EXETER — Some members of the Riccio/Zenga family still can smell the wine fermenting from oak barrels that were stored in the shed near the home of Rosario Riccio and Filomena Zenga, located at 67 Queen St. in East Greenwich, after the entire family spent a whole day pressing and churning the grapes.
Other members still taste the abundance of food that Zenga produced regularly, including close to 14 Italian-style pizzas in a single serving, both for family and for the needy whom were treated like family.
Those memories were rekindled for a few hours Saturday afternoon at the residence of Bob and Claire DeTufo on South County Trail when one of the biggest families to ever immigrate to and reside in East Greenwich had its reunion, offering love, support and more than a few anecdotes about life growing up in the predominantly-Italian neighborhood where the East Greenwich Fireman’s Club now stands close to a century ago.
“Rosario and Filomena Riccio lived the American dream and passed on to us great Italian traditions,” wrote Jane (Riccio) Beyer, the granddaughter of Riccio and Zenga, in a brief synopsis of the family’s history. “We still feel it inside our hearts.”
Four generations – the oldest being the mother of Larry DeNofio, Jr., who is 91 – totaling close to 80 family members all gathered together as one, some of whom haven’t seen each other in years, under the bright sun sharing stories of how everyone is now and looking back at what life once was in the old days. It was the family’s biggest reunion in 14 years, when 125 people came together and celebrated one another at the same farmhouse.
Back in 1917, according to DeNofio, his grandfather emigrated from Italy to Ellis Island in New York to build a better life for himself and for his family in the United States. Seven years later, DeNofio said, Riccio called for his wife – Zenga – to come from Italy over to the States, along with her children.
From there, both Riccio and Zenga had nothing much to live off of in their genesis as U.S. citizens, but they had a vision and the will to make it work.
But each day, between Riccio’s physical labor in order to make ends meet and Zenga’s ability to dazzle in the kitchen to provide well-cooked meals, the family started to grow in more ways than one.
The family ended up owning three houses and each one of the families stayed in one of those houses until they were ready to trek out into the world and start on their own.
“They are the epitome of what immigration was in those days,” DeNofio said. “Coming to America for a better way of life and earning everything they had.”
“They were poor people in Italy. They knew how to save pennies,” Beyer added.
“Being close was one of the more unique things. Staying close was another,” said Joe Zenga, who is a reputable business man in East Greenwich. “In those days, there wasn’t a lot that was passed out. You were lucky to survive.”
Riccio, both Beyer and DeNofio said, epitomized what toughness and hard work should be every day when he worked along the railroads that run through East Greenwich down into Wickford and further south, as well as working in Goddard Park regularly.
And how tough was Riccio?
“When he got poison ivy at Goddard Park, and not many people would do this, he would take sandpaper and he rubbed it on his arm across the poison ivy until it bled,” DeNofio recalled of his grandfather. “Then, he would take straight alcohol and pour it on there to get rid of the poison ivy. He was a tough old bird.”
But Riccio’s passion once he came home from a hard day’s work was to tend to his beloved garden at his Queen Street residence, growing all kinds of vegetables and fruits for daily meals and grapes for wine-making, which took place once a year with every member of the family joining in to make the wine – a family that included 30 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“Once a year, he would make wine there, barrels of wine,” DeNofio said. “It was a big tradition. They would come and make the wine. They crush the wine in the press.”
DeNofio said that Riccio, unlike many Italians in those days who sold their respective wine for profit, never sold his wine and offered it to anyone, with the condition being that he or she had to sit down next to Riccio and talk to him while they drink.
“The years of special times at Grandma and Grandpa’s home created an important bond with all of us first and second cousins,” Beyer said. “To this day, we still embrace that bond.”
Zenga, on the other hand, would work the stove in her kitchen day after day, creating some premier meals for everyone to enjoy. And the Riccio family means “everyone.”
“In the old days, my Aunt Lucy – they had homeless people come through the town all the time – used to tell me that if you come to my grandmother’s house and sit at the table, you would get something to eat. She never turned anybody away,” DeNofio said. “How she did it, nobody knows.
“Another time when everybody would come over, she would make pizza. Now she didn’t make one or two pizzas. She would make 13 to 14 pizzas. You never had pizza like my grandmother. This is not the kind of pizza you buy in the store. This is real, Italian pizza.”
“Grandma was a saint,” Beyer said. “She always had something great cooking on the stove. She loved all of the kids, just a great person.”
Over time, members of the Riccio/Zenga family grew into their own lives and earned the American dream, in their own ways.
Beyer, who put herself through college by going to school at night after working throughout the day, worked for 39 years for the Department of Veterans Affairs working at Quonset Point before retiring.
DeNofio just retired after working 32 years for the Providence Gas Company. DelTufo owns his own plumbing business in East Greenwich and many other family members have become teachers.
Even though times are changing on a regular basis, the Riccio/Zenga family hopes one thing doesn’t change.
The air-tight bond the family possesses.
“As long as we first and second cousins are alive and healthy, there shall be many more Riccio reunions,” Beyer said.