Witch’s Brew- A Living Strega Who Mixes her Own Brand of Folk Magic

I first met Lori Bruno fifteen years ago while working as a reporter in Salem, Massachusetts’s, covering the so-called Witch City’s mix of art, maritime history along with its vibrant pagan community. At the time Bruno, 68, was introduced to me as a true Italian strega, one who practiced Sicilian witchcraft. Bruno, had just opened a new shop in town and I was asked to cover it for a story. Having grown up in a religious home where even the Smurfs were forbidden for their mystical influence, I had some negative preconceived ideas about witchcraft. But, during a sit-down visit to her home, Bruno quickly won me over.  With her broad smile and Boston accent, she felt instantly familiar, like a long-lost Italian relative I’d never met.  She called me, “Bella”, made me tea and we chatted for hours in her kitchen about our common southern Italian roots and strange Italian superstitions.

When my editor at Italian America recently assigned me a story on La Befana I joked that I knew the real-life Befana and offered to call her up. An online search yielded Bruno’s phone number, and soon we were chatting like no time had passed. These days- after a covid-induced hiatus- the eighty one year old witch is back to giving psychic readings and running her Salem shop Magika that sells books, candles, and other new age merchandise.

It’s no surprise the long-time witch is thriving. Bruno’s combination of grandmotherly warmth, Italian folk magic and psychic ability has garnered her much attention through the past five decades including a spread in The Wall Street Journal ten years ago during the housing crisis, when she was hired by new home-owners to perform cleansing rituals on foreclosed homes believed to hold bad vibes.

A second-generation Italian whose parents hailed from Sicily and Naples, Bruno grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s in a neighborhood rich in cultural diversity. Immigrant neighbors, many of them Italian, would regularly come to her house to visit her mother who was known for her healing powers.   “She would take away headaches and say prayers for the Evil Eye,” Bruno recalls. “She would do readings and tell people about the dead.”

Bruno’s own first supernatural experience came at age 12 when she looked over at a classmate in school and suddenly experienced a vision accompanied by a cold chill.

“Her lower back looked gray,” Bruno recalls. “I went home and told my mom and she said that little girl had cancer of the kidneys.”

Over the years, Bruno has built up her psychic albitites, using them to help the community. After working for NASA for nearly ten years in the 1960’s creating technical drawings, she gave up her career and devoted herself fulltime to psychic service.  Since then, she has worked with police to find missing people, counseled married couples and cast fertility spells for barren women.

Several years ago, a woman came to her unable to conceive and asked for help having a baby boy. Bruno accompanied her to a fertility treatment. “The doctor came in and I was giving her unsalted cashews,” Bruno remembers, adding, “have you noticed cashews look like a fetus?”  While the doctor performed treatment, Bruno casts a spell she believes helped the woman conceive.

“She had a boy,” She concludes. “I am the child’s godmother. [The couple] is Christian but they have a Strega Nona.”

Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?

Bruno’s healing practices are a witch’s brew of cultural beliefs; Roman, Egyptian and Catholic statues all fill her Salem home. A typical work day may include prayers to Michael the Archangel, the Egyptian goddess Isis, or the Black Madonna, a dark-skinned version of the virgin Mary that many believe holds unique healing powers.  Bruno keeps a lit candle in front of the Black Madonna at all times and prays regularly to “the great mother”, before performing healing rituals.       

Bruno attributes her healing powers to her Sicilian roots. The island’s cultural diversity through the centuries, she says, has made it fertile ground for magic.  “At one time Sicily was a mix of Jews and Italians,” she reflects. “The Jews know all about bad magic, good magic.  On the kabbalistic tree of light witchcraft exists in the first three triads. Low magic works with earth currents and herbs. When you want to learn more, you climb the ladder. My family learned more.”

According to Bruno, two kinds of magic were practiced in Italy with the earliest recorded references to witchcraft dating to the sixteenth century when many -mostly peasants-were put to death for their beliefs.  Benandanti, Bruno says, is magicfocused on healing and blessing people; historically, those who practiced it blessed crops, marriages, babies being born. Melandante, on the other hand, focuses on inflicting harm on others.  One of the most well-known Italian superstitions, malocchio, or the Evil Eye is believed to be brought on by an insincere compliment when someone secretly envies another’s qualities or possessions. It reveals itself in the form of a headache and can only be cured by someone gifted with healing abilities, usually a woman who whispers a secret prayer.

As a healer, Bruno has often helped relieve people of malocchio. The process she says involves pouring three drops of olive oil into a bowl along with a sprinkle of salt.  She then punctures the drops of oil with a lit match and waits for the oil to form a line or a circle, which indicates the gender of the person who brought on the bad luck. The person is then blessed with a secret prayer.  In Italy, Bruno says, the most superstitious have learned to ward off the evil eye before it happens, wearing talismans or making the symbol of horns with their hand.

I’m not sure how I feel about the Evil Eye, but I know I carry superstitions of my own.  The last time I saw Lori Bruno for our kitchen interview, I remember being surprised when at the end, she took down a painted Italian pitcher from a shelf and handed it to me as a parting gift.  Convinced the vessel may hold some secret spell, I left it on the “free” table in the newspaper’s employee break room.

These days, I like to think I’m a little more open-minded. Having never experienced a psychic reading, I decided recently to give it a try and asked Bruno for a phone consult.

The results were amazingly right-on.  After giving a creepily good read of my love life, she honed in on other things, saying “You will always be creative.  I see things growing all around you.”  Then, at the end, in typical Strega Nona style, she added, “I love you, Honey. God Bless.”

La Befana, Italy’s Witch of Winter

Who needs Santa Claus, the stodgy old man on the sleigh when there’s an Italian witch on a broomstick to brings presents to the bambini?  La Befana, according to age-old Italian legend and tradition, makes her appearance on January 6, the day the Wise Men are believed to have arrived at baby Jesus’ manger.  This day, known as The Feast of the Epiphany, is a national holiday and marks the end of twelve days of Christmas and New Years’ festivities.  

