Monday, September 19, 2011

Our trip to Italy was in a word INCREDIBLE!

The country is everything you imagine and more. The history of Rome is fascinating; the food is unbelievable and the landscape is gorgeous.  It left all of us promising to return and explore more.  But, the highlight of the trip was our day trip to the town where Catherine 'Penello' Ellison's (Grandma Kitty’s) family lived before they immigrated to America in 1898.  Italy is separated into regions and the region Grandma always talked about, Basilicata, is located in the southern part of the country spanning from coast to coast just above the arch of the 'boot'.  Basilicata is divided into two provinces, Potenza and Matera and Grandma’s family was from the area of Potenza, specifically from a small village that sits on top of a mountain and overlooks a beautiful valley. The town is called Marsicovetere.  We learned how to pronounce it (pretty well) and you have to kind of say it real fast to get it right.  Marcy-co vey tay-ray (emphasis on the ‘vey’ syllable).  It’s a town of a little over 5,000 inhabitants, which sits at 3,402’ elevation.

You'll find Marsicovetere straight to the left of Basilicata, then slightly down towards the yellow line.


To get to Marsicovetere, we (my husband, Jim, in bright blue, me, and our friends, Maryann and Frank Hardesty) took an early morning train 2 1/2 hours south from Rome to a coastal town called Salerno.  It was a very pleasant train ride and we saw many beautiful sites along the way.  

One of the train stops was the city of Napoli (Naples).  I couldn't help but reflect on the fact that this is the very place that Grandma's family set sail from when they immigrated to America in 1898 via the Tartar Prince on their way to New York.  Note passengers No. 19-22 on the ship manifest. 

We stopped in Salerno to have breakfast (or what we could find for breakfast, it was lunch time... pizza anyone?) and enjoyed the sights of the town before we headed out.   

Our rental car agent told us that we were going to see "real Italy" when traveling to the Basilicata area for the day.  We were of course thrilled to hear that!  We actually ended up staying in Salerno on our return since there were not any hotels we knew of in Marsicovetere itself.  That was more than okay with us as it's a beautiful place all it's own.  I think the pictures speak for themselves.  And so off we went to find Marsicovetere!

Could this be it?  No, we still had quite a way to go, but sure is a scenic area.

Could that be it way up there?


As we made our way towards the mountains and got ever so close to Marsicovetere, our excitement grew stronger. We had driven two hours inland and then up several switchbacks to finally arrive in Marsicovetere.  Thank goodness for English speaking GPS systems!  The signage began to appear.  We were almost there!

Switchback after switchback.  And then as we turn a corner suddenly out of nowhere this view appears!

There it is... Marsicovetere!  Marcy-co vey tay-ray (emphasis on the ‘vey’ syllable).  Sitting just as pretty as she can be up on the mountaintop.  It truly took my breath away and was everything I had imagined it might be.

We continued to make the climb.  Love the no "trumpets" sign!  Haha


Before we left I actually wrote down a little description of what we were trying to accomplish on our trip and had Google translate it into Italian.  That, it turns out was a VERY good idea.  August in Italy is the time of year when all the locals take off, so most of the shops in the village were closed for the month and everyone else was inside trying to avoid the heat!  (It was 104 on the day we were in town and the humidity had to be at least 90%!).

The town is right out of a movie set... narrow cobblestone streets, steep staircases and houses all attached together. We finally parked when Jim gave up on navigating the town by car out of concern that we might get stuck in the ever-narrowing streets and so we decided to start walking.  Turns out walking is not a whole lot easier than driving with all the hills, stairs and cobblestone; but it is a whole lot easier to back up and turn around if you make a wrong turn!

We wandered up a street looking at mailboxes for interesting names and also looking for people who might be able to help.  We found a listing on one of the multi-family buildings that had a Lois Toscano as one occupant.  Possibly related to Grandma’s mother’s side of the family?  In the courtyard we found a man sleeping on the stairs and managed to startle him.  We asked if he spoke English…. no such luck and then asked if he knew where Lois Tuscano lived.  “Noa Englisha… anda noa Toscano!” So off we went, heading on up the street.  There were all kinds of homes… some looked totally closed up or empty and others more promising.


Our friend Maryann spotted a home with flowers on the stoop and a beautiful entryway.  “Knock on that door” she said, a woman lives there you can tell from the flowers and live plants.”  So we did.

