Growing Up Italian-American

“We were raised in an Italian-American household, although we didn’t speak Italian in the house. We were very proud of being Italian, and had Italian music, ate Italian food.”
– Francis Ford Coppola

Pittsburgh-Chicago 1976-1983


This is my story. This what I remember.


I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and raised in Chicago as an Italian-American. Being Italian was everywhere. From the sounds of Italian music at home to writing my name in school, I was always reminded of my connection to Italy.

All my life I’ve been asked, “What is your last name?” or, “That is an odd name, where are you from?” My response is, “I am Italian.” From then on I was an “Italian.” I was five years old before I realized that other people didn’t live this way.

My Italian father did not marry an Italian, but he might as well have. My mom always made sure I knew all about being Italian. My mom chose my first name to make sure being Italian was always out front and proud of my heritage.

My aunts and uncles helped raise me. I have warm memories of a wonderful family.

The First Oto

My parents are my first memory. They were my introduction to love.

When I was four years old, I saw the movie “Rocky.” It reminded me of my parents. My mom was Adrian, the shy, pretty bookworm. My dad was Rocky, the tough guy with a heart of gold.

My mother has dark hair and a warm smile. She passed on her love of books to me. She grew up as a tomboy. Her childhood of climbing trees helped her to raise a little boy with too much energy.

My dad was short and stocky, with gray-black hair. He had thick shoulders and arms from hard, manual labor. His olive-brown skin never seemed to age.

My dad was a patchwork of scars from war and construction accidents. His injuries left him crippled and in constant pain. He never complained.

My dad was a gruff blue-collared man with calloused hands who loved his family. He was kind, generous and loved practical jokes.

His physical strength was truly extraordinary. People were wary of him because of that strength. It was something he never truly appreciated.

My dad had an awesome temper. In direct contradiction, he loved more than any other person I ever knew. He made a choice to love by not getting enough love as a child. His children always knew how much he loved them.

My parents were not perfect. They made mistakes, but I always felt loved.

My Grandfather

My grandfather was Raphael (Ralph) Oto. He was born in a small mountaintop village of Morrone del Sannio, in Molise, Italy in 1894. Molise is the poorest region of Italy. The area has seen little of the money that mass tourism has brought to Italy.

Morrone sits at 2,300 feet above sea level. It has an oceanic climate with mild summers and cool winters. Today, less than 700 people live in the village.

This quaint mountainside village has been home to my family for over twelve generations. Ralph immigrated to the United States in 1915. I can’t imagine the courage it took to go to America. To leave all you know with nothing but a dream.

My grandmother, Angelina was born in the United States in 1906. Her family was from Molise too.

Coming to Pittsburgh

Ralph came to America to escape poverty. Ralph worked as a construction laborer. Ralph was physically strong and hardworking but illiterate. By the time he was thirty years old, he was exhausted. He had faith in a future that would spare his children the hardship of his own life.

Ralph knew he was being exploited, but couldn’t imagine any other life. Like many Italian immigrants, he did backbreaking labor for petty wages because he couldn’t speak English.

My grandparents had childlike qualities with a simple peasant understanding of the world. Their primitive innocence centered on faith in the Catholic Church and old-country superstitions.

Their family and friends gave them hope to endure hardship. My grandparents had the immigrant’s hope for a better life for the next generation.

The American dream became a nightmare when my grandfather destroyed his health digging the Holland Tunnel. He died in 1962, long before I was born.

In pictures, my grandfather is a short, thin old man with a bushy, white crew cut. His face is broad, with an impish grin. From stories I’ve heard he was a kind man who worked hard and loved his children.

Telling Stories

On Sunday afternoons, in Chicago, in family kitchens with the clanging of plates and forks, the family would talk about growing up in “the neighborhood.”

My dad and uncles would dig into bowls of spaghetti and meatballs, mopping spaghetti sauce up with crusts of bread. It was almost comical. Their hands were waving around and talking about shared memories.

They laughed and yelled as they relived their childhoods with the siblings who both tormented and loved them. In the background, my aunts would chime in as they continued to cook. The air was overflowing with the thick aroma of Italian sausage and melted cheese.

Growing Up Oto

In the 1930’s and 1940’s immigrants from all over the world poured into Pittsburgh. They came to work in the huge steel mills. Neighborhoods were melting pots.

The immigrants were hard people who never lost their ethnic pride or their ethnic hatreds. The rolling hills of Pittsburgh didn’t specify where people should live. They lived and married their own kind.

The Otos lived in a suburb of Pittsburgh called Homewood-Brushton. They settled in a poverty-stricken part of town because it was what they could afford. People who shared languages, customs and history tend to band together, the Otos were no different.

America overwhelmed my grandparents. Hardship, hunger, and poverty shaped their lives. Angelina and Ralph had too many kids.

Other parts of the neighborhood had Polish and Irish immigrants. They were only separated by a few blocks, but they were worlds apart. Neighborhood kids would band together and fight kids from other neighborhoods.

The House

The family lived in a rented tenement. One day my grandfather decided he didn’t want his children to grow up in that environment.

So after my grandparents saved enough money, and I never could figure out how they did it, they bought a house. That house was the family headquarters for the next twenty years until most of the Otos moved to Chicago.

Hard Work

The Oto kids knew only unrelenting hard work. My father’s first memory was getting up at 4:30am. He ate a humble breakfast of leftovers and went to work to deliver newspapers- he was four years old.

In the Oto family, everyone worked, especially during the desperate days of the Great Depression and World War II. Extreme demands were made of children. They did the grueling labor at a young age.

This hard work gave my dad and uncles a strong physical identity. None of them graduated from high school. As young men, they joined the American army, fought in wars and got married before they were twenty-two years old. They were fathers with union jobs by twenty-four.

Everything was done with raw emotional power. The men in my family told dirty jokes and loved each other with rough affection and warmth. Italian food and family were the centers of their lives.

Within a generation, some of the children were successful both in love and fortune. Some of the siblings moved to Chicago in the 1950s and over the years, more followed. My parents and I came in early 1976.

The Second Generation

At family events, crazy old ladies would painfully pinch my cheeks. I had no idea who they were. It is possible for a family to become so big that you can’t keep track of it.

I would tell my non-Italian friends about these family gatherings. They would look at me as like I was describing another planet.

When it came to food, I was amazed that my non-Italian friends only ate turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving.

My family had the traditional American turkey dinner. But first, we ate the Antipasto, Chicken Soup with Escarole, Little Meatballs, Lasagna, Braciole Salad and whatever else my Aunt Angie made.

This is how you learned to eat a six-course meal between noon and 4 PM. Italians have a romance with food.


Men in the living room, women in the kitchen and kids, kids everywhere. It seemed like I had a half million cousins, first, second and some who aren’t even related, but what did it matter.

My best memory is my dad dancing around with his false teeth sticking out and telling stories. I see him grinning his mischievous smile, his dark eyes twinkling, making everyone laugh. I thought everyone grew up like this.

Missing Them

I moved to Florida in 1983. My grandmother died two years later. Family gatherings were fewer, and something was missing.

I visited Chicago a handful of times. The family came together to celebrate at my Aunt Fran’s house. Everything was different.

It was understandable. Everyone now had their own families. Over the years more and more of my aunts and uncles moved or passed away. I would call on holidays and occasionally visit.

Now there are more visits to the cemetery. Most of them are gone. My grandparents, beloved uncles, aunts and even my dad.

I miss them.