The Night of La Befana was mentioned as early as 1549 in a poem by Agnolo Firenzuola where she was portrayed as an ugly old woman flying over houses on a broomstick, entering through the chimneys and leaving sweets for good children, or garlic and coal for bad ones.

La Befana’s roots are a mix of pagan and Christian beliefs. Some scholars believe her story originated with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a pagan celebration starting just before the winter solstice. At the end of Saturnalia, Romans went to the Temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill to have their fortunes read by an old crone.

Others point to her Christian roots. “Her name derives from the word for epiphany, Epifania,” says Art History professor Rocky Ruggiero. “Legend has it that she showed the three magi hospitality on their way to Bethlehem.”­

According to folklore, La Befana was invited to join the Wise Men on their journey to find the Christ child, but declined their invitation, choosing to stay home and attend to her housework.  Later, when she realized the child’s importance, she regretted her decision. Legend has it that ever since she’s roamed the earth searching for the Wise Men, rewarding good children and gently admonishing the bad.

Unlike Santa Claus (Or Babbo Natale as he’s called in Italy) La Befana has been a holiday tradition in Italy since the 13th century. Though some Italians embrace the American tradition of Santa Claus, Christmas in Italy is far less commercialized, and La Befana remains a more popular figure. Her arrival on January 6th is celebrated with traditional Italian foods such as panettone and special cakes and cookies called befani. In honor of the Three Wise Men, Italians go to church and enjoy spending the day with family. Children who have been good receive candy, and those who’ve misbehaved get lumps of coal – or these days, more likely, black rock candy.

La Befana is most associated with Rome and central Italy but the custom spread to the rest of the country during the 20th century. Today there are festivals throughout Italy, including a four day festival from January 2-6 in in Urbania in Le Marche region, and a large Befana Christmas market in Rome’s Piazza Navona.

Salem strega Lori Bruno feels a special kinship to La Befana, reaching out to her when she encounters a mother or child in need. “Now that I’m a grandmother I talk to her; I say Befana we need you to help the children.”

From Caves to Castles- Exploring Southern Italy’s Cultural Treasures


At 26 years old, having finished a five-month stint working as a nanny in Salerno, I celebrated my newfound freedom by renting a Fiat with a friend and heading south. The rocky Amalfi Coast’s bustling port towns gave way to verdant hills dotted with olive trees and farmhouses. My companion, a cheerful New Zealander named Arian- na, was also a nanny whom I’d met just a few weeks earlier when we were both flirting with the same Italian guy at the local tourism office. No romance came out of our efforts, but a much- needed friendship formed. Finally, after a long summer of raucous family dinners where my Italian vocabulary ran out before the pasta was served, I had found an English-speaking friend to share the joys and challenges of navigating Italian culture.

Our first stop was Alberobello, a UNESCO site known for its 14th century limestone houses—or trul- li—whose conical rooftops resemble mushrooms. Thousands of trulli filled the narrow streets, forming a white- washed wonderland, each one bearing its own rooftop symbol painted in white on the gray stones. Suns, hearts, and moons decorated the rooftops. What did they mean? During my brief visit, I never learned.

Arianna and I rented a trullo for the night—the perfect cozy setting for sharing stories. Red wine flowed along with tales of failed romances and pointed remarks on Italian families.

“Why do they call it a matrimonia bed anyway?” I asked, plopping down on one of the full-sized beds. “It’s not just for couples. In the house where I lived the entire family slept together every night. Two parents, one cat, and three kids!”

Late into the night our laughter filled the one-roomed chamber, echo- ing off the round stone ceiling. For the first time in five months, I felt warm, connected, and at home.

Now, nearly two decades later and cooped up during the pandemic, my memories of this road trip spark wanderlust. What would a road trip through the south be like these days? What other architectural wonders lay waiting to be discovered? To shed light on my wonderings, I consulted Art and Architecture Professor Rocky


The south is unique, D’Andria says, because it forms a crossway between East and West. Many cultures have dominated this area through the cen- turies—Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Ottomans, Germans, and Spanish. All have left their mark on the south’s art, culture, and traditions.

No visit to the Deep South would be complete without a visit to Matera, situated in the Basilicata region on the instep of the boot’s heel. Narrow streets climb up to this otherworldly city built on a hill, its houses formed within ancient caves. Matera’s re- semblance to Jerusalem has earned it a place in many Biblical films and Classical with North-European Cistercian Gothic. The majestic build- ing is a testimony to Frederick’s fas- cination with astronomy and science. Shaped like an octagonal prism, the castle is located in a carefully chosen manner to invite symmetries of light during the winter and summer sol- stice. Frederick’s love of numbers is also evident, as both of the castle’s floors contain eight rooms and an eight-sided courtyard forms the heart of the castle.

No one knows exactly why Frederick constructed Castel del Monte. It has no moat, no arrow slits, and no drawbridge—it was not built to serve as a fortress. With its octagonal union of a square inside a circle, some specu- late it was built to be a celebration of the interconnecting relationship between humanity and God.

throughout the years. The city’s cave dwellings, or sassi, date back to the Paleolithic period more than 2.5 mil- lion years ago. Despite unseemly living conditions, up to 12 family members lived together in one room. The sassi were inhabited up until the 1950s, when the government stepped in and forced people to leave their homes and move into a newly constructed neighborhood. In later decades, the sassi received a facelift, and now most of its 3,000 caves serve as home for the city’s inhabitants while many oth- ers function as restaurants and hotels.

Lovers of antiquity will no doubt enjoy simply wandering the city’s many serpentine alleys and climbing its winding staircases. But to get the full experience, one must duck inside one of many cave churches. With their shadowy stone chambers rich in frescoes, they are a mix of haunt- ing and holy, beautiful and beatific. The largest of them, San Pietro Bari- sano, dates back to the 12th century and is particularly spooky as its altar was plundered in the 1970s and the surrounding statues were rendered headless. Visitors are greeted at the church entrance by frescoes of the Annunciation and the saints. Explor- ing the underground area where a

labyrinth of stone niches forms an ancient catacomb, one can say they’ve truly experienced Matera—the Citta Sotterranea, or Underground City.


