Blonde-haired, creator of the Dream of Italy newsletter and PBS travel series, doesn’t look Italian—nor does her name sound Italian. But the first time she visited her great-grandfather’s village in Campania, McCabe felt that she had come home.
“When I was growing up in New Jersey, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents, who were children of Italian immigrants,” says McCabe. “They had a great love for family, food and everything Italian, and when I went to Italy, I felt that I was with them again.”
Her grandfather’s lifelong wish was to return to the place his father had left in the late 1800s. In 1995 McCabe and her mother fulfilled this dream by traveling to Castelvetere sul Calore, a small medieval town in the province of Avellino.
Armed with a list of residents with the same last name as her grandparents—Nargi—they knocked on doors until they found two cousins. Manfredo and Livio invited them into their homes, showed them the local churches and cemetery and took them to the town hall, where they found her great-grandfather’s birth certificate.
“It was like a scene from Brigadoon,” she says. “The town seemed to come magically to life for one special day.”
McCabe, then working at ABC News, couldn’t stop dreaming of Italy. “I kept going back almost every year. I realized that a lot of people felt the same way—some because of their Italian blood and others because they had fallen in love with the country.”
In 2002, McCabe, who had become travel editor at USA Today, launched a print and digital subscription newsletter packed with insiders’ tips to the best of Italy. As circulation grew, she quit her day job to devote herself to producing ten editions of Dream of Italy every year.
“I feel like I’ve had 140 children,” says McCabe, who now lives in Denver. “You can’t do something for 14 years without being really committed. The newsletter has been my passion, a constant that’s given me a purpose, no matter what else has been going on in my life.”
With a background in broadcasting, McCabe always envisioned Dream of Italy as a television series. This dream came true earlier this year, when the first season of Dream of Italy debuted on PBS. Six episodes highlighting different regions — Tuscany, Rome, Umbria, Naples/Amalfi Coast, Piedmont/Lake Iseo and Puglia — will continue to run on affiliated stations until May 2017.
McCabe describes the series as “more of a documentary than a how-to travel show,” with a strong emphasis on interactions with Italians carrying on local traditions. In western Tuscany she hunted for wild boar. In Rome she learned how to make mosaics. In Naples, she danced the pizzica.
The second season, scheduled to air in late 2017, has two confirmed episodes. In one, McCabe will trace her genealogical search for her ancestors. “I discovered that one was a Norman invader from a region that is now part of Germany,” she says. “That explains my fair coloring.”
Another will feature Francis Ford Coppola, who, like McCabe, reconnected with his Italian heritage in his twenties. Time and again he returned to Bernalda, the small town in Basilicata that was his grandfather’s birthplace and home. In 2004 Coppola bought the 19th-century Palazzo Margherita, which he converted into a nine-room luxury boutique hotel to attract more visitors to the stunning but largely unknown region.
In its elegant salon, guests can view movies from a collection of the famous director’s favorite films. McCabe chose Christ Stopped at Eboli, based on Primo Levi’s book about the bleak poverty of Basilicata.
“There I was, a great granddaughter of poor immigrants, sitting in a palazzo created by another descendant of impoverished Italians. I realized that Palazzo Margherita is Francis’s love letter to Italy, just like the newsletter and television series are mine.”
How have Italians responded to McCabe’s venture? “They’re tickled pink. They can’t believe how long I’ve been doing it or how many people want to learn more about their country.” As for subscribers and viewers: “I think that what they respond to is how much I love Italy and Italians.”
McCabe doubts that this feeling will ever change. “I’ve always felt a great love for Italy, but doing the series, I’ve fallen in love with it all over again.”