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Piazzo and Oleggio ancestry and a huge piece of luck!

The idea was fairly well thought out. Meet my parents and my aunt and uncle in Milan and go to the two towns that my mother and father's families are from. The plan was to spend two nights inn each town and then three nights in Bellagio to relax. We had researched our ancestors and were very confident of the towns. My mother more so, as she had been to Oleggio when she was nine with her father. Piazzo was a fair certainty as we had found the town name on ship's registries on various websites. So I met them in the airport as planned and before I knew it, I was zooming down the autostrade towards our first destination, Piazzo.
Piazzo is a small town and in actuality, is merged with the larger down the hill town of Lauriano. We had great accommodations and wonderful first meal at Farm B&B Cascina Colombaro. Our fist bit of luck was how close we were. In the morning it was a short stroll up the hill to Piazzo. As we walked up the tiny country road I told my aunt and my dad, "We're the first of our family to return from America in nearly 100 years." We made our way up the hill gawking at buildings and getting ever closer to the tower of the church in the center of town. I noticed that there were not many people out and about and the only person we did stop to talk to said "No English!" and briskly moved on. I worried that mom's smattering of Italian may not end up being as useful as we all had hoped. We pushed on and stopped occasionally at spots of interest. I took pictures and video trying to capture my dad and his sister as they walked, literally in their Grandfather's footsteps. At this point our only real plan was to see the center of town. Another person came walking down the hill and in very good English said, "Can I help you? Are you lost?"
This was the luck, or rather, she was the luck. We had just been stopped by Matilde Casa, the Mayor of the town. She saw us and immediately knew we were not Italian, but after talking with us also saw something that doesn't happen often. Maybe never in the ten years she's been mayor. Americans looking for ancestral roots in Piazzo, Italy. She said it just doesn't happen. What ensued the next few hours was magical. She took us straight to the ONLY bar/tavern/pub/meeting place in Piazzo. Casa Degli Amici to "meet some locals". After some quick consults with the guys sitting outside the bar, she said, "We really need Michelangelo here. He knows everything about Piazzo." As if on cue, up walks a grey bearded gentleman. "Ahh! Michelangelo!" she cried.
The meeting is still a blur to me and I filmed almost all of it. She translated who we were and our family names and then translated back what he said. Turns out my great-grandfather may have been the last to leave and that any extended family had moved away. There were no more Matta's living in Piazzo anymore. He continued to translate the marriage notice of my great great grandfather and the birth of his son. He corrected a street name we thought we had to a section of the town. More of a neighborhood where they lived. We enjoyed coffee in the tiny square and of course conversation turned to food and life in Piazzo.
As things wrapped up, we said our goodbyes and thank you to Michelangelo. He had his weekly wine and conversation to attend with the guys. We invited the Mayor to dinner and met her daughter who joined us that night. The next day she had us come down to the Comune and meet in her office. Her staff researched our family name and we received copies of birth and marriage records. She also gave us copies of a book written about Piazzo and stood for pictures. Her last gift was the best. She called the Mayor of Oleggio and asked them to make an appointment for my Mother to research her family!
An incredible start to a trip and we have the Mayor to thank for it!

Next: Part 2 Does our luck run out in Oleggio?

Posted by
2180 posts

Can I suggest to keep your report together that you add the part 2 as a comment to this thread? Otherwise, they become separated and hard to follow.

Posted by
1034 posts

Fascinating report. Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait for part 2!

Posted by
7721 posts

What a heartwarming story about connecting with the people in your ancestors town. Looking forward to the next town!

Posted by
503 posts

Looking forward to Part 2. I enjoy reading stories of visits to ancestral towns and family histories. I did the same thing in my grandparents' small town in Sicily where we still have some family members. If you are interested in genealogy many of the Catholic church records and some civil rceords from Italy are online. I was able to find ancestors back to the 1700s, as far back as the parish records went.

Posted by
25 posts

Thanks everyone! I will continue in the comments of this post with part 2 here very soon. Hoping more people interested in ancestry will read see this. It’s a lot of research with some luck tossed in. More to come...

Posted by
3111 posts

What good luck for your genealogy trip. Can’t wait for Part 2!

Posted by
1607 posts

Jeff, thank you so much for hope and luck. I love your report. My sister-in-law and I will be making a very short trip to her grandparent’s hometown of Mongrassano Calabria in May after the RS South of Italy tour. I hope she has the same luck as you finding her family roots.

I wonder if we should contact the mayor or parish priest beforehand. We drive to Mongrassano on Saturday and leave on Sunday.
Yes? No?

Posted by
25 posts

I would say definitely try to make contact. We emailed both comunes well before our trip and never received responses. You may have better luck with the parish. Weekends will be tough for a comune because they probably will not be open. Be sure to have the names of the last relations that lived in Italy and their birthdays. I’ll try to link photos of the ledgers so you can see how names are listed.
Try I think they deal with a specific part of Calabria but it may end up being useful. Remember that all of this takes time and responses from comunes and parishes are slow and in my case, never came. It’s also understandable. They have a town or church to run. Good to start now, even for a trip that is in May.
I hope this is helpful! Good luck!