The Puglia region’s culture and architecture have been greatly shaped by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Though he had German and Nor- man blood, Frederick II lived in Bari for many years and considered Italy, particularly Puglia, his home. During his time as emperor, he transformed Puglia’s landscape by having numer- ous castles constructed throughout. By far, the most magnificent of these is Castel del Monte, located northwest of Bari.

Frederick II, besides being a skilled hunter and passionate traveler, was a great lover of art and science.

“He was an enlightened man,” says Art and Architecture Professor Rocky Ruggiero. “The fact that he settled in Bari meant that artists and musicians came there. There was a 13th-century flowering in that area because of the presence of the imperial court.”

Castel del Monte, which is pic- tured on Italy’s one-cent Euro coin, is unique because it combines diverse styles of architecture, mixing Islamic

Southern Italy may not contain Tuscany’s Renaissance treasures, but it boasts its own version of Florence and a cathedral that rivals Florence’s finest frescoed churches. The city of Lecce has been called “The Florence of the South” with its baroque old town adorned with noble palaces, charming squares, baroque churches, and Roman monuments.

The Basilica di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria in Galatina, a town south of Lecce, has an array of vibrant 14th-century frescoes. The church was built by the Franciscans, whose patron was Frenchwoman Marie d’Enghien de Brienne. De Brienne was married to Raimondello Orsini del Balzo, a wealthy noble who traveled to Mount Sinai to visit the relics of Santa Cateri- na. After kissing the dead saint’s hand, he bit off a finger and brought it back to the basilica as a holy relic. Though the finger has since disappeared from the basilica, del Balzo remains—as it is where he’s buried.

The cathedral exhibits a mix of Romanesque, Gothic, Norman, and Byzantine architecture. Its interior is entirely covered in frescoes painted by Neapolitan artists, which are said to rival Giotto’s frescoes in the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi. One of the most unique frescoes depicts angel musicians holding an array of medi- eval instruments—the oldest recorded depiction of harps, double flutes, and lutes in Europe.

The trulli of Alberobello


But what about Alberobello’s mystical dwellings and their strange symbols? According to Ruggiero, the

houses began as small agricultural con- structions built by shepherds tending their flocks in the fields. Constructed by placing rock over rock, the impro- vised huts protected them from the blazing southern sun.

“Later,” D’Andria continues, “the town’s peasants adopted the trullo’s construction when the King of Naples imposed a tax on new constructions.”

“It was then necessary to build something temporary, easy to dis- mantle, that could not be considered a regular permanent home,” D’Andria points out. The townsfolk adapted the shepherds’ trullo to their needs, the weather and everyday life. Being superstitious, the homeowners added symbols on the conical rooftops to protect them from the evil eye and bad luck.

“The symbols can be very differ- ent,” D’Andria says. “A cross, a dove, a sun, moon, star, menorah, a letter, a tree, but they all have the same aim: to protect the trullo and its inhabitants.”

Architecture aside, the regions of Puglia and Basilicata offer many gas- tronomical treasures for foodies and wine lovers. Ruggiero, who lived in Tuscany for 20 years, said he prefers to buy his olive oil from Puglia. In Tuscany, olive trees are trimmed to a smaller size yielding a more refined taste, whereas in Puglia they’re al- lowed to grow wild resulting in a fruitier, spicier flavor. Dotting the southern landscape, the olive trees are architectural gems all their own.

“Giant, gnarly, centuries old … they’re like works of art,” Ruggiero says. “The form they take is breathtaking.”

Click the link below to read Caves to Castles in Italian America’s Summer 2021 issue

Remembering My Grandmother

A poem I wrote recently about my travels through Italy in spring 2019 after losing my grandmother unexpectedly just a week before her 95th birthday. She’s on my mind lately as the snow is melting and days are growing warmer. She died on Easter, which is fitting as she was the center of our family Easter traditions, baker of Easter casadella cakes and pizza gain. Rest in Peace Grandma Betty.


I fly away from you,

away from the wooden box

that holds your ashes.

Once I land,

swallows are everywhere

like the Scirocco

sweeping up from the south,

dancing like patterns on the robes

of the Senegalese women who sell wooden beads at the market,

black shapes cutting into blue sky.

They appear in Siracusa

where the old men sit lined up in the square,

brown hands folded in rest

and again in Sienna

spilling from the clouds like seed,

pouring over the city’s stone walls,

flowing out over rooftops.

In Venice they flutter above gargoyles like confetti

as if trying to escape tourists

who trail in pink plastic ponchos and rain boots

like a carnival parade

in and out of alleyways,

across ancient bridges.

They follow me to San Michelle,

the stone city of the dead,

mosaics and iron crosses,

mourning doves roosting like

stone angels above children’s graves.

There a chapel sits empty,

a row of wooden chairs waits

beside a candle lit by some unseen hand.

Finally silence.

My own angels resting.

The end of a migration.

©Kristin D’Agostino

Bound by Silken Thread


Unraveling a Family’s Legacy in Silk City: 
I like to imagine my great-grandma, Anna, at 37 walking home from the silk factory in Paterson, New Jersey, during the late 1930s. Her long, gleaming black hair, never once cut, would be coiled into a bun—sweaty tendrils escaping around her temples. Her olive cheeks would be flushed from working for six hours as a quill winder beside tall windows that let in the burning sun. With her two sisters by her side, she’d walk the three miles home to Hawthorne in silence, too weary to gossip, her heart comforted by the thought of the pot of pasta e fagioli her ten-year-old daughter would have waiting for supper.

