Type to search

Journalist thrives on discovering the extraordinary in what’s ordinary


When Natalie Pompilio was ready to introduce boyfriend Jordan Barnett to her parents, “their first question was ‘Where is he from?’ Meaning ‘Is he Italian?’ And I kept thinking that I should say just lie and say his name was ‘Barnetti.’ Instead, I said ‘He really doesn’t know.’ That confused them completely. ‘How can he not know?’”

Barnett, who thinks he has Scottish-Irish heritage, is now her husband, but “I’ve really trained him to the point that he now refers to [Italy as] the old country.”

Natalie Pompilio

Her Italian heritage – which goes back to scattered areas of Italy – starts with her name, since she was born around Christmas. She grew up among Italians in South Plainfield, N.J. “We all went to Sacred Heart Church. We all had gravy on Sunday. We all had vowels at the end of our names.”

She listened to Roberto Ridarelli (aka Bobby Rydell), Mario Lanza, Jimmy Roselli (“because his version of ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ was my Dad’s favorite) and all the other Italian-American crooners – Frankie Valli, Frankie Avalon, Tony Bennett, Jerry Vale, Perry Como, Al Martino, etc.” And Frank Sinatra’s “music buzzed in the background during raucous Sunday dinners and loudly called all generations to the dance floor at family weddings,” she wrote on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

And Italian slang was omnipresent, with terms like gannol (for cannoli), basanagol (for basil) and allora (for “we’ve been talking about one thing for a while now, and we’re going to change the subject”). Sometimes her husband tries to speak that way, “but it just doesn’t work. So we call him the Medigan” (more slang, for American).

In college, her junior year abroad was in Florence. She has twice functioned as the informal tour guide for friends traveling to Italy. In April, she and Barnett took a trip to Sicily and Naples. Although they have years left in their careers – she’s a writer and he’s a Philadelphia public defender – they are talking about Italy as a place to retire. Maybe Abruzzi, maybe Assisi, maybe somewhere else warm.

Pompilio and Barnett live in Philadelphia’s Queen Village with DJ, a cat inherited from her father. They also own a condo in New Orleans’ Garden District, with a fine view of Magazine Street. She spends a few months in New Orleans every year and hasn’t missed a Mardi Gras since 1997. As a Krewe of Muses member, she rides in their parade every other year, often giving out decorated shoes. “New Orleans is addictive,” she said. “You don’t feel like the rest of the country.”

She has a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Maryland. Her career has included stints as a writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News and as a writer and editor for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

Her freelance writing ranges widely, including a magazine for neurologists called Brain and Life, Super Lawyers magazine, alumni magazines, newspapers, websites and corporations. “Writing, for my entire life, is a release for me, especially on issues like COVID or emotional things. I love being a journalist because I’ve had the most remarkable experiences, meeting people and going places.”

Here’s how she describes herself on NataliePompilio.com: “Natalie’s strength is documenting the world through the eyes of ordinary people going about their lives – or facing extraordinary challenges.”

She has written four books. “More Philadelphia Murals and the Stories They Tell” was written with Jane Golden and Robin Wright. “Philadelphia A to Z” was a children’s alphabet book with photographer Jennifer Zdon. “Walking Philadelphia: 30 Walking Tours Featuring Art, Architecture, History, and Little-Known Gems” and “This Used to Be Philadelphia” were with her sister Tricia Pompilio as the photographer.

She loved working on “This Used to Be Philadelphia.” “I would fall into so many rabbit holes of information,” she said. “Like when I was writing about the Acme [on East Passyunk]. It used to be Moyamensing Prison. Al Capone was there. … I would love to do another edition or a revision.”

“I could write about any person. There’s always a story,” she said. Even dead ones, as she showed when writing for Legacy.com, a site best known for collecting obituaries, and a fascinating travel article posted on her website on Italian crypts, catacombs, tombs, cemeteries and all of Pompeii.

She has written a lot about the deaths of her parents. One Times-Picayune article was about using her late mother’s costume jewelry to decorate Muses’ shoes. “I got emails like ‘Natalie, we are so sorry for your loss.’ ‘That is tough losing your mother.’ ‘Oh, by the way,
what float are on your and what side?’ Because
that’s what you do in New Orleans. You find out where your friends are so you can yell for them. And I know I gave a few shoes to people who randomly wrote to me.”

Ken Mammarella was born in Delaware and has lived most of his life in the Delaware Valley. His heritage on both sides of his family goes back to Abruzzo.

Nominate an Italian-American Achiever
Do you know someone with a story worth sharing? We’re looking for Italian Americans who are leaders in their fields – entrepreneurs, educators, athletes, government officials, musicians, nonprofit founders and even hobbyists whose passion and hard work have led them to accomplish great things.

Send us a tip at ItalianAmericanHerald@todaymediainc.com. You might see them profiled in a future issue.

Stay up-to-date with our free email newsletter

Keep a pulse on local food, art, and entertainment content when you join our Italian-American Herald Newsletter.