Monday, October 29, 2018

Restaurateur Jack Amato spins a fascinating tale about his early life as a proud Sicilian immigrant in New York

What would you do it you had to pay protection money to run your business? If your uncles were members of the Mafia, and they didn’t approve of you? If you were held at gunpoint by masked men and then shot in the stomach? These are questions that young Giacomo “Jack” Amato faced shortly after he came from Sicily to New York in December of 1965.

Jack Amato on the beach in Florida.
Amato describes himself as a proud “man of honor” who, following the teachings and examples of his father, refused to back down and demanded respect from the gangsters and hoodlums in his neighborhood. He tells his riveting story with candor and clarity in the book A Father’s Belief, available at Amazon and Xlibris.

Giacomo (writing under the assumed  name Gino in the book) entered junior high school in Brooklyn at age 12. He had to deal with not knowing how to speak English and being bullied by kids from other ethnic groups. He fought daily and quit school when he was 14. He learned to make pizza in a local restaurant, a skill that became instrumental when his dad opened a pizzeria to help the family realize the American dream.

Gino/Giacomo and his dad immediately encountered street gangs, the American mafia and demands for payments for protection. Father and son stood up to a group of hoodlums who threatened to scare away customers, and they refused to make payments. When Gino met Maria, they fell in love and married. After that, Gino began to have conflicts with Maria’s uncles, especially Fat Joe Massa, an American gangster who later became the boss of the notorious Bonanno crime family. Gino overcame treachery and deceit from his uncle and survived getting two gunshot wounds that nearly claimed his life as his wife was about to give birth to their first child.

The book is promoted as “based on the real story of Sicilian immigrants,” but it is classified as fiction. The realization that the events that Gino encountered seemed to match perfectly with Amato’s own biography prompted me to call Amato and ask how much of the story is true and how much fiction.

“It’s 90 percent true,” Giacomo told me. “I’ve changed some names and added details. It was a rough life; I was always getting into arguments. I was advised to call the book fiction because I’m not famous, and people would expect a person to be famous before they would buy his memoir.”

The book, which took five years to write, is “a tribute to my father,” said Amato, who now resides in Port Saint Lucie, Florida. His dad Nino was a fisherman and respected civic leader when in Sicily. He told Giacomo the story of the pure and honorable knight Orlando Furioso and encouraged his son to “be strong, to never give in, and protect and defend what is right and good.” Treat your elders, friends and your government with respect, Nino taught his son. “A real man doesn’t need to be bad to be tough. A man needs to use force only against people who are bad. That’s power.”

“I loved and feared my father,” Amato writes. “I trusted him and respected his words. He was like a God to me.”

Amato in his restaurant in Port
Saint Lucie, Florida.
However, Amato did not always follow Nino’s advice. After developing a successful restaurant, candy shop and gambling den, he became involved in a business venture which required him to become friendly with and dependent on members of the Mafia—and this nearly led to his demise.

At first, I was sorely distracted by the writing style. Amato completed less than two years of school in America, and that at a time when he was still trying to learn English. His writing is on the rough side. He often changes from the past to present tense. He usually refers to the main character in the third person, as Gino, but sometimes he slips into the first person. Words are misspelled. Sentences can be fragments. Facts are repeated. It’s obvious that the book is self-published and could have been improved with a good editor.

However, I soon came to appreciate that the writing style also reveals much about Amato’s unique style and personality. He was an uneducated but street-smart teenager, and that came through in his choice of words and sentence structure. The voice is authentic and realistic, along the lines of the sincere, juvenile voice of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Reading the book made me picture Amato spinning tales with friends in his restaurant.

I asked Giacomo if I could reveal that the book is not actually fiction, and he gave permission. “If I had used their (mobsters) real names, I might have an issue,” he said. “They were powerful people. But it’s no problem. I didn’t mention anyone they killed, and besides, they’re now in witness protection programs, so they have new names anyway.”

Saturday, October 27, 2018

What does it mean to be called a “wop” or a “dago”? Is it offensive?

