Aliza Giammatteo

To Know Yourself, Know Where You Came From
Casa di Amore does, and it Shows

I come across interesting stories all the time as a family historian. Maybe you have seen some of my previous articles — like the one about the immigrant who missed an earthquake and tsunami that flattened his town by mere days—but a story doesn’t have to be that dramatic to carry the same weight. The little discoveries can be just as meaningful.

A family story that I recently uncovered for Michael Campagno, the owner of Casa di Amore restaurant in Las Vegas, is a perfect example. Michael learned a lot about his heritage in our search, which yielded close to 300 years of family history, but the most moving discovery was not so much what we found out about his ancestors but what he learned about himself.

I met Michael six months ago, right after I moved to Las Vegas. I introduced myself and told him how much I enjoyed his restaurant. When Michael found out what my company did, he expressed an interest in doing a family search and asked me for a business card. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just met a member of my new family in Las Vegas.

A slender Giovanni Marotta before his trip to Italy

As soon as we started, I knew Michael’s search was going to be fun. The first clue was when I asked Michael a question about his family’s origin. He called his Aunt Stella from Brooklyn and put her on speaker phone, knowing she would have the answer and be happy to share it. I knew from that moment on that that wouldn’t be the only time I’d talk with Aunt Stella. She was a firecracker and had wit, and stories — lots of stories — but most of all, I could sense her big heart, even through the phone.  I felt like I was talking with one of my own aunts, and, perhaps not surprisingly, Aunt Stella and I would ‘adopt’ each other before long and she’d become my aunt too.

One of the first records I found ended up being the crown jewel of the search. Usually, the surprises come from the Italian records from long ago that most people know little, if anything, about; in Michael’s case it was a US record, a ship record to be exact, that caught my attention.

The ship record was for Michael’s grandfather, Giovanni Marotta, (Aunt Stella’s father) and it showed him returning to the US after a trip home in 1948, thirty-five years after he first emigrated at the age of eighteen. Experience told me there had to be a story waiting to be told. Giovanni had a newborn (Michael’s mother, Roseanne) and other young kids at home. From what I knew about Giovanni already, I couldn’t imagine him leaving the family for a visit home, so I called Aunt Stella to get the story.

Giovanni’s mother was very ill and he wanted to spend some time with her before she died. The family doctor advised against bringing the newborn so Giovanni went alone. When he returned a few months later, Stella’s younger sister didn’t recognize him. Giovanni, who was now in his early 50’s and had been thin his whole life now had a big potbelly — so big he couldn’t fit in his blazer.I could have left the story at that — an amusing anecdote — but I knew there was still more to it.  After all, Giovanni’s mom was very ill and I knew it couldn’t have been her cooking that plumped him up. I called Aunt Stella again and that’s when the full story came to light.

She told me that his relatives and other ‘family’ in town stuffed him with food. As soon as he visited one house there’d be another ‘cousin’ who’d ask him to stop by.

Giovanni Marotta (right) just before coming back to the US. His mother, Stella Busco, is seated beside him in the wheelchair.

Ah! Now it made sense! Good food is one thing, but love is another. After all, what is good food without the love? His relatives were thrilled about his homecoming and they expressed their love in the best way they knew how — through food. They hadn’t seen each other in decades and who knew when, or if, they’d see each other again? So in true Italian style, they made the most of the occasion and he came back full — in one more ways than one.

I had one last question for Aunt Stella. ‘How could he afford to go there for several months?’  Stella said he took out a mortgage on the house and paid for it with that. That’s how much the trip meant to him.

The difference between a genealogist who finds records with names and dates and a storyteller is someone who is willing and able to see beyond the names and numbers. When I think of Giovanni’s trip back home I don’t think of a ship record or a date or even a before-and-after picture of the event, I think of the love for family that was missed and found again. That,my friends, is the story.

Meanwhile, before we even found the story about Giovanni’s visit back to the old country, Michael’s restaurant had become a favorite hangout of mine and it had nothing to do with Michael being a client. As a newcomer to Las Vegas, I loved that every time I walked through that door I felt at home. I’d be willing to bet that that’s just how Giovanni felt when he sat down for dinner with people he’d never met.On Christmas day I started feeling the pang of being separated from my family, so I headed to Casa di Amore to say hi to some of my ‘family.’ Michael’s brother, Todd Campagno, gave me a hug as soon as I walked in. George Bugatti, the singer, did the same. Nicole Sottile, the bartender, called out a warm greeting from behind the bar and told me her family was coming and she wanted me to meet them. I’d barely been in Vegas a few months, but felt like I’d been there for years.

From left, top row: Todd Campagno, Michael Campagno, Michelle; From left, front row: Daniella, Riley, and Kaydence.

I met Nicole’s family as well as the Minetti family that night, strangers who invited me to share dinner with them, which is not so uncommon at Casa di Amore, maybe because one of its attractions is its ‘old school family’ atmosphere, to quote a member of the Minetti family.I had some delicious salmon for dinner, but I left some on the plate to save room for Michael’s famous cannoli. Nicole wrapped up my salmon and said, ‘here ya go, Aliza, this is for Diablo.’ It touched me that she remembered my dog’s nickname.

Before I even finished my cannolo, someone said Aunt Stella was on the phone and wanted to say Merry Christmas. I’ve lived in four countries, in cities big and small, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a family call at a restaurant. That was the best dessert I could ask for.All of a sudden it was clearer than it had ever been. It was no coincidence that Michael ran this place that’s so cozy and welcoming, a place where perfect strangers can have familial exchanges and sit down for dinner together within minutes. I formed a picture of Giovanni’s trip home, the trip where everybody in town was family, the trip where even though his mother was very ill, he had plenty of other mothers that welcomed him, because that’s the way Michael’s restaurant feels.

I decided then and there that the restaurant was going to be the subject of my next article. I asked Michael if I could take a picture of him and his brother Todd that night. The Christmas setting was perfect, but Michael insisted that we wait until he could bring his whole family for the photograph.

The Author (right) with her new scarf and new Aunt and Uncle, Sam Quaglierini and Stella Marotta Quaglierini

That’s what I meant about the little things being just as important as the big things, if not more, when you tell your family’s story. It says a lot that Michael didn’t want a spotlight just on him. Is there any wonder why Casa di Amore has that ‘old school family’ feel? Michael doesn’t have to try to create a warm, family atmosphere. It’s in his nature, as it was in Giovanni’s and Aunt Stella’s.

Just when I thought I had the story wrapped up, I got another surprise from my new family.  Aunt Stella and her husband flew to Vegas for a surprise visit and wanted me to join everyone for lunch. I finally got to meet my new aunt and uncle in person! Before I left, Aunt Stella gave me a scarf that she crocheted for me. In case she wasn’t officially my aunt yet, I think that sealed the deal.

At the end of our lunch with our New York family, I realized that I never asked Michael how he ended up in Vegas. His answer: “My father was out here. He was dying and I wanted to spend time with him before he died.”

Hmmm…. Sound familiar?

Sometimes, when you go hunting for ancestors what you end up finding is yourself. I started Michael’s search with a story of love for family and I ended with one.

Sign outside Casa di Amore restaurant

I passed Casa di Amore on my way home from lunch, with the scarf from Aunt Stella still around my neck to keep me warm. That day, the big heart on top of the restaurant’s sign seemed even more prominent. In Italian, ‘Casa di Amore’ means house (or home) of love. I smiled to myself. ‘Yes,’ I thought.  Casa di amore indeed.