Italians congregated in the westside

The Gerardis were one of dozens of Italian families that found their way to Warren’s west side.

They hold onto their roots.

“Personally I think it’s very important to have traditions in your life,” Josie Gerardi said. “That’s what holds your life together.”

“When I was a kid, we always said good night in Italian – buona notte,” Josie Gerardi said.

She still sits down to a traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes at Christmas time, and has other traditional dishes throughout the year.

Gerardi also has numerous family heirlooms – a pipe, a mantilla or lace head scarf that was worn to Mass by her grandmother, and the paperwork from the family’s emigration. The framed naturalization paper shows the name of Victor Emmanuel III, King of Italy.

“You get together – a family reunion, a wedding, a funeral – a lot of the things you do have to do with your Italian heritage,” she said. “I can’t imagine Christmas without doing some of the pastries and the fish feast.”

“A lot of people have dropped that,” she said. “In dropping that, I think you lose some of your identity.”

They respect their heritage, but are careful not to flaunt it.

Gerardi’s father instilled in his family the virtue of blending in.

“With him, wherever you’re living, you need to fit in and not put yourself where you’re different,” she said. “You’re strong Italian Catholic, but you’re also an American.”

She asked him why they weren’t taught the Italian language as children. The answer was simple. “‘We came to the United States to be Americans. We’re speaking English.’ And that was that.”

Bringing people of different cultures and traditions together and making them one group is “what’s made the United States the United States,” Gerardi said.

The melting pot does not end up perfectly stirred. “When Italians would come over, they would sponsor other families to come,” she said. That’s why Gerardi was able to list dozens of names of Italian families who live in Warren’s west end.

Many of the traditions that the Gerardis have held onto are related to foods.

Italy and food are often linked and Josie relates the nation’s flag to food, as well.

“The Italian flag – the red, the green and the white – stand for marinara, pesto, and carbonara,” she said. “That’s a neat way to correlate the flag and the sauces.”

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a tradition that originated in southern Italy.

“It’s supposed to be a good way of committing yourself to your religion and your ethnicity,” Gerardi said. “On Christmas Eve, you have a buffet of all this fish.”

It’s not just any seven fish.

Family members would “scour the countryside” looking for salted cod (baccala), calamari, smelt, fresh sardines, shrimp, scallops, halibut, and eel.

There are a number of sweets that have remained part of the Gerardi family since their days in Italy: spiced chocolate cookies, honey balls, anise cookies – “that is a must at Easter time” – panettone, and biscotti.

Gerardi’s grandfather lived in Petilia Policastro before he was the first of her line to come to the United States.

“Grandpa came by himself on a bet with his brother,” she said. “He worked on the railroad.”

Gerardi wasn’t sure of the nature of the bet, nor even if her grandfather won or lost it, but it changed the course of the family.

“When he came here on that bet, he must have established that he liked it,” she said.

He returned to Italy.

Then, like many who uprooted their families to sail to America, he saw “a better life for himself and his family.”

Despite still owning an orchard in the Calabria region, he returned with his wife and two children. Josie Gerardi’s father was the first in the family born on American soil.

Her grandfather worked in a coal mine near Uniontown. “There was an accident in the mine,” Gerardi said. “That was the end of that.”

The family moved to Warren.

It was not hard to find others with similar heritage in Warren.

Although the Sons of Italy club is all but defunct, it was still vibrant a generation ago. “My father was a member of it until the day he died,” Gerardi said.

Gerardi still has family in the “old country” and has returned to the land of her ancestors, though not to the village her grandfather grew up in. She said it felt familiar.

She admits that she would rather vacation at mountains than at the shore.

“Calabria is very, very mountainous,” she said. “I came home and told my father I know why I love mountains. I blame it on my heritage.”

“My grandfather had an olive farm,” she said. “That’s how I got the gardening in me.”

“The first time I went, I went to the Vatican, walked into St. Peters (Basilica),” she said. “I was overwhelmed with two things – one that I was Italian. Two that I was Catholic.”

Returning home is a powerful thing. “I remember crying,” she said.