Meet three locals who are proud of their Italian heritage and culture, and carry it with them.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff
If there’s one thing that unites us as Americans, it’s that we’re all from somewhere else. A few of us can trace our lineage back a few hundred years but for the vast majority of us, our pedigree is a patchwork of different influences. Our bloodlines trace back to small villages and towns across the world, with ancestors who braved it all to make their mark in the new world.
For those who trace those bloodlines back to Italy, it works a little differently. There’s a pride of ancestry that few others can claim, and one well-deserved. Italy is a country of mesmerizing beauty, of passionate people and of a sense of family that can’t be broken by the distances of time or place. It’s a tie that binds Italian-Americans a little closer to one another.
Here are three who share that bond…
This local Italian loves good food and giving back to our community
You can find Johnny DeCecco just about every Thursday holding court at Flora’s Italian Café, anchoring the weekly meetings of the Italian American Club of Hilton Head Island. If you can’t find him there, you’ll find him at his regular table at French Bakery noshing on a cappuccino muffin nearly every day at 2:30 p.m.
Point is, DeCecco is a man about town, totally in his element when it comes to getting out and meeting new people, making new friends and enmeshing himself in the community.
That sense of community is key to understanding DeCecco’s views on Italian culture. “You never go hungry in an Italian neighborhood,” he said with his trademark thick Northern accent. Sounding to all the world like a straight-out-of-central-casting Italian Yankee, his Rhode Island upbringing revealing itself when he drops the final “r” in a word. “We had a lot of new immigrants that lived in my neighborhood. We helped them out. That was the neighborhood, the unity, the caring.”
When he talks about his neighborhood growing up, he talks of family. Of his mom sending food out all over the neighborhood, of sneaking sips from his grandfather’s homemade wine, of Grandma Angie’s culinary prowess from cherry cake to rum cake to “meatballs this big,” his hands held far apart.
If this meatball breaks, you’re disqualified because then it’s not a meatball.”
It’s a tight-knit sense of community he has fostered through his work with the Italian American Club for the last nine years. Starting out as a volunteer, he rose to board member a year later and then president the year after that. “They just keep re-electing me,” he said. “When I took over, I had good support around me and we took the club to a level they never thought it could be.”
That level includes a staggering amount of money and fellowship given back to the community, from $38,000 in donations and $6,000 in scholarships, to regular community pasta dinners, the annual Italian Heritage Festival, and attention from the Guinness Book of World Record for creating the world’s largest meatball.
Created during the 2017 Italian Heritage Festival, the prize-winning meatball was made with 1,707.08 pounds of meat cooked for 5 1/2 days in a custom oven with a Kevin Lawless-built stainless steel pod holding it together. It was unveiled in front of a crowd of 4,300 people and one very picky judge from Guinness. “We were getting ready to take the cap off and the judge told me, ‘If this meatball breaks, you’re disqualified because then it’s not a meatball.’ I said, ‘This kid is serious, right?’” The meatball held, resulting in a world record. The taste? DeCecco describes as “A little salty. But it was good.”
Good food and a tight-knit community. If you ask Johnny DeCecco what it means to be Italian, that’s what he’ll tell you.
Hilton Head reminds this woman of her Italian home
Mariella Simmons began her journey in northern Italy at the picturesque port city La Spezia, gateway to the breathtaking Cinque Terre.
“My dad was in the Italian Navy, so yes, I’m a Navy brat,” she said. Her travels began within Italy, taking her at age 14 to the city of Gaeta just south of Rome. “It’s something like a Hilton Head because of all the tourists in the summertime. We had beautiful beaches there.”
Although her journeys would later take her overseas — first to Michigan where she met her husband, Ron, then to Hilton Head where she now lives full time — she still returns home as often as she can. “We took our granddaughter last year and stayed for three weeks. She just did not want to come back home,” she said. “She just loved it.”
It’s a serious case of wanderlust prompted by her nomadic upbringing. When we spoke, she had just returned from San Francisco and was planning a trip to Australia and a lengthy journey in a motor home across the country. She’ll be back in Italy before too long, but most likely not to her native Cinque Terre region. “(Travel writer) Rick Steves ruined it,” she said with a laugh. “Before he wrote about it, you’d have French and British tourists, but not very many. Now it’s so packed, you can’t find a place to eat or a room at the hotel. When I first took my husband, there was no problem.”
(Travel writer) Rick Steves ruined it,” she said with a laugh.”
In between her wanderings, you’ll find her enjoying the island she and her husband now call home. “We fell in love with Hilton Head Island,” she said. Since arriving, she and her husband have spent their time walking, biking and volunteering at VIM and at the library. Mariella has taken up teaching conversational Italian, passing on her native tongue even if — by her own admission — some of the dialects escape her.
“People from Sardinia speak a different dialect. They have their own dictionary,” she said, laughing. “I have two friends from Sicily and when they speak to each other, I can’t understand a word. It’s like a different language.”
Still, despite the intricacies of the language and the challenges it poses to non-native speakers and native speakers alike, for Simmons it’s the language of home. And she loves sharing her love of her home.
This Large Italian is a giant of local philanthropy
It was during an event at the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago that Bob Cherichella received perhaps the oddest compliment one can receive. He had just been introduced to NFL Hall of Famer Gino Marchetti when the Baltimore Colts legend told him, “Geez, I thought I was the biggest Italian in captivity.” At 6’7”, it’s something Cherichella wears proudly.
“That’s my sobriquet, I guess, which isn’t a bad one to have,” he said. As tall as he is, he casts an even bigger shadow. On Hilton Head, his philanthropic efforts have had him and his wife Heather aiding St. Luke’s Church, The First Tee of The Lowcountry, The Boys & Girls Club of Hilton Head Island and the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra.
The latter is Bob’s biggest passion and the focus of all his energies as the HHSO moves into a new location and a new era. “I’m excited about this coming year. It will be Mary Briggs’ last and we want to send her out a on positive note,” he said. “She’s been the heart and soul of this symphony. She’s been a wonderful guide and we’re poised to do wonderful things over the next two years.”
I grew up in a lower middle class five-story walkup in Queens. I slept on a fold-out sofa until I was fifteen.”
Even before moving to Hilton Head, such philanthropy and community involvement was his M.O. President of his local Jaycees in Chicago, which named him “one of the Outstanding Young Men in America,” he was helping out others even while building a successful career with AIM Management. His towering legacy is made all the more fascinating by his humble roots as one of the few Italian kids in an Irish neighborhood in New York City.
“I grew up in a lower middle class five-story walkup in Queens. I slept on a fold-out sofa until I was 15,” he said. “Both my parents always said you can do anything you put your brain to.”
That included building a career that would allow him opportunities to travel to the Italian homeland of his father. “My father’s father’s family is from Sorrento, one of the most beautiful places on Earth,” he said. “My wife and I went back and found the cathedral where my great grandma was baptized.”
That career also allowed him the opportunity to help others, something he and his wife have done tirelessly since moving to Hilton Head Island full time in 2001.
“It’s the Italian in me – you embrace where you are,” he said. “You embrace family. You embrace places.”
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