This is the story of the DeLaura-Abate family, who emigrated from Italy in the early 1900s. They were the grandparents of my friend Rita, and this story originated from my love of the family’s Sausage Risotto, a recipe which comes from Rita’s mother’s family.
Port of Naples, Italy – 1901
The young boy twisted his hat in his hands as he approached the man at the desk, who waved him forward impatiently.
“Qual è il tuo nome, ragazzo?” What is your name, boy?
A heavy sigh emanated from the man, as though he were tired of reciting the same question to every young boy who passed his desk.
And so it went as Gaetano was peppered with more questions: How old are you? Can you read and write? Where do you live? Who is your closest relative? Do you have at least $25 in your pocket? Have you been in the jail? Are you an anarchist?
Gaetano didn’t know what some of the questions even meant, he just knew that this man stood between him and the large steamship in the harbor that was to take him to America. The young boy answered the questions as truthfully as he could. Soon the man waved him along and then Gaetano was subjected to a quick medical examination and hustled onto the ship.
It was 1901 when Gaetano DiLaura boarded the steamship bound for America, waving goodbye to his tear-stricken mother and stoic father who stood on the dock on the beautiful coast of Italy. None of them could know it would be the last time they would ever see each other. Scared and excited at the same time, Gaetano was just 14 years old. He was headed to what his parents prayed would be a better life with relatives in West Paterson, New Jersey—a long, long way from Rome, Italy.
Arriving in America
Two weeks later, Gaetano stood at the ship’s rail, feet firmly planted on the deck, no sign of the inner turmoil that was making his heart beat so fast. The journey had been arduous and felt as if it had taken forever. He slept on the top bunk over two other bunks, against the lines of three-and-four-tiered bunks, down in the steerage with more than 1,000 other hopeful emigrants. There were few toilet facilities and no way to bathe; the stench made Gaetano gag so he snuck up to the deck whenever he could. As the breeze tousled his hair and the bright sun warmed his thin body, Gaetano saw something on the horizon and prayed that it was land. Soon he could make out the famed Statue of Liberty. America. He whispered, “Madre! Padre! America. Lo sono qui.” I am here.
The hard part was not yet over. Gaetano was directed from the steamship to an open air ferry where he spent several hours waiting to disembark at Ellis Island. Because he was unescorted by parents, he was subjected to extensive medical testing and then not allowed to leave until his safety had been assured by the relatives awaiting his arrival. It would be hours before Gaetano would get his first glimpse of Manhattan and then travel to New Jersey.
“Lavoro! Lavoro!” Gaetano must have shouted hundreds of times a day, walking the streets of West Paterson, appealing to shopkeepers, street vendors, anyone who could give him work. Finally, he began as an apprentice to a brickmason and eventually landed a job at the Abate family construction company. The Abate family had emigrated years earlier from the Piedmont area of Italy.
Gaetano Meets Tersilla
On a blistering hot July afternoon, Gaetano was working in the construction yard, loading stone onto a wagon. He saw a flash of blue silk waltz by him and his head swiveled. The most beautiful girl he had ever seen was walking toward the office door. Gaetano, never one for shyness, snatched his hat from his head and covered his heart with his hand. “Bellissimo! Sono innamorato! I am in love. Mi devi sposare! You must marry me!” The beautiful girl tossed her long, brown hair over her shoulder and ignored him.
Laughter from the other workers finally penetrated Gaetano’s lovestruck brain and he asked, “Per favore, who is she?” The old men told him she was the capo’s daughter. Out of his reach. She would never talk to him much less marry him.
But Gaetano was determined and he secretly pestered the girl until finally she agreed to meet him at the park.
“Tersilla. You are bellissimo.” Gaetano presented his love with a flower he had swiped from a street vendor.
“Mio padre ti ucciderà,” she said. My father will kill you.
“It is okay,” Gaetano said in his halting English. “Sarò lieto di morire per voi.” I will gladly die for you.
Tessie laughed at this audacious young boy and accepted his flower. And a few months later, she had convinced her father not to kill him and she married him when she was just 16. It was the happiest day of his life, colored only by the knowledge that his own parents could not be there.
Gaetano and Tessie went on to have six children: Santina, Marie, Hank, Steve, Lucille, and Irene. The family settled for a while in West Hoboken, New Jersey, spending time with family and church—the children were raised in the Catholic faith, as Gaetano and Tersilla had been.
On September 17, 1919, one of the proudest days of his life, Gaetano DiLaura became a United States citizen and changed his name to Thomas DeLaura, Thomas being the English version of Gaetano.
Most families are not without some strife, especially when business is involved, and soon a falling out between family members led to Gaetano leaving the Abate family business and going to work for a moving company. He and Tessie moved to Union City, New Jersey, where they raised their family of six. Theirs was not an easy life. As Italian-American immigrants during the Great Depression, they struggled along with the rest of the country. In later years, they moved to Secaucus, New Jersey, where Thomas worked part-time for a jeweler until he retired.
Sixty-Two Years of Love
On a cold, spring day in March 1975, Gaetano held the hand of his beloved Tessie as she labored for her last breath. His dark brown eyes filled with tears. Sixty-two years together, forging their way in a new country, learning the language, raising a family. Hard times had often befallen them but their Italian spirit and resilience had defined them and ensured many more good times than bad.
“Grazie, mia bella amore,” he whispered as he kissed her hand. Thank you, my beautiful love. “Grazie per questa vita.” Thank you for this life.
Just four years later, Gaetano would join his beloved in Heaven.
The six DeLaura children remained close with each other and annually gathered together with their children for a family reunion. The last sibling passed away a few years ago, but the tradition is carried on today by the DeLaura grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren who gather each summer on the Jersey shore—a loud, boisterous Italian group of more than 70 if all are there!
The Risotto Recipe
This whole story began due to my love of the family’s risotto recipe, which you can find here. The recipe had many variations within the family: it seemed that each of the six offspring made it a different way—Santina—who was my friend Rita’s mother—made her risotto with rice, sausage, mushrooms, and red wine; Marie used rice and tomato sauce; Lucille had rice and sausage, and the others had variations as well.
And of course, now their children—Rita, her sisters, and their cousins—all make the risotto different ways. There are at least three variations of this sausage risotto in the family cookbook.