Every Italian-American knows what wop means. It stands for “without papers (or passport),” right? It’s because Italians who came to America in the early 1900s didn’t have proper work documents, but some employees still hired them and paid them in cash. My Italian-American cousins and friends taught me this when I was a boy growing up in the 1950s and 60s, and we sometimes used the term when speaking to each other. We also called each other dago, and this, I was told has a similar story. Italian laborers would be paid daily, or “as the day goes,” instead of with salaries or weekly paychecks. Almost every Italian-American I know swears by these explanations.

It turns out these beliefs can’t be traced to any reliable source and are almost certainly not true. It’s kind of like the statement that we all need to drink eight glasses of water a day, a commonly held belief which also has no historical or medical source to confirm it.

Why are linguists so sure that these ethnic labels, which many Italian-Americans consider offensive, originate from different sources?

First, linguists point out that acronyms themselves did not come into common use until the mid-1900s, while the word wop is thought to have first been used in the late 1800s. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (, “The word acronym itself wasn’t coined until 1943. The lack of need for such a word suggests the degree to which acronyms previously were not a part of daily life.” Since then, some have coined an even newer word, backronym, to describe the common acronym misconceptions that have been promulgated and that have now been debunked by linguists.

Historians also have had their say on the subject, pointing out that papers were not needed to obtain a job during the heaviest years of Italian immigration. “Before World War I, we had virtually open borders,” writes Mae Ngai, author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. “You didn’t need a passport. You didn’t need a visa. There was no such thing as a green card. If you showed up at Ellis Island, walked without a limp, had money in your pocket, and passed a very simple (intelligence) test in your own language, you were admitted.”

This 2004 book tells about the Guappo in
history, art and dress.
OK, so where did the word wop come from? The most plausible explanation and the one which most linguists now hold, is that it was a distortion of a word that Italian immigrants themselves used (and Southern Italians still use today). The Merriam-Webster dictionary states that wop originates from the Southern Italian dialectal term guappo, roughly meaning “dandy,” “dude” or “stud.” It was often used to describe powerful and well-dressed men in the Camorra, a gang in Napoli.
1978 film: The Last Guappo
The Spanish have a similar word, guapo, which can mean “good-looking” or “dandy.” It is often used in a playful or humorous way to address one’s friends. Southern Italians pronounce it “wahp-po,” and they also are prone to unaspirated stops (meaning they swallow or skip the last syllable of a word). When Americans overhead immigrant workers addressing each other as guappo, or wop, they eventually began using it as a derogatory word to describe all Italians.

The original caption for this: The guappo Enzo Turco (left),
in the shoe store Il Turco Napolitano. 
As for dago, this word also predates the Italian diaspora of the early 1900s. Dave Wilton, writing for and citing both the Oxford English Dictionary and Historical Dictionary of American Slang, states, “This derogatory term did not originally refer to Italians, which is its chief sense nowadays. Dago comes from the Spanish given name Diego, and over time has extended in meaning to include Portuguese and eventually Italians. It dates to the 1830s.”  Diego was an oft-used Portuguese and Spanish name. In similar fashion, British sailors are called Jacks, and Irishmen are called Paddies (for Patrick).

Wilton further points out that in E.C. Wines’ 1833 book, Two Years in the Navy, there is a reference to the natives of the Spanish island Minorca: “These Dagos, as they are pleasantly called by our people, were always a great pest.” The application of the term to Italians dates to at least the 1870s, from Francis Henry Sheppard’s 1875 book Love Afloat: A Story of the American Navy: “Our band is all broke up. Arrowson has got every Dago, and Greaser, and nigger against me.”

I was actually disappointed to read that “without papers” has been debunked, because I had once considered using wop as part of my book title. I worked for a year in Italy in 2001 without a visa or work permit, so I considered using the title: “An American Wop in Italy.” When I discovered the real origin of wop, I threw out the idea and settled on An American Family in Italy: Living la dolce vita without permission.

