May 2, 2013

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Aliza Giammatteo

Aliza Giammatteo

When I read this article my daughter, Aliza, wrote I knew I had to share it. She is a professional genealogist, and she writes for five Italian American publications as a columnist. If I must say, she is not only a great genealogist, but a magnificent storyteller. I hope you enjoy this.


Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Genealogy Search Auction Winner Finds Heroes in His Family Tree

Special Feature: Originally published in NIAF’s (National Italian American Foundation’s) Ambassador Magazine.

When Dr. Angelo Falcone placed the winning bid for the genealogy package at NIAF’s anniversary gala auction last October, he knew it included a family history search from my Italian genealogy company, Roots in the Boot. But he had no idea what surprises were in store.

Falcone thought his ancestors were all “peasant farmers from Montedoro, Sicily.” That turned out to be true on one branch of his family, but on the other branch we traced, we found an intriguing Sardinian “Don” and his story was…

One for the Record Books

Finding a Sardinian in the family tree was only the beginning of the surprises to come. While tracing Falcone’s Sicilian family back (to nearly the 1500s), we discovered that not only were his ancestors from the town of Montedoro, they were among the founding fathers of the town. It’s rare to be able to make that claim in Italy, where it’s more common for towns to have thousands of years of history than to have been founded in the early 1600s.

Falcone is planning an ancestry tour of Montedoro and will be able to bring hundreds of years of family history life, seeing the houses his ancestors lived in, the church they attended for centuries, all of which were detailed in the records.

Ordinarily, that would be the highlight of a family search, but with the Falcone story, it didn’t even make the cut.

The discoveries were fascinating, and Dr. Falcone, a Maryland physician, has graciously agreed to share the stories to demonstrate what unknowns might await someone in a family history search and how meaningful those discoveries can be.

The Mysterious Don Angelo

After tracing Falcone’s paternal Grandfather’s branch almost 400 years in Montedoro, we discovered that his wife’s branch, the Zandas, were in town 20 years or less. They may have emigrated from Montedoro, but it would have been a stretch to say they were from Montedoro.

Falcone’s grandmother’s father, Raimondo Zanda, was born in a town near Montedoro, called Sutera. And Raimondo’s father was Don Angelo Zanda, of Cagliari, Sardinia. When I first saw Don Angelo’s name and place of origin on his marriage record, bells started going off in my head.

I was curious about the honorific title of “Don,” when, according to the family’s oral history and more recent records, the Zandas were peasants. But that was a turbulent time in Italian history, and shifts in a family’s social status were more common than people think. Despite it piquing my curiosity, what puzzled me more was…

What was a Sardinian doing in the middle of Sicily’s sulfur mining district?

The Kingdom of Sardinia, located about 325 miles northwest of Sicily, was isolated geographically and linguistically, and in other ways. To see a Sardinian in a Southern Italian or Sicilian record is so rare that it set off all of my genealogical detective alarms.

When we began Falcone’s search, we hadn’t planned on researching the Zanda branch. But when I mentioned the mystery of Don Angelo to Falcone, and told him I suspected a story was behind that mystery, he gave me the green light to dig into the Zanda history. That began the quest to find Don Angelo’s story.



A Carabiniere Reale (Royal Military Policeman), circa 1875. Falcone learned that his Great Great Grandfather, Don Angelo Zanda, was a Carabiniere Reale.

Rising to the Occasion

U.S. Naval Admiral William Frederick Halsey Jr. famously once said, “There are no great people in this world, only great challenges which ordinary people rise to meet.” That appears to be the case for Don Angelo Zanda, who was a member of the Royal Military Police Cavalry (a Carabiniere Reale a cavallo), which is how he ended up in Sutera, Sicily. To the best of our knowledge, he was stationed in Sicily circa 1866, not long after the unification of Italy.

Uprisings were common in the years following unification, and banditry was a severe problem. Evidence suggests that Don Angelo was sent to Sicily to help with law enforcement and peacekeeping. After he arrived, a bigger challenge arose—the great cholera epidemic of 1867. Sicily was hit the hardest, suffering more than 54,000 fatalities, almost half of all the cholera-related deaths in Italy.

