Benedict J. Iacovetti
An Italian Work Ethic
I like to think that tracing our lineage and understanding the culture we come from helps us understand who we are. My upbringing was steeped in Italian culture—half from Calabria on my mother’s side, half Molise from my father’s. While there are many differences between the regions, they share some vital similarities. Both were rural areas, both instilled a strong work ethic, and both understood, above all else, the power of family and passing core values from generation to generation.
Childhood was a simple affair—do what you are told. Never complain. These are still true today. If I wanted a nickel for a treat, grandmom Mary Serrao Derro made me dust the dining room tables and chairs with their many clawfoot, Chippendale contours. Earning a dime required thorough baseboard scrubbing. And for the kingly wage of a quarter, I was asked to scale a ladder and clean every outside window. My body still aches in echo whenever I hold spare change.
Every Sunday marked dinner with the grandparents—the Calabrese in Ambler, the Molise in Philadelphia. My Uncle Charlie’s pizzeria was right across the street, where I made my first pie at the age of four. My small hands couldn’t toss the dough in the air like everyone else, but I mashed it into submission, layered it with cheese (sliced, not grated) and liberally applied the sauce (spicy, not sweet). Grandpop Enrico Iacovetti’s fig tree, humble on its tiny parcel of land, birthed big and juicy figs even under the soot and smoke of the city. Make sure you wash them well, he would say. Another job for me.
Four blocks up the street were Aunts Phil and Lucy, who lived across from one another. My father’s sisters put their hearts into everything they did. When they cooked, they held their bowls against their chests, infusing whatever they were making. I learned this from them—that when one puts love into what one does, life is all the sweeter for it.
And speaking of sweets, catty-corner to Aunt Phil’s was the corner candy store, filled to bursting with confections. Oddly, the backroom was always crowded, though no one was ever buying candy save for my cousins and me. We would save all the change we earned to buy bags of candy for a few pennies apiece, though they always seemed stale. I would ask my father why, but he remained tight-lipped. I suppose a sign saying “Front Store” on the storefront would be too much to ask for the sake of a child’s understanding.
A quick ride east took us to Aunt Barbara Derro Serratore’s deli, a quaint little sandwich shop where I thoroughly cleaned the Pepsi cooler before filling it.
Then I was drawn to the deli case, its bevy of meats and cheeses, of fresh rolls, exotic herbs and spices—any of it mine, should I wish, for the mere cost of a good washing. A clean deli is a happy deli, my family would tell me, closely guiding my work. They had as many adages for me as items in the deli case. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, of course, was a favorite. And its cousin next in line, after God, is the family, which led to the infamous never go against the family. The simplest of these, and the most applicable to every aspect of life, was do what you are told and do it well. I lived by it then, and continue to do so now.
While I learned to clean, I also learned respect. I was taught to respect the food, the people who worked there, the customers, and the equipment. A meat slicer can be a terrifying thing if not handled properly. When I remarked to my father why the men who worked in the rendering factory always smelled so awful, he told me That’s the smell of jobs, boy. Treat them well, because they work hard to earn a living.
Though it may seem odd by today’s sensibilities for an eight-year-old boy to be slicing lunch meat, if I wanted something, I had to make it myself. I favored hoagies—soft, fresh rolls filled to bursting with ham and cheese. I was taught to keep my fingers clear of the blades, be careful with the knife when slicing the roll, the lettuce, and tomatoes. And always, to clean up after myself and to be careful and thorough at every step of the process.
Eight years later, in high school, when I wanted money for a car, I asked the local deli if they were hiring. The only question they had for me was can you use a meat slicer? I asked them back, is eight years’ experience enough? They hired me on the spot, and I had my new employer’s cases gleaming by the end of the month. Thanks to Aunt Barbara, I soon had my car.
The funny thing about cars, I realized, was that they needed little things like gas, oil, tires, batteries, and insurance. The expenses came hard and fast, and drove me to seek a second job. Up the road was the Blue Bell Inn, where I was hired as a busboy and kitchen help. Every Saturday was Clean the Kitchen Day, a thorough scrub-down of everything. As a newbie, I was volunteered for the most hated job—cleaning the meat freezer. Little did they know, I had spent a great deal of time with my grandfather, a butcher, and learned his techniques. I cleaned that massive freezer—the largest and finest anywhere—from top to bottom, had everything orderly in rows and spotless. Hard work with no shortcuts.
One Saturday, John, the owner, came into the freezer to retrieve steaks. I was midway through cleaning, up to my elbows in soapy water. I stood to get out of his way, and he put a hand on my shoulder and said, Not at all. No one has ever cleaned this freezer so well. I’m the one in your way! I’ll get out of your hair. A few weeks later, John’s aunt Dorothy came to visit the freezer, and nodded appreciatively at the work I was doing. I only learned later what she said to shame the other kitchen staff, causing them to shun me for weeks—That boy knows how to work! The rest of you should take a lesson from him.
But, of course, they never did. They hadn’t lived it.
Benedict J. Iacovetti, 61, is a Philadelphia native, and was raised in Ambler PA. Ben currently resides in Blue Bell PA, where he lives with Carroll, his wife of 34 years. He has two children, Michael, 30, who resides in Philadelphia, and Laura, 27, who resides in New York City. Ben attended Villanova University and Temple University, and is a CPA by training, and worked with the Arthur Andersen accounting and auditing firm in their Philadelphia and Bermuda offices. Ben is the chairman, president and CEO of the AF&L Insurance Group, which is headquartered in Fort Washington PA.