Written for ILF by Amy Riolo

“Quando fui il giorno della Calabria Dio si trovò in pugno 15,000 Km di argilla verde con riflessi viola…il Signore promise a se stesso di fare un capolavoro e la Calabria usci delle sue mani….” 

~Leonida Répaci 
English Translation: “The day that Calabria was created God found 15,000 Km of green clay with purple reflections in his fist…the Lord promised himself that he would make a masterpiece and Calabria came out of his hands…..” 

My ancestral homeland of Calabria occupies such a huge space in my soul that it’s hard to separate it from my own consciousness. It has been said that when my great-grandfather passed away, he was saving up money, which he had carefully hidden in his basement to return to Crotone, Calabria, where he was born. My great-grandparents (on both sides of the family) immigrated to the United States from Calabria more than a century ago.   

In modern times we now live in constant contact with our loved ones, and it’s hard  to imagine the torment of not being able to see and visit the family members left behind ever again.  When I first visited Calabria in my early twenties, on a trip organized by my father’s cousin, Joyce Riolo, we  felt as if we were retracing my great-grandparents’ steps, and picking up where they left off. Perhaps that is why I am so intensely moved by Calabria, driven to return, and never able to quench my thirst for its’ splendor. 

When I walk through the streets of Crotone’s centro storico and modern downtown, I feel as if the people there are all half-relatives. I am overcome by a profound sense of belonging that I never felt anywhere else in the world. The first time that I visited Capo Colonna and looked out onto the Ionian Sea from the archeological park that is home to the Temple of Hera as well as scores of other Greco-Roman and Byzantine ruins, with the mountains to my back and the orchards to my right, I could not imagine anyone ever leaving such a paradise on earth. 

I can still recall the way one of my father’s cousins held my chin in her hands when I was young. Clearly pleased by the fact that I looked (and acted) the way they did, she kept exclaiming “Tu sei, Crotonese, tu sei Crotonese,” “You are from Crotone, you are from Crotone.” To me those words were not an empty compliment, but a confirmation of my existence and acceptance. 

Crotone was the first place that I ever went to where people didn’t ask me where I was from, and it was also the first place which claimed me as its own.  

Those words sparked a lifelong journey into a world filled with more words – Italian ones – and even words in Calabrian dialects such as Griko – the millennia-old Greco-Italic dialect spoken by a small minority who still trace their roots back to the ancient Greece of the philosophers. 

I delved into the Italian language with mind, body, heart, and soul, because in addition to being a means to communicate art, culture, history, and humanism, it is a direct link between my ancestors and I, my Italian relatives, and my own creative consciousness. But most importantly, it allows me to further my great-grandparents legacies, and reconnect them with the loved ones they left behind. This is the driving mission in my work and existence.  

Nowadays I have been given the title “Mediterranean Lifestyle Ambassador” in the world, because decades ago, while in Calabria,  I noticed that our Italian relatives where much healthier than our American ones. By choosing to promote the Mediterranean Diet professionally, I am able to uphold our cultural and familial core values while inspiring others to enjoy optimal pleasure and health. 

“I am very grateful to the Italian Language Foundation in their efforts to aid those interested in the Italian language.”

~ Amy Riolo

In the practical sense, speaking Italian enables me to communicate with my relatives and have meaningful conversations, which reveals our similarities and enables us to pick up where our ancestors left off. There is nothing more sacred or special to me than the connection that I have with my family in Calabria. It fills my heart with joy to be able to stay in touch with my Cugini Calabresi, as I affectionately call them. I am very grateful for their acceptance of me – as a third cousin– who they met later in life, but embrace me wholeheartedly as someone who they grew up with. The sense of peace, happiness, and joy that I feel when we are together is second to none. 

What I look forward to the most is spending time with my cousins at home. I crave the quality time – cooking and eating with them. Babysitting (and often cooking with) my beautiful cousin Serena’s daughter Azzurra, going to the fish market, and spending time with my cousin Angela in the kitchen. Trying out a new restaurant recommended by my cousin Vincenzo and spending holidays with Francesco and Pina are extraordinarily special to me.

My father’s cousin Mario Riolo, whose career was in excavation, teaches me all there is to know about local antiquities, while Tonia makes sure I don’t leave Calabria without the best-quality local eucalyptus honey in my bags. 

Each time I go back to Italy now, I have professional activities to look forward to as well.  One of the highlights of my career is co-leading cuisine, culture, and wine tours with Italian Sensory Experience.  We take groups on highly curated and personalized small tours of Abruzzo, Molise, and Calabria – often times helping people to get in touch with their roots. Along with my Italian business partners, I have started an LLC which helps Italian food and wine companies market and promote their products in the US and abroad. I also now make frequent appearances on Italian TV, thanks to the Canale Europa TV, and the Stagionello Channel which is also based in Crotone. In my ancestral hometown I am also proud to collaborate with the Librandi Winery and Tasty Tours. My trips to Italy are no longer the vacations of years past, but exciting and utterly rich personal and professional experiences, including visiting the orchard where my private label extra-virgin olive oil is produced. 

Since my family in the US, like most other Italian-Americans, did not continue speaking Italian, the only other link that we had to our ancestors and relatives was food. The recipes that my maternal grandmother, my Nonna Angela,  passed down to me became edible time capsules which kept us, at least culinarily speaking, in contact with our roots. I was so happy when I once found my cousin Angela Riolo, who lives in Crotone, posting a recipe of Cuzzupe di Pasqua, Calabrian Easter bread on Facebook on the same day that I did. Even though our family had been apart for 4 generations, we were still making the same recipes, at the same time, without any advance planning. This, to me, exemplifies the importance of tradition in our lives.  No matter what is going on in the world, I personally know that if I can bake, I can create edible love – not only for others, but for myself as well.

Calabria was recently named “Italy’s most delicious secret” by Traveler Magazine.  The Byzantines named it “The Fertile Land.” This ancient region was originally inhabited by the people whom the Greeks called Oenotri  or “The Wine Cultivators,” and another group, the Itali, whose name eventually named Italy itself. The 20th century Italian (Abruzzese) poet, Gabriele D’annunzio stated Calabria was home to “the most beautiful kilometer on earth.” 

One-fourth of Italian-Americans have roots in Calabria, and her cuisine is a tightly woven mosaic of nature’s bounty, sacred traditions, the ingenuity of housewives, and the influence of various ruling powers. Calabria has been famous for its’ high quality wines (which were served to ancient Greek Olympic champions) since antiquity. In Cirò Marina, my culinary tours are hosted by the award-winning and internationally-recognized Librandi winery.  

CROTONE, where my father’s family hails from was known as Kroton in antiquity. It is known for being home to not only the philosopher Pythagoras who taught there, but also prominent ancient Greek doctors and athletes as well.  One of Pythagoras’ most popular quotes was “Friends are as companions on a journey, who ought to aid each other to persevere on the road of a happier life.” Speaking the Italian language enabled me to create invaluable friendships, extract endless inspiration from the culture, and have unlimited access to Calabria’s splendors. For this I am eternally grateful.

Interested in learning more about Calabria, feel free to join Amy’s Calabria Cuisine and Culture Group on Facebook. Click below to access more information on Amy Riolo.