By Charlie Sacchetti
In the fall of 2012, I saw the promo on PBS and it looked pretty interesting. It was for an upcoming documentary, “Paesani: Italian Culture in Northeast Pennsylvania.” Being a grandson of four Italian immigrants, I naturally had an interest in the subject so I decided to give it a shot. The program was a joy! It showed how a large group of Italians settled in the area around Scranton, Pa., mostly during the 1920s. It documented the hardships the people suffered, coming over in large, crowded, aged boats with the hope of finding a better life for their families.
The documentary was done in a style that included numerous interviews of people, most now elderly, who either came over themselves as children or had parents who did so. They related their personal stories of good and bad times in a way that made you feel you went through it with them. It showed how the people brought their culture with them regarding food, religion and lifestyle but always knowing that they were now proud Americans. In particular, one such interviewee caught my eye and in doing so he gave me an opportunity to experience some of the most delightful times of my life.
Al Pisa was in his 80s when he appeared on the show from his home in the Bunker Hill section of Dunmore, Pa. As soon as I saw and heard him I thought of my father’s beloved cousin, Frank Fusco, who passed away years ago at his home in Warwick, R.I. Like Frank, Al’s personality filled the room. His stories about his family experiences were told in a way that grabbed your attention and simply made you smile. When he spoke of his family, you could see the warmth and the light of his heart shine through. His wife Angie and son Carlo were also featured in the show. Carlo gave a succinct account of how his Bunker Hill neighbors all essentially came from the same mountain village in Italy, Guardia dei Lombardi. They were friends and family over there and now they were friends and family over here.
The next day, my wife and I returned from breakfast after Sunday Mass. Still thinking of how much I loved the Paesani documentary, on an impulse, I decided to tell Al Pisa how much I enjoyed him on the show. I reasoned, how many 80-year-old Al Pisas can there be in Dunmore? I should be able to find Al by doing a people search on the computer. So, at 11 a.m. I Googled “Al Pisa, Dunmore, Pa.”. The first listing showed Al Pisa, age 85!
I called the number and a lady answered.
“Hello, is this Angie?”
“Yes” she said, “who is this?”
I explained I was just an Italian guy from Jersey who saw the show last night and just wanted to tell Al how much I enjoyed him and his storytelling.
“Oh, OK, hold on.”
Al greeted me with a big hello and we had a 30-minute conversation that covered everything from his resembling my cousin to why he called it “sauce” instead of “gravy.” The conversation ended with me telling him that Robert DeNiro better watch out because Al Pisa was on a roll and probably would become the next box office attraction. He finished by making me promise that I’d come up to see him and after doing so, we said goodbye. Five minutes later, my phone rang and the caller ID said “Al Pisa” so I answered it and said, “What’s up Al”? The caller said, “No this isn’t Al, it’s his son Carlo. I just wanted to thank you for calling. You made my father’s day.” I told Carlo I’d be in touch and we would all arrange to have lunch in Scranton.
By now it was the next year. Al’s family and mine had exchanged Christmas cards in December and being late May, it was a good time to make the arrangements to go up to see the Pisas. I called Carlo, said hello and was greeted with a silent moment that was instantly troubling. Al had passed away, just weeks before and the family was grieving. After some words of comfort, I told Carlo that I still intended to honor my promise to Al and we made a date to get together.
My friend Bill and I made the trip to Dunmore and had a wonderful lunch with Carlo and Angie at a local Italian (what else?) restaurant. He took us to see his buddies who were volunteering their time doing maintenance at St. Rocco’s church and the whole visit was like spending time with your beloved family. Carlo told me about a tradition Al had each fall. He would host a bocce tournament for his friends at his house. This was a tradition that had gone on for years and Carlo invited Bill and me to come back in the fall to attend. We did so and boy did we have a ball!
Adjacent to the bocce court was the gathering area. We enjoyed the food presented on a table under the large grape vine including but not limited to salami, prosciutto, various cheeses, hot and sweet peppers, tomatoes, egg plant and crusty Italian bread.
The layout rivaled the quality of hors d’oeuvres you would hope for at a traditional Italian wedding. After hours of food, wine, laughs, hugs and bocce (rules made up as you go) we sat down to a dinner fit for an Italian cruise ship. The meal was blessed by the local parish priest and ended with an incredible pastry display provided by Dave, “the Mailman” Evanko. Dave makes his living as a mailman but his passion is baking. Words can’t describe his talent.
Bill and I, dubbed “The Jersey Boys,” will be making our fourth annual trip up there this fall to attend what is now called the “Al Pisa Memorial Bocce Tournament.” Carlo, his son Alfredo, Dave the Mailman and about 25 other guys have become cherished friends and it feels as though I have known them all of my life.
Thank God I picked up the phone on that Sunday to place that call. The result has enriched my life. And God bless Al who I know has orchestrated every move.