A middle-aged woman answered the door and Jim (the brave one) asked if she spoke English… nope again!  We handed her the translated paper I had in my folder and she sat down on the stoop and began to read out loud as if hearing it in Italian might somehow be helpful.  Oh how I wish I had video taped her!  She was so animated in her voice and with her hands.  I knew that there were different spellings for the surnames in Grandma’s family, so I had written down possible spellings that they could have been when they emigrated: Penello, Penella and Penelli.  She read them out loud with such liveliness.  When she got to the Penello part, she stopped and thoughtfully repeated the names several times. I also brought a picture that I had from Grandma’s sister, Josephine’s family that was taken not too long after they arrived in America.  I gave her the picture and she immediately started talking about one person in the photo, Teresa Russo Penello, Grandma’s grandmother.

At some point one of her friends or family members (a much older woman) joined her and the conversation got more animated… all in Italian… they kept saying Penella, Penello, Penelli and her friend or family member kept pointing to Grandma’s grandmother’s picture.  So, I handed her another photo I had of Teresa that looks to have been taken several years later.  Then yes, the immediate reaction again of them acknowledging that somehow they knew her or she resembled someone or or or???  Oh, if we only knew what they were saying!  (Note to the family: Does she resemble anyone that you know by chance?!  This is Grandma Kitty's grandmother, Teresa Russo Pinnella. 

Then the first woman went in the house and got on the phone… started to speak with someone in Italian and all we could make out was Americanos and Penello, Penella, Penelli in her entire conversation.  Soon another occupant in the house came out.  She was much younger, perhaps early twenties, so our hope for an English translator soared!  She was a shy girl, quite cute and when we asked if she spoke English she smiled and shyly said “no not mucha. Come witha me.”  We all looked at one another and said okay and off we went.

Down the street, the cobblestone stairs, around the corner and down another flight of stairs.  We asked her where we were going and she sweetly smiled saying, “the policea station”.  Oh, really?  Either very good or very bad!


When we arrived the young girl took us up to the woman working at the counter behind the glass and pointed for us to meet with her. 

A plump, middle aged woman, with dark shoulder length hair, olive complexion and maybe 5’2” at best in heels firmly gestured for me to hand her my paperwork.  She began to read the letter that I had written and when she was finished she also looked at the photo.  Then she looked at me and said, “no Penello … it’sa Pinnella, no Penello… Pinnella.”  Pronounced very specifically as “Pee nel la”.  So I’m looking at Jim and my friends thinking 'okay, now what?' and she continued going on and on in Italian with a full explanation of what she meant by that but we had no idea what she was saying!  (Yes, unfortunately, the young girl that brought us had politely left by this point.)  Oh, it was so discouraging and such a helpless feeling.  Mama mia!  Then she looked at me, pointed to herself and said, “me Pinnella”.  Ahhh so things were starting to make some sense!  The woman at the home must have called ‘her’ to say that we Americanos were looking for a Penello or Penella or Penelli.  When we acknowledged we understood what she she was trying to say, she smiled.

She then turns and grabs a large, and I mean large, leather bound book (at least 16”x20” and 5” thick) from a shelf and starts flipping through the pages.  The pages were all old, aged with the yellow brown tones and beautifully handwritten in Italian.  She quickly finds the page she is looking for and turns the book around for me to see.  It was the very page where Grandma’s parents’ official wedding ceremony was recorded!!  Francesco Saverio Pinnella and Maria Cristina Toscano!  She looked up at me waving her pointed finger and said, “no Penello.  Pinnella.”  She wanted to make sure I had that down pat! (Remember everyone; it’s Pee nel la!)  I could not believe my eyes!!  It also showed their parents names!  Yes, it was indeed accurate because it showed Teresa Russo was Francesco’s mother!  

I also saw the main page of the book showing Basilicata in large fancy print as the region for the marriages in the book.  Oh, my heart skipped a beat and I asked, "can I take a photo of this?" and she frowned saying, “no photo” and I thought to myself, you’ve got to be kidding me!  Okay, I then calmly asked, "can you make copy?"  “no copy”.  Oh my gosh!!  She went on to speak in Italian so many words that we had no idea what in the world she was saying.  All I wanted was a photo of that beautiful page.  I’m sure she could see the look of hopelessness in my eyes.  We finally caught the word “certificato” out of everything she was trying to say and we said, “yes, certificate”.  That was all we could think of at this point.  So, off she went.  She was gone for about 45 minutes.  

