Sit down, have something to eat and join in the conversation. Around the Kitchen Table is all about food, family and folklore — the three cornerstones of local culture.
Four siblings from a second-generation Italian-American family with roots in South Philly host the weekly radio show, but you don’t have to be of Italian descent to appreciate it, says co-host Leonardo San Felese.
"Relationships and family are important. We just happen to be Italian, but we would honor any ethnic family," he says. "We are promoting family."
The 30-minute show airs Wednesdays at noon on WNWR 1540 AM. The 50,000-watt Bala Cynwyd station also reaches parts of Delaware and New Jersey and leans toward ethnic programming.
Kitchen Table fits right in. The program focuses on two subject areas, explains San Felese, the oldest of the four siblings. The first is Italian heritage and tradition, with previous shows themed "Marriage Italian Style" and "Traditional Italian Christmas Meals;" the second is current events and other universal topics of interest, like television, terrorism and the role of sports in life.
The San Feleses use the forum to discuss their individual and varied professions and family life with an Old-World twist, says Leonardo. Having grown up in an Italian household, the siblings have plenty to draw on.
Combine that with their diverse professional backgrounds — sometimes the fodder for disagreement — and you have the recipe for Kitchen Table.
"There has to be antithesis, as long as it’s done in a healthy way," says Leonardo. "Without it, you cannot grow."
The eldest San Felese sibling, a geriatric psychiatrist, is the medical director of inpatient geriatric psychiatry at Norfolk Sentara General Hospital in Virginia. In the 1960s, he and sister Catarina spent two years in the Peace Corps. Now a clinical social worker, Catarina was stationed in Afghanistan while Leonardo served in Iran, where he met and married a Persian woman. The couple, who have since divorced, have one son, Ali Leonardo.
Pasquale San Felese is a businessman whose company deals in organic fertilizer, while brother Tomaso is an inner-city high-school science teacher, coach and referee.
Since its debut in November 2001, Around the Kitchen Table has grown in popularity. Within the coming months, the siblings plan to expand the show to a full hour and change the format to call-in.
Each episode begins with a traditional Italian song or music made famous by pop culture. (The Thanksgiving show featured the theme from The Godfather.) Listeners then get an overview of what the family is eating that day.
"Italian aromas run through this [show]. It’s the smell of saut�ed garlic in extra-virgin olive oil. And the pasta is always al dente," laughs Leonardo.
Discussion on a current topic follows, sometimes with other guests. Still, says Leonardo, the program doesn’t lose its "Italian-ness." The siblings close with more Italian music.
By the way, if you’re wondering if you know these folks, San Felese is not the family’s real surname. To honor their paternal grandfather, the siblings chose the name of the town in Basilicata, Italy, from where he hailed. The San Feleses’ maternal grandparents were from Abruzzo, and their mother, Antoinette Marie Nicola, was born and raised in South Philly. Their real last name is Dileo.
Nicola moved around the area a lot, Leonardo says, and has lived on Snyder Avenue as well as Tasker Street. The St. Rita’s Church parishioner graduated from South Philadelphia High in 1931 and went on to study hat and dress design at the School of Industrial Design, now the University of the Arts.
While on a job interview, a prospective employer told Nicola she would not get any work unless she changed her name to something "more American," Leonardo recounts. Her father wasted no time in taking her to City Hall and getting her name officially changed.
Antoinette Marie Nicola became Nettie Nichols.
"She changed her name and she got work," says Leonardo, adding what a sad commentary this was on the times, when prejudices prevailed against many ethnic groups including Italians.
Nicola worked in a few dress and hat shops in Center City and also was hired to do hat and veil fittings for weddings. When she got married, she moved to Trenton, where Leonardo and his siblings were raised.
Leonardo recalls growing up in a neighborhood where, like in his mother’s native South Philly, the entire block was akin to family. But those days are long gone, he says, and instead are replaced by splintering families.
So the San Feleses are doing their part to keep the famiglia ties strong.
Twice a year, they gather the relatives for a family reunion, complete with lots of food and lots of talk, of course. Every winter, the family hosts a banquet at an Italian restaurant. Good vino and plenty of conversation help to wash down the pasta and meat. And the evening would not be complete without some traditional Italian singing and dancing.
For the summer reunion, the family barbecues in a park. Sure, they have good ol’ American hot dogs and hamburgers — plus Italian sausage, peppers and onions.
Few Italians would disagree with Leonardo San Felese when he says eating and talking are the most important things in life. And back in the day, the kitchen table was the gathering place for both.
"Sitting around the kitchen table, we talk about everything," San Felese says of the radio program. "We agree, we disagree. It’s a developing novel. It’s also a soap opera. It focuses on the role of family in society and how we deal with happiness, crisis, current events."
For more information on the radio program, write to Around the Kitchen Table, P.O. Box 1473, Toms River, N.J. 08754 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.