Anna (née De Negri) Pecchia had arrived in the U.S. in 1907 along with her father, grandmother, two sisters, and three brothers. Having had a cousin in Italy who owned a silk factory, they’d presumably had some work experience and were able to gain American sponsorship through a cousin who’d opened a factory in Paterson. My ancestors worked at this mill for a decade before the three brothers Tony, Louie, and Alec borrowed money to start a factory of their own. Made up of 20 looms, the De Negri Brothers’ Factory was a small outfit that employed mostly family members, including my great-grandmother. Few in my family remember the factory firsthand.

My grandmother’s brother my Great Uncle Sant Pecchio, 97, and his cousin Joe Landi, 83, both worked there as boys when they were 15 and 9, respectively. Joe’s father Valentino, who married a De Negri sister, worked as a mechanic and textile designer. Joe recalls accompanying his dad, who was part owner of the mill, to work on weekends and occasionally being called upon to help out when a machine got out of sync. “I’d cut and tie all the threads that needed to be retied,” he says. “They utilized my tiny little fingers. This was not child labor we’re talking about. This was a mom of nine trying to get rid of her youngest son and sending him along with Dad to work.”

My family’s factory was known for its richly patterned Jacquard fabrics that contained lamé, a metallic thread from France. Through the years they fashioned silk for draperies, priests’ robes, furniture upholstery, and, according to family lore, a shimmery gown that Eleanor Roosevelt wore to the inaugural ball of 1933.

Though it’s been decades since his last childhood visit, Joe’s memories are surprisingly vivid. He recalls playing with wooden spools as if they were Lincoln Logs, hearing the steady cacophony of the looms, and smelling the oil his father used to grease the machines. “It had a distinctive odor that permeated everything,” he recalls. “I remember [after my dad died] his wool overcoat was hanging in the closet and for a number of years it still smelled of that oil.”

The Birth of Silk City

Standing atop the 77-foot-high Paterson Great Falls it’s not hard to imagine how this city of 146, 000 was once America’s cradle of industry. Though the city was booming with factories in the early 1800s, turning out everything from locomotives to firearms, it wasn’t until John Ryle arrived on the scene that it earned its nickname of Silk City. John Ryle (who later served as Paterson’s mayor from 1869-1870) had been a “bobbin boy” growing up in Cheshire, England. After working in factories through his youth, he set sail for America and settled in Paterson, New Jersey, hoping to earn his fortune. In 1835, Ryle bought one of the city’s first struggling silk factories and transformed it into a great success. As Ryle’s factory grew, other silk mills were born, and by 1913 there were 300 factories that employed skilled immigrants from around the world. Italians made up the greatest percentage of the workforce, followed by Jews, Germans, English, and French.

At first the Italians did not assimilate well, says New Jersey historian and author Steve Golin. “The Northern Italians were prejudiced against the Southern Italians. They looked down on [them] as backwards.” Diverse dialects and cultural differences added to the conflict. Soon, however, the Italians bonded over the prejudice they both faced in their new home. Up until 1910 there was only one church in Paterson, and like the police force, it was Irish. Facing discrimination pushed the Italians to band together to build their own community of shops, restaurants, and churches.

Many skilled weavers came from Italy’s Naples region, which had a commune of weavers who had been producing silk for over a century. These workers, though prideful and more likely to strike, were valued for their years of experience. As one Connecticut factory owner reflected, weaving could not easily be taught. “… Take a man from a farm in the United States and it’s a very different matter to make a silk worker of that man… than from taking men who have been brought up in countries where silk is produced…A man with clumsy, awkward hands handling silk warp is a very different factor than the man whose grandfather before him handled the silk fabric.”

Paterson remained the hub of the American silk industry through the 1930s with highly skilled weavers running its looms. But according to Evelyn Hershey, Education Director at the American Labor Museum in Haledon, New Jersey, conditions in the mills, especially in the early 1900s, were often “deplorable.” Workers labored for ten hours a day, five days a week, and then five hours on Saturdays. Many dye-house workers often worked double shifts. The factories’ lighting and ventilation were poor and the noise was deafening. Children were often employed to do jobs that required small bodies and fingers. “Bobbin Boys and Girls” changed the wooden bobbins on machines when they ran out of thread and climbed up on moving parts of machines where adults couldn’t reach. Women weavers risked losing part of their hair, or even their scalp, if their hair got caught in a moving machine. The dyer’s job was perhaps worst of all. “Dyers were expected to taste the thread dye in order to determine the proportion of chemicals,” Hershey says. “They also inhaled toxic vapors from big vats of boiling water.”

The Strike of 1913

In January 1913, a strike broke out at the Dougherty Silk Company in nearby Clifton, and 60 strikers took to the streets to protest new work demands. Dougherty, the factory owner, had changed the number of machines workers were responsible for from two to four, reduced his workforce by half, and kept wages the same. Soon, encouraged by the Industrial Workers of the World, an advocacy group that supported immigrants, more workers throughout the city went on strike, petitioning their employers for better working conditions. Altogether, 300 mills shut down and 24,000 men and women of all backgrounds went on strike for a total of eight months.

The strike gained support from Greenwich Village writers and intellectuals of the time who were advocating for quality of life. One writer said, “They who cherish hopes of poetry will therefore do well to favor in their day every assault of labor upon the monopoly of leisure by a few. They will be ready for a drastic redistribution of the idle hours.”

Strikers met weekly and gatherings became lively exchanges complete with rousing speeches, sing-alongs, and brass band music. When police padlocked city meeting halls, an Italian weaver named Pietro Botto offered up his home and its adjacent green as a meeting place. His home—The Pietro Botto House—is now the site of the American Labor Museum.

“Well known labor leaders of the time such as Elisabeth Gurly Flynn and William “Big Bill” Haywood spoke from the second-floor balcony to more than 20,000 workers,” explains Evelyn Hershey.

During the strike, hundreds of children were sent away to live with “strike parents” in New York, families who volunteered to care for them. There were fundraisers held to earn money for the strikers, the largest of which was a pageant or staged reenactment of the strike put on at Madison Square Garden. “There were vignettes, highlights of the strike assisted by New York City artists and writers,” says Hershey. “The Pageant sold a lot of seats, but it didn’t earn very much money to feed the families. They soon were starved back to work.”

