Home News and Features A Heartfelt — and Delicious — Sicilian Homecoming

A Heartfelt — and Delicious — Sicilian Homecoming

The extended Bellina/Bellino family. In center from left to right, Natascia, next to Jason (dark shirt), unidentified cousin, Jim (blue shirt). Photo by Jeff Roberts.
By Jeff Roberts

This is a story about a Montpelier family finding their people in present-day Italy. But the story began in 1885 with the birth of Carmelo La Terra Bellina (“Carmelo” meaning “the beautiful earth”) in Pozzallo, Italy, a small city on Sicily’s south coast. The city’s location on the Mediterranean contributed to its value as a seaport and reflects the island’s multiple layers of war and conquest from pre-historic settlers to Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors, Normans, and finally the Bourbons. During World War II, allied troops landed just west of Pozzallo as part of Operation Husky.

In 1905, Carmelo sailed from Naples, arrived at Ellis Island, and eventually made his way to Middlebury, Vermont. Five years later, he married Maria (Mary) Vallino. Their first son, Joseph, was born in 1911. Jim’s father, John, arrived in 1913. The family moved to Burlington’s Little Italy, where Carmelo opened a grocery store at Cherry and Battery streets. A wonderful late 1920s photo depicts him and Joseph in the store. As frequently happened, the entire family lived above the store. Sadly, the neighborhood, including the Bellino market, was demolished in the 1960s as part of the federal urban renewal program.

Jim and his wife, Carol Rose, are my next door neighbors on Murray Hill in Montpelier. From extensive research, Jim and his son Jason knew a lot about Carmelo’s life in Vermont, but couldn’t find any relatives in Pozzallo.

After describing a trip I would co-lead in October 2022, they asked about opportunities to visit Pozzallo. Combining resources with those of my colleague Cristiano Bonino, owner of the tour company Food/Stories/Travel, we discovered one possible reason for not finding family in Pozzallo. Upon arrival at Ellis Island, immigration officers changed the spelling of Carmelo’s name from Bellina to Bellino, so their genealogy searches were unsuccessful. To further complicate matters, the ship’s registry listed Carmelo as “Le Ferra Bellino”… so he went from “beautiful earth” to “pretty iron!” 

For many late 19th and early 20th century eastern and southern European migrants, such name changes or misspellings tended to follow them and their descendants up to the present day.

At Cristiano’s and my suggestion, Jim and Jason added a three-day pre-tour extension to visit Pozzallo to meet some of their extended Sicilian family. On Facebook, Jim and Jason located Natascia La Terra Bellino, a distant cousin, but to our surprise with the same last name! Turns out Italian government officials made typographic errors as well.

With Cristiano’s help, Natascia became Jim’s and Jason’s essential family resource for a reunion. Once connected, she turned out to be an event planner “per eccellenza” and arranged the Pozzallo visit. 

On Sunday, Oct. 16, we arrived mid-morning and met Natascia, her daughter Gaia Mattioli, and a gathering of relatives in front of Pozzallo’s city hall (municipio). The mayor (“sindaco” in Italian) Roberto Ammatuna, arrived to open “il municipio” for a small reception. He expressed a deep appreciation for our presence and emphasized how important such trips by distant Pozzallesi are to him and the community. He said these visits remind us all that despite distance Italian-Americans are proud of their roots and culture.

After our meeting, Jim and Jason dashed down to the beach to wade in the warm Mediterranean water, something we could easily imagine Carmelo doing. On our way to lunch, we stopped at the home of Parma La Terra Bellina, the daughter of Carmelo’s brother, Giovanni, and therefore, Jim’s grandfather’s niece and Jim’s second cousin and oldest living relative. For Jim and Jason, as well as Cristiano and me, the time with them was priceless. 

Then onto a luncheon. For several days prior, Natascia kept us up to date about how many relatives she expected … maybe twenty five, then thirtyish, oops, more than thirty, to a final number of over forty Bellina/Bellino relatives! And, not surprisingly, the hotel and restaurant general manager was Sandro La Terra Bellina, another cousin. It was a festival of introductions, speeches, amazing food, and an outpouring of affection and love. After every course, family members introduced themselves to Jim and Jason, relating stories about themselves and their branch of the family. Several couples had spent time in the United States and talked about where they lived.

Towards the end of lunch, Jim spoke about journeying back to his grandfather’s home, not knowing what they might find. He expressed how the celebration far exceeded Jason’s and his expectations, and how overwhelmed and deeply emotional they felt. 

After dessert, everyone was slow to depart. My words fall short to adequately encompass an amazing day for Jim and Jason. However, both men said they were coming back and Jason committed to learning the language including some Sicilian dialect.