‘She was amazing’

Milano family recalls matriarch’s struggle, good will

Italian-born restaurateur came to America after enduring WWII-era famine

By Michael Rodriguez – The Monitor

Homeless and starving, the Corrente children traipsed through the mountains of central Italy during World War II foraging for food and shelter, going so far as to rely on leaves for sustenance and suckling from sugar-dusted towels soaked in whatever water they could find — this for some semblance of flavor.

Grieving the loss of her sister and Weslaco restaurateur, Giovanna Milano, Angioletta Pavan recalled this unsettling tale of survival, in which the descendants of Mariano and Amalia Corrente fled from their hometown Minturno to the mountains of Monte Cassino — upon the war reaching their doorstep in the early 1940s — and suffered a famine.

Although Angioletta and Giovanna were only 8 and 11 years old at the time, the experience served to strengthen their bond and helped inspire future generations. Now a week removed from paying her final respects to Giovanna, who died at the age of 85 on Tuesday, April 25, Angioletta felt moved to share some of the more harrowing details of what they endured together.

A struggle endured; a dream realized

“We were nine children in our family, and when the German soldiers took my father prisoner, we hid in the mountains where there was no food, no water and no clothing,” Angioletta, 81, said of the family’s struggles that ensued following the end of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in 1943 and subsequent German occupation of northern Italy.

In addition to the severe hunger and thirst they suffered through the better part of a year, not knowing whether their father was alive or dead was an especially cruel uncertainty to ponder.

“When the war was over, American soldiers took my mother and the family to a town where the concentration camps were and sprayed us down with DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, used for insecticides),” Angioletta said, adding that the long-awaited reunion that followed rewarded their hope and faith. “We finally found our father alive in a town after asking everyone and everywhere we could.”

Although the Correntes were together again, they also lost much during that time, including an aunt whose body they had to leave behind following a bombing raid. And if the military strikes didn’t already threaten their lives, malnutrition and the elements proved a perpetual torment.

“When we were in the mountains, we ate leaves from trees and grass from the ground, and prayed for God to send rain so we could drink something from the puddles of water,” Angioletta said. “We slept outside under sheds made with tree branches. After the war we were given bread, and we couldn’t even remember what bread was like. I will never forget what we went through.”

Years after the family recovered, Giovanna eventually came to America at the age of 28 and married Mid-Valley resident Lino Milano. The two then embarked on an endeavor that led to Giovanna and the Milano family dedicating their lives to the food industry, and she never went hungry again.

Angela Milano, Giovanna’s daughter, acknowledged her mother’s journey serving to realize the American Dream for Corrente descendants and several generations of Milanos, in spite of the calamity suffered early on.

Milano’s Italian Restaurant

It was in 1950 when Lino’s parents, Lisetta and Emidio Milano, began selling pizza to local grocers and in 1955 when they opened Milano’s Italian Restaurant from their 2900 W. Pike Blvd. home in Weslaco.

Dubbed La Piccola Italia, or Little Italy, the restaurant quickly developed a reputation for authentic Italian cuisine and cozy accommodations — the latter thanks in large part to renovations that transformed the home into a full-fledged eatery.

The restaurant celebrated its 60th anniversary in business in 2015 and currently represents four generations of ownership, management and staff. Giovanna served as the owner after Lino died in 2012.

“My mom brought Italy here to us,” Angela, the manager at Milano’s, said of Giovanna’s contribution to the business. “It was hard for her in the beginning because she left the only home she ever knew in Italy and had to eventually learn a little bit of the language. But people started to love her so much. They loved her accent and her recipes. Her style of cooking, by the way, consisted of having her own unique thing.”

Though at one point becoming emotional while sharing these sentiments, it was Angela’s recollection of her mother’s endearing quirks that evoked lighthearted memories.

“My mom never used a recipe in her life,” Angela said with a laugh. “She just cooked. So we had to stand behind her to get her recipes, and she would just say, ‘A little bit of this and a little bit of that,’ and we’d say, ‘It’s a restaurant; it has to be precise!’ That’s just my mom … she was amazing.”

A matriarch of mettle

There was no mistaking who was in charge when a journalist walked through the doors of Milano’s Italian Restaurant in October 2015.

Giovanna — having observed where this writer planned on shooting a photo that was to accompany the establishment’s 60th anniversary story — stepped in and directed the location, angle and lighting of the shoot.

Known for such boldness, customers and staff had developed an affinity for the Milano family matriarch’s aptitude to be direct. This is one of many characteristics that Angela said charmed the community.

“My mom was definitely a beautiful character and a very strong, hard-working lady who was very passionate about what she did and passionate about us,” Angela said. “She was so generous and so loving, and so concerned about everything and everyone. She was concerned about every little detail in our lives and about always being there for us. She never missed an opportunity to always help us, and she never said no. She always went the extra mile. I just wish people would see that she had such a big heart, because she felt bad for being hard on people sometimes.”

Her propensity to be a mother figure to all is what Angela believes the community will miss most from Giovanna.

“Everyone always came back to her like their own mom, because she liked to take care of everyone in the sense that she guided them down the right path,” Angela said. “If someone was struggling with alcohol, she would always be there to correct them. They would even come back after years to come visit her because they wanted her to get after them. She was hard at times, but that was her upbringing. Living through famine for eight or nine months is a lot to go through, but she overcame the things in life that were very difficult for her, and dedicated her life to feeding and taking care of everyone else.”