Autilia Di Nunzio used to say she came from a remote Italian village of 400 people – “if you counted the chickens.”
She survived wartime danger and deprivation and made a new life in America, where some of her proudest days included becoming a citizen and watching her daughters graduate college.
Mrs. Di Nunzio, 90, died Thursday of complications from lung cancer at the Northwest Side home that she made fragrant with her pasta dishes and lively with the beautiful voices on her opera records.
She and her brothers, Adolfo and Antonio, grew up the children of Giuseppe and Maria Melone in the town of Scontrone in the central province of L’Aquila in Italy’s Abruzzo region.
Everything changed when German soldiers arrived in World War II. They forced the residents from their homes, confiscating all that the villagers owned. As a result, they had to scavenge for vegetables and potatoes to survive, sometimes while American fighters were bombing and strafing German forces with machine gun fire.
They also had to worry about the fascists taking the men away as forced enlistees. “A lot of the young men they never saw again,” said her daughter Miriam Di Nunzio, Entertainment Editor/Digital Content at the Sun-Times.
Before the war, young Autilia’s father left Italy for Chicago, where other relatives had already settled. He earned a living working in construction and building Pullman steamer trunks. He planned to save money to bring his family to America, but once the war broke out it was impossible to extricate them. “He didn’t know if we were alive or dead,” Mrs. Di Nunzio recounted to her family.
In 1947, Autilia and her family were finally able to reunite with her father. They settled on Chicago’s Italian West Side.
Autilia, Adolfo and Antonio studied English at Hull House, learning the Pledge of Allegiance for their citizenship exams and so that her brothers could attend an American high school. They laughed when Hull House showed films with the universal language of slapstick by Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. Costello, who was of Italian heritage, was a particular favorite.
In 1956, she returned to Scontrone and met Armando Di Nunzio, a resident of a nearby town and a member of the Italian police force known as the carabinieri. They married at the basilica of Our Lady of Pompeii in Pompeii, Italy, and returned to Chicago, where their lives centered around Our Lady of Pompeii parish.
He worked as a backhoe driver and laborer and often said there wasn’t a mile of Chicago road he hadn’t worked on.
In Italy, Mrs. Di Nunzio learned to sew under the tutelage of skilled seamstresses, which helped her find work in America.
She landed a job at Formfit Rogers, which made the shapewear that used to be called “foundation garments.” She also sewed for Hart Schaffner Marx. And she worked for the Pakula jewelry company, 5 N. Wabash Ave. Later, she assembled switches at Illinois Tool Works.
The Di Nunzios and their daughters, Maria and Miriam, moved to St. Priscilla’s parish on the Northwest Side. They worked hard and did without extras to ensure a Roman Catholic education for their daughters. Mrs. Di Nunzio told them, “Always respect your teachers.”
On weekends, their home rang with opera from records and the radio. Once, Mrs. Di Nunzio stood in line at Rose Records on Wabash to meet opera singers Richard Tucker and Robert Merrill. “It was like meeting Elvis,” her daughter said. She loved the voices of Elvis and Neil Diamond, too.
In addition to her husband, Armando, and daughters Maria and Miriam, she is survived by her brothers Adolfo and Antonio. Visitation is 4 to 9 p.m. Monday at Cumberland Chapels, 8300 W. Lawrence Ave., Norridge. A funeral Mass is planned at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, 1224 W. Lexington St.