The book, however, remained on the desk behind the counter.  I got my camera out to take a photo of at least the book.  My girlfriend Maryann and I thought wouldn’t it be great to at least get a picture of the book?  Jim quietly whispered in my ear, “there is a woman watching you like a hawk and we are in a police station”.  Dang it!  We came so far.  What in the heck… I mean the book is just sitting on a shelf in this office after all and for hundreds of years no less.  Mama mia!  So as we waited and waited, I went around the building taking various pictures of posters hanging around the building.

Okay, enough already, I was done taking pictures of things I was 'allowed' to.  I then looked up and saw the woman coming down the stairs with documents in her hand.  She handed them to me.  There were three notarized documents.  I quickly looked through them.  One of Francesco’s birth.  One of Maria’s birth.  And one of the marriage between Francesco and Maria Pinnella.  She shrugged showing that was the best she could do.  I was THRILLED!!  

In a last desperate move, Jim suddenly got the idea to Google translate on his phone “do you know where the church is that they were married in?”  She read it and said “no”.  Googled again, “do you have the information about Teresa Russo’s husband, where he would be buried here?”  “no”.  “Do you have birth records for Teresa Russo?”  “no”.  With each 'no' we realized we were done.  Great try though, Jim!  (Now I’m wondering if ‘there’s an app for that’… one that translates what a person is saying in an unknown language? Hmm… would have come in handy!) In any case, the woman had gone out of her way to help us and stayed overtime as well.  I don’t think she would have done as much as she had if she did not found it curious that we were ‘Pee nel la’s’ too!  We thanked her repeatedly for all her help as best we could and she smiled as we left while she locked up her office.

Here are copies of each of the documents.  It's very exciting, because each contain a little more or different information than we had before!

We needed to count our blessings that what we did receive was BIG.  I held on to those documents like they were gold!  I thought the most we might be able to do is find the town and take pictures of it, maybe a road sign, city sign, but not much more.  I never expected this to happen and I NEVER expected to see with my own eyes the actual book that Grandma’s parents wedding was recorded in from 1895!  Wow!



Looking back I wish I had taken so many more photos/video… the woman on the steps who initially read the letter I wrote, who called the woman at the police station to help us.  I wish I had taken a picture of the woman at the police station too.  After all she said “me Pinnella”.  She is most likely related in some way and I will never know for sure.  Many should have’s… but the memories are with me, and those I can hold on to forever.

Marsicovetere is a beautiful place and it was a blessing to just walk the streets of the village area and see the landscape where Grandma’s family all started.  

We found steps that led to old church ruins that sit in the center of town.  We got caught up in imagining that this could have been the very place that Grandma's parents were married.  We will never know for sure, but it sure was fun to think about!

We also stopped at the local cemeteries and walked around to look for other Pinnella’s and Toscano’s and Russo’s.  We did find several Toscano’s and Russo’s, but no Pinnella’s.  There were many old unmarked crosses either made out of iron or wood that could have been Teresa Russo’s husband’s gravesite (Guiseppe Pinnella), but we will never know.  We were looking for his in particular, because he died five years before their departure to America.  And all the Toscano’s and Russo’s could very well be related to Grandma’s mother, Maria, or her grandmother, Teresa, but there were too many to know for certain.  I have photos of those we found should anyone have an interest in seeing them at some point.

On our drive back towards Salerno we saw a magnificent sunset as we made our way through the mountains.  

I could not help but reflect on what a truly amazing adventure we had just finished.  My hopes of finding warmth in many of the people of Italy were all realized and that was so comforting.  

The journey to Marsicovetere was definitely worth it, and way beyond my expectations.  I will return one day. When I do, it will be with a translator and a much quicker finger on the camera!  What I can say is that our family emigrated from a BEAUTIFUL part of God’s creation.  They must have really believed in the dream of a better life in America to leave all this natural beauty and those they knew and loved behind.  I know I am grateful that they did, selfishly speaking of course, or I would have never been born into the wonderful family I am blessed to be a part of today.

