Your Task this Christmas

Tree made out of Christmas Cards is an old Molfie tradition

A Christmas Tree made out of Christmas Cards is an old “Molfie” tradition (c. 1960s)

For Italian-Americans, the holiday season is unswervingly linked to family. It’s a time to reconnect with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or anybody else willing to share food, faith and tradition. Without fail, those members of the family born in Molfetta will speak of the “tìembe d’pràime,” and how the old customs were purer and more meaningful back in Italy. These conversations often formulate into good hearted debates between antique culture and modern ways. Often, no resolution is reached but instead an atmosphere of collective stoicism is agreed upon. The elders are not wrong about their past while the younger generations correctly support that change is inevitable and therefore good.

Me, Mom and Sis, most likely at the old house in Union City

Me, Mom and Sis, most likely at the old house in Union City

However, during these discussions, it would benefit the younger generations to step back a bit from the deliberations and just listen. Or better yet, begin to write down or record the old stories. Unfortunately, La Nònne, will not be around forever and when she departs, many of the people that filled her life-story will also disappear.

Dad and La Nonne

Dad and “La Nonne”

So this Christmas, talk about those who are no longer with us and record their stories for posterity. The task, however, is to go beyond simply creating a family tree. Although it is important to list every name in the family line, the true worth of ancestral folklore is to piece it together and form a narrative, one that touches upon legend but is also rooted in truth. In other words, become a true historian with information that only you are privy to.

Two masters of this genealogical enterprise are fellow “Molfies” Damian De Virgilio and Mark Palombella Hart. In his blog, “Knowing Nonno,” Damian explores his grandfather’s disappearance while serving in the Italian Army during World War II. Damian’s research and storytelling unravels information about his grandfather that had been locked away for decades. In his “Palombella Genealogy” website, Mark chronicles his family’s amazing journey from Molfetta to Liverpool, England, accumulating information from as far back as the early 1700s. Again, these writers are not simply putting together a family tree but are connecting their family stories with verifiable historical documents. They are true historians! …And I can state this with some authority because I have a master’s degree in history and I should be able to say such things after spending so much time with my nose in books…

Your assignment this Christmas is to bring a blank notebook to your family gathering. Perhaps during a game of Tombola, or in between the many varied courses of fish and frittelle, write down of few notes about the past and ensure that those who have come before will be remembered.

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Under the Bridge

For the most part, the Molfettesi are urban people. Their homes back in Italy consist of tightly packed apartment buildings adorned with green shutters and modest balconies. Today, the city is equipped with shopping malls and outlet centers, but the inhabitants of the past needed only to navigate narrow medieval streets to obtain their daily wares. Everything they required was in walking distance or easily reachable with a Cinquecento. Therefore, it should come to no surprise that when early Molfettesi immigrants crossed the Atlantic to settle in the United States, they chose the diminutive cityscape of Hoboken, NJ. Just a square mile long, Hoboken resembles Molfetta for the fact that its inhabitants vie to live in brownstones and other tightly packed quarters.

However, Molfettesi are also country people. During holidays and special occasions, the residents of Molfetta often opt to go onto rocky beaches of the Adriatic or into the olive groves that occupy the Pugliesi interior. In Campagna (countryside), Molfettesi men coaxed olives, almonds, figs and assortment of citrus fruit out of the unforgiving soil in order to share some surplus food with their families. Therefore, it is not surprising that Molfettesi living in New Jersey looked to mimic the Campagana experience in the New World. The problem was… that for the early Molfettesi immigrants, U’attène (the father), seldom had days off. A day trip to a beach in Connecticut or to Wolf’s Pond in Staten Island would often have to suffice as a family vacation.

One of the places many Molfettesi immigrants ventured when seeking some outdoor fun were the recreation areas underneath the George Washington Bridge. An easy drive from Hudson County with prime location near the water was probably why the Palisade Interstate Park was a favorite picnic area. The scene would include women cooking pasta over charcoal grills, men playing horseshoes and then napping while little kids ran around until the sun went down. Of course, if an important soccer game was on, the men-folk also somehow managed to rig electricity to supply a handheld television.