Cover of a 2017 album from Southern Italy.
Of course, I was also worried that my fellow Italian-Americans would find it offensive if I had used wop in my title, so I was inclined to discard it anyway. Why do some people find wop and dago offensive? It all has to do with the disparaging way these words have been used in the past. They were spoken as insults, and people got the idea and were justifiably insulted. In the same way, African-Americans now avoid the word Negro (derived from the Latin niger or the Spanish word negro, both of which mean black) and, of course, its even more degrading derivations. Some Irish-Americans now say that being called a Paddy in America is an insult, even though it is common for the Irish in Ireland to use that term in describing themselves. If the word is used as an insult in some contexts, it comes to be seen as demeaning in most contexts.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in an age and community where it was considered cool to be Italian, thanks to famous singers, celebrities, politicians and sports stars of Italian origin. Most of my non-Italian friends had never even heard the terms wop or dago, so for those of us with Italian blood, these were words spoken with a smidgen of pride, showing that we belonged to a special ethnic group. And we did, of course, and indeed still do.

Author's note: What about those G-word Italian American nicknames: Guido, Goomba and Guinea? Read more here: 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Climbing a rugged Alpi Apuane mountain—and returning just in time

Monte Sagra—it means sacred mountain. Lucy and I tried to scale this 5751-foot peak in the Alpi Apuane mountain range two years ago, but we were turned back by heavy fog. We awoke yesterday to clear skies and a forecast of nearly 70-degree weather, so we mounted a new assault; this time we succeeded.
At the peak, smiling under the cross.

We should have left earlier in the morning, but on Sunday the forecast called for windy weather Monday, and we thought we would wait another day. But we realized during breakfast that the forecast had changed, and so we belatedly filled our backpacks and headed for the hills above Carrara, about a two-hour drive.
Nearing the top, one can just make out the cross at the peak of Monte Sagro.

By the time we arrived at Campocecina, it was lunchtime, and we saw signs leading us to a little restaurant at the rifugio there. It required a 10-minute walk up a wooded trail, another delay, but we needed to strengthen ourselves for what our guidebook said would be a four-hour moderately difficult hike. After a quick but satisfying pranzo of lasagna, roasted pork and green beans, we drove another mile and a half to the Foce di Pianza, where the trail begins.

It was clear and sunny, but because of the altitude and time of year, the temperature was around 60 degrees. We hit the trail at 1:30 p.m., following the loop in a counter clockwise direction, as our book suggested. We encountered little wind, and the air was so clear we could hear the faint tinkling of bells on the hills above, which came from a flock of goats.
The beech trees in Foce della Faggiola.

We trekked along a rocky ridge for about 15 minutes before entering a wooded area called the Foce della Faggiola, the pass of the beech trees. As we left the trees and approached a ridge, we heard distant engines, and then thunder, calling to mind the sound of large trucks rumbling over a bridge. Peering over the ridge and looking far below, we saw the stark white outlines of a marble mining operation. Huge loaders scraped the ground and lifted rectangular blocks of marble into waiting trucks, which accounted for the rumbling.
We passed close to one of the marble quarries.

From here, I could smell the top.
Now the trail became rockier and steeper, slowing our progress as we struggled to keep our balance and avoid slipping on the smooth shale. We had to branch off from the loop trail onto a spur that required about 20 minutes to reach the top. We questioned how the guidebook author had found this a moderate hike, but then we sometimes forget that at age 66, we aren’t exactly the kind of trekkers he had envisioned. Nonetheless, we persevered, and about 10 minutes from the peak, I commented that we were so near I could smell the top. I wasn’t joking. Goats must love the view as much as we do; they have left ample evidence of their many summit climbs.
We had a great view of Monte Pisano, the highest in the range.

Despite the goaty odor, the peak is indeed worthwhile and spectacular, with a 360-degree view of the craggy Alpi Apuane. The Appinini range is also visible farther to the east. We could see almost straight down on the remote and picturesque medieval village of Vinca, the site of a Nazi massacre in which at least 143 inhabitants were killed in a four-day period in August of 1944. To the west, we saw the shimmering coastline from Viareggio north almost to the Cinque Terre. A large plaque with arrows shows the names of other peaks and significant features visible in all directions. We also read several monuments and memorials that people had left for deceased friends.
Vinca viewed from above.