Though many mill workers returned to the same conditions, Hershey says, the strike did have a lasting effect on history. “The four-loom system was held back, wages stayed the same, and some jobs were saved. And it helped win reform in the American workforce including an eight-hour work day, minimum wage standards, and child labor laws…”

Through the decades, Paterson’s silk industry gradually declined as the bulk of business shifted to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where factory owners were able to pay lower wages to local workers—often the wives and children of coalminers—and didn’t have to contend with prideful immigrants’ demands.

Over the years, Paterson’s cultural identity has changed. The streets today are filled with shops that reflect recent waves of immigrants from the Middle East, South America, and Central America. Little trace of the city’s Italian history remains. Over the years the descendants of the Italian silk workers have moved outside the city, though Hershey says many still come in to shop at Carrado’s Italian Market or the local farmers’ market. “They buy grapes for making wine and tomatoes for making sauce,” she says. “And they still visit St. Michael’s Church, the parish of many Italian Americans.”

Remains of a Legacy

Nobody in my family recalls exactly when the De Negri Brothers’ Factory shut its doors. Both Joe and Uncle Sant suspect it was after World War II, during which it became impossible to import silk thread from Japan and the factory switched to making nylon parachutes for the war effort. Over the years, stories of the factory have been traded across generations like colorful legends. One cousin keeps a precious swath of De Negri silk in her closet. Another says she used to scrub pots with leftover metallic thread from the looms. Joe recalls for many years having a wardrobe full of silk ties, “enough to last a lifetime.”

After years of listening to stories, I longed to see physical proof of the factory’s existence. One day in 2018, during a visit to my grandmother’s house in Hawthorne, I suggested going for a family drive to search for it. Uncle Sant, Joe, and I piled into my Uncle Ralph’s Toyota, and within minutes were driving up and down the streets of Paterson. We weren’t sure of the exact address, though Uncle Sant thought it was on East 24th Street. The car spun past 21st, 22nd,and 23rd streets and…


Uncle Ralph slammed on the brakes, earning a glare from the driver behind us. But here we were at 24th Street. We turned and drove slowly, surveying the row of brick buildings.

“I don’t see it. It must be gone,” Cousin Joe said, shaking his head.

But in the front seat Uncle Sant smiled, his dark eyes sparkling. “I think we’re getting close,” he said calmly. Then, a moment later, “Yep, there it is! Down on the right.” He gestured to a single-story brick building. We parked the car and stepped out onto the sidewalk to survey the object that held so much history. Here was where my great-grandmother and her brothers had once stood near powerful looms laboring at their livelihood, our own family’s tie to Silk City. Over the front door, a blue awning read Touch of Class Fine Finishing. On the door hung a sign: Open by Appointment. The only hint at the building’s former life as a factory was a row of nine high narrow windows stretching the length of the street.

Uncle Sant stared up at them. “They’ve been bricked in at the top, but it’s the same as ever,” he said, grinning. “Kind of makes you jump, seeing it again after all these years.”

Click to read the original published version of this article (pdf) “Bound by Silken Thread: Unraveling a Family’s Legacy in Silk City” by Kristin D’Agostino, from Italian America Magazine, Summer 2020

Salem’s Little Italy

Some would say that Salem’s Italian neighborhood began in a small room next to a fish market at 27 Front St. in the year 1914. It was then that Rev. Pietro Piemonte began the city’s first Italian Mass with a group of immigrant families who didn’t speak English. According to city records from 1910, about 1,300 people were Italian, 3 percent of the population. Many families had settled into the area around Margin, Endicott, High and Prescott streets.

By 1925, Rev. Piemonte’s congregation had raised enough money to build the St. Mary Italian Church on Margin Street, which quickly became the center of the community.
By the time she was a teenager, Anna Della Monica played organ at the Sunday Masses at St. Mary’s. When she was 16 the church paid to have painters come from Italy to paint Renaissance style frescoes on the sanctuary ceiling. After hearing her practice her music one afternoon, the three men asked her to come back and play for them. 
 “They’d say please come, our angels will be more beautiful if you come,” she says, smiling. “I’d run all the way from school to church and play for them all day and they’d be up on the scaffolding painting.” 
Families came together at St. Mary’s to celebrate traditional Italian feasts, holidays, weddings and births. 
 “I grew up in a household where all they talked about was church, church and church. My whole life revolved around it,” says Della Monica whose father, a stonemason, built a downstairs chapel. 
Going to church was a deeply meaningful experience for Italian families on many levels. It provided them with place for worshiping God, celebrating their heritage, and over the years as they stood in the chapel, they were able to feel close to their ancestors whose names adorned stained-glass windows overhead.

La vita Italiana

Salem’s Little Italy blossomed in the 1930s and early ‘40s. During this time, former St. Mary’s historian Regina Camarda says there were a few hundred families attending church. For these families there were potluck picnics at Centennial Park and religious processions through the streets to celebrate holy days. The Italian community was close-knit and very exclusive. 
“We always thought Endicott Street was the pillar of Salem,” recalls Paul Cultrera, 94, who today lives on Prescott Street. “There were the Italian and Greek people … We never associated with the other kids.” 
Over the years Italian markets sprung up on nearly every street corner in Little Italy, offering old-world specialties like prosciutto, cheeses, barrels of chickpeas and beans and tubs of Sicilian olive. Of these shops, Steve’s Quality Market on Margin Street is the only one left today. At that time the store was in a small wooden building with a long old-fashioned counter behind which were stored bulk quantities of goods.

At that time people would come in and you had to serve them,” recalls owner Steve Ingemi, 85, who was 8 when he started working at his father’s store. “I’d say what do you want, I want a 5-pound bag of sugar, I want this, I want that — that’s the way it was then.”
In those days markets hung prosciutto and smoked cheeses from the ceiling and offered live chickens for sale in crates on the sidewalk that would be slaughtered fresh for Sunday dinner.

