Italian cuisine is so American

  • Gianni Calabrese sits at the bar of his South Deerfield eatery, Gianni Fig’€™s Ristorante. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Calabrese’s potato gnocchi with bacon-wrapped scallops in a parmigiana nest with an old fashioned made with fig infused vodka.

  • Gianni Calabrese of Gianni Fig's restaurant on Elm Street in South Deerfield makes a Parmigiana Nest by sauteing Parmesan cheese and then forming it over a bowl. October 24, 2018. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Gianni Calabrese outside his restaurant, Gianni Fig's Ristorante in South Deerfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Gianni Fig’s Ristorante on Elm Street in South Deerfield.

  • Gianni Fig's Ristorante on Elm Street in South Deerfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Gianni Fig's Ristorante on Elm Street in South Deerfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Gianni Fig's Ristorante on Elm Street in South Deerfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Gianni Calabrese inside his restaurant, Gianni Fig’s Ristorante in South Deerfield. Contributed photo

  • Gianni Calabrese, owner of Gianni Fig’s Ristorante in South Deerfield, preps some fresh mushrooms for the evening appetizer. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • Fresh mushrooms at Gianni Fig’€™s Ristorante in South Deerfield.

  • Gianni Calabrese, center left, with immigration officials including Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, left, who also has Italian heritage, during his naturalization ceremony in 2017 in Springfield. Contributed photo

  • Gianni Calabrese inside his South Deerfield eatery, Gianni Fig's Ristorante. Contributed photo—

Staff Writer
Published: 7/6/2019 8:00:12 AM

Gianni Calabrese of South Deerfield was 21 years old the first time he stepped foot on American soil. Nearly two decades later and now an American citizen, Calabrese, who owns Gianni Fig's Ristorante in the village center, has a story similar to that of some 44.5 million immigrants who reside in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

He has achieved the so-called “American dream.” Calabrese, 38, originally of Italy, is a successful American businessman and an accomplished local chef.

In the past two years since opening his Italian restaurant in 2017, Gianni Fig’s Ristorante has become a mainstay in the typically quiet town. On weekend nights, the parking spaces along Elm Street fill with patrons tempted by menu offerings such as Calabrese’s Neapolitan lasagne, Bolognese and Braciola di Agnello — slow-braised rolled lamb in a tomato ragu sauce served over penne with Pecorino Romano cheese and basil — which is inspired by a dish he first tried back home in Italy. In the back of the house, the kitchen is often a bustle of activity. Italian music plays over speakers above quiet chatter and clinking dishes. Calabrese is in the middle of it all, managing a staff of a half-dozen cooks and waitstaff.

But it wasn’t always like that.

When he first arrived 17 years ago, “There were times I thought I was going to die,” recalled Calabrese, who hails from Bracigliano, a town of about 5,000 people on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. He was sitting inside the restaurant’s dimmed interior one recent afternoon and paused to share his story in between food prep and the evening rush.

Growing up, Calabrese says his father worked as a police officer and his mother, Nunzia Fanara, cooked often. Of all the dishes she made, Calabrese most vividly recalls her Sicilian baked pasta, which she made with fresh herbs picked from their garden.

“It was simple, but an explosion of flavor,” Calabrese said. “I slept upstairs, and in the morning, you could smell it (cooking). It was my Sunday morning wake-up.”

America, to his young imagination, was a “dream” destination. Calabrese says he was born about 40 years after the end of World War II when American troops liberated the nation from the fascist regime led by Benito Mussolini.

“That really stayed in my mind — even now. How can I pay that back?” Calabrese said. “It was a dream to come to America. To be an American was a double-dream.”

From age 14, Calabrese began working in restaurants across Italy including one in his hometown, L’Angolo Del Paradiso — “where I got my bones; my structure,” he noted.

After graduating from an Italian culinary school, Calabrese says he visited Miami in 2002 with friends. A year later, he returned for good.

Immediately, life was difficult. According to Calabrese, he arrived in Boston without knowing English. He got a restaurant job in the western end of the state and moved to West Springfield. There, he didn’t know how to operate the heat in his apartment. Instead, Calabrese says he held a “Carlo Rossi (wine) jug filled with hot water. There were times I thought I was going to die,” he recalled. “There were so many things going wrong.”

Living apart from his family compounded the challenges, he noted.

“At first, it was very hard, I’m not going to lie. But as you go — over years — I’m not saying (homesickness) goes away, but it’s a lighter feeling,” Calabrese said. Even today, “I wish I had a teleport. I could work and then at night push a button and go home.”

After working in restaurants across the state — including Typical Sicilian Ristorante and Red Rose, both in Springfield, and co-owning Emma’s Everyday Gourmet in Westfield — Calabrese opened Gianni Figs Ristorante in 2017, the same year he became a U.S. citizen.

To become a citizen, Calabrese says he sat through a two-hour entrance interview (during which he says he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to open the restaurant at all) and passed the citizenship test (which posed questions like “Who was president during World War I?” Answer: Woodrow Wilson), Gianni says he was the only Italian to stand among 140 new citizens at the September naturalization ceremony in Springfield. Afterward, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and a number of other immigration officials with Italian heritage, including U.S. District Judge Mark Mastroianni, congratulated Calabrese in person.

“One of the (officials) started speaking Italian to me. I really felt special,” he said.

A few months later, Calabrese had an unexpected visitor at his restaurant — his mother, who traveled to the United States unbeknownst to him for the first time since he’d moved.

“I was working in the kitchen and one of my friends brought her here. She was sitting right there, facing the wall,” he said, pointing to a corner table in the dark interior. At first, Calabrese says he didn’t recognize her. “I went around and then started crying — bawling like a baby. We hugged, talked for 15 minutes, and then I went back to work.”

On Calabrese’s menu was a modernized version of his mother’s Sicilian baked pasta — pasta and diced eggplant wrapped in cheese and tomato sauce.

“She was surprised,” Calabrese said. “She’s not an internet person.  She doesn’t have an iPhone. She was a little shocked that I  could do that.”

As an American citizen, by creating good jobs and cooking delicious Italian food, Calabrese says he wants to contribute to the country that liberated his own all those years ago. Calabrese says he appreciates the nation’s ability to unify when it counts. He also noted that the United States has significantly evolved past historic prejudices. A hundred years ago, for example, women weren’t allowed to vote. Slavery was legal for nearly a century of the country’s existence.

With all its flaws, “The country unifies to go beyond obstacles. Many countries don’t have that. … That’s unique,” Calabrese said.

This weekend, Calabrese will celebrate his second Independence Day as an American. Gianni Figs Ristorante will be closed in recognition of the holiday. So far, Calabrese says he doesn’t have any big plans — certainly not any that can top last year’s festivities.

Last July 4, Calabrese says he celebrated being an American in the most Franklin County-way possible — tubing down the Deerfield River.

“It was my first time. I got really sunburned,” he joked.

You can reach Andy Castillo at acastillo@recorder.com 

How to connect

Gianni Fig’s Ristorante at 6 Elm St. in South Deerfield is typically open Tuesday through Thursday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.; and on Sunday from noon until 8 p.m. To view a full menu visit giannifigs.com. Reservations can be made by calling 413-350-5940.


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