Sunday, November 05, 2006


IN LA NOSTRA COSTA (Chapter 3 – ‘La Costa E La Guerra’), I describe some of the restrictions and hardships that the “Italiani della Costa” had to endure during World War II. The article below was sent to me by Kathy Kerrick and is posted here with the permission of the author Andy Griffin. What starts out as a dissertation on Chioggia beets and Chioggia radicchio ends with a very interesting story on Italian Prisoners of War who settled in the Santa Rosa Area.

From: "Two Small Farms" <>
This week your harvest share includes a bunch of pink skinned beets. If you slice these beets in half you'll see a distinctive target-like pattern of alternating pink and white rings marking the flesh. This curious coloration has prompted some retailers to call these beets "candy stripe" beets but the correct name is Chioggia beet. Chioggia, pronounced "key-oh-jah" is a city of Northern Italy near Venice. The surrounding region is known as the Veneto and it's famed for it's vegetable production. Besides the beet, Chioggia has lent its name a number of other vegetables. The round, red radicchio that has become a standard ingredient in the mesclun salads is Chioggia radicchio. There's also a warty blue hard squash called the Marina di Chioggia. We didn't grow these beets for the novelty of their internal appearance. They taste good, and many people think they're even sweeter than the typical red blooded American beet. Chioggia beets grow well here, too. People who travel have told me that there are a lot of similarities between the Veneto and the Monterey Bay area. Some day I'd like to visit Chioggia and see for myself since I think agriculture is as worthy of being appreciated as any other aspect of culture like painting or dance. In fact, given a choice between a perfect roasted beet salad and a still life painting of a beet, I'll eat the salad any day . I was standing behind my Chioggia beets one day at the farmers market when an older gentleman who was passing by announced that when he was in Chioggia he hadn't seen any beets. It turns out he'd entered Chioggia in a Sherman tank in the closing days of the Second World War. He was part of the American Fifth Army that flogged the Nazis all the way up the boot from Monte Casino and over the Alps. As important as liberation day was in Chioggia it probably wasn't the best moment for a tourist to appreciate the agricultural riches of the Veneto.After years of war economy and bombs the natives ofChioggia had been reduced to eating Chioggia rats. Chioggia beets remind me of an Italian-American fellow named Louie Bonhommie that I knew when I worked on a farm in Bolinas during the 1980's. Louie delivered used wooden crates to the farm every Sunday morning and I used to help him unload his truck. Since his route took him to all sorts of small farms in Marin and Sonoma counties he was better than a newspaper for the latest gossip. One day Louie took a break from the scandals of the day and told me about his experiences in the army during the Second World War. Louie never saw combat. Instead, because he could speak fluent Italian, Louie served as a guard over Italian prisoners of war. The prisoners were shipped around California by bus or train from farm to farm, and they harvested fruits and vegetables or pruned fruit trees while Louie stood around with a gun. A lot of Louie's wartime service was right around the Santa Rosa area where he'd grown up. I asked Louie if it was dangerous standing guard over trainloads of Italian prisoners of war and he laughed. These men had been captured by the Americans in North Africa on the outskirts of Tunis. Most of them had originally come from tiny farms in Italy that were poverty stricken even before the war. After being drafted into the fascist military they were stationed out in the middle of the Sahara in the Italian colony of Libya. With the outbreak of hostilities war was added to their ration of miseries. When they weren't being shot at by the Allies or being ordered around by the Germans they had armies of flies to contend with, and thirst and hunger and scorpions and disease. After years of stress and privation being captured was a blessing. As the Italian Prisoners of War picked plums in California they looked around from atop their ladders at the orchards, the vineyards, and the ordered rows of vegetables in the Santa Rosa Valley and they murmured and conspired amongst themselves.... Their devious plot? Certainly they didn't have sabotage in mind. No. They were concerned that the war might end and they'd be shipped back home to Italy. One by one the prisoners came to Louie and asked him how they might get introduced to some nice Italian -American farm girls so they could make love, not war. Louie did what he could, and some of those men ended up as successful farmers around Santa Rosa with big families and lush fields, and they became good friends and loyal customers for Louie and his wooden boxes. I still love this story. It reminds me that, while they made a mistake with Fascism, from art and women's shoes and wine and race cars all the way to bunched beets, when it comes to cultural values the Italians are right on target. Copyright 2006 Andy Griffin


Ivano Franco Comelli said...

