Antonietta LoPardo was born on May 10, 1926 in Maierato, Calabria, Italy - a small town of about 5,000 inhabitants twenty minutes from the Mediterranean Sea. She was the fourth child of Antonia and Alfonso LoPardo, who had four daughters and one son - Rosina, Lucia, Giuseppe, Antonietta and Stella. Her father was a contractor and architect who built houses (which were very small in rural Italy at the time). During the First World War, he had served in the Italian army.
When Mussolini came into power, Antonietta was in about third grade. It was around that time that the Duce made a visit to the biggest nearby town – Vibo Valentia – to see the erection of an important politician’s statue in the city. Antonietta’s father was a blackshirt in the region (she later recalls her father had a candle burning at home in the Duce’s honor upon his death).
Her family travelled to see Mussolini’s arrival and he picked her from the crowd, giving her a kiss on the cheek in exchange for the flower she had brought.
Mussolini had made education mandatory. Antonietta excelled in school and recalls that when her father went to school the teacher told him about her success. The teacher recommended only three students to be promoted beyond primary school, and she was one of them.
Her father asked how well she was doing and the teacher replied that they wanted to advance her two grades, skipping fourth and fifth grades to go straight to “high school” (the highest level, rather, equivalent to modern middle school in the US).
Her father rejected the idea, instead telling the teacher, “Well, if she’s doing so well, she doesn’t need any more schooling.” So he pulled her out at nine years old, and that was the last of her formal education in life.
There was virtually no work in construction (work would halt entirely during WWII), so her father had purchased a bar in town to provide for the family. From then on she worked selling coffee and making gelato in the bar.
She recalls the women would occasionally come in for gelato, which the bar had essentially introduced to the town, but they would never hang out as the men did, drinking coffee and alcohol and playing cards.
Antonietta worked in the bar from nine until twenty-five, when she got married and eventually moved to the United States.
The bar had the only known telephone in the entire town, which was an important source of revenue for her family. Townspeople used to make appointments to use the phone, and she recalls taking notes when they received calls from people’s relatives in America so she could run to their house to tell them so they could arrange a time to call their relatives back at the bar. The phone was the town’s connection to everyone’s relatives in America.
It was not long before Antonietta was essentially managing and running the bar while and her father primarily socialized with the clients.
When the war broke out, the village was quickly faced with food rationing. Each person was permitted one hundred grams of bread per day. Antonietta recalls that everyone used food stamps instead of money throughout the war; each person had a book that would get stamped upon receiving his daily ration.
The farmers would grow wheat and provide it to the government for an enforced low price, but Antoniette recalls the farmers would report less and sell the remaining on the black market as contraband. Her father would leverage his local political and police contacts to help provide a little extra bread to local families in need.
Antonietta would separate the stock from wheat, grind it and make into flour by hand, a manual process using “il mulino d’acqua,” a machine to assist given there was no electricity.
Antonietta recalls that her brother Pino (Giuseppe) was conscripted by the fascists and that after Mussolini fell and the Germans occupied Italy, they took him prisoner as a defector. He escaped, abandoned his clothes, and walked for almost a month surviving on the generosity of strangers. After some time, as he was on a train trying to get home, someone from Maierato recognized him.
He eventually managed to find his way home but had severe typhoid fever and desperately needed penicillin.
Unfortunately there were no cars in the town, and most people who needed to travel far used a bicycle, if not mules or donkeys, so her father had to bike many miles outside the province to get penicillin.
In addition to the only phone, the family’s bar had the only radio in town, and so many people would congregate outside the bar when Mussolini spoke about the war.
Among the horrors of the Second World War and occupation, Antoniette sadly recalls family friends whose daughters had been the victim of rape at the hands of German soldiers who would pass the town in caravans and often force girls of around fifteen or sixteen from food rationing lines into their jeeps. She recalls people from around the town yelling warnings whenever the Germans would come, and still remembers her fear upon seeing them – most of them quite large in stature, she recalls, towering over any of the townspeople.
Her father quickly built a tunnel underneath the bar and would sneak his daughters under there whenever German soldiers passed through, covering it with a rug and furniture.
Antoniette recalls that the Americans, on the other hand, were welcomed when they took the village in their jeeps. They gave the children candies and chewing gum and when American soldiers entered her bar, she remembers giggling as they called her “señorita,” using the limited Spanish some of them knew from back home to try to communicate with her.
In Vibo and other larger towns, there was often carnage and bombings, so many Italians escaped to the smaller towns, including Maierato. Even still, Antoniette recalls she would frequently tremble when a plane flew by, unsure of whether or not her town would be bombed.
The LoPardos spent much of the war housing those from larger towns who had been displaced or escaped. Antonietta recalls throughout the war the cramped conditions in her home as she housed those seeking refuge. Often she slept with seven other people in a bed –four at the top of the bed and four at the bottom. The discomfort was not helped by the bed itself, composed of a hard cornhusk mattress and sheep wool. She recalls it was “harder than a rock.”
