Italian culture has had profound effect on columnist

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When I worked for a large corporation in Manhattan, one of the executive secretaries became a good friend of mine. Ann was of Italian-American background, bright, witty and a delight. She had to be all those things — the company expected excellence from its employees.

One day, when I stopped by her desk, she looked up at me and said, “You know, you have an Italian soul.” She added that I was a stregone — Italian for “wizard.” Ann said this in all seriousness.

As far as I know, there are no Italians in my DNA makeup, although we have some in the family through marriage and they are all lovely people. But I suppose that somehow, from an early age, I was attracted to Italians.

When we moved from the Lower East Side to Borough Park in Brooklyn, that area was heavily Italian. Our landlords were Italian Americans; so was our barber. But it changed over the years. My former elementary school on 14th Avenue became a girls’ yeshiva about 30 years ago. This is the city that never sleeps, remember.

One of my best friends in those days was Peter Grillo, whose father owned a pizzeria on New Utrecht Avenue, around the corner from where we lived. Pizza became part of my life early on. I also remember Peter’s mother introducing me to wonderful sandwiches made with green grapes on Italian bread. The grapes may have come from their backyard. There were many grapevines and fig trees in the neighborhood.

Peter and I lost contact with each other when my family moved to Elmhurst, but my love of things Italian never ended. It grew stronger over time.

One of my friends in Elmhurst was Stanley Corcelli, whose mother and father had a fruit and vegetable store on Queens Boulevard a few blocks from Grand Avenue. If I remember correctly, the family had an apartment in the rear of the store. Like the Grillos, they were kind to this fat, klutzy kid.

One of my dearest friends, since our U.S. Army days at Aberdeen Proving Ground, is the Rev. Peter Amadeus Fiore, now scholar in residence at Siena College. Pete is a distinguished Donne and Milton scholar, who holds a doctorate from the University of London. He helps with services at Ballston Spa and his sermons are gems. Some have been put together in a book.

I have had the privilege and pleasure of reading Pete’s work in manuscript. When I first met his family in upstate Glens Falls, his father and mother, immigrants from Italy, made me a part of the family immediately, as did his sister, Mary, and his brother, Joseph. I am honored to have known them.

I heard of Caruso from many people — although he was long gone when I was born — but my love of opera was sealed when I heard Licia Albanese and Beniamino Gigli on an album called “The Heart of La Boheme.” I was hooked on opera, and especially Puccini, from that moment.

Elaine and I have been to Italy twice and loved every moment. I missed our third planned trip because of an acute sciatica attack at the last moment, but I was glad Elaine was able to go with friends. The memories of Italy — especially Tuscany and Florence — will be with me forever.

Some years ago, a good friend of ours, a Flushing native who now lives in Manhattan, said to me after I told him I had seen Puccini’s glorious “Il Trittico,” which the Met premiered in 1918, that he thought “O mio babino caro,” from Gianni Schicchi, “is the most perfect aria ever.” I am not sure he is right, but as a lover of all things Italian, I am prepared to agree with him.

After all, I have it on good authority that I have an Italian soul and there are times when I really wish I could be a stregone!

Un poco tardi, pero buona festa Cristoforo Colombo!

Updated 3:14 pm, October 20, 2011
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