On June 2nd, 2012, members of the Molfetta Heritage Club paid homage to an old “Molfie” tradition and held a BBQ underneath the George Washington Bridge. We ate some food, laughed, ate some more, told stories, had some snacks, played some games, ate, and then closed out with some food… Special thanks to Robert Gigante for organizing this get-together. Let’s do it again real soon!

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Tombola Night !!

There is a great scene in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when the ghost of Christmas Present brings Ebenezer Scrooge to the holiday celebrations at the home of his nephew Fred. Their ghostly visit is to be short, but Scrooge begs the spirit to stay for a little bit longer so that he can watch the merriment of people playing Christmas games. In this part of the story, Dickens touches upon an important aspect of Christmas. Besides the gifts and food, games are an important part of the holiday.

For the Molfettesi in America this can mean an assortment of amusements. Since many of us are descended from sailors, longshoreman and construction workers it should come to no surprise that poker games break out in-between the servings of fish, panettone, fruit and coffee. However, the true game of “Molfie” Christmas is the one brought over from the old country, a distant ethnic cousin of BINGO, known to us as Tombola. Essentially, the rules of Tombola are similar to other Lotto-based pastimes. A “caller” picks a number and players mark off that number on their scorecards. If a player gets two in a row, they shout out AMBO and are then awarded a small percentage of the pot. Three numbers in the row is known as TERNO, four in a row, QUATERNA, while five in a row is QUINDINA (or Cinquina if you want to speak proper Italian). Finally, the whole card must be filled in order to win the grand prize. Often, players fill their scorecards with little bits of Clementine skin that they have cleverly pieced off to better mark their numbers when actual chips are scarce. The bits of Clementine are symbolic of the ethos practiced by many in the Molfettesi community, waste nothing and improvise when necessary.

On Dec. 17th 2011, members of the Molfetta Heritage Club enjoyed a festive game of Tombola

Winning the game is fun, but the real amusement of Tombola stems from the silly names traditionally given to each of the 90 numbers on the scoreboard. For example, the number 35 is in jail for some reason and whenever that number pops out of the bag, someone dutifully announces that “tréndacìnghë: stè ngalé” (35 is in Jail!). The number 77 represents the legs of some long-legged female member of the family or simply “rë gghêmmë dë Sophia Loren!” Many of the number associations are not very appealing; with the number 11 representing “lë purcë,” or fleas, and 16 designated for “Pezzidde du caulë,” (no translation necessary).

The origins of this number-name system stem from the early lotto games conducted in Italy during the late middle ages. Lotto in Italy began in Florence and Venice during the early 1500s and eventually made its way down to the superstitious cities of the south, particularly Naples. There the game initiated the sale of books known as la Smorfia, which contain secrets of numerology, some say originating from the ancient practice of Kabala. The idea was that whenever someone dreamt of a certain person or occurrence, they were to associate it with the appropriate number and then play that number in the lotto. For example, if you were to dream of a crazy person it would be prudent to play the number 22, as it is the number for il pazzo according to the Smorfio.

However, each region of Italy has its own Smorfio tradition, with Molfetta’s version differing greatly from the Neapolitan edition. To view an example of a classic tombola board from 1800s Molfetta, visit the following site:

Buon Natale from the Molfetta Heritage Club!

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Understanding La Festa

Trapped in a parking spot in front of a dry cleaner on Willow Street, a Hoboken hipster pleads his case on a cell phone. “You don’t understand, they are carrying a saint in the street, I can’t pull the car out.”  To the uninformed Hobokenite this is just bad timing, if he left a few minutes earlier he could have avoided this traffic jam caused by a religious procession.  For the people engrossed by the parade, this is their annual rite dating back more than 600 years — a custom that is much more important than some dry cleaning.   This impasse between trendy and traditional ends with the Hoboken hipster having to wait and watch.  He is now forced to try and “understand” why these people are carrying a statue through a busy city street.

The Madonna in front of the Federazione Molfettesi d'America

According to lore, the feast of the Madonna of the Martyrs (La Madonna dei Martiri) commemorates the finding of a floating Glykophilousa icon in Molfettan waters by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land.   A couple centuries later (in 1399 to be exact), Ladislaus the Magnanimous, the king of Naples, proclaimed that the miracle of the icon should be celebrated with feasts and merriment.  526 years after Ladislaus’ declaration, a group of Molfettesi immigrants reintroduced the ancient ritual to their new soil, the dock city of Hoboken.   Jump ahead yet another 86 years and you have a scenario where some intense Mediterranean Catholicism confronts someone in front of a dry cleaner.

