never gave much thought to the Italian Army. Oh, I heard all the jokes, but I never considered Italy was much of a factor in military history.
That’s why Italy Invades is such an exciting and somewhat nostalgic adventure for me. I only wish my dad were still alive to share this wonderful book. I can imagine him and me standing out in front of the barber shop, the red, white, and blue pole spinning away, and Dad telling me how proud he was that Italian Americans made up one-twelfth of US fighting forces, and that Italy’s own military had seen action in fifty different countries. In fact, I can see him telling his next customer the same thing.