Posted by
519 posts

What a great story!! Something similar happened to me in a tiny town in Sicily when I visited 2 years ago. I already had the documents, as my dad and I had gone through the dual citizenship process in 2008, but had never visited the village. Similarly, what seemed like the whole town came out at the (one) local cafe and I was taken to pay a visit to the oldest woman in town (98!) to hear about my ancestors. Such a neat experience, looking forward to reading the rest of your story!

Posted by
25 posts

PART TWO : Does our luck run out in Oleggio?

It started to rain the day we left Piazzo. In truth, I didn’t want to leave. I really wanted to cancel the rest of my Italian trip and stay in Piazzo. This is where possibly generations of my family was from and I still had so many questions. But, as it often happens in travel, you get excited about a place and then it’s time to leave.
I couldn’t imagine that our next stop would be as event filled as Piazzo. There was no way we could match the charm of the small town, meeting the mayor and strolling the very hills my family was from. And the luck? How often does that happen?

My mother’s father was Pasquale Lorenzini. He was older than my Nonni by fifteen years. As best as my mother can tell, they probably got married because Nonni’s family was from the same town of Oleggio that he was from. Yes Nonni. I grew up calling her that. I know now that it’s wrong. It should be Nonna, but here’s why I think she went with it. My grandfather had died when my mother was nine, so I had never known him and my mother had barely known him. I think Nonni was ok being called “grandparents” because she had to be both for me and my brothers. Most of what my mother knows came from her Bisnonna and her mother. Very strong women who kept all of it together when their husbands died. I attribute pure mental strength to them. The will to go on no matter what life throws at you.

Our appointment at the Oleggio Comune was the next morning, so after our drive and a quick look through town we relaxed at the hotel with some wine and I researched some restaurants for dinner. After finding a place we headed over and bam! Closed. Of course! So we began driving to the second choice and passed a restaurant that looked interesting and decided “Why not?” No tourists and it was fairly busy with families having dinner. After our meal, we asked the staff of La Rosa Dei Venti about Oleggio and told them about researching our family. The owner’s soon to be daughter in-law told us that the curator of the museum had the same maiden name as my mom’s grandmother. “Let me text him. He knows everything about Oleggio.” A few moments later and we had an appointment to meet the curator and tour the local museum the next day! Another chance encounter had opened a new door.

The next morning we walked into the comune for our appointment and they literally opened the books for us. My mother was fascinated to see all of her extended family laid out in the old ledgers. The old writing was in elegant calligraphy and it took time to read and understand. The names were in order of oldest to youngest and every person had their mother and father listed with the mother’s maiden name. It added names we hadn’t known and gave us maiden names to research. By knowing my great grandmother’s maiden name, we were then able to find her family page since she was born in Oleggio. Looking at my great grandfather, we couldn’t research his family because he wasn’t born in Oleggio. He was listed as born in Castelletto sopra Ticino, just North of Ollegio. It did however, give us his parents names and his mother’s maiden name. So much information packed into the pages! We probably spent over an hour with the staff and I was able to take pictures of the ledgers and they printed out the relevant information for us to take home. It was amazing to see it first hand and touch a part of my family’s history for a second time on this trip.

Next up: Part three. The story of the macellaio and the man with the keys to Oleggio

PS :Does anyone have a good free site they recommend so I can upload pictures and post links to them? Thanks.

Posted by
1075 posts

If you have a google account and took the photos on your phone, it is easy to set up a link. I assume their is a way to upload digital photos to your account and then the link.

Posted by
9717 posts

Jeff!! I am loving your journey. What awesome luck you’ve had so far!

I hope to visit the small town north of Milan where my GGGrandparents immigrated from. My brother and I visited the Duomo in Milan where GGGrandpa supposedly worshipped and that was surprisingly powerful.

I’m so happy you made the connection.

Posted by
25 posts

PART THREE : The story of the macellaio and the man with the keys to Oleggio

So we left the Oleggio Comune and made our way over to the Museo Civico Archeologico Etnografico di Oleggio. It was fun walking the streets and seeing the town in it’s full glory under the sun. There is an old center of town surrounded by the newer outskirts. In the center is a proper square and a town campanile. Oleggio is a larger town. Much bigger than the sleepy towns of Piazzo/Lauriano. Still not a city, although their cathedral was mammoth. Ok, not Milan size, but pretty big for a town of 14,000. Big, massive doors and it was beautiful inside. We stepped in on our way to the museum for a quick peek. After our fill of church we walked to the museum and went in.

We were greeted by the staff and met the curator Giacomo Colombo. Immediately you noticed his passion and spirit. Unfortunately, he was super busy and would have to join us later in the tour. Oleggio’s museum is dedicated to showing life in the town throughout time and has many items representing the 19th and 20th centuries. We first went downstairs to the agricultural part. The countryside is dominated by farmland, and the museum gives you a better sense of what working farms and wineries were like back then. Upstairs is a treasure trove of historical items and art donated to the museum by various local philanthropists. The rooms are broken up like a house with parlor rooms, kitchens and bedrooms. Our guide Luca, had a wealth of information and was great at answering all of our questions. We decided to take a break and find lunch. Luca suggested Osteria Il Gatto e la Volpe a short distance away.

