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Local nonprofit helps honor Italian culture in the community

Fran Stubbles competes in the Grape Stomp competition during the Italian Festival at Western Gateway Park Saturday.
Laura Mahaffy/lmahaffy@theunion.com | The Union

Even after many years, Hank DiPillo could still paint family reunions at his grandparents’ house with vivid details.

“Grandma had a pot, and she had a little burner,” recalled the 72-year-old retired real-estate agent from Nevada County, “the pot covered two burners on her stove, and that’s what she made her sauce in. She spoke very broken English, but she would pick me up and put me over a chair near the stove. She handed me a wooden ladle, she looked at me and she did a motion with her hands, telling me to stir. When I was finished she would come over and gave me a kiss, or a cookie. It was one of the most beautiful memories from my childhood.”

DiPillo said his grandparents and his father, who were from Abruzzo, a region of Italy which lies 50 miles east of Rome, were among the waves of European immigrants who came to the U.S. through Ellis Island in the early 20th century. It was the adoration for his grandmother and the yearn to honor the Italian culture in the community that prompted DiPillo and Stephen De Sena to start the Nevada County Italian Cultural Foundation in 2011.



“There were a lot of Italians who came to the Gold Country to find gold, just like everybody else. You hear a lot about the Cornish, the Chinese, but there wasn’t anything about the history of the Italians who came here during the Gold Rush,” said DiPillo. “So Steve and I were just talking about it one day, and we said maybe we could do a little research.”

What began as a brainchild of De Sena and DiPillo quickly attracted the attention of other Italians in the county. It evolved into a nonprofit organization with the goal of bringing awareness to the local Italian immigrants and their descendants through community outreach and social events.




The annual Italian Festa, which took place from Saturday to Sunday at Western Gateway Park, was one of them. The two-day event ran from 8:30 a.m. on Saturday to dusk on Sunday and featured activities such as bocce tournaments, meatball eating contests, grape stumps, culinary demonstrations, and music entertainment. But most importantly, the festa was also an opportunity for those interested in heritage to unravel a piece of their family history.

“People who come to the festa see our pictures and say, they’ve been there before. They had walked in the streets and had knelt in the same churches where their ancestors once worshipped,” said Leita Spoto, a genealogist and an organizer of the Italian Festa.“There’s an amazing thing that’s happening in the U.S., people want to go back to their original countries and visit.”

DiPillo said a highlight of the event was a cultural center that the organizers put together to showcase the history of the Italian families in the area.

“We even found people who didn’t know they have Italian heritage,” said DiPillo.

DiPillo said an interesting thing he discovered about his family was that many women in the town where his father came from had contracted breast cancer. But he said the goal of the event was not only to remember the Italians ancestors, but also to encourage people to research their heritage.

“Everybody has a past, and unfortunately I wasn’t interested in it when my grandma was alive, she would’ve told me a lot,” DiPillo added.

Betty Torresidal-Cook, one of around 70 volunteers at the festa and a transplant from the Bay Area, said the musics at the festa reminded her of bygone family reunions in San Francisco.

“All the uncles, fathers and the grandfathers would get up around the table and sing,” said Torresidal-Cook, whose maiden name was Luporini. “It was very nice, it was something to do around the weekends that involve the family.”

The activities drew hundreds of local residents and visitors from out of town, Colleen Randazzo and her husband, for example, traveled to Penn Valley from Martinez, Calif.

“My husband and I love the bocce tournaments. We were in the field from morning to around 6:30 p.m.,” said Randazzo, who took home a second-place title. “But I think the music and the wines at the festa are great.”

Gianfranco Maffezzoni, a chief of Trattoria Milano in Grass Valley who moved to the U.S. from Milan in 1997, said he has been a food vendor for the festa since it started six years ago.

“(Customers) told me all the time, my grandfather was doing that, my grandmother was doing that,” said Maffezzoni. “There’s a big population of Italian descendants in Nevada County.”

“The Italian is all about family, they want to celebrate that culture, and their food and the music,” said Michael De Sena, son of Stephen De Sena and an organizer of the festa.

But DiPillo said that for him, the festa holds another meaning.

“Who you are is where your family came from, all those people who came before you made you who you are, and that’s the way I feel about it,”

To contact Teresa Yinmeng Liu, please email tliu@theunion.com, or call 530-477-4236.


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