SOME years ago, Vincenzo Martinelli found himself in the only bar in the Italian village of Lettopalena.
The acclaimed guitarist was half a world away from his childhood home in Hamilton. But on another level, Martinelli was deep in the heart of his family's heritage.
His father had emigrated from this village, and his mother from another community not far away, in the 1950s. Since he was in Europe performing, Martinelli visited Lettopalena.
"It's a uniquely beautiful village," he recalled. "There's only 400 people who live there."
"And you can't be stepping out of line, because everyone knows everything about everyone."
Which meant that everyone knew young Vincenzo was a talented musician, so Martinelli pulled his guitar out of its case and put on a show for the locals in the village bar.
"They wanted to hear me sing and play," he said. "Then after a while, the guys pulled out their mandolins and piano accordions, and we actually had a wonderful time."
For Vincenzo Martinelli, this was about more than a fun gig in his father's home village.
"To know that's where my roots are was really special to me," Martinelli said.
Just as Vincenzo Martinelli was taking a part of Hamilton to Lettopalena when he visited, Lettopalena has implanted so much of itself in Hamilton and the wider Newcastle community.
In the years after the Second World War, more than 100 people transplanted their roots from the agricultural community in Italy to the industrial city along the Australian east coast.
They are known as the Lettesi, and it is estimated there are now a couple of thousand descendants in Newcastle.
"The tree grows," said Antonio Della Grotta, a leader in the local Lettesi community.
"There are more people here with Lettesi blood than there are over there in Lettopalena," added his son, Leo Della Grotta, a well-known musician and real estate agent, who marvelled at the migration of so many from the one village.
"It has been an incredible odyssey."
CRADLED in the mountains in the Abruzzo region, Lettopalena looks picture-postcard pretty, seemingly untouched by the cares of the world.
Yet during the Second World War, tumult and conflict didn't just find the village; they all but destroyed the place.
German forces occupied Lettopalena.
Antonio Della Grotta was a teenager, having been born in 1931, when the Germans arrived.
"I can't say it was fun, but I can't say I was terrified," he said. "I was a child. How can you understand what was going on?"
In another part of the village lived a younger boy, Antonio D'Accione, who, many years later, would be another leader of the Lettesi in Newcastle and the co-owner of a Beaumont Street landmark, Pina's delicatessen, which is also the name of his wife of 61 years.
"It was terrible to live under them [the German forces]," recalled Tony D'Accione, who had been born in the village in 1937. "We were frightened as kids."
From late 1943, as part of their defence strategy, the Germans systematically blew up buildings in the village and toppled the historic bridge crossing the River Aventino, where locals would swim during the summer. The action may have been designed to block Allied forces, but that destroyed bridge felt to the villagers as if they had been cut off from their own past. What's more, the Lettesi were watching their future being obliterated.
"All the houses were blown up," Mr D'Accione said. "We witnessed it. We could see them putting mines under the houses."
Standing on a hill, observing the destruction, was Rosina D'Amico. She was only about 11, a school friend of Antonio Della Grotta, who, in the years ahead, would serenade her with his mandolin and ask Rosina to marry him. But in 1943 and early 1944, there was no music; just the horrible shriek of war.
"I was a little girl, I was scared," she said. "They bombed [the houses] one by one."
The departing Germans left little but ruins. For a short time, Antonio Della Grotta and his family lived in a cave in the nearby mountains before moving into one of the stables still standing.
After the war, the community rebuilt the village, but on the other side of the river to the ruins. However, Antonio saw few prospects in Lettopalena. He did his bit in the fields, guiding a plough.
"That was a job for survival, to help Dad and Mum," he said. "I didn't get paid for it. No future at all."
Antonio Della Grotta knew he had to build his own bridge out of Lettopalena. In 1951, he applied to migrate to Belgium, or to Australia - "in the hope of finding something better".
"Thank God, Australia came first, within eight weeks," he said.
Antonio had heard Australia needed workers. But that was about all he knew.
"I didn't know where Australia was," Mr Della Grotta said, adding he spoke no English when he boarded the ship bound for Melbourne, disembarking in a strange land in early 1952.