In "La Nostra Costa" I mention the Italian film by Enzio Monteleone, entitled "El Almein-The Line of Fire". This film is now available on DVD, however, it might be hard to find. If you are fortunate enough to find a copy, rent it. The film depicts the Italian Soldiers hopeless plight in North Africa during WWII. No wonder these boys didn't want to go back. A lot more radicchio can be grown in Santa Rosa. ivn0

Reno Cantarutti said...

IVANO In one of your E- MAILS you brought up the movie EL- ALAMEIN (The Firing Line).What a
great story and sickening the way those poor bastards,where left out to dry in the desert for over 3 years .It made me sick to be ITALIAN .

The whole movie to me was the scene,where the supply truck pulled up ,and
lord and behold there was MUSSOINI's horse inside,I am sure you remmber that scene .

Our local VIDEO store still has a copy and I am tempted to buy it.

A little triva MUSSOLINI's, grand daughter , has been in Italian politics for about ten years and quite popular (she is about 45 or so ) .She is the daughter of Romano,MUSSOLINI's son ,who as you know was a very famous JAZZ musican. CIAO RENO

Reno: Thanks for your insights into Italian WW II history. I first saw the movie at your brother Lido's Italian Film Festival in San Raphael ( That was quite an experience. I was seated right behind an old gentleman who happened to be an Italian WW II Veteran. Lido introduced him from the Stage and then put on an Italian Steel Army Helmet with black plums and then saluted him. Right then and there I wanted to stand up and salute him back singing "Ti Saluto Vado in Abysinia".

BTW: If I am not mistaken Romano died about two years ago. ivn0

alverda orlando said...

(The) story on the POW's working in the orchards brought back a memory. This has nothing to do with the Coastside Italians, but I thought you would enjoy it anyway.
When I was first married my husband (Elio) would often take me to San Francisco to visit friends and relatives. One time he introduced me to a man named Cezare and his American wife. Sorry, I don't remember his last name but he had an interesting story.
He was from Zoppola and had gone to school with my husband. Then the war came along and he was inducted into the Italian Army, subsequently captured by the Americans and sent to San Bernadino, CA. Cesare and many other POW's insisted they were allies--not enemies and were allowed to serve as orderlies in the large nearby military hospital. Italian-American relatives were allowed to visit them and eventually the US government sent the USO to entertain them. One lovely young American USO girl fell in love with Cezare and of course like your story they were more interested in love than war. However, the US military frowned on fraternization with the enemy and would not allow them to marry. As soon as the war was over Cezare and the other POW's were sent back to Italy. The girlfriend took the next available plane to Italy, married Cezare and he returned to the US on a liberty ship as a male war bride. Public Law 271 "The War Brides Act" made no provision for war grooms.
Eventually they settled in San Francisco where I met them. This story is reminiscent of the 1949 move "I Was a Male Warbride" (Cary Grant), only Cezare didn't have to cross dress and he slept with the ship's crew. He came to SF before the move was released, but I met him in 1954.

LNC: Lots of stories about those Italians finding ways to stay in the good old USA. Most have been all the beautiful girs. ivno

Reno Cantarutti said...

IVANO Read the story by Alverda Orlando. I can recall a similar story.

I remmber a man named GILDO . CHICOITTI from ZOPPOLA, who was captured in North Africa while serving in the Italian army. He was brought to the USA to San Bernadino. While detained there in a prisoner of War camp, he met his future wife who was at the camp as a clerk . When the war was over he was sent back,to ITALY like the rest of the prisoners .
So PENNY (the future wife) took the first ship (an old cargo ship)to ITALY to marry GILDO, (about 1945) in ZOPPOLA. To her surprise, at her future in -laws house,there they came down the
stairs,one by one, 22 people all living in one house .

Penny brought GILDO back to AMERICA (SAN FRANCISCO),where they had three daughters. Gildo
made a career,with the AMERICAN TILE CO . His wife died manny years ago , and he died about 10 years ago . RENO CANTARUTTI

LNC: Great story Reno. As I recall Zoppola is located in the Friuli (Free-oulee) Region of Italy, (North-eastern part of the Country, near Trieste). Thus, they were Friulanos, like my parents and yours and Elio Orlando. ivno

alverda orlando said...

This sounds like the same man. Some details are different but
my Gildo did work for the American Tile Co. The fact that Penny
worked as a clerk explains how she would know him long enough
to fall in love. The USO was an element, but probably not the
romance part.