Lucy makes her way over the rocks.
After making our way down to rejoin the loop trail, we had the choice of going back the same way or continuing, which seemed like an easy decision. The map showed a shorter route if we continued, and it would be more interesting to see a different landscape. What we hadn’t realized was that we’d spend most of the descent scrambling down steep banks on slippery rocks, and it took much more effort and probably more time than the longer route. Furthermore, we had to descend to a dry stream bed and then climb again to reach the trail head.

Added to the stress on our legs was the realization that the sun was about to set. To top it off, we somehow veered off the trail on the final rocky hillside ascent, but that turned out to be a blessing, as I found a passable shortcut that probably saved us at least 10 minutes. A good thing that was, as we topped the final ridge and witnessed the brilliant orange sky over the Tyrrhenian Sea, with our car visible about 500 feet further on. Within 15 minutes, the sunset faded and twilight fell, and we said a prayer of thanks that we were safely headed back in our car.

Back home, I tried to find a verse or poem about mountains that would fit our excursion. Failing that, I’ve written my own.

An Ode to Monte Sagra
We scale the mount that towers high,
We reach the peak and touch the sky.
We stare and wonder at the sight,
That God has made for His delight.
This ragged scar, this sacred hill,
That He put here for us to thrill.
We wonder why we bear the strain,
Of struggling up the rough terrain.
And then all doubt is put to rest,
As we gaze north, south, east and west.
We came to praise what God has wrought
The grueling climb now seems as naught.
We’ve found the light that we have sought.

By Paul Spadoni
The sunset at the end of the trail.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Where to park when driving to Lucca? Advice from a top Lucca tour guide

Are you driving to the unforgettable city of Lucca and trying to figure out where to park cheaply, or even for free? Then this article is for you.

The first thing you should note is that in most cases, driving inside the walls of Lucca may immediately put you in a ZTL—zona traffico limitato, or limited traffic zone—and you’ll eventually receive a costly traffic ticket in the mail because traffic cameras will snap a photo of your car’s license plate each time you pass (you could receive multiple tickets for one trip inside a ZTL!)

Meter box
But you don’t need to park inside the walls, because the historical center is so small that one can easily park outside and walk everywhere, or even rent a bicycle at very reasonable rates. Look for blue stripes that mark parking spaces just outside the walls. Blue signifies that you must pay at a nearby blue meter box, but the cost is not excessive. You can pay with coins or a credit card (if you have a newer card with a security chip), and then put the receipt on your dashboard.

Typical parking costs and hours.
Pay for a minimum of two hours, as Lucca has many delightful sights, and of course you can’t leave without stopping for a gelato. If you’re going for dinner as well, double the time. You can usually park for the whole day for 6 euro, and parking after 8 p.m. is free. If you’re staying at a hotel or B&B, ask beforehand if they provide free or discounted parking. If your lodgings are on the outskirts of Lucca, buses to the center come frequently, and a 70-minute ticket costs 1.20 euro, though tickets purchased on the bus will be 2 euro.

If you are lucky to find open parking spaces with white stripes, these are free of charge, but be sure to check a nearby sign to see if there’s a time limit. Remember that Italy uses a 24-hour clock, so if you read 20:00, it means 8 p.m. Never park in a space with yellow stripes. These are reserved for police, firefighters, civil employees and people with handicaps.

Avoid trying to find parking during days of special events. September has a number of markets, parades and festas during which the normal parking lots are not accessible. During the Lucca Comics & Games convention in late October and early November, more than 100,000 people come by car, train and bus, so be forewarned that parking will be nearly impossible. Lucca hosts other events all year round. Check with the calendar of events to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Free lot on Via dei Pubblici Macelli.
Here are some suggestions for free parking: The biggest free lot is in Piazzale Don Franco Baroni and the two big squares next to it on via delle Tagliate, in the north of the town close to Porta Santa Maria. Another large lot is near the old city hospital. You can put in the address Via Carlo Gianni, 142, to arrive across the street from this lot. If you are  in the east of the town, close to Porta Elisa, there is a nice free lot on Via dei Pubblici Macelli, across from the Autoscuola Lucarelli.
Lucca train station, with a large pay lot to the east.

