Written By Tanya Tecce
Frank DeSante’s immigration story is so strong, it still holds four generations later. Sicilian on his mom’s side, Frank’s great-grandfather Paul (Paolo) Cannone emigrated to the United States in the early 1900s and settled in South Philadelphia. Frank’s great-uncle, Pete (Pietro) Barbaro established a barber shop at Eighth and Greenwich. Although they didn’t speak a lot of English, they had a lot of legacy to leave.
Frank’s grandparents Catherine and Dominic Pasquarella were actually born and raised in South Philadelphia and then migrated, as many Italian Americans did at that time, to Yeadon, Pa. They brought great-grandmother Sarah (who spoke absolutely no English) with them since her husband Paul died very young at age 39. Sarah (whom Frank and his brother called “Big Grandmom”), Frank, his younger brother Anthony, mom Mary Ann, aunt Barbara, grandmother Catherine and grandfather Dominic shared their multi-generational, many-gifted family home in Yeadon. Fluent Italian in the Sicilian dialect was one of the languages of the home and thankfully, there were a lot of Italian Americans in Yeadon who spoke it as well at that time.
Frank’s father’s side was from the Abruzzo region. His grandparents Jean and Pete Di Egidio settled in West Philadelphia near 49th Street, in the St. Callistus and St. Donato sections. They later moved to the northeast section of Philadelphia where their very large Di Egidio family took up an entire block. They stuck together.
Even though Frank bought his first house in his mid-20s, he still made a point to stay at his mom/grandmother’s/great-grandmother’s a couple times a week, he remembers, laughing. “It could never be duplicated. I have such a deep appreciation for how loving and nurturing they were and are. My grandmother would sew your pants on the way out the door last minute on a Saturday night if you needed it.”
Frank’s great-grandmother Sarah and grandmother Catherine took the Sunday dinner tradition seriously even after the boys moved out of the house. Although it started out along more traditional lines, earlier in the day at 3 p.m., the boys finally got them to “Americanize” it a bit and start it a little later at 5 p.m. And of course they kept the holiday traditions like Easter and Christmas alive.
The seven fish feast for Christmas Eve has changed a bit, too. Grandmom Catherine was really big on the tradition of baccalà, shrimp, clams and macaroni, smelts, mussels, calamari, and scallops. But as time went on, the youngest generation was able to update a few of the fish and let go of the smelt and go with salmon instead. What never changed though is that Frank would take his grandmother and aunt Barbara to St. Louis Church every Christmas Eve for 7:30 mass.
Mom Mary Ann still speaks Italian, although there aren’t neighbors now to speak with. But in the 1970s and 1980s, there were many neighbors committed to keeping their dialect alive. Mary Ann tells me the story of her grandfather Paul Cannone, struggling to land a job, so his best (Irish-American) friend came up with a great idea. He felt sure he could get Paul a job with him at the locomotive company if they made one little change. “Paul, since you have red hair, here’s what we’ll do. You have to remove the vowel from your last name and make it read Cannon.” And with the chop of an “e,” Paul got the job.
The art and science of barbering, styling and coloring runs in Frank’s family and has been passed through the generations. Along with his great-uncle Pete, his other great-uncle Frank Mattiace operated a barber shop in center city. And Mom Mary Ann has been a hairdresser for 60 years, running her business from their multi-generational family home.
“At 18 years old, I started out as a barber, but then I started to visit London and Europe – France and Italy – to go to the runway events. The creativity, the art and color of it, expanded my horizons and so I added in the female cuts and colors. This exposure expanded the styling world in a whole new way and I brought it back with me to Yeadon, and to my first salon I opened in Southwest Philadelphia at 22 years old,” he said.
“One of the values I’ve inherited from my family is this strong work ethic. I grew up watching my mother work from our home every day for decades. My grandfather was a photographer for the Bulletin for 40-plus years and I watched him work hard. My grandmother took care of the household with devotion, she didn’t stop. Even at 80 years old with cancer, she still took pride in carrying the wash basket upstairs herself.
“The care, our traditions, our food, my work, our work ethic, all of it. Like I said, I am deeply appreciative of it and it’s one of a kind.”
Frank DeSante founded Salon De Sante, offering a wide range of beauty services and products, in Springfield, Pa., over 20 years ago. He’s operated salons in the Philadelphia area for four decades and travels to Europe regularly to share his craft. He is a member of the elite Haute Coiffure Francaise organization. Frank still makes it a point to stay in touch with his mom regularly.
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