This week's feature story (online Wednesday) takes an in-depth look at the Houston families who developed our diverse food scene into what it is today. We spent hours researching and interviewing family members to compile their stories, but not everything could make it into print. In celebration of these fascinating family histories, we'll be posting on Eating ... Our Words interesting anecdotes and extended quotes that didn't make it into the print edition. We hope you find these folks as fascinating as we did.
"Johnny Carrabba is my cousin, and I'm his uncle. His grandmother was my dad's sister, and his grandfather was my mom's uncle."
That's how Sammy Patrenella, Sr. of Patrenella's Italian Restaurant attempted to explain his family tree to me. I couldn't figure out how to draw that family tree, and hours of perusing Ancestry.com yielded few results in terms of a Patrenella/Carrabba relationship, but Johnny Carrabba echoed something similar when I spoke to him about his family. Regardless of how, exactly, the two are related, it's clear that Patrenella knows a great deal about his family's story and, by extension, the story of the Carrabba family as well.
The following is a heartwarming tale he told me about his ancestors' (the Carrabbas) journey to America.
"It started with Johnny Carrabba's great grandmother," Patrenella explains. "That's young Johnny, the one who started Carrabba's restaurant."
She moved to the United States after she saw an advertisement from Stewart Title Company in a Sicilian newspaper. Stewart Title Company began operating in Galveston in 1893, and shortly thereafter the company began running ads internationally in an attempt to entice immigrants. It worked.
Back then, you couldn't own land in Sicily; you sharecropped. So when Sicilians saw that land was being sold for $1 an acre in Texas, they packed up and headed across the Atlantic Ocean to the Port of Galveston.
"They all arrived in Galveston," Patrenella says, "but some of them stayed around League City and others went to Bryan and then to Houston."
Johnny Carrabba's great grandmother and grandfather bought land from the Stewart Title Company and sent their two daughters and one son ahead of them to settle in League City and prepare a home for their parents. They explained to the children that they were to start making lives for themselves in Texas, and when they were stable and had some money, they should send for their mother and father.
After establishing a homestead and working the land for a few years, the children felt it was time for their parents to join them. They sent a letter to them in Sicily, and the parents responded with their anticipated date of arrival.
"The old lady and the old man got onto a boat and came here," Patrenella says, "And then they got on a train from Galveston. They're supposed to get off in Dickinson, but they accidentally went to League City. The kids were at the train depot every day waiting for their mom and dad, but they never came. Eventually, they gave up."
In the meantime, the parents realized their mistake, and they slowly walked the five miles back to Dickinson. When they got to the small town, they realized they didn't know where their children lived. They walked up and down the streets of League City, stopping strangers to inquire in Italian if they knew the family, but no one did. Finally, when the couple was growing weary and wondering if they would ever find their children, the woman looked up and saw something familiar hanging on a clothesline.
"It was a quilt she'd made for her daughter back in Italy," Patrenella says, chuckling at the remarkable tale. "The family was reunited at last."