The large parking lot at the train station is convenient but not free; you pay 6 euro for a day. As you arrive, there is the traffic light that informs you if there are free places available. Park Carducci is just outside the wall to the west of the train station and costs only 5 euro a day.

A final suggestion: If you’re staying in another city and planning a day trip to Lucca, consider taking a train or bus. The Lucca bus station is inside the city walls, and the train station is just outside the walls, a walk of only three minutes.

 * * *

This information is courtesy of Elena Benvenuti of Discover Lucca with Elena.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

We love the serendipitous pleasures of simply existing in Italia

The events of today are a great reminder of why we like coming to Italy. In the past, we’ve seen plenty of churches, paintings, sculptures and amazing architecture. Now we just like to be, to experience the slow life and to meet people, whether it be Italians or stranieri like ourselves.

Our charming waitress Carme.
We started out planning to eat lunch and take a passeggiata in Monte a Pescia, a little settlement we had seen from afar many times and had never visited. but the restaurant was closed for the proprietors’ vacation. It was already 1 p.m. and we were too hungry to take our walk without food, so we cruised down the hill and drove in the direction of Collodi. There we saw a sign for a trattoria that was five miles north, into the foothills of the rugged Alpi Apuane. Driving into Villa Basilica, we stopped instead at a little ristorante called Vesuvio that was almost hidden from view and is not listed on either Google maps or Tripadvisor.

It had no printed menu, but Carme, our personable and lively waitress listed all the possibilities, which included a good variety of first and second courses and pizza. Lucy opted for pizza, which she found to be ottimo, and I had penne pasta with a perfect pesto sauce—all for a reasonable price. As is often the case, small restaurants known mainly to locals are usually delicious and affordable. They also allow one to experience authentic everyday Italian culture up close. We chatted with Carme after the meal, and she said she lives next to the trattoria and used to work there, but changed jobs so she could have more free time. The trattoria is just another half kilometer up the road.

A warm fall day, a wooded trail and a
bella donna bionda in Tuscany.
What more could I ask for?
From Carme’s colleague, we learned that from the parking lot we could access a nice hiking trail that led us across a stream and along a hillside trail, and we took a half-hour stroll in the woods. We rarely see wildlife on our hikes, other than birds, lizards and insects, and this time was no exception. However, it is hunting season for cingiali—we often awake to early morning rifle blasts in the hills around Montecarlo—so we keep our eyes open whenever we enter a forest. At an
opening in the trees, we found a couple dozen loaves of day-old bread scattered on the ground. Most certainly they were left there to lure the wild boars out of hiding, and we imagined hunters setting up watch-posts in the predawn hours, hoping for a harvest of ham.

A typical piazza in Pariano di Villa Basilica.
We had accomplished our goals for the outing—lunch and a short hike—but we decided to go a little farther up the valley to visit the trattoria for future reference. And then we found that the bar attached to the trattoria had gelato, so we extended our outing for another 15 minutes. As we were about to leave for the return trip home, we noticed a sign pointing up the hillside for Pariana. Surely there would be an ancient village with a great valley view awaiting us at the top of this road, and so we continued our journey another three miles up a steep, winding road.

As expected, we found a town with mixed stone and brick homes, a maze of uneven streets of varying widths, with a great variety of flowers and shrubs flourishing in pots and protruding from walls, with a nice view of the valley and far hillside. In other words, a typical remote and quiet village, and as always, breathtaking and evocative. A few of the residents, mostly elderly women, were sitting on porches and patios, enjoying the solitude or chatting with friends.

Lucy remembered that she needed to buy a bag of sugar to make some cookies, and she asked one of the passing residents, a smiling lady probably in her 70s, if the town had an alimentari where one could buy sugar. Si, si, she said, but it’s closed now. “But don’t worry,” she added. “Come with me and I’ll fetch you a bag.”

