Monday, March 27, 2006

The Sicilian Omaha Connection

View of Carlentini from Borgo Nocchiara
(looks nothing like Omaha!)

This past weekend, my friend Pat invited me to stay overnight at an agriturismo call Borgo Nocchiara near Carlentini, between Catania and Siracusa. We were meeting a group of other friends and colleagues the next day for lunch at yet another agriturismo in that area, so I agreed to the mini-getaway. We drove there after school on Friday and checked in, drank some wine and relaxed, had a wonderful dinner and a peaceful, restful night in the country.

The next morning, as we ventured into the dining room in search of breakfast, we heard someone loudly speaking English in the hallway. That someone turned out to be a hard-of-hearing, white-haired little man who came our way.

I said something to him, and he said, "Hey, you speak English really well!"

"That's because we are Americans," I told him again.

"Oh," he said, "what are you doing here? Where are you from?"

I explained that we lived in Sicily and worked on the Navy base. I asked him where he was from, and he said, "Omaha."

"Omaha?" I said. I have been to Omaha, and I'm always surprised to find anyone who actually lives there willingly. Meeting someone in Sicily from Omaha was really mind-boggling. It was so incongruous.

He then went into a lengthy story about how his parents or grandparents had come from Sicily and settled in Omaha along with many other Sicilians. This did not fit my mental picture of Omaha. I couldn't even remember seeing a single Italian restaurant that wasn't a chain, athough I had eaten at a pretty good German one. The man told me how he came back here often to visit his relatives, how his son was with him, how this was their first time staying at this place, and on and on. Eventually he left, after explaining to us that they would make us a cappucino "fresh!" if we wanted one.

Today at school, when I related this story to my friend Lynn, who is married to an Italian and has lived in that area for quite a few years, she corroborated his story: "Oh, yes, it seems that nearly all the Sicilians from Lentini and Carlentini emigrated to Omaha! They are always coming back here to visit."

"But why Omaha?" I asked. "I've been there, and it's, well, not the most exciting place on earth. It's not anything at all like Sicily."

"It's just like every immigrant group. Someone goes there, then others from the family or town follow, eventually building up a community," Lynn said.

"Well, yes, I know that's how it happens, but Omaha?" I said once again.

"You can quote me on it," she said. "Just put it in your blog."


At April 27, 2006 4:25 AM, Blogger Thah Comment Queen said...

the little old white haired man u described in ur post sounds just like my uncle joey.

At April 28, 2006 3:13 AM, Blogger Thah Comment Queen said...

Was he wearing a Nebraska Husker Red sweater or hat? We do believe this was Uncle Joe and son Joey.

At April 28, 2006 6:01 AM, Blogger Maryellen said...

I don't think he was wearing a hat, but he did say that his son was with him. I didn't meet the son. It probably WAS him. Does he wear glasses?

At April 29, 2006 5:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am the son in your story. My dad isn't hard of hearing, he's just loud. For someone with a motto about kindness, you said some harsh things about Omaha. Omaha has a large Italian population, comprised overwhelmingly of people descended from immigrants from Carlentini. They didn't come to Omaha for the scenery, they came for economic opportunity, just like the Italians who went to New York, or Chicago, or Boston. The home my grandparents lived in was much nicer than the tenements of New York. Someone from Carlentini came to Omaha and found work in the early 1900s, wrote their family, and others followed. My grandfather worked in a large machine shop for Union Pacific. Many worked in the packinghouses. Everyone in Carlentini has relatives in Omaha. Omaha actually is known for a number of good Italian restaurants, and I'm not talking about chains. Rotella's Bakery in Omaha is the largest Italian bakery in the United States. The Rotellas aren't Sicilian, but hey, nobody's perfect. When you wondered why Sicilians came to Omaha, remember, you can't feed your family with scenery. That is why Sicilians are still leaving for places such as Milan for jobs. Nebraska may not have oceans or mountains. It is flat. The weather is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. There are too many conservatives who vote differently than I do. However, we do have clean air, low crime, and good public schools. Omaha has the 8th busiest concert arena in the world. In the last 6 months, Paul McCartney, U2, Dave Matthews, and the Rolling Stones have all played there. Omaha has a new performing arts center which has or will host Chick Corea, Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman in their first year. Omaha has one of the best zoos in the world. Omaha hosts many major sporting events. I live in Lincoln now, which is 60 miles away, and is also a wonderful place. Don't be so quick to criticize. That said, I loved Sicily. It is beautiful. The Greek ruins in Agrigento and Syracuse were fantastic. The food was incredible. What really made it special for me though, was to walk the streets of Carlentini and the surrounding hills where my grandparents were from with my father. We were treated with such warmth and hospitality by distant relatives. It made it so much more than a vacation. We really enjoyed the Borgo Nocchiara. The rooms were big, the price was cheap, and the food was outstanding. I can't wait to return with my entire family. It was a shock to to see your pictures, becasue I took the same shots. Then to read about myself in your story was pretty funny. I also want to tell my cousin that no one, and I mean NO ONE, has called me Joey since I was 5. I don't think of it as a term of endearment. It is not my name. I do own red clothing, and I do like the Huskers, but I would be a pretty big dork if that was all I wore. I didn't even take any red clothing to Italy. I don't think my cousin wears orange and black every day for her school either. If you ever eat at Vincenzo's in Lincoln, make sure to look at the photos on the walls of people in Carlentini and Little Italy in Omaha. Some of my relatives are in the photos. The food is good, too. The original Vincenzo's is in Omaha. Thanks for the story.

At June 19, 2006 12:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Anonymous or Joey. Would you please shoot me an email at:

- Mike

At September 28, 2012 4:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many people live in Omaha willingly.

At September 03, 2013 4:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dont know much about Omaha, except my parents left there as soon as my mother could talk my father into it the weather! which was 1929, everyone headed for San Jose, Ca but I do know there are still alot of relatives living there, and that my grandparents came there via a patron I think, and worked in a overall factory (grandmother) and paternal grandfather in the (macaroni plant)work was plentiful then I guess, its funny how other nationalities do the same thing they tell their friends where there's work, and word gets around they find a sponsor (patron)or not,
but they gravitate towards what they know or heard might be a "chance" to do better for themselves. I find it hilarious that there are many folks from San Jose, Ca that have or had family that went through this entire migration, Sicily to San Jose!!!!!!
One lady I worked with in San Jose Ca was from Lentini, and knew my family from Carlentini had never met her before this, via Omaha, go figure! I have yet to go back to the Old Country but this is high on my list, from what I've seen on PBS's MHZ network via RAI,
detective show Montalbano Sicily is so beautiful and I feel like I've almost already been there!!!!!!

At August 19, 2014 5:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husbands grandfather came to Omaha around 1912 but later went to San Jose. Email me -


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