“I am most passionate about bringing my knowledge [of tasting] to consumers, “said an enthusiastic Orietta Gianjorio, a native Italian from Rome,...
The year was 1935. The United States was in the midst of the Great Depression, yet San Diego opened the doors to its iconic Balboa Park for its second attempt at a world fair. Approximately 25,000 guests attended the California Pacific International Exposition, which lasted from May 28, 1935 through the following year.
It was then that the House of Pacific Relations and the 15 original International Cottages were created, one of which was the House of Italy.
As House of Italy approaches its 80th anniversary in 2015, I met with former House of Italy President (and current 2nd Vice President) Rich Tomasello and Vice President Rich La Rocca to discuss House of Italy's history and its transformation over the years to the organization it is today.
Only four short years after the organization was founded, war broke out across the world and after the United States began its involvement in the conflict, the effects of war were soon felt by San Diegans and Balboa Park as La Rocca explains: “During [the war], the Navy took over pretty much everything in Balboa for medical [purposes] since the hospital was there. Then in 1946, after the war, the group of the houses was restarted, but the Italians didn't come forward right away, so they lost the house that they had in 1935.”
House of Italy eventually did regain its house in the 60s, Tomasello revealed, after much complaint and advocacy on the part of the Italian-American community in the city. “What happened was when Balboa Park wanted to return all the houses to the original charter members – which Italy was – no one came forward in Little Italy,” he explained. “They were probably embarrassed because of their association with the war, I don't know why, but they were passed over.”
The original cottage assigned to House of Italy by the 1930s House of Pacific Relations was reassigned to Scotland, according to Tomasello. When Italy stepped forward to reclaim a cottage of their own, they were assigned to an older flower shop, which is where House of Italy remains to this day.
The House of Italy remained an active organization in San Diego through the 60s and 70s, says La Rocca, but they were overall uneventful decades in the organization's history. According to La Rocca, it wouldn't be until the late 1990s that things really started taking off.
“In 1999 and 2000, Rich [Tomasello] and some other people,” La Rocca said. “They actually reinvigorated the House. They came in with new leadership and the House started getting to what we have now.”
Tomasello highlighted some of his contributions in the early years of his presidency and their impact on the organization's growth. “Since 2001, I would say [membership] has gone steadily upwards. We've expanded our community awareness: We have the film festivals, we had cooking classes, we had language classes.
Those first years when I was president, we went out to shows for college demonstrations. [We] went to the San Diego Institute for the Blind. We brought music, we brought items...like some of the glassware and some of the silk from abroad so they could feel and touch it. And of course we listened to music.”
Today, House of Italy has grown to an organization that is close to 200 strong and growing. It continues its community outreach by participating in popular community events such as the San Diego Italian Film Festival and the festivals held in Little Italy. It is also a supporter of the San Diego Opera and a sponsor of a youth philharmonic orchestra.
Looking back over the years and memories of House of Italy, La Rocca and Tomasello both reminisce on their fondest and proudest moments. For Tomasello, it was “learning more about my heritage and obtaining dual-citizenship for myself, my wife, my two sons, my grandsons...[House of Italy president] Roberto Ruocco helped me and my family get our [dual-citizenship].”
“Coming down here as an older person,” La Rocca adds. “[It was nice to] reestablish with an Italian community and stay with our roots...and most of our friends now are from that community so that's a very nice accomplishment for me.”
House of Italy will continue its tradition of enriching its members lives with the culture and heritage that is being Italian. “We're really expanding – over the last several years – our programs are second to none at Balboa Park,” Tomasello says.
According to La Rocca, “it's like having a Sunday Italian family dinner with good entertainment. That's what we try to stress and encourage and a lot of people get attracted to that.”