Members of the MHC in front of a miniature replica of the Madonna Flotilla

In short, this is a religious festival, but upon further examination, this practice is much more complex than just a simple feast day.  The real story of “la festa” is really about the Molfettese people.  “La Medonne” is almost as synonymous to Molfetta as the dialect spoken by its native sons and daughters.   A unique combination of legend, tragedy, faith and language, blended together by a mix of characters that are as much affable as they are stubborn.  Steadfast Molfettese immigrants brought the statue to Hoboken not only to symbolize old country beliefs but also as a representation of themselves in the new world.  For the temporary birds of passage, or those who went back and forth to Italy, the feast was a sampling of home until they were able to get back.  For many others who stayed in the States permanently, it was a fixture, an actual anchor for a group of wandering seafarers successful in finding a new home.  That’s what it means to “understand” this tradition.   That’s why we applaud when La Medonne exits the church.

 All images are the sole property of Andrew de Gennaro (2011)

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The Stone Carver

Molfetta is a city of sun-scorched stone. Anyone visiting for the first time will quickly notice that the buildings, streets, and sidewalks gleam bright under the Adriatic sky.  For centuries, an elite class of skilled craftsmen sculpted, chipped and carved both the ornate and mundane face of the city.   By carving itself out of stone, Molfetta has ensured its existence for more than 1000 years. It’s past, faith and populace encased in rock and preserved for perpetuity.

Master Stone Carver, Franco Minervini

Carving is a progression of trades. In the Molfetta of the past, it started at the quarry.  Where cazzapéiete (stonebreakers) and petraràule (quarrymen) tore and split the rock from the earth.  Then muratori or frabecatòere (stonemasons) used the stone to build walls, while scarpellìne (stonecutters) and ornatisti (stone carvers) added the details.  The grand master of them all was Giulio Cozzoli, whose major work, the Diposizione, or “Disposition of Christ” depicts a crucified Jesus being lowered from the cross by the Madonna, St. John, Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene.  Several of Cozzoli’s works are on display at the Fabrica di San Domenico in Molfetta.

The MHC with master stone carvers, Franco Minervini & Michele Colonna

The art of stone carving came to the U.S. with skilled Italian immigrants that literally left their mark on American architecture.  One of the most notable was Vincent Palumbo, a fifth generation stone carver who worked alongside his father, Paolo, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.   Master Palumbo was featured in The Stone Carvers, an academy-award winning short film from 1984 that highlighted some of the last remaining stone carvers still working in Washington, DC. In the film, the camaraderie amongst the carvers is clearly evident, as is the distinctive sound of limestone as it is struck with precision.

The Studio

On May 14, 2011, members of the Molfetta Heritage Club were lucky enough to visit with two contemporary links to the Molfettesi tradition of stone carving.  Franco Minervini, who worked with Vincent Palumbo at the National Cathedral and Michele Colonna, a 90 year-old master granite carver, who only recently stopped working in his mid-80s.  The meeting took place at Master Minervini’s studio where the group discussed stone carving, the importance of art, our shared bond of Molfetta, and many other facets of life and learning.   Franco’s studio appears exactly as one would imagine a stone carver’s domain to look.  Ivy covered walls on the outside with various kinds of tools and machinery within the workspace. In each corner, stone inhabitants in the shapes of cherubs, grotesques, gargoyles, maidens, and various other creatures gaze upon those who enter.  A snapshot of a medieval world in the middle of central Jersey.

The day ended with a visit to Master Minervini’s current capolavoro, a giant Bald Eagle created to commemorate the 147 residents of Monmouth County that perished on Sept. 11, 2001.  Located on the Mount Mitchell Scenic Overlook in the Atlantic Highlands, NJ, the entire park chronicles the tragic events of the day. The memorial culminates at Master’s Minervini’s limestone Eagle, which grasps in its talons an actual piece of mangled steel retrieved from the fallen twin towers.  This eagle, a quintessential symbol of America, ascends to the heavens with the memory of the fallen.  Carved in stone, their memory will be preserved for perpetuity.


