Traditional Strengths

Member Group : Salena Zito

Gianni Ronald Samuel beamed with relief as, one by one, his extended family crowded around a large wooden table at Penn Brewery on Pittsburgh’s North Side to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas.

Large, heavy snowflakes falling outside and a forecast of several inches of snow had threatened the 6-year-old’s chance to enjoy the annual family get-together that began long before he was born in 1992.

"Everyone’s here, Pap!" he said to his grandfather as cousins, aunts, parents, grandparents and family friends arrived in the old Deutschtown neighborhood to savor traditional German food, beer and music — and, of course, to catch a glimpse of St. Nicholas.

At the first Zito family St. Nicholas feast, my daughter, Shannon, was the same age as Gianni; her brother, Glenn, was just 3, and my kid sister, Heather, was 15. With my parents, Ron and Joan Zito, we all were thrilled to explore the beer house that opened in 1986 in the old Eberhardt and Ober Brewery, which once stood in majestic decay along the ridge overlooking the Allegheny River and the billowing smokestacks of the Heinz plant.

Twenty-one years later, Shannon and Glenn still attend — she accompanied by boyfriend Michael Venditti and his parents, Michael and Debbie. Heather is now married to Jim Samuel; they’re the parents of the elated Gianni, the center of everyone’s attention.

We are blessed that my parents still sit vigorously at the head of the table.
Nothing is particularly noteworthy about the annual trek to Penn Brewery; it is among many traditions that my family has kept for more than 55 years, many of those handed down from my parents’ parents.

We all still sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with my sister Annette and her husband, Keith Simmons, and their children — Nicholas; Kristin and her husband, Phil Simonetti; Lucia, and three-month-old Elena.

We all still have Sunday dinner together — and I mean every Sunday.
We all still vacation together every year, too. That’s something which, as the eldest, I can clearly remember doing with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins a half-century ago.

Traditions are uniquely wonderful things. They connect us to people and places from our past, often with smells, tastes and sounds that, even on the most granular level, can bring back a rush of memories.

Families are uniquely wonderful things, too, filled with love, complications and a connectivity to relationships that began long before any of us were thought of; but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth it. All you have to do is look in Gianni’s eyes, and see his joy at being surrounded by family, to know that is true.

Traditions are central to keeping alive a family’s sense of pride and uniqueness, but it is not as easy as it sounds and I know I would rather have been loafing on the corner with my friends instead of dutifully watching my grandmother roll out the ravioli for dinner or steam the baccala for the feast of the seven fishes.

But I did those things, perhaps grudgingly, and I am a better person because of it.

I still remember the scent of Grandma’s tomato sauce filling the neighborhood every time I follow her recipe in my own kitchen; I will never forget the sight of snails escaping from her pots of water and up the sides of her kitchen cabinets, or the crunch of her spectacular wine cookies after dunking them in steaming cups of espresso.

I am rather certain that my own kids grudgingly accompany me at an ungodly hour to the Strip District to purchase all seven of the fishes that I now prepare for my family at Christmas. I say "grudgingly" in part because I awkwardly use old Italian phrases long forgotten after my grandparents died and, in part, because the Strip is crowded, noisy and takes up hours of their day.

Yet one constant for the Zitos has been cherishing family.

And that is one thing, I am equally certain, Shannon and Glenn will never let go.

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Salena Zito
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter