Mark Rotella Writes of the Italian Experience
I recently had the opportunity to speak to author Mark Rotella, who wrote one of the few books about the Italian region of Calabria, and a personal favorite of mine. Stolen Figs is a touching travel memoir in which Rotella recounts his experience travelling with his immigrant father back to the region where he was born. At first his father is reluctant to return because he had lost touch with most of his relatives, but eventually he agrees and they embark on a father-son journey that serves as both a reunion for his father and a first-time encounter with his Italian family for the author. It’s also a captivating, town-by-town description of the unique character and beauty of Calabria.
As a follow up to Stolen Figs, last year Rotella published his second book, Amore: The Story of Italian American Song. This time he tells the tale of the sensational emergence of a dominant Italian American cadre of singers that contributed an unparalleled legacy of classic songs that remain treasured and beloved favorites. The book will be released in paperback in September.
Please tell us a little about your Italian heritage.
I guess the first thing that people don’t realize—and many people joke that by knowing me they think that I’m 100% Italian American. My father’s Italian but mother is French Canadian. I grew up in Florida, though I was born inDanbury, Connecticut. It was basically—my own definition of being Italian was visiting my grandparents in Connecticut. They never really learned to speak much English and, basically, it was through my father, who would play old Italian records. We’d go to eat at various Italian restaurants and the few Italian delis that there were in the St. Petersburg/Tampa area. And, basically, I think I was always identified—especially in the South, especially inFlorida—by my last name. So, wherever I went people were always asking if I were Italian. I think I was one of the few people, you know, with a vowel at the end of their name and I went to a Catholic school.
You wrote one of my favorite books about Italy, Stolen Figs. What inspired you to write this story?
Basically the book came about when my father was sculpting in Italy. He took a month or so to go a region that was sort of an art colony and he was sculpting marble from Ferrara and he asked me if I wanted to go with him. This was after college and I was freelancing for a couple of years and I said “sure” and while I was there I said, “you know, dad, I really want to go down to Calabria and see where the family is.”
He said, “Why do you want to go down there? I don’t think we….you know I’m not in touch with anyone.”
And he hadn’t been back in 30 years. And I said, “you know what I just want to see what it is, so I’m going to go down by myself.”
And over a glass of wine he said, “Yeah, alright I’m gonna go with you.”
And we took this train ride from Perugia to Florence where we connected to Rome and down to Naples you know across the toe on this cogwheel train ride and it was here that, within an hour really, we had met my dad’s first and second cousins and aunts and uncles and it was really pretty wonderful.
When I came back—I had always been writing—I was writing short stories—I told my agent at the time. I told her about this trip and she said, “Oh, wow, Mark I think this is a book and you should write a proposal and we should see if we can sell it.” And I did that and that’s how it came about.
It was a pretty wonderful experience for me. I wanted to know more about Calabria and I saw nothing that wasn’t over a century old and written by English or Scottish travelers. So, I thought, wow, everybody knows about the Neopolitans and the Sicilians but about a third of all Americans of Italian descent have Calabrese roots, so I decided to write about that and that’s kind of what inspired it.
Do you still visit Calabria regularly and, if so, where do you go?
Ah, I wish. I haven’t been able to since right after the book came out. The reason for that is shortly after the book came out we had our son, then our daughter, and I started writing the second book, Amore, and we just never had the chance to go back. I’m still in touch with my relatives—now, especially thanks to Facebook. They keep asking when we’re going to go and I’m hoping we’ll go back soon. My daughter is two, so maybe when she is three we’ll take a trip over there.
Anything changing in Calabria, or of note?
I think Calabria is like the rest of Italy. I don’t think much has changed at all. I think it’s still the same place that it was. I think its hit by the expense of the Euro. I mean the Euro is really expensive for Italians, especially in the South. I have seen—there’s a publisher in Calabria that is starting to publish more books about the South and they actually bought my book and they will be publishing it within a year. So, for the first time, Stolen Figs will be translated into Italian. I haven’t been back, but from my friends that go back regularly it hasn’t changed much. For those that travel and want to see a real picture ofItaly—I think they go to the South for that reason.
