Told by Joe Castelforte, written by Tanya Tecce
The timing of this article for the May issue is interesting, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my mom Dora. She was an amazing woman. I know nearly everyone says that, but really, she was.
Italy was in bad shape after World War II when my grandfather Umberto Romeo decided to come to America to find work. My mom was a young girl when her father left their home in Monte di Procida, so he could lay the foundation for a better life for his family. By the time Dora was a teenager, she, her three sisters, one brother and my grandmother Maria had reunited and settled in Brooklyn, N.Y. By that time, their pizzeria on Fifth Avenue was up and running.
After my dad Giuseppe Castelforte, who was from Palermo Sicilia, passed away when I was a toddler, mom remarried and my dad Giovanni Russo raised my brother, sister and me. Our family matriarch, nonna, ruled our three-story home from the first floor/basement, Zio Giuseppe took the second floor, and we had the third.
We did a lot of what Italians do growing up. For example: we cooked. Not just a lot – all the time! Cooking was a way of life for us. It was a way of communicating, a way of belonging, and most certainly a way of comforting someone and showing them how much you care. It’s an understanding, an expression of love. “This is what you like, and I made it for you.”
We only spoke Italian at home so it was very hard for me at school. I had a slow start but after working very, very hard, finally in fourth grade I got into honors classes where I accelerated. Although I couldn’t speak English when I first went to school, I wasn’t the only one. There were a lot of us who couldn’t speak it well yet and the teachers helped a lot. Since outside of school things could get lost in translation when trying to communicate, we did a lot of staying home, cooking and eating.
I wasn’t trained classically as a chef; I was immersed in food and cooking as a way of life – living and breathing it daily. Mornings started with nonna and my mom on the phone, researching. Nonna would spread the news down the line like a stock trader on Wall Street – “Giovanni on 57th has the best broccoli rabe!”
The phones were always off the hook, and notepads with numbers scratched on them strewn about the table. She’d track down the best produce, most authentic olive oil, best nuts and meats, all at the best price.
Other kids had bologna and peanut butter sanguicci’ (sandwiches) and we had mortadella and Nutella from Italy in the glass jars. They were so into good food; not just good quality but the right season to buy what, that’s so important! Anything that was worth happening happened around food – events, comfort, rituals, life.
In 1964, my grandfather got sick so my mom took over the entire pizza shop and ran it by herself at just 19 years old. She learned how to speak English, taught herself to read and write, and got herself a driver’s license. Although she didn’t have the chance to go to school herself, she was a very smart lady. She was the doctor, the accountant, the translator, and the peacemaker of our family. Even when she passed March 18, 2020, she gave us all a little wink and we felt comforted (with all the Giuseppes in our family), March 19 being San Giuseppe’s feast day. Feast day, but of course!
Dora helped so many. She was one of the first to be able to translate for the people in our neighborhood, and she was a master at stretching a dollar, I don’t know how she did it! We didn’t have money, but we never went without. No matter who stopped over, there was always enough to share somehow – it was as if her pot was magic. She’d get creative too, and at times make one of our staples with a little Americana twist. For example – “a pizzi past” (a frittata with leftover spaghetti) would have the usual eggs, mozzarella, and salami, but one day she fried it with a little bit of hot dog into the pie. We wanted to keep our traditions and be American. She was open minded and so good at noticing everyday things and what the kids liked. She made a point to learn about football, the Eagles and Giants, because we followed sports.
As in many Italian and immigrant families, mom stressed the importance of education. She believed it’s one of life’s greatest wealths. She made sure we learned history and stories of the world. When I started making a living in the pizza business I felt, “What do I have to go to school for?”
She emphasized that there is so much more to know: how to relate to people, how to appreciate culture. Because of her, I was the first person in my family to get a college degree. And I know she’d be so proud now that her grand-daughter Doriana is attending Clemson University. I worked in finance at John Hancock for a while, but missed the restaurant business, so I came back to opening, establishing and selling pizzerias.
Now, working with the premier Italian food distributors for the United States, Cento, I strive to pay it forward. Like nonna, I pay special attention to quality assurance and control, making sure ingredients and processes are to our specs. I carry what mama taught us to my work every day – coming to food is comfort. Quality food with family around a table is a great way to cope. It will fill your tummy and make you feel better, it still makes sense. My craft and our products help families slow down and make the time, so we don’t lose that.
Happy Mother’s Day to my mom, Dora Castelforte Russo. And to all the mothers out there, thank you for all the gifts you give us. Buona festa della Mama!
Joe Castelforte is the executive corporate chef at Cento, in charge of quality assurance, quality control and researching Italian products for the American market.
OUR IMMIGRANT STORIES ARE PROUDLY SPONSORED BY STAMPONE O’BRIEN DILSHEIMER LAW