Italian American Holiday Traditions in the Ohio Valley

Immigrants from Italy have long played a role in the economy of West Virginia. By 1910 Italian-Americans made up 30 percent of the population. Entering the United States by way of Ellis Island, the majority of Italians in the Ohio Valley came from Southern Italy, Calabria and Sicily. Italians were drawn to the area because there was a great need for workers in the coal industry.

After living in the South for many years, I was excited when I moved to Wheeling to find plenty of pizzerias and the type of Italian American food I grew up eating in Buffalo, NY. Recently I started talking to other Italian Americans about their Thanksgiving and Christmas traditions surrounding food. It’s common for immigrant families to celebrate “American” holidays while putting their own twist on the food that is placed on the table.

My mother’s parents both emigrated from a small town in the Madonie Mountains of Sicily called Isnello in the early 1900s. Josephine and Russell (“Rocky”) Gugliuzza settled in Buffalo, NY. Growing up we had all of our holiday gatherings in their basement which housed their bar and a second kitchen (every Italian grandma has at LEAST a stove in her basement). Thanksgiving began early in the day with an Italian wedding soup for lunch around 1 p.m. We continued with Italian sausages as an appetizer to a traditional turkey dinner. Generally, I just remember picking at food all day long.

  • Family
    The basement bar was a holiday hangout for Melissa's family.

After dessert, our holiday meals concluded with fava beans. The fava simmer until they are tender and are served alongside good olive oil and sea salt for dunking them in. The large beans are shelled from their “second” shell using your hands. I can recall years that we spent so much time eating supper and dessert that we didn’t get around to fava and coffee until close to midnight! But it was also the way we ended the meal alongside a large tray of roasted chestnuts. If you’d like to include fava as part of your holidays this year, they sell the large beans dry at Good Mansion Wines.

Fava Beans
Fava Beans

Wheeling resident Vincent Sirianni remembers Thanksgiving with his Italian American relatives as a five-day affair full of food. Spaghetti and meatballs were a staple, but the star of the Thanksgiving table was the eggplant parmesan. Sirianni’s great grandfather, Salvatore, and Grandmother Rosa immigrated to the US from San Giovanni in Fiore (Calabria) in the early 1900s and settled outside of Clarksburg, WV.

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Jodi Adams, General Manager of the Public Market in Wheeling, shared her family’s story with me as well. Guido Narcisi, Jodi’s grandfather, immigrated to the States in 1914 from Fontecchio, Italy in the Abruzzo region and settled in Shadyside, OH. Gerald Narcisi, his son, recalls rigatoni with tomato sauce as a staple on their Thanksgiving table in addition to all of the American favorites.

The most popular question I get asked when I speak of my family’s holiday traditions is “how did you eat that much?” In a traditional Italian way, the meals consist of many different courses sometimes with breaks in between. This holiday season I’m thankful for the food memories of my childhood that I now share with friends and neighbors. I’m even more thankful to meet people that love to share their own. You might even want to try some Italian sausage with your turkey this year or lasagna for Christmas. Trust me, you won’t regret it!

What holiday food traditions and memories do you have? Comment below to share them with us!

Melissa Rebholz was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, to a Sicilian/German family. She grew up in a household revolving around food. In 2007, a summer of volunteering for GrowNYC (New York City’s Farmer’s Markets) led her down the path to culinary school at The Natural Gourmet Institute and 10 subsequent years of farming from Long Island to Sonoma to Tennessee. Working simultaneously in kitchens to support her farming habit, Melissa migrated back to the rustbelt in October of 2019 to help Grow Ohio Valley open the Public Market as the head chef. Her hobbies include foraging, baking, dinner parties and exploring her new home of Wheeling, West Virginia.