He was among the first of the young men after the war to leave Lettopalena. He had left so much behind, including his childhood sweetheart and fiancee, Rosina. But here, in Australia, Antonio felt there was hope.
He spent almost a year working in South Australia and Queensland before a friend who had emigrated in the 1930s advised him to head to Newcastle.
Not only did it have a steelworks looking for labourers, there were already a few Lettesi living in the industrial city.
And so on the first day of 1953, Antonio Della Grotta arrived in what would be his new home. He worked at the BHP and studied English by correspondence and at night school. He bought his first home in Broadmeadow. And he stayed in touch with his sweetheart.
The trickle of people out of the village had turned into a flow.
Some had headed to the United States, others to Argentina. As word reached Lettopalena that Newcastle offered a future, more and more headed to Australia. What took place is known as chain migration, as Lettesi followed their friends and former neighbours out of the mountains to this place by the sea half a world away.
"There was work," explained Antonio's son, Leo. "That's what they needed. They didn't choose Australia because of its fine surfing beaches, or its temperate climate, or its egalitarian Anzac ethos. They just plopped here on the recommendation of some bloke via a letter."
One of those who followed was Antonio Della Grotta's younger brother, Raffaele. He arrived in Newcastle in October, 1953, not quite 17 years old, but keen to start a new life. He was quickly given a new name.
"'Raffaele is too long, we'll call you Ralph'," he recalled Novocastrians telling him. "I said, 'Good', so I've been Ralph for the past 68 years.
"Australia was a very raw country then. The only names were English names; anything else was too long."
Ralph Della Grotta worked at jobs in local heavy industries and also cut cane in Queensland, because of a strong Lettesi connection there, which had brought more villagers to Australia.
But he gravitated back to Newcastle and into the hair-cutting trade. He has been a barber for more than 60 years.
As he snipped and sculpted in his barber shop in Beaumont Street during the week, Ralph Della Grotta recalled his English was limited initially to a few key words that he had picked up before leaving the village: "Yes. No. Nice girls".
But there are few better classrooms for developing conversation skills than a barber's chair, so Ralph's English ability expanded.
So did the Della Grotta clan in Newcastle. After marrying his beloved Rosina at the start of 1955 - she was still in Lettopalena, and he was in Newcastle - Antonio Della Grotta was able to have his new wife migrate later that year.
For a time, Rosina Della Grotta found the language barrier "very hard". She recalled asking Leo as a boy to go to the shops for her, and when her young son asked why she didn't go, she replied, "I can't talk".
Language wasn't the only barrier. Having arrived in Newcastle in 1956, Tony D'Accione said the Italians initially encountered some prejudice.
"When we came, most [Novocastrians] didn't go out of Australia, except for those who had been to war," Mr D'Accione said. "When they saw us, some resented it, especially if we were speaking our language.
"After a few years, that stopped.
"We tried to integrate as fast as we could."
The Lettesi found their own voice and looked after each other, forming an association in the late 1960s. The community members contributed money to a fund to help support those who were sick or injured.
The association also provided help and advice to new arrivals, with the focal point being one of its early presidents, Antonio Della Grotta.
"We always try to help ourselves and be together, because we need to be together," Mr Della Grotta said.
"It's been like a second family," said Tony D'Accione, the association's current president.
And it is a big family. Through the years, the community held dinners, dances and picnics, with hundreds attending.
Judith Galvin, who was instrumental in establishing a migrant health unit in Newcastle, was doing research into the city's Italian community in the early 1970s. In a random sample of 45 households, she discovered seven were from the one village - Lettopalena.
"I thought that was incredible," said Dr Galvin, who wrote her PhD thesis about the Lettesi in Newcastle.
"What they're really good at are social networks and accessing everything they need," Dr Galvin said.
More than support each other, the Lettesi helped change the face and culture of Newcastle, and that was evident to many Novocastrians when they wandered along Beaumont Street and other parts of Hamilton, which many referred to as Little Italy.
"Whether it was food or music, or whether it was just the whole pleasant thing of sitting back at a cafe, it added to the atmosphere," said Dr Galvin. "It certainly enriched the 'stiff upper lip' British background of Newcastle before they [the European groups] came."
Tony D'Accione and his wife Pina, who had emigrated from Lettopalena as a teenager with her mother and brother in 1958, recalled how early on they couldn't even find a bottle of olive oil in Newcastle.
