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AN OIL WITH ROOTS

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An Oil with Roots
Dennis Lurgio's search for family yields olive oil from ancient Italian trees

An oil with roots

October 26, 2008 at 12:14pm

Wednesday, April 26, 2006
BY GAIL CIAMPA
The Providence Journal
Journal Food Editor

Dennis Lurgio expresses a deep sentimentality for olive oil. He very nearly chokes up when he talks about it.

He wasn't always so moved by the subject.

But he is now, since research into his genealogy took him on a journey to Oliveto Citra, a town in the province of Salerno in the Campania region of southern Italy.

This is where his grandfather Vincenzo grew up before coming to America and raising a family on Federal Hill in Providence. Dennis' grandfather never talked much about Italy or relatives there. But Dennis felt a need to learn if there were other Lurgios living in Italy.

He set out on a quest to find them.

Find them he did. Though he never knew all the many Lurgios who walked the cobblestone streets of Oliveto Citra, he feels as though he can share something with them. It's the olive oil made in the town. With every taste of the olive oil, he feels a kinship with family.

The olive trees whose bounty fills the bottles for Dell'Orto extra virgin olive oil are 150 years old.

"I just can't believe that these trees gave my ancestors their olive oil so long ago," he said. "And I can have the same oil today."

"As you get older, food becomes more important," he said. "It has ties to family and everything that is important."

His longing for roots and history had an interesting result. He became the first to import the oil of Oliveto Citra to Rhode Island, and he says, the U.S.

The olive oil, which has a taste characteristic of artichoke and its green leaves, is a winner. At last year's Los Angeles County Fair, Dell'Orto won the silver medal in the International Italian D.O.P. category for extra virgin olive oil.

Lurgio formerly owned Office Emporium, a family business in Narragansett. He sold it in 2005 to a franchisee for the UPS Store. That move, more than anything, gave him the time to pursue his search for his roots.

Previous searches for Lurgios, using Italian phone books, had turned up nothing. But those phone books, in Rome and Naples, didn't cover the small town he now knows as his grandfather's birthplace. And when he used the Internet, he found many Lurgios popping up in Oliveto Citra.

He started calling numbers. The first two calls connected to people who were nice but "didn't know what I was talking about."

On his third call, he found Teresa Lurgio, 30. Though she wasn't comfortable talking on the phone, they began to correspond. Eventually, her family, including her Nonna Teresa and her father, Giuseppe, invited him to visit.

They picked him up at the airport in Naples with a sign that said simply, "LURGIO."

"I felt overwhelmed at the connection," he recalled.

They took him to a local church, St. Maria Della Misericordia, which was built in 1775 and where Teresa sang in the choir. Because of her connection to the church, the pastor allowed Lurgio to examine records in the vault. He found birth and baptism records, including those of his grandfather.

"They were all in the original handwriting," he said.

He learned that his grandfather had two sisters, one of whom had seven children. He met some of those cousins on the trip.

He also learned that Teresa and her family were distant cousins and could date their connection back five generations. And he learned to love her Nonna's cooking.

"I wanted to bring something back to give as a gift of my trip," he said.

That's when he learned about the Dell'Orto olive groves with their 2,000 trees and production that dated back to the 1850s.

At first Lurgio ordered the bottles from olive oil makers Eliana and Polidoro Dell'Orto to give as Christmas gifts. Then he had the idea to expand it into a business venture.

Lurgio sells the oil at Eastside Marketplace in Providence, Belmont Market in Wakefield and Roch's in Narragansett, as well as on a Web site and eBay. He plans to import beyond the extra virgin olive oil to flavored oils of pepper and lemon.

In the past few weeks, he sold 40 bottles of the extra virgin olive oil, at $24.99, after two demonstrations at Belmont Market. He sold another 12 after one demonstration at Eastside Marketplace.

It's hard to know whether the buyers were sold simply on the olive oil or instead wanted to share Lurgio's dream of connecting with those who came before them.

You can learn more about the olive oil at Lurgio's Web site www.dellortooil.com.



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