Italian traditions were alive and well both at home and in the streets. Former Salem mayor Tony Salvo, who used to visit his grandmother in Little Italy, recalls her trick of being able to cure malocchio, the enviously cast “evil eye,” which Italians believed could cause sickness.

“Anytime we’d get sick we’d say, “Nonna, fa malocchio please!” he recalls. “She’d get a dish of water and a teaspoon of olive oil. She’d take her finger and dip it in the oil, drop it in the glass. If it spread that means someone put the malocchio on you … she’d say prayers all the time, no one knew what they were. I don’t know if it was psychological but it worked. My brother, when he was in the Navy, he used to call her up from all parts of the world to do the malocchio.”

With houses stacked close together gossip drifted as freely between neighbors as the smell of homemade tomato sauce drifting from open windows. Many homes were connected by clotheslines that were strung between windows on pulleys. As one resident recalls, the lines often served as the excuse to talk to your neighbor, while leaning out the window. Josephine Cultrera, 90, recalls the days her sister lived behind her Prescott Street home and the two women would use their clotheslines to transport kitchen goods.
“If I needed something I’d say ‘Grace, put it on the line,’ and she’d send it right over,” she says. She laughs, adding, “If she needed something I’d put it in a bag and send it over … One time I even sent a turkey over.”

Changes in Little Italy

After World War II the Italian neighborhood started to shift. Soldiers returned and moved away to start families of their own. Steve Ingemi and his brother Joe took over Steve’s Quality Market after their father retired. The brothers had the wooden building razed and a new, modern store constructed. Out went the prosciutto, the smoked cheeses, the bulk bins of beans. And in came a more diverse mix of foods designed to appeal to other ethnic groups in town.

“There was a big French section, a big Polish section …” says Jodie Fenton, Steve’s daughter, who grew up working in the shop. “We tried to bring in whatever these people wanted.”

Beginning in 1962 the market began carrying Polish kielbasa and corton, a traditional French pork spread, products the store carries to this day. 
Over the years, one by one, other Italian grocery shops went out of business as the community diversified and abandoned old-world traditions. 
Meanwhile, through the ‘50s and ‘60s, St. Mary’s prospered; a youth center was built and 16 tons of marble were transported from Italy for constructing new altars. 
However, the need for a separate church for the Italian people was diminishing. The children of the immigrants, in general, didn’t speak Italian. Masses were no longer held in Italian, they were in English. 
In 2002 when the Boston Archdiocese was rocked by the sex abuse scandals, the archbishop gave orders to Salem priests that one church must close and left it up to them to choose. St. Mary’s was selected, perhaps because church officials felt it had fulfilled its duty. 
St. Mary’s held its last mass Jan. 12, 2003. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” Salvo recalls. 
These days Italian-Americans still live in Little Italy, mixed in with Latino immigrants and other ethnic groups. Most are third- and fourth-generation Italians whose parents tell stories of the old neighborhood. Some residents are still upset about losing their church, which they say was the heart and soul of the neighborhood. 
“Even though you don’t leave your neighborhood, your neighborhood leaves you,” Della Monica says. “Everyone needs something to love that they can all get together and socialize about and now that’s gone.” 
Despite the loss of St. Mary’s, remnants of the old neighborhood remain. Some locals visit the Christopher Columbus Society, a social club that offers a place to get together. Many visit Steve’s Quality Market, which remains owned and operated by the Ingemi family. Others still visit the old church, which is now owned and managed by the Salem Mission, a shelter and social-services organization. 
The Mission runs a secondhand clothing store inside the former downstairs chapel. Store manager Ann Richardson says former parishioners often come to visit a grassy area outside the property, where a Mission worker recently restored an old St. Mary’s grotto. Sometimes people come in and ask to go upstairs to pray in the former sanctuary.

“Any parishioners that come in, I let them go up,” says Richardson. “We would never deny any parishioners.”

Rich Richardson has tried to make visits easier by hiding painful reminders of the old days. A room divider blocks the marble altar at the head of the chapel where people used to pray. Above it, a landscape painting partially conceals a large marble cross. 
Upstairs, Little Italy’s past is locked away in the old sanctuary. High on a balcony, beneath the watchful eyes of a painted angel, sits Anna Della Monica’s organ covered in dust. On church pews where parishioners used to sit, thrift-store boxes of old toys and clothes are piled.

It must be difficult for the Italians to see their beloved church this way, but still, five years later, they come back. They say a prayer or just look up at the stained-glass windows that bear the names of their parents and grandparents, the first Italians of Little Italy.

“Salem’s Little Italy” was part 1 of series Changing cultures, changing neighborhoods for the Salem Gazette, September 2008.

Lipstick and Steel-toed Boots

Click to access peggystory-1.pdf

A Real Life Winnie the Welder Recalls Her WWII Adventures

The melancholy cry of gulls; the crackle of sparks; the click clack of work boots on a ship’s deck. These sounds play like a familiar song in the mind of 99-year-old Peggy Citarella when she recalls her days as a welder in the Charlestown Navy Yard in the 1940s.

On a recent visit to her home in Burlington, Vermont, Citarella beams from beneath perfectly coifed white curls as she shares photos from her welding days. A closer look reveals that seven decades haven’t dimmed the radiant smile of the twenty-one-year-old girl in coveralls, her dark hair curled into a pageboy, a welding gun clutched in her gloved hand. The story is one she’s told many times throughout the years.

One day, while working at a candy factory near her home in Somerville, Massachusetts, Citarella, then just twenty years old, restlessly scanned the ‘Help Wanted’ ads for a better paying job. “I kept seeing the word welder in the men’s section,” she recalls. “I looked it up the dictionary, and it sounded interesting.”

