The following essay first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Italian American Magazine. It appears below with minor edits and all new photos.
“Chi non accetta, non merita,” my grandfather used to say, pressing a dollar bill into my palm and winking at me. Who doesn’t accept it, doesn’t deserve it.
We all called him Tatone, in the Neapolitano style. He used to tell us, as kids, about how one day he was going to take us all to see his big sister in Tufo, in the big, pink house he was born in, and how she was going to make us the best pasta fagioli we’d ever had. I remember dreaming about the house as a kid, pink as cotton candy.
But then he died before it ever happened.
And then his sister did, too, before I ever got to visit. Zia Lina died childless, though, and the house I used to dream about was left to my mother and aunts. In the fifteen or so years since, we got out to visit Tufo a handful of times, but as the family gets older, and it gets harder to get over there, the time between our visits has gotten longer and longer. The house can sit empty for years at a time, and the conversation has recently turned toward the possibility of selling the house, of letting it go. It’s a lot of work to hold onto, after all, and it isn’t cheap.
Inevitably, my grandma butts in, invoking her late husband:
“But, we gotta perpetuate it, your father always said. That was his dream. And he was talking about more than just that house, you know. He was talking about your heritage.”
Did she mean my heritage, too? Growing up second-generation, half Italian, with a name like Patrick McNeil, I was never sure how much my being Italian was supposed to matter. How much claim did I really have to it? How much claim did we really have to an empty house, half a world away? None of us had ever lived there.
This last spring, then, I left my home and job in Philadelphia to go and live there, in Zia Lina’s house in Tufo, to see for my family, once and for all, if there really was a viable way to perpetuate it.
The idea was to put it to use. Our family had always loved vacations there, so if we could open it up to other families, and if they loved it, too, then we might be onto something. I started up an Airbnb account and listed the house. Rosa di Tufo, we called her, because she was pink. I listed all three of the true bedrooms we would rent out, as well as the whole secondo piano, complete with a full kitchen, dining room, ping-pong table, and balconies that look down over the vineyards across the Sabato River.
I went ahead and made the listing public, and saw that there were no other listings in town, which at first I figured was a good thing. No competition, right? But then my spirits flagged–the reason that there weren’t any other bed and breakfasts in town, I realized, was because who in the world, besides us DeVitos, had ever even heard of little nowhere Tufo?
We needed to get the word out. I created a web site (www.rosaditufo.com) and a Facebook page for Rosa di Tufo, promoting not only the house but the town itself. Tufo is small, with a population of about eight hundred people, all of whom remember my Zia Lina, and most of whom can’t understand why anyone would ever want to come to vacation in Tufo. With a single restaurant in town, it’s not your typical tourist destination.
One thing I could work with, though, was location: tucked right into the shin of the boot of Italy, Tufo is an hour or so drive to a lot of Southern Italy’s greatest hits: Naples, the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii, Caserta, Paestum, Avellino, Salerno, Sorrento, Capri.
What else could I work with? We had a few connections–I reached out to a family friend, Vito Rago, who runs an Avellino-based hiking business, and developed a few hiking itineraries to offer guests. I partnered with Cantine di Marzo, the four hundred year-old cantina just up the street from Rosa, which sits in the base of the thousand year-old Castello Longobardo, to offer historical tours of Tufo and wine tastings to our guests. Greco di Tufo, a white wine, “with a real length to it,” as the di Marzos put it, draws wine lovers from all over Italy.
I flooded my Facebook and Instagram accounts with all of this, launching a full social media campaign. Every day I posted something new. I probably annoyed a few friends back home, but it got the job done–we got a few bites: reservations from friends and family, and friends of family.
But it wasn’t enough. How else could we use the house? I had been extremely productive in my writing, which I did on the back porch every morning, and it dawned on me: the very same reasons nobody had ever heard of Tufo–its quietness, its out-of-the-way-ness, its internet-less-ness–made it the perfect place to escape from the rest of the world and focus. I dusted off my rolodex and drafted a mass email to every writer I had ever met, proposing a writers’ retreat. I had been on retreats before, and knew what a new atmosphere could do to jumpstart your creativity. But the thing about most of those retreats was always this: I was always torn between focusing on the work at hand and exploring the new city I found myself in.
“Tufo, on the other hand,” I assured my prospective writers, “takes about an hour to explore. The rest of the time, we work.”
Since I wasn’t sure how it would go, I offered the rooms free of charge. The hope being that the writers would do what they did best: they’d write about Rosa, Tufo, and the day trips I organized for the weekends–they’d spread the word.
It worked. In the month or so after the Writers Retreat in Tufo, or WRiT, we had about twenty other guests come through the house, all of whom shared the experience with their friends and family. It’s starting to catch on–I’m already planning 2018’s WRiT, and now that I know what I’m doing, I can place an accurate value on the experience we had. Submissions will open in January 2018. We’re talking to a friend, too, about leading a possible yoga retreat, and I have a few takers who are asking me to provide guided tours next summer, for me to recreate some of the experiences they saw on the Facebook newsfeeds.
As soon as I got back to America at the end of summer, I called my grandma to give her the news: “Gram, we’re perpetuating it.”
Of course, none of it would have been possible without the help we received from the people of Tufo. These partnerships were instrumental to making the business a reality. Giusippina watches over the house and turns over the rooms in between guests, so we can keep the listing active even when we aren’t there. Franco keeps up with the garden. Angelo gave me all kinds of help getting the house together in the spring, and introduced me to his niece, Paola, a lawyer in Avellino who helped with the paperwork to register the house as a small, family business. The intricacies and smallprint of Italy’s bureaucracy were dizzying even with her help.
When I told Angelo I couldn’t begin to thank his family, he shut me right up.
“Stai zitto,” he said. “E niente. It warms our hearts to see Lina’s house open again.”
Looking back now at Rosa’s guest book, I’m not the only one the people in Tufo left their mark on. It wasn’t the bicycle rides around Caserta the guests all wrote fondly about, or the rubber boats we rented to fly around Capri for a picture-perfect day, or any other of the amazing day trips. It was Tufo. It wasn’t the exotic that they held onto, but the familiar. The familial.
It was the line-dancing and karaoke nights at Barcollo, the whole town singing and dancing together. The Tufese folk songs Angelo taught the guests to play on guitar. And, most memorably to me, it was the time Virginia showed up at midnight with the best pasta fagioli I’d ever had, in a big, silver pot that we all sat around eating from, together, no plates needed.
I’ll never forget the way Kelana, our poet, looked at me uncertainly. “Am I supposed to eat from it, too?” she asked. She wasn’t sure she was invited, didn’t know Virginia at all, wasn’t sure she had a claim to it. I remembered that feeling from just a few months before, asking myself whether I had any claim to Tufo at all.
I pressed a fork into her palm. Chi non accetta, non merita.
Patrick DeVito McNeil is a second-generation Italian-American writer and organizer who splits his time between Tufo and Philadelphia.