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Keeping their culture alive; Center aims to promote and preserve Italian heritage in the Buffalo community

For Francesco Giacobbe, moving to Buffalo in 1960 opened up a world of opportunity.

The Italian-born pediatrician was able to open a medical practice, Kenwood Pediatrics, where he has treated generations of children over the past 50 years.

But Dr. Giacobbe is not the type to forget his roots.

And so he travels back to Italy each summer.

He still speaks Italian with his family in his home.

And he and his wife bring their four grown children and many grandchildren together on a regular basis for Italian meals -- including the doctor's specialty, gnocchi.

Now, at 78, the doctor known as "Frank" to many of his patients is turning to a new quest.

With a group of like-minded people, Giacobbe is working to create a center in Buffalo that will bring together Italians, Italian-Americans and those interested in Italy.

The fledgling Centro Culturale Italiano di Buffalo takes as its goal the promotion and preservation of Italian and Italian-American culture and heritage, including the Italian language.

"We in Western New York have a very large ethnic Italian population. It's one of the largest, behind the Polish and German," said Giacobbe, president of the new group, who lives off Forest Avenue in Buffalo.

"We want to have a gem -- something people can be proud of."

The effort is winning early support from some local Italians and those of Italian descent -- among them Italy's honorary vice consul in Buffalo, Lucia Caracci Ederer.

"We are always happy to encourage these initiatives to promote Italian culture and tradition," said Ederer, who is an adviser to the new center.

The CCI di Buffalo, as it is called, has a board of directors, nonprofit status and a website. The group also has temporary headquarters in North Buffalo.

Now, the center's proponents said, they will aim to attract the interest and support of Italians and Italian-Americans across the region.

It's a lofty goal, but the longtime pediatrician, for one, isn't daunted.

"I, as a Sicilian," Giacobbe said, laughing and shrugging, "get fired up."

>Value of an early start

Italian language skills and cultural awareness have always been important to the Giacobbes.

Giacobbe and his family emigrated from Sicily to Syracuse when he was 18. He traveled back to Italy to attend medical school in Naples, where he met his wife, who is from that region.

The couple moved to Buffalo in 1960, and Giacobbe opened Kenwood Pediatrics. The Giacobbes raised four children, who spoke Italian exclusively at home.

"One thing I give my parents tremendous credit for is, they taught their kids Italian," said Andrew Giacobbe, one of the couple's three sons, who is now a plastic surgeon with offices in Amherst. "Then we learned English. But the first words were Italian words."

The Giacobbes also traveled to Italy each summer with their children, to show them the country and teach them Italian customs and traditions.

It was the recent discovery by Giacobbe and his wife that their grandchildren do not speak Italian as fluently as they do -- or, in some cases, very much at all -- that prompted their interest in developing a local center to preserve and promote the Italian language locally.

"I told my wife, we have a problem," said Francesco Giacobbe. "Language is an exercise; unless you use it, it's going to die. That's how it all started."

As their plans coalesced, the aim of the center grew from just language training to the idea of a place where people can gather.

The center would offer educational programs and would serve as a clearinghouse for Italian-themed arts and cultural events around region, the Giacobbes said. Dreams for the future of the center include a cafe and a place where people can stop in to watch Italian TV and listen to Italian radio.

>Long-standing need

As a first step, language classes already have begun in the group's headquarters on Hertel Avenue.

"I'm biased -- I think Italian is a beautiful language. And it's not extremely difficult -- no more difficult than Spanish or French," said Renata Scognamiglio Giacobbe, one of the center's instructors, who has taught Italian at Canisius College and now teaches it at Buffalo State.

Among some local Italian-oriented groups and organizations, there was approval of the center's concept and praise for the group trying to bring it to reality.

"I would love to see it succeed," said Peter LoJacono, president of the Federation of Italian-American Societies of Western New York.

LoJacono said there has long been a need for such a center in Buffalo.

"I think the need today is stronger than ever, as we become more American," said LoJacono. "With families intermarrying, sometimes the direct line of Italian culture and language gets watered down a little bit. So something like this is very important."

The center will be welcomed by younger Italian-Americans, who may not have had the chance to learn Italian at home, said Tracey Cavalleri, president of the Western New York Italian Cultural Club. The club was formerly called Young Italians of Western New York.

"That's one of the reasons we started the Young Italians -- we wanted young Italians to learn their culture," Cavalleri said. "I never got to learn the language. My grandparents would always use English with us -- they spoke Italian when they didn't want us to know what was going on."

>Teaching history

Cavalleri said she sees younger Italian-Americans in the region as more and more interested in their heritage.

"In Buffalo, there's still so many Italian people here. There's a need for it," she said. "So many people want to carry on the culture and pass it on to their children."

The Centro Culturale Italiano di Buffalo is interested in presenting serious historical and cultural material to the public, said Francesco Giacobbe.

For example: lectures about the ancient Etruscans or about various regions in Italy and their differences.

That sort of detail and context is often overlooked when it comes to Italian-American communities in the United States, the center's founders said.

"We call it the mozzarella effect," said Renata Giacobbe, smiling. "But there are a lot of different elements to Italian culture."

"Italy today is a very vibrant, modern culture," she added. "That's what we want to convey."

The center is offering memberships to the public at a rate of $30 for an individual for one year, $50 for a couple and $75 for a family. Among other benefits, members get discounted rates on language classes.

The Giacobbes said they will remain passionate about their native country, but they consider this venture a way to enrich their adoptive city.

"This is home -- Buffalo," said Renata Giacobbe. "We have been very happy here."

***

To learn more about the Centro Culturale Italiano di Buffalo, visit the organization's website at www.ccibuffalo.org.

The group may be contacted with questions by email at info@ccibuffalo.org or by mail at 1183 Hertel Ave., Buffalo, NY 14216.

email: cvogel@buffnews.com