Hopping a bus for Boston, Citarella searched for a welding class at one of the area technical schools. She chuckles when she recalls these visits. “Nobody would let me enroll for a class,” she says. “One time I heard a man say ‘Tell her to go and buy a cookbook!’”

Finally, one afternoon she found herself at a drugstore counter where she asked the clerk for directions to the Newton Trade School. Ironically, the school’s welding instructor Tony Arno was having lunch a couple seats away. The clerk introduced them, and Arno offered her a ride to school. “When we got inside, he told me the cooking class was down the hall,” she says. Upon learning that she wanted to study welding, Arno replied, “Welding is a man’s job … dirty, repetitive, and dangerous. Nice, ordinary girls don’t learn how to weld.”

Citarella tartly replied that she was nice, but she certainly was not ordinary. A week later she’d won herself a spot among the men in Arno’s small, but lively evening class.

Citarella soon discovered she had a knack for welding. She relished working with her hands and the feeling of joining two pieces of metal into one. Soon, Arno began complimenting her work and asking her to assist other students. Within five months, Citarella was asked to teach her own class. When she stepped in, enrollment soared.

“The scuttlebutt was there was a young girl teaching, so all the men wanted to see who she was,” Citarella says with a smile. “The first class I gave a lecture and said I didn’t want any funny stuff and wasn’t available for dates.”

Though Citarella enjoyed teaching night classes, she grew restless during the day. She decided to apply for a job at the Charlestown Navy Yard, which employed 50,000 workers at that time. When she arrived at the yard, the secretary told her they weren’t hiring office help. So Citarella told her she was looking for a welding job.

“We don’t have any women in the welding yard,” the secretary replied.

After sharing that she had teaching experience, Citarella landed an interview with a supervisor who set her up with the challenge of welding different sized metal pieces together into a small box with a set of stairs inside. Citarella thought out the problem carefully and worked her way through. In the end, the supervisor remarked that she “had made a stairway fit for Buckingham Palace and a box fit for her majesty’s jewels.” Needless to say, she got the job and soon found herself the only female employee at the Navy Yard.

Labor of Love

A recruitment poster from 1944 depicts a beautiful women in a suit clutching a handful of letters. “Longing won’t bring him back sooner. Get a War Job!” it declares. Soon, Citarella became one of the scores of women who stepped into the shoes of men who were overseas. She balanced her night teaching job with a new day job helping to build battleships.

As Citarella recalls, there was a rivalry between the female riveters and welders of the era. “You always heard people talk about Rosie the Riveter, but never heard anyone talk about a welder,” Citarella points out. “I made sure I’d tell people, I’m not Rosie the Riveter. I’m Winnie the Welder.”

Despite her coveralls, work boots, and helmet, Citarella always took pride in her appearance. “My nails were always polished, my hair combed, my lipstick on,” she says. “The men would joke they weren’t used to seeing anyone with lipstick on under their helmet.”

Overall, she says, the men treated her well, though she received her fair share of cat calls, mostly from admiring sailors. After a week on the job, she noticed management had installed a new ladies’ bathroom just for her. New female-friendly rules forbade spitting, rude gestures, and foul language. Soon, Citarella saw other women workers take their place among the men in the yard.

The work was difficult, but she enjoyed it. Once, she worked for thirteen straight weeks without a day off. “I was young and strong,” she says. “When you’re doing what you love it’s never a burden.” Each day had a new challenge. One day she’d weld pipes or work on a ship’s exit ramp, the next day patch a fracture in the metal walls. As a female welder, she was constantly being tried and tested. She rose to the challenge and worked her way up to being trusted to work on submarines, which required greater skill. “They gave me jobs they thought I’d refuse to do,” she says. “I never gave them the satisfaction of saying I didn’t want to do it.”

Citarella soon learned the dangers of welding firsthand. One cold winter day while working high on a ship’s mast, she took a tumble down through a manhole and onto a sharp piece of steel. The injury paralyzed her for a week. Luckily, she’d been wearing long johns beneath her coveralls, which helped to shield her body. “When I came back, the job I got hurt on nobody had wanted to do, so I finished it,” she says.

Welding also had its payoffs. Over the two years she worked at the Navy Yard, she worked her way up through three levels to become a first class welder, where she made more money and was trusted with more complex tasks. She says she felt like “one of the boys,” unlike many women who were happy staying in the lower, safer ranks. One day after welding some large sheets of metal together, she took off her helmet to find five men standing behind watching her. “I heard one guy say, ‘Whaddya think?’ and the other guy say, “She’s gonna put us all out of business!”

End of an Era

When the soldiers came home in 1944, Citarella’s working life changed overnight. She and her fellow female workers were let go as the men reclaimed their former posts. Citarella realized she would likely never weld again. “I walked out of the Navy Yard gate and got a little teary,” she recalls. “It was the end of an important era.”

Realizing she wouldn’t be happy in a typical office job, Citarella decided to take one of the sewing classes she’d once avoided. She went on to take a job in Boston’s garment district for several years before meeting her husband in 1948 and going on to have a family of her own.

Though Citarella never picked up a welding gun again, her memories of the Navy Yard remain close to her heart. Not long ago, while waiting in the car in a store parking lot, Citarella glanced over and noticed the rear doors on a nearby truck had been welded. Getting out of the car, she stooped over to examine them. The driver came up behind her.

“What are you looking at?” he asked.

“I’m just checking out the welding,” she answered.

“Do you know anything about welding?” he responded.

“Yeah, a little bit,” she answered.

“I did that,” he told her. “Whaddya think?”

Sparks flicker in Citarella’s brown eyes when she recalls her answer. “I told him, I says, you could never work for me!”

Lipstick and Steel-toed Boots: A Real Life Winnie the Welder Recalls Her WWII Adventures, appeared in Italian America Magazine, Winter 2019

Shy Guy Gelato

“Shy Guy Gelato: A Taste of Italy in Burlington’s South End”  first appeared at sevendaysvt.com

My love affair with gelato began almost two decades ago. I was 23, backpacking alone in Italy, and got lost trying to find my way back to my hotel in Venice. After an hour circling the labyrinthine streets, I spotted a sign for a gelateria at the end of an alleyway. Ducking out of the sun, I tasted my first-ever gelato — a creamy, fresh cantaloupe I can still recall years later.