The restaurant was unassuming, and I was a bit disappointed there was no seating out in front. As we walked in, I thought we used the wrong entrance. This was a wine shop. A woman appeared and motioned us to the back. Down the hall it opened to a nice restaurant with a huge covered patio and an incredible view of the valley towards Malpensa all the way north towards the Lakes. After seating us and pouring some wine we got to looking at the menu. My mother saw it right away. Cavallo. At this point I’ll stop and say I’m no vegetarian, but I’m not terribly adventurous on the meat front. Beef, poultry and pork and I don’t stray very far from the standard cuts. The menu listed horse with pollenta and to my surprise, my mother ordered it, noting the waitresse’s slight eye roll.
The macellaio. It means butcher in Italian and I should explain that. My great uncle Carlo was a butcher. More specifically, and to the point, a horse butcher. He had a shop in Oleggio and when we went to look for it that morning, we found a coffee shop in it’s place. They were actually serving an American style breakfast that morning and the group I was with couldn’t say no to bacon and eggs. Was it the old shop? My mother wasn’t sure. The building looked right, but it had also been 60 plus years since she had been to Oleggio.
So it was interesting that there was horse on the menu, but not totally surprising as old recipes come back into fashion in the gastronomic world. My first thought was of the tv show MASH and Colonel Potter saying, “Horses are noble beasts, you don't eat them; pigs and cows are ugly, we're doing them a favor by eating them. Saves them from having to look at themselves in the trough every morning.” I did like it though. Very close to beef in taste and texture.
After lunch the waitress asked if we wanted to tour the wine cellar. Down to the cellar we went passing bottle after bottle of wine. After we descended the staircase it became multiple rooms all packed with wine. Some bottles were super old with layers of dust. The chef came down and introduced himself. He showed us the oldest part of the cellar dating back hundreds of years to the newest addition that was only 15 years old.

continued in next comment...

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25 posts

PART THREE continued...
It turns out that he was the owner and the waitress was his wife. The restaurant was named after his parents and their “pet” names for each other. “Volpe”, or fox, and “Gatto”, or cat. They had owned the restaurant before their son and most of this old wine came from their previous restaurant, near the train station. Interestingly enough, he mentioned the previous restaurant near the train station used to be a butcher shop. I froze for a second. A butcher shop? Near the train station? I asked him if it was now a coffee shop. He wasn’t sure. We looked at a map. I pointed out our morning stop, but he may have been confused about what we were trying to confirm. He said his father would know and headed back upstairs to the kitchen. This is what I hate most about not knowing the language. Had we misunderstood him? Was he going up to get his father? We went upstairs and the owner was back in the kitchen. No father materialized, but he did come back and thank us for coming in. We never pursued the story and it will be something we have to confirm on our next visit.
Returning to the museum, we continued our tour of the upstairs and were shown the original clock workings of the towns campanile or bell tower. It’s a prominent part of the town’s square and in many of the pictures you see of Oleggio. As we finished the tour, Luca excitedly said, “You’re so lucky. Giacomo has the keys to almost everything old in Oleggio. He will take you up to the tower!” Yes! I had secretly wanted to climb the tower and get the view of the town. I was too afraid to ask. And it would have been a big request. It is only open once a year or so on Easter. We were getting the private tour! Luca mentioned that Giacomo “Loves to show off the keys he has to old buildings.”
So our small tour party was joined by another staff member who, along with Luca, had never been up to the top of the tower. As we walked, Giacomo pointed out interesting buildings and waved to shopkeepers as we made our way back to the main square. He was so clearly passionate about the museum and the history of Oleggio. When we got to the tower he produced the magical key. I felt like one of the kids from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! Inside the tower a tall wooden staircase rose to the top.
So it wasn’t the climb to the top of the Duomo of Florence, but it’s reward was pretty special. A panoramic view of Oleggio and beyond. A beautiful day helped and we were able to see off into the Italian Alps, up into the Lakes and East off towards Milan. After many pictures and some video, we descended back to the square and out into the streets.
Giacomo wasn’t done with his surprises. He then took us to a nearby church and unlocked the door. Inside was a beautiful dome, ornately adorned and a large organ in the balcony. Giacomo led us up to the organ and then said, “Anyone want to play?” So both my mother and aunt got to play the huge pipe organ which they loved!
After the day we had, my father insisted that both Giacomo and Luca join us for coffee and cocktails in the square. Both these guys made our afternoon in Oleggio a special one.
This wonderful afternoon was all thanks to a closed restaurant the night before and taking a chance at a restaurant we knew nothing about. The young waitress helping out strangers to make a connection that turned into a better day than could ever have been planned!

The next day was the drive to Bellagio. I won’t recount that here. It was great. A beautiful place, but I had the last four days stuck in the back of my head. I was so lucky to have shared the experience with my family. I still have those days stuck in my head. More so than the three days in Bellagio or the next week that took me to Florence, Bologna and Venice. Days I will never forget.