We tried to refuse, but she was insistent, ushering us into her home and inviting us to sit on her couch. We spent a pleasant 20 minutes learning about her family, which had come from Romania to Italy 15 years earlier. A widow, Didina lives with her grown son Vasi. She also has a sister who lives in Florida. There were more family details, but we couldn’t absorb them all. Besides the sugar, Didina also gave us a sack of chestnuts that she and Vasi had gathered, along with instructions about how to prepare them. Hill towns here have a long history of dependence on chestnut trees for survival, so a gift of chestnuts has special significance.

The most meaningful part of the day involved our interaction with Vasi, a simple man with huge smiles and frequent outbursts of infectious and genuine laughter. Everything we said and did made him outrageously happy. He roared with pleasure when Lucy took his picture with Didina and showed him the results on her phone screen. He hugged us, kissed Lucy’s hand and spoke with animation and enthusiasm about hunting for chestnuts and mushrooms, though between his speech impediment and our incomplete grasp of Italian, we understood only a few words. We promised to send them some photos and return in a week with some of Lucy’s chocolate chip cookies. Perhaps Vasi is often lonely, but as we walked away to return to our car and Montecarlo, we agreed that during our short visit, Vasi was perhaps the happiest man on earth—and no doubt that happiness rubbed off on us. It is a feeling that no classic painting, sculpture or building in Italy can match.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Witches, puppets and Nazis, oh my! Quercione near Collodi inspires wonder, mystery and legends

We’ve lived in Montecarlo part time since 2011, yet it wasn’t until this year that I realized we live just 10 minutes away from a 600-year-old oak tree that has been named the most beautiful in Tuscany by the cultural association Amici Degli Alberi (Friends of the Trees). I had heard mention in passing of the Quercione, but I didn’t grasp what a rare and beautiful sight we have been missing, nor how close it is to Montecarlo. Not only is it a delight for the eyes but it has an intriguing history.
The Quercione and Lucy.
Fake news? Or was this really taken at the oak of the witches?
In centuries past, local streghe—witches—used the Quercione (which means big oak tree) as part of their witchy rituals and incantations. In either dancing on the tree or using parts of it for their magic, they broke branches off the top of the tree and are responsible for its unique shape, or so the legends say. It is a species (Quercus pubescens, or downy oak) very common in central Italy, but these trees normally grow taller than they are wide. The Quercione, instead, is about 50 feet tall and has a crown of more than 130 feet in diameter. Its lower branches alone are larger than many other oak trees found in the surrounding woods.

Photo by Lucy
It is not unusual that witches would get credit for the shape of the tree. Italy, although the cradle of Catholicism, has a strong history of belief in the occult, originating from the folklore of the Etruscans and Greeks, indeed probably even from prior civilizations. And in Italy, not all witches are evil. Consider the Befana, the witch from whom expectant children still receive treats on the eve of Epiphany.

The tree has yet another claim to fame. Author Carlo Lorenzini spent a good part of his childhood in Collodi, which is about a mile and a half from the Quercione. He would later take on the pen name Carlo Collodi and, while living in Collodi, write The Adventures of Pinocchio: The Tale of a Puppet. Published in 1883, the book describes the mischievous escapades of an animated marionette and his father, a poor woodcarver named Geppetto.

Some sources maintain that Lorenzini wrote part of the book under the branches of the Quercione, and furthermore that the oak is included in the story. Pinocchio, with four gold pieces hidden in his mouth, was pursued by two assassins, a cat and a fox. They caught up to him and tried to force him to open his mouth, but he refused. Here the story reads:

“There is nothing left to do but to hang him,” said one of them to the other.
They tied Pinocchio’s hands behind his shoulders and slipped the noose around his neck. Throwing the rope over the high limb of a giant oak tree, they pulled till the marionette hung far up in space.
“Tomorrow we’ll come back for you and you’ll be dead, and your mouth will be open, and then we’ll take the gold pieces that you have hidden under your tongue.”
Perhaps Carlo Collodi sat here
when he wrote Pinocchio.
It takes only a glance at the Quercione to see how easy it would be to tie a rope to its numerous and hefty horizontal branches. Given that the tree had already achieved local fame and that the author grew up nearby, it’s obvious that Lorenzini would have seen it, and it’s easy to believe that he had it in mind when he wrote Pinocchio.