All Photos: Lou La Forgia & Robert Gigante

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Pastry Appreciation Night

One of the main reasons for the existence of the Molfetta Heritage Club is to preserve fading traditions.  As the younger generation moves further from home and becomes more Americanized there is less opportunity to eat frittelle during Christmas, hear la nònne yell in dialect and cover the arve d’fàiche after summer.

Food is probably the thing we miss the most.  Especially the items taken for granted when we were younger.  Every Easter my grandmother would make her traditional glazed jelly cake and every year I would pass them up for a store-bought giant Easter bunny made of chocolate.  These jelly cakes, better known as scarcédde, are an Easter staple for Molfettesi all around the world.

Goehrigs Bakery

In order to recapture the flavors of Easter’s past; members of the Molfetta Heritage Club celebrated Pastry Appreciation Night on March 26, 2011 as a way to share the delights of the Lenten Season.  Not only was there an abundance of scarcédde but also a grand offering of zeppoles in honor of Saint Joseph’s Day, which is a feast day celebrated on March 19th by all Italian Americans.

Pastry Appreciation Night featured discussions about old 8-track recordings of Le Marce Funebri, solemn music greatly missed by Molfettesi immigrants when away from the homeland during Easter, and whether or not those silvery orbs on top of the scarcédde were edible or not.

Goehrigs Bakery - Jersey City Heights, NJ

A special thanks goes out to Goehrig’s Bakery of Jersey City Heights, which supplied delicious zeppoles and an amazing assortment of cupcakes for the members of the Molfetta Heritage Club to enjoy.  Goehrigs Bakery owned and operated by Joseph Gigante, a certified master baker of Molfettesi heritage and a graduate of Johnson & Wales University.  Goehrig’s Bakery specializes in wedding cakes, traditional Italian pastries, breads, and cookies.  Thank You Goehrigs Bakery!

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In Search of Giaquinto

On February 19, 2011, members of the Molfetta Heritage Club ventured into New York City to find two works attributed to Rococo master, Corrado Giaquinto.

Born in Molfetta in 1703, Giaquinto was apprenticed to Molfettese artist, Saverio Porta, for a number of years before leaving his home city in 1724.   Giaquinto continued his career in Naples, Rome, Turin, Mafra and Madrid, where he became a patron of King Ferdinand IV of Spain.

For the people of Molfetta, his most recognizable work can be found within La Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, where Giaquinto painted a magnificent recreation of the Assumption of Mary above one of the side altars.   Although a majority of his art can be seen only in Italy and Spain, the Molfettesi community in America need not be discouraged since a few of his canvases also adorn the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and of course the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Members of the Molfetta Heritage Club in front of two Giaquinto paintings at the MET Museum, NYC

Two Giaquinto works in particular are currently on view at the MET, the Penitent Magdalen and the Lamentation.  Displayed side by side, both works are viewable within the museum’s European collection located on the second floor. 

The Penitent Magdalen is a large oil painting displaying the image of Mary Magdalen, unjustly labeled for centuries as a prostitute and according to the New Testament, one of the few witnesses of the crucifixion.  In his painting, Giaquinto pays homage to the traditional story of Mary Magdalen retiring in a French cave for thirty years in order to gain penance for her sins.  In the image we see that she is bare shouldered, which emphasizes the notion of sexual impropriety.  She also wears a cilice, or uncomfortable undergarment used to induce pain as atonement for a sinful life.  On the side of the saint, we see three examples of still-life symbolism. The crucifix denotes faith, the skull symbolizes mortality, and the book represents Magdalen’s reflective life as a cave hermit.   The Penitent Magdalen was purchased for the MET museum in 2006 for the sum of $1.3 million.

Lou LaForgia & Barbara Magarelli view the Penitent Magdalen by Corrado Giaquinto


The second Giaquinto painting on view at the MET is the Lamentation. In this image, we see the Virgin Mary mourn the crucified Christ.  Even though this painting portrays a classical image of sorrow, it still flaunts a rococo flair with playful cherubs and bright blue hues.  This added elegance is perhaps why this painting is considered more of a mystical interpretation of Christ’s death rather than a historical one.

All images © Robert Gigante (2011)

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