A Nostalgic Journey to Italy, the Land of Our Grandmothers

Canadian-born but Italian-bred, Mike Crisolago returns to the country his Nonna left six decades earlier.

Our Lady, Star of the Sea, prayer card
Our Lady, Star of the Sea, prayer card

There’s a prayer the Italian immigrants recited as they huddled within the hulking ocean liner MS Vulcania en route to Canada in the early autumn of 1952 – a plea to Our Lady, Star of the Sea, to keep “from us every storm and any danger to the soul and body.” My Nonna, 28 at the time and clutching my infant father, sat among them.

It took nine days to cross the Atlantic from Sicily, an Italian island known for exports including sulfur, seafood and the Mafia. As far as I know, my family had no stake in any of them. They arrived at Halifax’s Pier 21 on Sept. 18 and Nonna hopped a train to Toronto to meet Nonno, who’d arrived one year earlier to the day.

 

family reunion in Canada, September 1952
Family reunion in Canada, September 1952

For my grandparents, Canada represented an opportunity to build a new life – an elusive luxury for modest farmers, especially women, in post- war Italy. They took whatever jobs they could find, raised a family and, a few decades later, I came along.

Growing up Italian in Canada wasn’t without its cultural quirks. For example, every paisan knows the pain of their bare legs sticking to a shrink-wrapped couch. And, while I loved hearing Italian folk tales, I’m still not really sure who Topo Gigio is. But the fundamental tenets that my grandparents imported were the values that anchored our cultural character – il cibo, il fede e la familigia. Food, faith and family – from Christmas feasts and midnight mass to hand-crushing our own tomato sauce.

More than six decades after Nonna prayed to Our Lady, Star of the Sea, on her way to Canada, I prayed for a seat with decent legroom on the way out, embarking on the return voyage she never took back to Italy and shuttling via coach through a cross-section of the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside.

I didn’t expect to find the same country Nonna left behind. But perhaps the roots of the experiences and traditions that shaped her character remained – the spirit that every future nonna clung to during that long Atlantic voyage toward a new life.

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Anyone who has visited Italy or even an Italian person’s home knows that Italian dining is an event, and a great meal is like a night with a great lover – hot, satisfying and leaving you craving more when it’s finished.

Nonna and my father
Nonna and my father

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I heard it said that the slow food movement, which champions the use of local organic cuisine, is really catching on in Italy. It’s a claim that would have most Italians choking on their carciofi alla romana. This, of course, is a country where olives are dubbed “green gold” and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is the most shoplifted item. For Nonna, who didn’t own a refrigerator until she moved to Canada, all food was slow food, from farmed crops to that handmade tomato sauce. Chef Boyardee? Who’s that? Enzo’s son from down the street?

Our group touched down in Rome, and the cobblestones glistened with fresh rain as Belinda, our tour director, led us to Ristorante 4 Colonne for a dinner of pasta and veal while serenaded by a striking soprano in a black lace dress.

Fields near San Gimignano; the MS Vulcania
Fields near San Gimignano; the MS Vulcania

Speaking of striking curves, we climbed the Vatican Museum’s winding Bramante Staircase, which is closed to the public – our guides boast some serious connections – before bidding the Eternal City arrivederci en route to the hilltop town of Orvieto, where we sampled the aromatic drip of chef Lorenzo Polegri’s six-hour old olive oil at his renowned Zeppelin Restaurant.

But it’s San Gimignano, nicknamed the Medieval Manhattan for its ancient towers that loom over the Tuscan landscape, that reminded me most of Nonna. Despite its nickname, you won’t find an Italian Woody Allen waxing neurotically within this wonder of the Middle Ages.

You may, however, meet Sergio Dondoli, owner of Gelateria Dondoli and two-time Gelato World Champion. In his white lab coat, Dondoli cuts an Albert Einstein-like figure with shorter hair. And his genius – he invented saffron cream gelato – is just as apparent.

“At home,” he announces to the entire Piazza della Cisterna, “if you are unlucky, the ice cream is six months old. In my shop, if you are unlucky, the gelato you buy is 24 hours old.” It’s a pride of workmanship that stretches from San Gimignano to Nonna’s kitchen.

Later, at the nearby Borghese estate, seated at one long candlelit table, dinner began with pasta, artichoke risotto, fried zucchini and olive and sausage balls. Then, the main course of lamb, chicken and beef, followed by dessert. And, of course, more vino. The one difference between this and Sunday dinner is Nonna would have packed us the leftovers to take home.

Homes and buildings on one of Assisi's hillsides, overlooking la terra dei santi – the land of saints
Homes and buildings on one of Assisi’s hillsides, overlooking la terra dei santi – the land of saints

“The best way to go back to the Middle Ages? Take the escalator!” our local guide Marco declared when we pulled up to Assisi, a town raised high above the surrounding region. Marco wasn’t joking – an escalator carries you up the hillside to the main gate and a breathtaking view of what some call la terra dei santi – the land of saints – in recognition of the vast number of ven- erated men and women who hail from Umbria.

We explored Assisi’s sloping streets – many adorned with vibrant religious murals – while Marco and Belinda unravelled the stories of the multiple saints who’ve called the town home: most notably, St. Francis and St. Clare. The 13th-century Basilica di Santa Chiara houses both the blessed San Damiano Cross, revered for miraculously speaking to St. Francis as he prayed, and St. Clare’s bones. Across town, you’ll find the seventh largest church in the world – St. Mary of the Angels.

A serenade of church bells echoed above the clamour in the piazzas, beckoning the faithful to prayer. In the bowed pilgrims, I saw Nonna at her kitchen table with her rosary and dog-eared prayer book, flagged with prayer cards collected from the funerals of loved ones over the years.

Gliding through the mists of the Val di Chianato, where Italian legend says Noah settled following the Great Flood, we stopped in Cortona near a trail lined with cyprus trees. As I gazed upon the patchwork of farm- land aglow with the morning light in the valley below, it occurred to me that, had Nonna and Nonno lacked the strength of faith to leave Italy to take a chance on a new life for their family in Canada, I’d probably be tending a farm right now, too.

After all, like for many others, Nonna’s faith is lifeblood, from devout worship to divine comfort to calling me every year on Sept. 29 – the feast of St. Michael the Archangel – to wish me a happy “Name Day.”

I considered this as I took in the 15th- century Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio church, which houses an image of the Virgin Mary said to per- form miracles, huddled in Cortona’s hillside and the centuries-old candlelit procession of the Festival of Madonna Della Salute through St. Mark’s Square – which we observed on the starry night we navigated the Grand Canal into Venice on the final leg of our trip.