101-year-old woman looks back on life in Italy and South Philadelphia

Anna Melone was among more than 100 centenarians recently honored by the city.

Anna Melone, a 101-year-old resident of 18th and Wolf Streets, was recently honored by the city alongside more than 120 fellow Philadelphians at the city’s Centenarian Celebration last month. (Grace Maiorano/SPR)

During the 1950s, Anna Melone, a resident of 18th and Wolf streets, crossed the Atlantic Ocean with a collection of treasures from her hometown nestled along the outskirts of Rome.

On the 10-day journey, Melone brought along two of her children, healthy food recipes and a persistently positive demeanor.

All three, perhaps, could be attributed to the 101st birthday of the Roman native, as Melone was recently honored alongside more than 120 fellow Philadelphians at the city’s Centenarian Celebration last month when the class of senior citizens were honored for their longevity and accomplishments.  

In light of the citywide celebration, Melone took time to reflect on the past century, recalling her days escaping from Germans during the Second World War, embarking on a transatlantic journey to the United States and raising four generations of Melone families in South Philadelphia.

“So many things you remember, so many things you forget,” said Melone, who speaks English as a second language.

After spending the first few years of her life in Rome, Melone, who was born in February 1918, and her six other siblings grew up in a mountainside town located about 15 miles outside of the capital city.

When she was in her early 20s, she fell in love with a stone mason from Abruzzo named Romolo. After seven months of dating, the couple was married in January 1940 with their first child expected in November of that year.

“He was a nice, tall guy,” Melone said. “The first time – I didn’t like him but then by being with him, I liked him.”

While in Italy, the Melones ran a small business and gave birth to three children named Bruno, Giulio and Gina.

Melone spent her days as a mother pouring passion into scrumptious dishes and tough loving, such as humorously tying her son Giulio with a pair of stockings as a form of discipline.

“I remember Italy,” he said. “She was an iron hand at that time.”

Living with limited utilities, Melone remembers the challenges of raising a family and running a household in rural Italy.

Melone and her children, Giulio and Gina, say they used a fireplace as a source of heat. A local fountain was their nearest opportunity for fresh water.  

“Everything in Italy, you don’t have the good things that you have over here. Little things. It was nothing like here,” Melone said. “I had more of everything. Over there, we had just enough for survival.”

During World War II, Melone recollects hiding in forests as the Americans bombed Italy in an attempt to strike against the German Army.

Melone even says the Germans stole a local cow, which was a source of milk for her eldest son, Bruno, who was a toddler at the time.

“I could hear the bombs whistling when they dropped,” she said. “There was a lot of death. A lot of people died.”

About a decade after the war ended, Romolo and Bruno were sponsored by family in the United States to move to South Philadelphia, where the men found local work.

Two years later, in 1957, Melone, Giulio and Gina followed the rest of the family to their new home at 9th and Fitzwater streets.

The three of them recall a treacherous 10-day trip crossing the sea on a mammoth passenger ship, as the voyage woefully included some illness. Soon enough, though, they arrived safely in December 1957.

The Melone family in Italy during the 1950s. (Photo special to SPR)

“We didn’t have much family here…basically, our family was very small,” said daughter Gina Digiovanni. “It was just us other than some friends or, as you call them, paisans.”

After residing for a couple of years in a cramped house in the Italian Market, the family purchased a spacious home at 18th and Wolf in 1959 – and has been there ever since.

“This, to her, is her haven, because she never had a home like this before,” Digiovanni said. “In Italy, we had just one little room that we slept in and a little kitchen that she would just cook over a propane tank.”

A full-fledged kitchen gave Melone’s recipes new life, as now, she could properly prepare a plethora of dishes for her family, including minestrone soup, various meats and, of course, pounds and pounds of pasta.

“In Italy, (there was) no steak every day,” Melone said. “We survived, but we came over here, and we were more happy.”

One dish, in particular, is known as Melone’s signature delight, as the recipe was handed down from her family in Italy. Her rendition of the crostata pastry, an Italian tort dessert with strawberry preserves, has been considered a crowd-pleaser for generations.

“It’s good. It stays a long time fresh,” Melone reassured.

She continued to pass down the recipe to her three children, eight grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and soon-to-be nine great-great grandchildren, as Melone serves as the matriarch of five generations in South Philadelphia.

Although she’s not making as many crostatas these days, Melone keeps herself busy playing cards and taking care of two colorful parakeets who grace the kitchen with their chatter.

“I take care of them…It’s company,” she said. “(Digiovanni) doesn’t like it because they make noise.”

“She doesn’t hear too good, so it doesn’t bother her,” Digiovanni added.

Though her hearing is fading, Melone’s children say, overall, she remains in adequate health considering her age.

She attributes her longevity to not smoking, only occasionally drinking and consuming natural foods throughout her life.

Melone’s children, though, say her exceptional lifetime could be credited to an abiding benevolent spirit.

“She has always been there for all of her children,” Digiovanni said. “She has helped each and every one of us.”

“There’s really not a mean bone in her body,” Giulio Melone added.

And how does Anna Melone feel about living for more than a century?

“I can’t believe I’m 101 years. I say, ‘God, you give me a good long life,’ ” she said. “…I remember everything – the good and the bad. I had to make a sacrifice, do what I can do and try to do the best I can.”


Twitter: @gracemaiorano