If the weather was warm, the home was bearable, but when it was cold, they would all cuddle up to stay warm. For light, they had a makeshift lantern (wick with oil). Throughout her life in Maierato (until she was around twenty-five), the family would have to bring their water from the fountain on the other side of the town.
While her brother had been conscripted to fight for Fascist Italy, her future husband, Giuseppe Costa, had enlisted in the Army Signal Corps and was fighting for the United States in the South Pacific. Giuseppe was also from Maierato and had moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the late 1930s with his father Fortunato and brother Antonio. He had remained in America to send remittances home because his father Fortunato had lost his leg in a steel mill and was forced to return to Italy.
After the War, Giuseppe returned to Maierato and married Antonietta, who had lived across the street from him as a child. As she will recount, she was initially hesitant despite family pressure. They were married in Pompeii, and they decided to move to the United States in 1951. The newlywed couple was on a boat for fourteen days before they arrived in New York City, reaching Ellis Island in 1951/1952. They spent a week in New York City with Antonietta’s uncle, who lived there.
Giuseppe’s brother Antonio had become a shoemaker in Pittsburgh while his brother had returned to Italy to marry, and so Giuseppe and Antonietta headed to Pittsburgh to join Antonio. The two brothers discussed getting Antonietta a job peeling potatoes, which she said she had never done in Italy and did not want to start in America.
Instead, she wanted to be a seamstress like her mother had been, and she got a job at Buhl’s men’s store in the North Side of Pittsburgh. She knew no English at all – a fact that gradually changed, albeit only a little, throughout her life.
The family had settled in East Liberty, a poor immigrant and African-American neighborhood at the time. In order to get to work, she had to take a streetcar from East Liberty all the way to the North Side. She recalls that her husband had told her to wait for the streetcar to take her home after her first day of work in the same spot it had dropped her off. It was a one-way street though so he had been wrong and the streetcar never came. Speaking no English in a foreign part of the city with no way of contacting him, she began crying and did not know what to do. Eventually Giuseppe realized his mistake and came to get her.
After that incident, they decided the North Side was too far from East Liberty, and Antonietta got a job at Gimble’s in downtown Pittsburgh as a seamstress. When she had her first child, she stopped working (she would eventually have five children).
The family’s home off Larimer Avenue was isolated within the Italian community. Although East Liberty was home to many different ethnicities, Antonietta recalls the insularity of each, all staying among their own. Churches were segregated into different ethnic groups, and the Polish or Germans would never go into an Italian church (and vice versa).
Initially, Antonietta and her young family lived on the third floor of an apartment building in East Liberty, which was very austere, small, and had no heat in the winter. She did not understand at first because she had left her family, her language, her home for the paradise of America but so far disliked it more than what she had back home.
Antonietta wanted to move from the tiny apartment at 14J, 851 Collins Avenue as the family grew to seven. Working as a cobbler, her husband found it difficult to save.
The family initially rented space from an older Jewish couple. When the woman’s husband died, she liked Antonietta and Giuseppe enough to give the family a mortgage because the banks would not. Eventually they paid off the mortgage and owned the house. The Costa family moved to Morningside in 1970, where she still resides.
One day Antonietta’s eldest son, Frank, was helping out in the shoe shop and overheard Giuseppe’s friend, an avid gambler named Carlos, who asked if Giuseppe wanted to buy his pizza shop.
Giuseppe was uninterested, but Frank was intrigued by the opportunity and inquired into the price. After some diligence, he offered to pay Carlos half immediately and the remaining half after he taught him how to run the pizza shop, Venice Pizza.
In time, Venice Pizza made more money than the shoe shop and became the family’s primary source of income. The family kept the pizza shop for eighteen years, and Antoniette, her husband and her son Frank would run the shop. Mr. Costa would often work the register while his wife worked in the back making the food. The neighborhood was still rough, and Antonietta had a little cabinet window with a sliding cover facing the cash register from the kitchen, in which she kept a gun, so that if anyone were to pose a threat to her husband she could slide back the window and defend him.
She recalls her son working his way through medical school at the pizza shop. One day, a woman came to order pizza and told Frank he looked familiar, realizing he had been her doctor earlier that day at the ER.
Antonietta has fourteen grandchildren. Her husband Joseph passed away in 2003. Her youngest child, Lilly, tragically passed a year later two weeks from giving birth to her first child. The baby, named after his grandfather Joseph, survived despite oxygen deprival. Already in her eighties, Antonietta moved from Pittsburgh to her daughter’s home in Philadelphia for two years to care for the child in years that would prove pivotal to his health.
She has since moved back to her home in Pittsburgh and recalls sleepless nights tending to the baby and his therapy as she proudly shows video of him now running, playing and laughing. Antonietta remains a daily fixture at St. Raphael’s Church in Morningside, where she is something of a patron saint, and continues making her award-winning soppressata.