Last Updated on February 26, 2021 by Jim Ferri
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
By Jim Ferri
It was morning when my wife Marjorie and I left my cousin Nicola and set out for the small town of Accettura, nestled up in the mountains of Basilicata in southern Italy. For a long time we had been calling this trip our “Search for Pasquale,” a reference to my grandfather who had emigrated from there to America as a child 125+ years ago. We have been to many towns in Italy, especially all of the top places to visit in the country, but never to Basilicata.
It took us three hours to get there, about half the time spent driving on winding roads through forested mountains. Then, emerging from the woods around one turn, we looked across a little valley and saw Accettura perched on a hilltop, isolated from everything about it like so many of these little hill towns you see throughout Italy.
It was a small town of 1800 people or so, with only one main road, Via Roma, running through it with other streets branching off. It was a quiet place without a single traffic light where you never heard a horn blaring, even though everyone walked in the street.
It was also a place where all day long you would see men obsessively playing cards from morning to night, or just sitting about in groups along the road chatting. I began to wonder whether anyone worked here.
Right after we arrived we set out for the village church, hoping the parish priest could help us with information on my ancestral search. We found the church closed but did find two workman, one of whom spoke perfect English. It turned out he had spent a number of years working in Newcastle, England and he told us the best time to come back.
I asked him for directions to the cemetery, out on the edge of town, since I reasoned that would be a good spot to uncover some family history. But after spending an hour or so wandering about the graves and mausoleums, we came up empty-handed. Not a single Ferri tombstone in sight anywhere.
We left the hilltop and drove to the municipal offices in the center of town. I had e-mailed them a few months earlier, requesting information on several ancestors, and they had replied astonishingly quickly with official affidavits of the birth certificates of four ancestors. Now, with Marjorie speaking in Spanish — it was close enough to Italian that they could understand several words — we were able to get the woman to search back a bit further. But when we ran into another dead end the woman suggested she call “the professor,” someone who knew the local history of the Ferri family.
“The professor” was Angelo Labbate who explained that he was very, very distantly related to the Ferri family through marriage. For the next two days, as I continued to hear many names from the past – family names my father had mentioned over the years, names I had seen in registry books from family funerals, etc. – I began to wonder if I wasn’t very, very distantly related to just about everyone in town.
Interestingly, Angelo lived directly across from our hotel, and from his small balcony had seen us arrive. He had thought I looked familiar and he was right — it turned out that my newly found cousin Nicola, with whom I shared a family resemblance, was Angelo’s dentist.
We were staying at the Hotel San Giuliano, a small non-descript place that took no credit cards, set on a little cobblestone street in the middle of town. I had chosen it because it was mentioned in a book I had just read about Basilicata and Accettura. (Unfortunately I had learned of the book only two days before we had left the U.S., and the rush shipping from Amazon cost twice as much as the book itself.) On the other hand, San Giuliano may well have been the only hotel in town.
Angelo spoke only Italian but introduced us to his son Andrea, a teacher who spoke perfect English, and we learned that my great-grandfather’s brother Luigi (the connection to my “new” cousin) had gone to America with the family. But he later returned and bought two buildings here, one being the bar/café where we would meet with Angelo for espresso and conversation each day.
Civil records in Italy date back only to the mid-1700s — the time when Napoleon forced the Italians to begin registering births, deaths and marriages – so Angelo introduced us to the village priest, Giuseppe Filardi, to help with the search. Filardi and Angelo’s wife Domenica had gone to school together as children.
The next day we met Father Filardi in his parish office. We were in awe when we saw the dozen or so old leather bound books in his bookcase — church records written on parchment with a quill pen, line after line after line of baptismal and marriage records going back to the 14th century, the mother load of local history.
Marjorie (who’s not even Catholic) fell in love with Father Filardi who she thought was wonderful… wise, warm and totally aware of everything going on in the town. With a determination to help us, he feverously ran his finger down through pages of records searching for the right names.
At first he couldn’t find any, but then stumbled upon one, and guessing that each parent would be about 21 years old when the first child was born he then leap-frogged back through the years to look for another. Every time he came to one of our relative’s name he yell “a-ha!” and slammed his hand down in the table.
But everything came to an end after about an hour when we discovered that our oldest relative, Nicolai, had moved here from a town about 50 miles away that was even smaller than Accettura. Although we had been able to track the family back another 100+ years we knew our search in Accettura was now completed.
That night we took Angelo and Domenica, Father Filardi and Andrea and his fiancée Antonella out to dinner. Angelo had suggested Ristorante Pezzolla di Isabella Romano in the middle of town and we had a delicious dinner of regional dishes prepared by the 80+-year-old Isabella. It turned out to be another one of those memorable experiences you unearth every so often so far from home.
After dinner we took la passeggiata, the evening walk so much a part of life in Italy, and as I walked along with the priest — down the middle of the road of course — it was evident that he knew everyone in town as they waved to him or he wandered off to say hello to someone. I was feeling very much a part of this place now, doing what my ancestors had likely done on this very road more than a century earlier. It was a wonderful and surreal feeling I had never felt anywhere else.
At the end of it all there was only one wrinkle in our “Search for Pasquale”: we never found Pasquale.
Although we had found the others in the family it was likely the family had moved to another town, where he was born, before they left for America.
Such is life.
If you go:
Ristorante Locanda Pezzolla di Isabella Romano
via Roma, 21
75011 Accettura (MT)
Tel. 835 675008
Hotel San Giuliano
Piazza Cartoscelli, 7
Tel. 835 675747