Because of its ties to witches and Pinocchio, the Quericione is often referred to as the Quercia delle Streghe and the Quercia di Pinocchio, and, because of its location, sometimes as the Quercia di Capannori. It is relatively healthy, although it has suffered some damage and threats during its lifetime. Vandals broke some of its branches while sitting in the tree more than 100 years ago, and an even greater threat came during the Second World War. Nazi occupiers planned to use it for firewood, but the inhabitants of nearby San Martino in Colle mobilized to thwart these efforts. In the 1960s, lightning struck the Quercione, causing significant damage, and in recent years its roots have been threatened by the trampling of tourists. It is also colonized by insects that nest in its truck.

The fact that it is currently not included in many tourist guidebooks and that the signage directing visitors to its location is poor may be blessings in disguise for the Quercione. It’s located on private property, but it is beside a little traveled public road. From Montecarlo, head north on SP31. After about two miles, turn at the sign for San Martino in Colle. Follow signs for Alloro (a bed and breakfast). Shortly after you pass Alloro, you’ll come to a T in the road, where you will instantly see the Quercione.
Photo by Frank Frattaglia of Villa Basilica.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Are new algorithms ignoring northern and central Italians?

What is wrong with’s new algorithm for determining a person’s Italian ethnicity?  The company offers few explanations as to how data is compiled and decisions are made. However, it seems that people who live in central and northern Italy are now barely considered of Italian origin, while those from the south are regarded as more Italian than they were previously.

My dad was born to Italian parents from Tuscany, so I’ve always loosely considered myself half Italian. When I first had my DNA tested in December of 2016, my results showed 27% “Italy/Greece.” In 2017, Ancestry changed the Italy/Greece designation to Southern European, and my percentage was unchanged. I had no problem with this, since I understand that people who live in Italy share DNA with people from many other countries, and probably no Italian citizen would test at 100% Italian.

But in September of 2018, I received notice that Ancestry had updated and improved its algorithms, supposedly to make its designations more precise, but as far as Italian ethnicity is concerned, the effort is problematic.

My ethnicity has changed from 27% Southern European (SE) to 16% Italian and 15% French. My brother has been changed from 37% SE to 5% Italian and 27% French, and my sister from 31% SE to 9% Italian and 12% French. One of my cousins changed from 40% SE to 0% Italian and 45% French.

UPDATE: In 2019, my Italian has been downgraded to 11% and both my brother and sister changed to only 4%.

OK, I’m sure you are thinking that since Italy is a melting pot of ethnicities, I’m just unaware that my grandparents or other ancestors immigrated relatively recently from France to Tuscany. I would probably have accepted this hypothesis—if I hadn’t done the genealogical research to know that this is untrue. I’ve spent many weeks in city halls and parish archives in Tuscany developing a paper trail of my genealogy. I’ve traced my grandfather Michele Spadoni’s line back to the mid 1400s, and the Spadoni family never moved more than 15 miles from Stignano, a tiny city in Pistoia. Every single marriage was to a local family with deep roots in the same small area.

On grandmother Anita Seghieri’s side, the family has lived in the same rural community of San Salvatore (a suburb of Montecarlo and about five miles from Stignano) since the 1200s. Once again, every marriage I’ve found has been to a local person, judging from the familiar surnames that date back hundreds of years in the neighborhood.

I’m fully aware people grab different sections of DNA from their parents and that siblings will always have different results. I know that borders change, and that Italy has been invaded dozens of times in the last millennium (I’ve even written articles on this: How Italian is the average Italian).

But the borders of Tuscany have not changed significantly, and most of the invasions left our little neck of Tuscany untouched. We are not near the sea, nor near a large city or a major trade route. Quite likely, most of my Tuscan ancestors have been in the same area since the time of Christ, and some even before that. After all, the name Tuscany is derived from Etruscan, a culture that flourished there from 700-100 BC. Sergio Nelli, noted Tuscan historian and author, and my next-door neighbor in Montecarlo, has traced his family line back one generation at a time to the year 300. His earliest known ancestor is from Tuscany.