Little was known about the cause of cholera outbreaks, and many Sicilians, who were notorious for being superstitious and distrusting of government officials, believed the Carabinieri were poisoning them and causing the deaths. So, in addition to tending to the afflicted, burying the dead and trying to sanitize the town, they often had to battle rebellious townspeople who refused to cooperate, rioted, and sometimes attacked and killed the Carabinieri who were trying to help them.

Cholera outbreak

Cholera outbreak

Townspeople attacking Carabinieri as they try to rescue them from the cholera outbreak, from “Military Life in Italy: Sketches” by Edmondo De Amicis, 1892.

In a new and unfamiliar land where he didn’t speak the language, Don Angelo faced challenges of epic proportions. But he rose to the occasion and emerged a hero. We know this because the Kingdom of Italy awarded Don Angelo a bronze medal in recognition of his outstanding service to public health. This discovery was even more priceless considering that Dr. Angelo Falcone is a medical doctor with emergency care services across the state of Maryland and beyond. If anyone can appreciate Don Angelo’s heroism, it’s Falcone.

Then there was the real kicker (I did say this was “one for the record books,” didn’t I?): We learned that Falcone’s father, also named Angelo, was Don Angelo’s namesake. So, we can say that, by extension, Falcone is Don Angelo’s namesake too.

Sometimes when we go looking for ancestors, we end up finding ourselves.

Dr. Falcone and father

Dr. Falcone and father

Dr. Angelo Falcone, left, with his father, Angelo Falcone, and son, Chance. Both Angelos were amazed to learn that their namesake was Don Angelo Zanda of Sardinia.

The Birth of a Dream

Speaking of the past meeting the present, just as I was thinking Falcone’s search couldn’t get any better, Don Angelo had one more surprise up his sleeve.

After his Carabiniere service, he married and started a family in Sutera, deep in sulfur-mining country. Sulfur mining was a tough business, which only a select few profited from. The rest suffered through what has been described as “hell on Earth.”

Sicily had a virtual monopoly on sulfur, delivering 95 percent of the world’s supply. The miners worked in dark, steaming-hot, mountain tunnels, reeking with the stench of sulfur. They were known to take a glass of wine as a diversion from their miserable work in the mines, and they needed a place to congregate.

Don Angelo devised what seemed like a great business plan at the time: working as a tavern keeper, selling beverages to the miners. But his dream was not be—at least not in his lifetime. Sulfur was soon discovered in mines outside of Sicily, and new technologies lessened demand. Combined with the instability of Italy’s economy, a “perfect storm” was brewing. Don Angelo found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But Don Angelo was not a quitter. We found records of him being in three different Sicilian towns in the span of 10 years, apparently searching for opportunities. His struggle during these years couldn’t be clearer from the records. His social decline was rapid—from tavern keeper, to farmer, to day laborer. And, finally, on his death record, in 1909, he was listed as having worked in those hellish mines in Montedoro.

Worst of all, his sweetheart, who stood by him while waiting a year for clearance to marry, died seven years before him in 1902. And with Montedoro quickly becoming a ghost town, and no opportunities in sight, his children made an agonizing decision—stay with their father or join their paesani in America.

Falcone Beverage Co.

Falcone Beverage Co.

Dr. Angelo Falcone’s grandparents, Calogera Zanda and Carmelo Falcone, started the family’s beverage distribution business in Pittston, Penn.

It takes a family: A dream revisited

It appears that Don Angelo’s children couldn’t leave their father behind. Ship records show the children’s names crossed out on the manifest (this typically means a ticket was bought but the passenger didn’t board).

Interestingly enough, the children were around the same age that Don Angelo was when he was sent to Sicily. And something tells me he was urging them to go to America, and seek new opportunities. But they refused to leave him.

