Little could good ol’ Chris have known when he set out on that now-famous journey so many years ago that someday he’d have countries and cities, rivers and universities, at least one federal district and a national holiday named after him ... not to mention all the annual parades that commemorate his varied contributions to the world.
Columbus was born in 1451, though the exact date remains in doubt, in what was then known as the Republic of Genoa, today part of northwestern Italy.
He became a maritime explorer, navigator and colonizer and had an undeniable impact on the development of the modern western world.
Each year as Columbus Day is celebrated — this year on Oct. 14 — the surge in Italian pride, as witnessed in the reflections of some local residents, becomes palpable.
Rosemary Ciulla-Frisone, founder and president of the Fiorello LaGuardia Lodge of the Sons of Italy in America, may have been obvious in explaining her admiration of Columbus when she said, “He discovered America,” but her feelings go much deeper.
“When he came he worked hard and our ancestors did the same thing,” she said. “My family came from Sicily and did very well for themselves. Columbus Day is very special. America is the land of opportunity. He gave us the opportunity to come here.”
A 32-year civil servant residing in Howard Beach, Ciulla-Frisone added, “I’m proud to be born here and still keep our culture. It is important to educate our children about our culture.”
To keep the traditions alive, she said “We do Christmas and Easter; that’s very important to us. We do the baking of homemade pastries. All the families get together.”
Such gatherings seem to be at the center of the lives of most Italians, along with food ... always food.
For Bayside native Grace Guidotti-Matranga and her family, the jarring of homemade tomato sauce was “a whole event. Every August, we would go to the farm, order our tomatoes in advance. Some were left to can whole. Then you added fresh basil ... a little salt.”
The finished product would be kept in the basement “for the rest of the year,” she said. “Oh, my God, it was so amazing ... so fresh and delicious.”
Guidotti-Matranga said the tradition lasted until about five years ago, when the complexities of life began to interfere, but, she added, “My uncle still makes homemade mozzarella, wine and prosciutto.”
According to Bayside resident Cathy Bandin Chimenti, who, along with her husband, Michael, founded the performance organization, Chimenti Productions, in 2005, “The food is what brings people together. Sunday dinner is special.” Typically, it consists of pasta accompanied by meatballs, followed by a main course, generally pork roast or a roast beef or chicken, with potatoes and vegetable. And then, in Italian tradition, comes the salad.
A third-generation American, Bandin Chimenti said, “I guess if it were not for Columbus, we would think the world is flat. It took an Italian to be stupid enough to sail off the end of the Earth. He was so determined to prove his theory.”
Fresh Meadows resident Joe Floria finds his penchant for good Italian food is somewhat in conflict with his career choice.
As owner and head coach of CrossFit Great Neck, Floria admitted, “Owning a gym and eating healthy does get hard. My weakness is easily penne a la vodka.”
But the 26-year-old remains proud of his heritage. “My grandfather fought in World War II and lived to tell his stories. They set the foundations for my family here in America.”
Steve Morisi of South Ozone Park shares similar feelings. “I’m proud to know that my ancestors carved out their own way in America,” he said.
His paternal grandparents were from northern Italy and arrived in America in the mid-1920s. “They came over by boat. Pretty much everyone lived from 30th to 40th Streets and Third to Fourth avenues” in Brooklyn, he said.
“The men got work at the docks or in construction,” Morisi said. “I saw my family helping each other. It was very important that you stand by family. There was a work ethic that I saw. And there was also the opinion that you could better yourself if you persevered.”
“Many of my father’s relatives that came off the boat worked hard and were successful. My daughter has a challenging job and now my son is getting a master’s degree,” he added.
His son, Paul, 29, who serves as the coordinator of Adolescent and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Brooklyn, has picked up on his father’s pride.
“Italians have a great history of world leaders,” the younger Morisi said. “Also, there have been many artists ... from Michelangelo to Ol’ Blue Eyes.”
As for Columbus, he said, “It’s because of his courage that North America was found and made available to the rest of the world. Without his discovery, the world as we know it would not exist. The rise of democracy in the world may not have happened.”
New Hyde Park resident Angela Del Vecchio Miraglia said her mother was born in Naples, her father in Abruzzi and “carrying on their traditions is important to me ... all of their teachings. Everything they brought from Italy we carry on here.”
The parent coordinator at Robert F. Kennedy Community High School added, “I love hearing the stories. Mom came at five by ship. It reminded me of the Titanic ... the third-class accommodations.”
Her own sons, now 15 and 16, “can jar homemade sauce better than I can,” she said, thanks to grandma’s teachings.
As the city gears up for this year’s Columbus Day festivities, Joseph DeCandia of Howard Beach recalled that for years his family’s landmark restaurant, Lenny’s Clam Bar on Cross Bay Blvd., and the organization for which he serves as president, the International Society of SS Cosma and Damiano, entered floats in the local parade.
“The Italians have done a lot of good things for the country and for New York,” DeCandia said.
Columbus would likely be pleased to see himself these many years later immortalized on postage stamps, as well as in works of literature, on television and the musical stage, in motion pictures and cartoons and even in video games. And as an explorer who spent his life pushing the frontier, he’d probably take particular pleasure in knowing that one space rock, Asteroid 327 Columbia, was also named in his honor.