It just wouldn't seem right for me to end this blog without honoring Grandma in some way.  So, with that, I am going to close with this video clip of her.  I videotaped her in 2007 during a visit to Bloomington, Illinois and, well, I think it will speak for itself as to just how Italian and special she is.  I love you 'nonna' Kitty!   


  1. What a fantastic trip! I can't believe what we learned in just one day!! Thanks for putting this together to share with everyone

  2. AWWWW I love it! That is so cute and sweet!!

  3. This is amazing! Frank and I were honored to share your special day with you and Jim. This is a beautiful tribute! I love the video at the end, that is a really special moment! Love Maryann

  4. Beautiful job Carrie. How fun for you to go on this adventure. It's my dream to go there someday but I'm thinking it's not likely so I'm glad you did. Love that video of Grandma too...brings tears to my eyes as I know she doesn't remember anymore. Bless her heart. What a sweetie. Thanks for sharing this story!

  5. Thank you for sharing this amazing story! It bought tears to my eyes as I know very little of dad's (John, Kitty's brother) family and history. Such a wonderful treat for us Penello girls, Anne,Penny and me, Cris. (actually Cristine named after Cristina)Thank you so much!!

  6. Hi Carrie….Thanks for taking us on your exciting journey to Grandma’s homeland.  You did such a great job of documenting your adventure and capturing all the wonderful photo’s.  I’m glad you were able to make the trip and share your experience with all of us.   Love you.. Janine

  7. I have just viewed your blog on my computer, as opposed to my phone, and have just been blown away. Your photos and narrative are spectacular. The video of Aunt Kitty brought tears to my eyes as I can clearly remember my father (Kitty's brother) singing that very same song with the same enthusiasm. All your efforts researching the Pinnella family were rewarded. Imagine meeting a Pinnella relative in the birthplace of your great-grandparents! Good job!
    Anne Penello Depenbrock

  8. I wanted to thank you all for your wonderful comments. I'm so glad that you enjoyed the blog and journey to Marsicovetere! I feel honored and blessed to have been able to take the trip and then share it with you. If any of you want a copy of the documents that I received while I was there, please let me know and I'll be more than happy to email them to you. Yes, I am so glad that I had the video of Grandma Kitty too... it is a treasure as she will turn 100 next year. It brings tears to all of our eyes as we realize her enthusiasm that we have grown to love all of our lives is not quite what it used to be. But the memories we can hold on to forever and her laughter and wit is something that has always been contagious and so special about her. If her brother (John) was anything like her, I would have loved to have known him! :) And, Cris how wonderful to have been named after your grandmother! Maryann... we couldn't have made the trip without you! Thanks so much to you and Frank for truly making the adventure so much fun and seriously to you for encouraging us to knock on that one woman's door!!


  9. I only just found this blog entry and wanted to let you know that I also have ancestors in Marsicovetere, and that you can find microfilmed images of very nearly ALL of the birth and death records for that town at where I've been doing my research. It's a free website, which is great, and if you search their Continental Europe collections under "Italy, Potenza," you'll find births and deaths recorded between 1866 and 1910, which should encompass your Marsicoveterese ancestors.

    I was able to find my own paternal great-grandfather and great-grandmother there and solve a major family mystery as to where my last name came from. Give it a try. I've already gone through those microfilms with a fine-toothed comb, and there are many Panellas, Pinellas, and other spellings of that name to be found.

  10. Hi - my name is Michael Pennello and I am the grandson of Giuliano and Carolina Pennello and I live in Norvolk, Va where my grandparents moved to from Marsicovetere in 1893. The name on their passport when tney came thru Ellis Island was spelled Pinnella. I have been to Marsicovetere twice and have visited the Commune and got copies of their records also. I guess we may just be related! Please contact me at if you want to compare notes. Loog forward to hearing from you.

  11. Hi Carrie. My name is Corinne Falcon.I'm french. My grand father family came from MV too. Giovanni Leone b. 1836 and his wife Antonia Panella b.1844. They came in France in 1890 and had to join other family members in Chicago but they stayed. Have you hear about those names? you can write me

  12. Thank you so much for your blog!! It is helping me tremendously with my daughters family tree for a school project! Plus it is so fun to learn who and where our family came from... I am your aunt Barbara's granddaughter �� This is such a great tribute to grandma kitty as well❤️❤️