Written by Joe Stampone and Tanya Tecce
In 1882, a group of men left Roseto Valfortore (Valley of Roses), a town of 1,300 near the province of Foggia in the region of Puglia, to set sail for New York.
The men spent their first night in America sleeping on the floor of a tavern on Mulberry Street in Manhattan’s Italian neighborhood. They eventually found work in the slate mines of Bangor, Pa. There, far from the opportunity they expected, they were confronted with prejudices as immigrants, tolerated substandard conditions, and often resided in homes that were nothing more than shacks. The Italians were considered uncultured and uneducated peasants. They faced much discrimination, especially in the field of employment.
One of these brave men was Nicola Rosato, founder of Roseto, Pa., and my great-grandfather.
In 1887, Nicola purchased land and built the first house, naming the town for his Italian village. Nicola’s son Peter was one of four members of the committee which succeeded in incorporating Roseto in 1912 – the first 100 percent Italian borough in the United States.
In their new town they built closely clustered houses, established Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, and named their main street Garibaldi Avenue after the hero of Italian Unification. They set up spiritual societies and organized festivals. They planted gardens in every yard, raised pigs, grew grapes for homemade wine, and enjoyed arguments over bragging rights to the best wine in town. They built schools, parks, a convent, and a cemetery. They opened shops, bakeries, and restaurants.
Only Italian was spoken in the early 1900s – and not just any Italian, but the Foggian dialect. Roseto had become its own self-sufficient, little-known world and probably would have remained so but for a man named Stewart Wolf.
A physician and medical school professor, Wolf spent summers on a farm not far from Roseto. A local doctor told Wolf that in his 17 years of practice, treating patients from all over, he rarely found anyone from Roseto under the age of 65 with heart disease – this at a time when heart disease was becoming an epidemic in the United States.
Wolf and sociologist Dr. John Bruhn conducted a study and invited the entire population of Roseto to be tested. The results were astonishing. Virtually no one younger than 55 died of a heart attack; for men over 65, the death rate from heart attack was half that of the United States as a whole; and the death rate from all causes was 35 percent lower than “normal.” There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and little crime to speak of. No one was on welfare, no one even suffered from peptic ulcers! These people died of old age. That’s it!
There was a name for a place like this – a place that lay outside everyday experience, where the normal rules did not apply. Roseto was an “Outlier.”
Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the “Roseto Mystery” in the introduction to his best-seller “Outliers: The Story of Success.” Gladwell describes the mysterious town as an example of an outlier of medical significance. “For centuries, the paesani of Roseto worked in the marble quarries in the surrounding hills, or cultivated the fields in the terraced valley below, walking four or five miles down the mountain in the morning and then making the long journey back up the hill at night.”
Pennsylvania’s Rosetans cooked with lard and smoked heavily. Studies revealed it wasn’t genetics nor their specific location, it was their Roseto way of life. Rosetans visited each other daily; stopping to chat and cook for each other in the backyard. Extended family clans were the norm, with three generations commonly living under the same roof. The elders commanded enormous respect. Attending Mass regularly and together, they felt the calming and unifying effect of church. There were 22 civic associations in a town of less than 2,000 people. Rosetans created a social structure which insulated them from the pressures of the modern world. They were healthy because of where they were from and the world they had created for themselves.
r themselves. The medical community had difficulty accepting these findings, unaccustomed to thinking about health in quite these terms yet. Their findings could not be explained by long rows of data or complex charts. Instead, the findings talked about the mysterious and magical benefits of people talking to each other on the street and having three generations under one roof!
Our world of emails, faxes, cell phones, instant messages, eating on the run alone, and innumerable other pressures of modern-day society, certainly doesn’t sound like a formula for death by old age.
How appropriate, then, a simple lesson to be learned by studying the outlier Roseto, is to make time to spend together and to “stop and smell the (Valley of ) Roses.”
My grandfather Giuseppe Stampone (born in Biccari, just a few miles from my grandmother Constance (nee Rosato) who was born in Roseto Valfortore) brought these values and traditions to the home they built together. My kids laugh when I tell them, “Everything I am, I owe to the meatball,” but it’s also true. My earliest memories begin standing in my grandparent’s kitchen with Grandmom handing out chunks of locatelli she was grating for our Sunday dinner. We were not rich by any means and the cheese was expensive. This secret treasure always came with the warning “Don’t tell Grandpop.” A simple, and indelible memory.
The basement may have just been a recreation room (with attached kitchen, of course) with Sinatra playing in the background, but to us it was the center of the universe. And those magic words, “Concetta, put the water on!” meant the macaroni and more memories were on their way.
The aroma of a pot of gravy simmering for hours – overflowing with meatballs, sausage and braciole –brought us back Sunday after Sunday; but that’s not all it was about. Her most precious gift was the love of family. We were fed, nurtured and loved, and it all came together at the family table. Grandmom shaped the meatballs for Sunday dinner every week and every holiday, and the love she so generously shared helped shape us.
My 88 years-young mother Joan may be the best Italian family cook I know. She’s continued the nearly 70-year tradition of nourishing food and unconditional love of family. She’s instilled this priority in her children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren. Together we’ve assembled over 100 recipes so far, which for the most part are my mother’s catalog of the meals I was raised on; the meals my father, Pete, was so lucky to enjoy on a daily basis; and the meals my children have come to know as “Grandmom’s.” I’ve shared some on our Stampone Law website.
I invite you to make the gastronomy of our family part of your tapestry as well. I hope you will come to understand why “everything I am I owe to the meatball,” and most importantly – to stop and smell the roses!
Joe Stampone is founder and managing shareholder of Stampone O’Brien Dilsheimer Law since 1984. His focus is a variety of civil litigation and transactional matters, primarily complex personal injury matters, including medical malpractice. He is a member of the American, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia Bar Associations, as well as the Justinian Society. He has received numerous awards and distinctions and can make a mean meatball.
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