Taking bites of the cold, replenishing treat, I continued to round one dizzying street corner after another, eventually finding my way back to my room. Sadly, when I tried to find the gelateria the next day, it had mysteriously disappeared among the bridges and canals. However, its name, Gelateria Nico, is forever memorialized on the inside cover of my Lonely Planet guidebook, scrawled next to the words “Buonissimo! Best gelato in Venezia.”

In Italy, gelato is not merely a dessert. It’s part of a cultural ritual, like going to Sunday Mass or eating fish on Christmas Eve. Going out for a gelato with family or friends provides an excuse to saunter around the piazza and enjoy the last moments of the day together.

Though I appreciate a maple creemee as much as the next gal, my Italian American taste buds often get restless for more. When this happens, I take a stroll through Burlington’s South End to Shy Guy Gelato, which sits at the bustling five-way intersection of Howard and St. Paul streets and South Winooski Avenue.

Housed in a bright-blue storefront, the shop is small and cheery, with one table inside and three on the patio out front. Owner Paul Sansone, 38, got his start as a cook at age 17 and worked for years in local restaurants, as well as out west. At 30, eager to explore his Italian roots, the Jericho native sold all his belongings and spent a year cooking in Italy, first in his great-grandfather’s region of Abruzzi and later in a restaurant in Parma.

Sansone still recalls his first bite of gelato in Rome.

“A light bulb went on,” he said. “It was hazelnut, and it was amazing. It’s still my favorite flavor.”

Sansone honed his gelato-making skills with help from his southern Italian coworkers, then returned to Burlington and took a cook position in a local Italian restaurant. But after several months, frustrated by meager wages, he decided it was time to branch out on his own. He teamed up with Tim Elliott, co-owner of Zabby & Elf’s Stone Soup, and the two began experimenting with gelato making, selling their creations out of Elliott’s St. Paul Street home.

After a year, Sansone says, the lines were out the door, so he and Elliott decided to take the plunge. They raised money through crowdsourcing, took out a loan and moved into the South End location in July 2016.

The neighborhood has been a good home for the gelateria. On a recent Saturday evening, the street corner was hopping. I stepped inside to be greeted by Sansone himself. He’d been up since 5 a.m., when he dropped off Shy Guy’s gelato cart on the Church Street Marketplace.

Sansone and assistant gelato maker Becca Pilgrim make six new flavors each day by hand. Over the past two years, they’ve invented more than 100, including lavender-Earl Grey, horchata, and Vietnamese coffee. When ordering gelato, there’s an art to choosing flavors that complement each other, and Italians often select three at a time.

Sansone advises mixing soft, creamy flavors with bright, fruity ones. Following this advice, I chose white malted milk ball and fuchsia-colored beet. Yes, beet. “I want to wear this, it’s so pretty,” I joked at the register.

I settled down at a patio table, donned a straw hat and pulled out a book. I took a bite of the beet. It was surprisingly rich, the earthiness of a summer garden balanced with just the right amount of sweetness. I followed it with the malted milk ball and drifted into paradiso. Dark chocolate slivers provided the perfect finishing crunch.

The door opened, and two pretty twentysomething women emerged: a brunette, dressed in green shorts and juggling a camera along with a cup of gelato; and a blonde wearing sunglasses, platform sandals and a short, form-fitting pink-and-white dress. The color in her dress echoed that of the gelato in her cone, making it a fashion accessory. As they passed, I leaned over and asked, “Did you order that because it matches your outfit?”

“Actually, yes,” she said with a smile. “My friend is a photographer, and she wants to take some photos.”

The women sauntered away down St. Paul Street, looking like they belonged on the streets of Rome.

Moments later, a family with four towheaded boys settled down at the table next to me. Soon I was chatting with the woman, who turned out to be a scientist and writer from Bangor, Maine. “We’re in town visiting, and we’ve come here two days in a row,” she confessed. “I’ve had gelato at the best gelateria in Rome, and this beats it. Really.”

Beside her sat one of her sons, about age 10, with long, shaggy bangs and freckles. A dollop of chocolate gelato clung to his bottom lip, and his shorts were streaked with brown stains from where he had wiped his fingers.

“My dad thought my shorts were dirty, but I told him it was just chocolate from yesterday,” the boy said. “I got chocolate again today because it’s my favorite flavor. It helps me stay up late at night.”

One of her younger sons swallowed a bite of lime gelato, pulled aside his lip and pointed to a space at the back of his mouth.

“A tooth is growing there,” he said, beaming. “It’s growing right now!”

“Do you think gelato is better than ice cream?” I asked him.

“What?” he answered, confused. “This is ice cream.”

I decided not to bother telling him the difference. Simply put, gelato has less air than ice cream because it’s churned, not whipped, which makes it much denser. It’s also served about 15 degrees warmer than ice cream, which helps to bring out the flavors. The fact that gelato is made with more milk than cream and without egg yolks makes it generally lower in calories than ice cream.

A motorcycle snarled past us, followed by a car with the windows rolled down. Inside, teenage girls were singing to Journey at the top of their lungs.

Sansone walked out, plopped into the seat beside me and surveyed the busy intersection.

“It would be nice,” I said, “if there were a big piazza here.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Or some grass. Last summer they closed off the street for a day and put orange cones out to slow down traffic. It was so nice.

“One day,” Sansone added, “I’d like to expand and sell food, too. In Italy, I worked with these great old ladies who made homemade pasta. I’d love to do that.”

A man walking down Howard Street came toward us.

“That’s a retired professor who comes in here every night to buy two pints of gelato,” Sansone explained. “The people in this neighborhood are so great. Before I had this place, I was kind of a hermit. Now I know everybody.”