One could point out that Napoleon successfully invaded Tuscany and gave his sister Elisa the title of grand duchess of Tuscany from 1809 to 1814. Could it be that my more recent ancestors married some of the French nobility that moved down to run the government? This is unlikely, given that my ancestors, all farmers, were relatively poor and would not have intermixed with wealthy French rulers. Indeed, during the short period of French domination, records show that my ancestors continued to marry people with names common to their region.

And consider for a moment that even if one of my great great grandfathers had married a French woman during the time of Napoleon’s rule, my generation would receive only 6% of those French genes. For me and my siblings and cousins to be from 12-45% French (and only from 0-16% Italian) would mean that most of the people living in Tuscany are actually more French than Italian, and I can’t buy that. While I have no doubt that some people of French descent have settled in Tuscany, surely the native Tuscans would vastly outnumber the French.

I find it more likely that Ancestry’s confusion between French and Tuscan genes is the result of vast numbers of impoverished Tuscans moving to France in the 1800s and early 1900s. World Population Review states: “At the end of the 19th century, Italians and Greeks began immigrating to Marseille, with about 40% of the city’s population being Italian by the 1950s.” With that in mind, it is no surprise that our family’s genetic makeup is similar that of people currently living in France, but that doesn’t mean that we are actually of French origin.

These southern areas were also once
part of Magna Grecia.
While I can only speak knowledgeably of my own family’s heritage, I belong to several Facebook genealogy interest groups for Italians, and there has been much discussion on the new Ancestry designations. Descendants from the southern area once called the Two Kingdoms of Sicily (Abruzzo, Molise, Campagnia, Basilicata, Puglia, Calabria and Sicily) in general now are designated as 70-90% Italian. Inhabitants of central and north regions often test less than 30% Italian. Many of the members of the group Northern Italian Genealogy are irate concerning the changes in Ancestry’s algorithm. Here are just a few sample quotes (names are not used for privacy reasons): seems to regard areas in today's Italy that were once considered
Magna Grecia to be more authentically Italian today.
JP: I went from 33% Italian down to 10%. Then the French shot up from 4% to 35%

LS: My updated results were ridiculous. The old DNA report was at least plausible. No idea how they decided I was suddenly 70% Irish when I have traced thousands of my dad’s northern Italian ancestors at least as far back as the 1400s.

RC: My father is Northern Italian and has lots of French, Italian (32%) German and even British. But I have no French, German or British, and I show up as 48% Italian. My kids have no Italian but have French and German. I don’t understand how this is possible. I understand that Italians can have German and French DNA. But how can I have 48% Italian DNA, and my two kids have 0% Italian DNA? I hope Ancestry explains this eventually.

MG: My mother (with 2 Northern Italian grandparents) is showing 34% France (new to her results) and only 4% Italy. My results now show 0% Italy.

ES: My grandmother was born in Italy to a northern Italian mother and a Sicilian father. I was previously showing 11% Italian DNA and I am down to nothing. My mom is at 37% Italian still and my uncle is at 35%. So, somehow I inherited none of this Italian DNA? I guess it is possible, but something is not right.

AD:  I always thought my Italian was too high (it was 33% and I “should be” 25%) but now they say I’m 0%.

JF: I went from 38% Italian to 1%. My maternal grandparents are from Northern Italy and my ancestors were there for generations.

A major reason for the confusion is that’s DNA testing is currently not available to people living in Italy and France, so the company’s database is relatively limited. The other half of the issue is that Ancestry seems to have designated people of Greek and Southern Italian origin more Italian than northern people. I have no problem accepting that the DNA of Southern Italians and Northern Italians differs. But both areas had indigenous prehistoric civilizations. Both areas suffered numerous invasions. So how did Ancestry arrive at the decision to consider one area very Italian and the other not so much? Most likely, the situation will be resolved in the future, when the database increases and the algorithms are refined enough to divide the ethnicity designations into North and South (and maybe even Central) Italy. Until that happens, many of us from the center and north are going to be unhappy with our results.