Mary Jo's Italian heritage began in Ribera, Sicily. The people of Ribera farmed land and were overseen by the Padrone, who accounted to the land owner who was called the Barone. They only had one another, which resulted in forming tight family bonds. Eventually immigrating to America in the early 1900's, settling in Birmingham, Alabama, Mary Jo's grandfather, along with his brother and two of their uncles, worked in the coal mines and saved enough money to buy land. They did what they knew best, farming. Mary Jo's grandfather returned to Ribera several times after immigrating, once to bring his wife and their first born son, the last trip to bring his Mother, Mary Jo's great-grandmother. These three worked their farm land along-side each other, as well as raised eight children. These courageous family members, the Tortorigi, Musso & Smeraglia families, have grow to well over three hundred members and are still making wonderful memories and contributing to society in many memorable ways. The families wonderful, courageous ancestors would be very proud of how the families has grown and become productive citizens, successful business owners and land owners, lawyers, judges, professors and teachers.
Mary Jo is the second daughter born to Peitro and Isabelle Tortorigi, in Birmingham, Al. Mary Jo lives in a community outside of Birmingham, Al. in the country-side. She considers herself so blessed to be born of Italian heritage. She grew up with her many cousins, going to school, church and playing together. The days gone by have produced many memories and a lot of love. Mary Jo married her high school sweetheart Charles, whose grandfather and grandmother immigrated from Sicily. Together they began their family and have been married over forty years.They have four children, three sons and a daughter, and three grandchildren. They live within a short distance from one another, which makes it great for Mary Jo and her husband to continue the Italian bond of closeness.
Italians focus on their family, heritage and food. Mary Jo's family is no exception. Her Sunday's were spent with immediate and extended family. Whether at home or visiting her aunts, uncles or grandparents, they were together around a table for a meal and conversations. Mary Jo's mother was a great cook and inspiration, putting together ingredients she had in the pantry, to create delicious dishes. Mary Jo's mother taught Mary Jo to be creative with cooking and that it was just a matter of experimenting, which she teaches in her classes. Mary Jo has over forty years of cooking, experimenting with ingredients and learning from many mentors. Mary Jo gives credit to her Zia Laboria, her cousin Angela, who grew up in Ribera, Sicily. In the early 1990's Mary Jo and her husband and children began traveling to Sicily to visit with their families. Mary Jo always returned to Birmingham with some fantastic new recipes. It is durning these trips that Mary Jo and her family truly discovered their heritage and it's food and culture. It was explained to Mary Jo how these wonderful recipes were created out of a need to feed their families. How they were given the leftovers from the crops that they harvested for the Padrone. Out of need to be creative in using the leftovers with local spices and herbs came these wonderful dishes we call comfort food. Mary Jo feels that it is one thing to grow up with stories, yet another to experience the culture through those who lived the experience. These trips inspired her and her husband to build a casa in campagna, (a house in the countryside) which bring's their hearts and souls full circle.