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Visit to ancestral home was ‘life-changing,’ so she kept going back


When Virginia (Ginger) DiGalbo tells her life story, two themes recur: her Italian heritage and the importance of her large and welcoming family.

“I’ve always been very proud of my Italian heritage, and I made that a priority,” she said. She shares that pride with the 2,000 members of Società Bell’Italia, a Facebook group she founded. “I’m very proud that I finally learned Italian, and I am very proud to say I could travel around Italy by myself.”

Her first trip – in 1988, with her parents and daughter – was to meet her mother’s relatives for the first time. And time in the hamlet of Ferrari di Serino – where her family goes back to 1525 – reminded her of the 1950s in Mount Laurel, N.J., her lifelong home. Her next trip will be this coming summer, with 10 relatives, for the wedding of a fourth cousin.

In between were 15 trips in which she and her husband used all their vacation – at least three weeks – to absorb Italy, staying with family members and exploring on their own, at first backpacking and later upgrading to multi-star hotels. Her favorite spot is Ischia, an isle with thermal springs, off Naples. “I could go there every year,” she said. “It’s not commercialized.”

As for family, when she was growing up, one set of grandparents was two doors away, and the other set was two doors away in the other direction. A great-grandmother lived across the street.

“I was a very lucky girl,” she recalled. “Growing up Italian was filled with love and joy because I had a lot of cousins around. My mother would kind of kick us out the door and say ‘Don’t come back until dinner’ because she knew we would be in and out of our aunts’ and uncles’ houses.”

Her childhood was also filled with Italian cuisine, and her parents spoke Neapolitan to each other, but DiGalbo didn’t learn Italian until she was in her 30s. She learned with private tutoring, group classes, a club, a college course and then refinements by visiting Italy so often.

“The first time I went to Italy was life-changing,” she said. “I felt like I was in the land of my birth, even though I wasn’t born there.” In Ferrari di Serino, she marveled over the streets and stairs her ancestors walked on and the church they worshipped in.

Three out of her four grandparents were from Campania, and one was from Sicily, and she’s visited all their hometowns. Her husband, Gene, is not Italian.

In Mount Laurel, her parents ran a store out of the front of their home. DiGalbo followed her degree in secretarial science with a career working for Princeton University, a local doctor and Lockheed Martin.

In 2003, she co-founded Società Bell’Italia as a language and culture club, each month hosting an Italian dinner, a short linguistic lesson and a cultural program (such as a speaker, a comedian, a singer or a musician). She enjoyed leading the nonprofit (“We could do whatever we wanted,” rather than being a chapter of some vast group), but when attendance waned, the dinners ended in 2017.

Luckily, the year before, she had started a Facebook group with the same name. “It helps me continue my culture,” she said, adding that she subscribes to 20 or so other groups for some content.

“Celebriamo La Gente, La Cultura e La Lingua d’Italia,” the group’s About section reads. Posts often feature history, travel, language and food (articles and recipes), with photos of centenarians sprinkled in. Posts are in English and Italian, with DiGalbo sometimes translating.

“I love foods from all sections of Italy,” she said, such as pasta, polenta and risotto in the primi piatti; and Sicilian cuisine, with all that fish and influence from other cultures. “And I love pizza.”

Particular foods help mark holidays. Some are common, like the seven fishes on Christmas Eve and the homemade pasta or ravioli, with braciole or meatballs (“I’m a meatball person”) on Christmas Day.

Some are not. At Easter, a double-crusted pizza is filled with ricotta, pepperoni, ham, egg and cheese. The minestra di Pasqua features three kinds of meat and three kinds of greens, symbolizing the Holy Trinity. In her family, the meats are ham, pepperoni and meatballs, and the greens are escarole, endive and dandelion (her mother picked dandelions, but DiGalbo buys spinach). And at Christmas, a favorite is a double-crusted pizza featuring spinach or Swiss chard, raisins, pignoli and anchovies.
“Everybody loves it.”

Società Bell’Italia is at www.facebook.com/groups/societa.bell.italia.

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