“Ravioli, meatballs and sausage, holy smoke.
Carnevale, scunzalata and Grampa’s donkey joke.
Oh, we eat a lot and we laugh a lot and do everything that we can,
A credit to old Carnevale is Grampa Vaudo’s clan.
The above refrain is recited every year as part the pre-Lenten celebratory meal of the multi-generational Vaudo clan. The tradition began over 100 years ago in Gaeta, Italy, and continues to this day, hosted by Tom and Rita Damigella.
This celebration, which I just learned about, is interesting to me, not least of all because over a year ago, in my second story for Bostoniano, I wrote about the Carnevale celebrations by Italians in the North End in the 1890s. In that essay, I concluded that Italian pre-Lenten meals and celebrations were a thing of the past.
The Vaudo clan’s celebration has shown me otherwise.
I would like to share their story with you. But before I do that, I’d like to explain how I met the man who first told me about it.About two months ago, a BU colleague of mine, Melanie Smith, gave me a copy of her written account of what it was like (and how nice it was) to grow up Italian. In turn, I gave her a paper I had written on post-WWII Italian immigration to the North End. Melanie shared that paper with her mother, Anna Maria, and she also told her Uncle Tommy Damigella about me. Both Anna Maria and Tommy said they would like to meet and talk to me. I spoke to Melanie’s wonderful mother on the phone. We spoke for two hours and perhaps in the future I can share some of her life. A few days earlier, I had spent some time with Tommy in the North End. We met at Café Vittoria at 11 a.m. After coffee, we had lunch at Bella Vista, owned by Tommy’s friend Tony Pezzano. After lunch, we walked around the North End, exchanging our stories.
Tommy’s father, Tom Sr., was born and raised in East Boston by parents who emigrated from Sicily in 1912. Tommy’s mother was born in Sicily and immigrated to the North End at the age of seven in 1925. She lived on 284 Hanover St., and left the North End when she was 16 and moved to East Boston.
In 1952, when Tommy was a young boy, his parents moved to Melrose. Once Tommy had graduated college he decided to get an apartment in the North End in the early 1970s, where he lived for 7 years. In 2002, about five years after Tommy’s mother died, his father decided that he wanted to move to the North End. He was 86 years old at the time. He lived on Noyes Place and became well known to people in the neighborhood. He eventually left the North End to live with his Tommy in Topsfield, and passed away in 2013.The roots of the Carnevale celebration, however, are with the family of his wife, Rita. As I noted, it goes back to Gaeta, Italy, where Rita’s grandfather Salvatore Vaudo (lovingly nicknamed Jack by his wife’s brother) was born. When he came over to the United States, Salvatore and Anna (Rita’s grandmother, who went by Annie) were both residing in Somerville and their families knew each other. One day, Salvatore let it be known to a family member that he liked Annie and wanted to get to know her better. So the family member went to Annie and told her of Salvatore’s interest in her. A relationship ensued and they were married in August of 1930.
Once Salvatore and Annie had their own apartment, they began to celebrate Carnevale. By the time of the Carnevale of 1932, the first little Vaudo, JoJo, had arrived, and now the table of homemade ravioli had become three. Nine years later, Midgie, JoJo’s sister arrived, joining in the pre-Lenten meal. When their two children married and had children of their own, they joined their parents in the celebration as well, always on a Sunday afternoon right before Ash Wednesday.By 1974, when Tommy married Rita, the number of family members at the meal totaled 16. By 1983, when Grandpa “Jack” announced that they were too old to continue hosting Carnevale and they were running out of room, the family had grown to 23. This past March 2014, the meal included 700 homemade ravioli made by Jo, Rita and her siblings; 100 homemade sausages made by Rita’s dad and her sister-in-law Sue; and 140 homemade meatballs, with 10 cans of tomatoes to make the meat sauce. It also included bread, broccoli rabi, salad, vino and various desserts, two of which are traditional family favorites: the round anise cookie with white frosting and sprinkles, and little strips of fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar that the family calls “Nothings” because they are so light and airy. (The Italian word for them is Chiacchere, meaning “to chat”).
Now how many Italians can you feed (and satisfy) with all of this food? The number this year was 65 and spanned five generations! The family included nine grandchildren and their spouses; 20 great-grandchildren, some with spouses; and 8 great-great-grandchildren. Over the past 31 years that Tommy and Rita have been hosting Carnevale, friends of family members would be so intrigued by what they heard about this family gathering that they asked if they could attend, and some did.
The meal has begun every year since 1983 with Tommy saying some introductory remarks. He talks about the family history, the specialness of this celebration, and the importance of being and remaining Italian. The main meal then begins, everyone is served at the table at the same time, and it lasts as long as it takes. After the meal and before dessert, Rita’s mother Jo, a singer and lover of song, begins the special song she wrote for this celebration.
Accompanied by kazoos, and sung to the tune of “McNamara’s Band,” it begins with the words I noted at the beginning of this essay. Each new verse recounts some important event of the previous year — a marriage, a birth, a new job, a new home — and all are interspersed with everyone singing the chorus. The whole song, which may also include highlights of previous years, takes about 30 minutes. Jo has been doing this for 30 years. Her written record of the verses runs for many pages and constitutes a true family history.
Before his death in 1988 at the age of 84, Grandpa Jack would take the floor between dinner and dessert and tell the renowned donkey joke referred to in the choral refrain. I can’t tell you the joke here, but in the tradition of the Carnavale it is a ribald one involving a donkey with gas, the people who had to walk behind him up a hill, and a strategically placed cork plug. You can imagine the rest. Sadly, this was the first year the Vaudo clan celebrated Carnevale without their beloved matriarch, Annie. She passed away at the age of 102 this past December.
It has been my great pleasure to learn of this wonderful Italian celebration, and I thank Tommy and Rita for allowing me to share it with everyone. It is my honor to do so.