By the time they were behind the counter of their renowned delicatessen from 1980, it wasn't just Italian-Australians seeking their food lines, as the Novocastrian palate had broadened.
"We had a lot of Australian people come into our shop," said Pina D'Accione. "They would ask a lot of questions - 'What's this? How do you use this?'"
Back at Ralph's barber shop, as Mr Della Grotta deftly used his scissors, the customer in the chair, Michael Dark, reflected on life before the Europeans arrived.
"We were very insular before the Europeans turned up here," he said. "They've made us more cosmopolitan."
Operating the neighbouring chair in the salon was another veteran barber, Frank Martinelli, who knew Ralph back in Lettopalena before emigrating with his family in 1954. There was no cafe strip in Hamilton then.
"I had to learn to drink a cup of tea," Mr Martinelli said, noting how change has come to the lives of the Lettesi, and to the life of Newcastle.
"They learnt from us a little bit, and we've learnt from them."
And the Lettesi learnt from each other.
Having fallen in love with the guitar as a boy, Vincenzo Martinelli (no relation to Frank the barber) was sent to music lessons in the Hamilton home of another member of the Lettesi community, Felice De Vitis.
"All the Italian families who ever had a child who wanted to study music would go to Mr De Vitis," Martinelli recalled in the latest episode of the Voices of the Hunter podcast series.
"I would go to his house and be greeted by either his wife or his daughter ... and they would always offer me a coffee or an Italian freshly made cake. So I'd go into my lesson wired and well and truly ready to go."
Sharing the stage with his guitar teacher, Martinelli had his debut performance in 1972 as a 12-year-old at a Lettesi dance at the now-demolished Transport Hall in Lawson Street.
"I might as well have been Elvis Presley," he said of the experience that set the course for his life.
Vincenzo Martinelli went on to study and perform in Europe. He has developed an international reputation as a classical guitarist, playing in concert halls and on cruise ships. These days, Martinelli lives mostly in the United States but recently returned to Australia to visit his family.
He lamented that Beaumont Street had changed, with many restaurants, delis, and cafes of his childhood having disappeared, and the atmosphere changing, just as the community itself is through the successive generations: "They've become Aussified".
But some habits remained. At the next table at the cafe where Vincenzo Martinelli was sitting was a group of Italian men, who welcomed him like a prodigal son.
"They are very supportive of their own," the guitarist said, who explained that for all the changes, Hamilton was "home", for this was the place that had shaped him.
"I wouldn't be Vince Martinelli without Hamilton," he said. "Hamilton will always be a big part of my heart. I still call it home."
And in the heart of Hamilton is pressed the name, "Lettopalena".
In the recently refurbished James Street Plaza, the name of the Italian village has been stencilled onto the concrete, acknowledging the Lettesi's contribution to the suburb.
The D'Acciones were delighted their birthplace was recognised.
"When we're missing Lettopalena, we can sit there and have a coffee," Pina D'Accione said.
Earlier this week, three members of the Della Grotta family were standing in the square, gazing at "Lettopalena", when another member of the Lettesi community, Gelsomina Palmieri, approached.
When asked about seeing the name of her home village, a place she had left in 1957, Mrs Palmieri tapped her chest, tears welled, and she uttered one word: "Proud".
Antonio Della Grotta looked up from the name and along Beaumont Street, where he had spent so much of his 90 years, and said, "But I feel this is my town."
"Of course," replied Mrs Palmieri. "It's our town.
"When we came to Australia, it was like paradise. From the first day, I loved Australia."
As Vincenzo Martinelli said of the Lettesi, "They are supremely grateful for this amazing country they've come to live in."
And he hoped Newcastle appreciated what the Lettesi had down for the city: "Bringing the best of what we have to offer and sharing it with the people of our new community has hopefully made it a richer society to live in."
"Everybody who has come from somewhere else has done this, but through sheer numerical superiority, we've contributed to law, medicine, education, food, media, music, construction, manufacturing," said Leo Della Grotta.
"They worked, and it worked out.
"So Newcastle got the best of these guys. These guys definitely got the best of Newcastle. So it was a great partnership."
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