In September of 2010 you published your second book, Amore: The Story of Italian-American Song. What inspired you to write that?
Basically, as I was listening to so many songs, I realized that…. Well, let me start at the beginning. Actually it was during the time when my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were in our early thirties and it was during the time when she was undergoing a lot of treatment that she, that we, started just staying home a little bit more. I started cooking more. This was the time when Big Night came out – you know the Stanley Tucci move. And I started listening to all these old Italian American songs and Italian songs. And I started thinking of all these singers —Vic Damone, Tony Bennett—I realized how many of these singers of these great songs from the forties, fifties and sixties were of Italian descent. So I started drawing up a chart and I couldn’t believe the number of Italian Americans who were on the top ten music list Billboard charts. And I realized how much this was in addition to, say, boxers or baseball players or anyone that entered the public eye. The Italian Americans really helped shape the pop standard as we know it. And you know this is what inspired me to write that book. It was just sung so well.
Any interesting stories from the book?
Well, one of the things I realized, and I wrote about, is that it seemed that almost all of them—no matter who I talked to from Jerry Vale to Dion to Frankie Laine—to really anyone. There was one singer that everyone listened to when they were growing up, and were inspired by, and that was Enrico Caruso. That was something that came out while I was interviewing them and I think that was pretty cool. Whether they were pop singers or swing singers they all loved Enrico Caruso.
I think one of my favorite times—unexpected times—was when flying out, and driving down, to San Diego where I spent time with Frankie Laine, Frankie LoVecchio, whose known for “Mule Train” and “Rawhide’ and so many Western songs, but before then so many great classic songs from the forties and fifties and telling me of his early inspirations, telling me, “you know I was one of the first rock singers to sound black even before Elvis.” And he was really proud and some of his, and so many other’s, influences were African American singers. It was one of the things I learned.
May fans of this kind of music are older? Have you seen a renewed interest?
I think these songs aren’t being written the way they used to, but I think there’s certain—you always hear them played at weddings and certain special occasions. I think they are definitely a thing of the past, but I think that so many young people who are singers are looking to and reviving them in their small way, like Jenna Esposito. She comes from a music family and she does cabaret shows in New York. She did this whole Connie Francis show at Feinstein’s, which is Michael Feinstein’s cabaret theater. And she’s doing a show at the end of August, which was inspired by Amore, where she’s doing all songs by Italian Americans that changed their name—you know Tony Bennett to Vic Damone, even Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, who changed his name from Stefano Tallarico. So there are singers like that who are just making it very alive.
Are you working on anything Italian-related now or any upcoming projects where can your fans find you?
I just had a piece in the Wall Street Journal on the Jersey Shore cast that I wrote and that’s kind of a re-imagining. They went to Florence and I was re-imagining certain stereotypes of what could happen if they actually had real experiences. Also, the paperback version of Amore is being released.
What is your favorite thing about being Italian?
Gosh. It’s so funny because it seems so cliché to say the food, but in ways that is a big part of it, having been brought up on the food. But I think it’s the way Italians like to talk. And they talk openly. And they aren’t afraid of emotion or argument—in fact sometimes thrive on it. I think they’re very vocal and that’s what I like. It’s a certain sense of outgoing—of being in the world. There’s a certain sense of just really enjoying the good life and trying to live that.
Are there any favorite Italian New York businesses that you would like to mention to our readers?
One of my favorite restaurants that I go to on special occasions is A Voce, but my favorite restaurant that Martha and I go to for comfort food, and to be treated well, is a place in the WestVillage called Da Andrea. They’re a really nice couple from Bologna and it’s just a really great place—really great service and really great, affordable Italian food. The other thing I’d like to mention—there’s—in Little Italy there’s this little store called E. Rossi & Sons and they sell tourist stuff, they sell Italian records, T-shirts, aprons. But more than anything I think this store played an important part in Italian immigration in that they—in the 1920s—they sold sheet music and it was through this store that so many great Italian and Italian American songs were published and brought to the rest of the world. So, just a big shout out to them.
To learn more about Mark Rotella and to see his calendar of upcoming speaking engagements and appearances, please visit his website at www.markrotella.com.