The family’s solution was to pool their efforts and tag-team. For the next 10 years, we see a rotation of Don Angelo’s children in the ship records, with some staying in the United States for a few years (probably establishing a foundation and sending money back home), while the others stayed behind in Sicily taking care of Don Angelo. Then, they switched places, until they all finally made it to America.

It’s one of the most touching displays of what la famiglia really means that I’ve ever seen.

Just over 10 years after Don Angelo’s death, Falcone’s grandparents, Carmelo Falcone and Calogera Zanda, appear in the 1920 census in the coal-mining town of Pittston, Penn., owning a grocery store that sold beer to the miners. Sound familiar?

The store grew into a successful beverage distribution company that was run by the couple’s children, including Falcone’s father, Angelo, and sold to taverns in the area.

They took a page out of Don Angelo’s playbook and revived an old Sicilian—or should we say Sardinian—dream.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

When Falcone heard of these discoveries, he could barely find words to describe how he felt. He now has a deeper connection to his roots and a greater appreciation for all the opportunities that have been afforded to him, thanks to the efforts of la famiglia. Falcone said he was humbled by the generations that came before him. After he had time to absorb our findings, I asked him if he had any final impressions he wanted to share before I wrote this article.

The last line of his reply was: “We truly do stand on the shoulders on giants.”

We won’t all find a Don from Sardinia who was awarded a medal for his heroic efforts in our family history. But make no mistake, every family has its share of heroes, regardless of whether they have a title or a medal. The tag-teamers in Falcone’s family never got a medal. I hope this story suffices.

Special thanks to assistant researchers: Jim Cappo of Utah, and Riccardo Bruno of Ravina (Trento), Italy. It does take a family – and Roots in the Boot is grateful they are part of ours.

Aliza Giammatteo is the owner and lead researcher at Roots in the Boot, an Italian genealogy firm headquartered in Las Vegas, NV. She’s also a syndicated columnist and feature writer for Italian American publications throughout the US. To learn more about your roots in the Italian “boot”, visit:, or contact us at: (646) 255-9565 or:





7 Responses to “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”

  1. Great article, Eliza! This story really shows why we do this work. It means so much to people to reunite them with their family history!

  2. Thanks, Melanie! You’re so right.

    There are so many stories like this that deserve to be told. And we’re so lucky that we get to help bring them to light.

  3. I think I might be a Falcone relative. My great grandfather, Alessandro Puma came over from Montedoro in 1905 on the “Sicilian Prince” with a woman and two children. The children have his name, but not the woman, Guiseppa Falcone. I assume that women did not change take their husband’s name? They went to sons already living in Pittston (Sahatridc, which is strangest name ever – who I believe to be my great grandfather Charlie…and Salvatore). My family (Charlie and Theresa) moved to Clifton, New Jersey prior to WWII, where my grandmother (Mary/Maria Theresa) was born.

  4. Hi, Jessica. This was a guest post from my daughter, Aliza. She is at the NIAF (National Italian-American Federation) gala this week, but you should email her or contact her through her site, She would be familiar with all the work done on the Falcone line. Her email is Thanks for stopping by, and good luck on identifying potential family members. How exciting!

  5. Ciao Jessica:

    I just saw your post. I think there is a good chance that you ARE connected. We did some research on collateral lines as well so we may be able to tell if you’re connected without even doing further research.

    Out of respect for our clients’ privacy we do not publicly release family details without expressed permission (but I’m sure the Falcone family would approve of us chatting privately to see if you tie in).

    Feel free to email me directly to discuss further:

    Aliza Giammatteo

  6. Wow. I’ve done a small amount of research into my genealogy and believe I may be related. I believe my great-grandfather was Raimondo Zanda, at some point I believe the last name was changed to Zanta. My grandfather was his son Angelo, who emigrated as a young child to Pittston and later married Philomena Alfano, who also had emigrated to Pittston from Montedoro.

  7. Hi Michael:

    It’s been a while since we started the search in the article, but if I remember correctly, the family’s name had changed to Zanta in the U.S. too.

    Chances look very good that you’re related too, but I’d have to check the details to say for sure. If you’d like more info, my email is above.

    All the best,


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