On a rainy Sunday afternoon I walked into Diana Capotrio Stankiewicz’s home in the Pennsport section of South Philadelphia and was greeted by her warm, inviting smile and an aroma that brought back delicious memories of my childhood— the delectable scent of gravy and meatballs.
I met Diana two weeks earlier at Sacred Heart Church where she was preparing refreshments for the Archdiocesan Boy Choir in which my son sings. As we separated soft pretzels for the reception we talked about the neighborhood and the change it’s undergoing. I learned that she works at Our Lady of Hope School, which was formerly Epiphany of Our Lord School, where I had attended from Kindergarten through Eighth Grade. She graciously agreed to be interviewed to talk about her life in South Philly.
Diana and her family have lived in the Pennsport area for thirteen years. Before getting married, Diana lived in several neighborhoods: 8th and Wharton, Lambert Street and 9th Street, and in true South Philly fashion, after she and her husband Joe were married they moved two blocks away from Diana’s mother on 22nd and Jackson in Saint Edmonds’ Parish, where they lived for fifteen years. Joe was originally from the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, but knew that he would be spending the rest of his life in South Philly once he married Diana. Many different houses, but always home in South Philly.
Diana raised three children and she speaks of each of them with pride. Matthew will be graduating from the Police Academy in August and will be married in November, just five days after Diana’s and Joe’s 30th wedding anniversary; Joey was married on April 12th and works as an electrician; and Gina, who is an assistant manager at a car dealership, was married last October with a Halloween-themed reception. Diana dressed as a witch for the reception, and other attendees came outfitted as an Amish couple, Captain America, The Flintstones, and a priest (he was even asked to do the blessing before the meal!) She talks to her children almost everyday, by phone or in person. She even stays connected with cousins and distant family through Facebook.
As I spoke with her, I realized that Diana is often surrounded by her adoring family. While we were in the kitchen, her twin sister Denise, who stays frequently with Diana, lowered the heat and stirred the gravy on the stove, making sure that it bubbled without burning; her grandson, Joseph (her husband calls him, “Joseph the third”) watched a cartoon on his ipad; and her son and daughter-in-law, were talking about how they are fixing up their aunt’s house a few doors away so they can move in there and begin their married life. Diana’s sister, Doreen, lives just a few blocks away, and their mother and her sister live around the corner.
It’s obvious that children are an important part of Diana’s life. She was always very involved with the parents associations at her kids’ schools. When reflecting on raising three children, especially during the drama of their teenage years, she acknowledged that it was sometimes a challenge. Diana said that her youngest son was often “grounded for life.” Freshman and Sophomore years of Joey’s school career were spent as her “personal valet.” She notes that “by Junior and Senior year, he came around.” She attributed his turn around to her tough-love parenting skills. “Whatever I said to them, I always did.”
When Joey reflected on her discipline techniques, he remembered that she could throw a shoe from the kitchen into the parlor and hit her target perfectly. “She could curve it into the wind, she was that good,” he said. In spite of some challenging times, she was and is always available for her family.
Diana has a traditional belief in respecting one’s elders. She runs the Youth Ministry group in her church, prepared the family masses, and she is saddened by the fact that there will be no religious faculty at Our Lady of Hope after this year. “I’m so disappointed that the nuns are being pulled out. This is their last year.”
Diana learned to cook from her mother, Louisa, who lives just around the corner with Diana’s Aunt Rita. “Can’t you tell she’s a good cook?” Joey says, rubbing his belly and smiling. When I asked Joey and Jen why they planned on living in South Philly, Jen explained, “I can’t picture myself not living in South Philly.”
I asked Diana what she liked about growing up and living in South Philly. “Because of the neighborhood you were able to keep friendships,” she said. “I have a friend of mine, I’ve known her since second grade. She is my daughter’s Godmother and I am her son’s Godmother. For fifty-one years we’ve been friends. Even though she tried to get me to go to Jersey,” Diana smiled, “and I tried to get her to stay in Philly. She wanted the grass and the backyard and the pool, whereas I liked the being in the city. I liked the closeness.” Diana mentions that one of her neighbors surprised her daughter Gina with a handmade Halloween-themed guest book for her wedding. “At special times, people come through for you that you don’t expect.”
When I asked Diana about her favorite memories from her neighborhood she said the Mummer’s Parade. “You always saw someone you knew,” she said. “They’d hug you and ask how you were doing.” She’s disappointed about how things have changed, recently. “Now, Second Street [after the parade] is nothing but chaos. It’s not like it used to be. The kids are bold and brazen.”
Diana shared some of the secrets of her wonderful meals. For her lasagna, she puts anise seed oil in the ricotta cheese, and for her cutlets, she marinates the chicken in egg, salt, pepper, lemon juice and garlic before breading and frying them. We compared meatball recipes (Ok, full disclosure: I don’t have an original recipe of my own. My Aunt Lucy is the meatball master in my family!) Diana shared that in the old days her mother would soak day-old bread in water and then add it to the meat for the meatballs. My grandmother did the same thing.
Diana carries on the family traditions that are a part of the holidays: She hosts an Easter morning brunch, and she prepares the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve. This holiday used to be her mother’s, but now it’s hers. “I call it the ‘Seven Modern Fishes’ because we have shrimp cocktail, my mother makes a wonderful tuna dish, I get smelts for my Aunt ‘cause she’s the only one who eats them, flounder, clams and spaghetti, crab dip. Then on Christmas morning I always wear a new set of pajamas that my husband gives me. I make a turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and whoever comes, comes.”
When she thinks of her neighborhood, she has goals for the future. “My big thing now is trying to get the children to come back to mass.” All of Diana’s children were altar servers, and she has organized the Christmas pageant for several years and continues to do so at Sacred Heart.
As I was leaving her home, I had the pleasure of meeting Diana’s husband, Joe. He is a soft spoken man who has endured some difficult health issues over the past couple of years. In spite of that, he told me stories of his family from the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, and how he had to quickly adjust to life in South Philly. It is clear that Diana and Joe have nurtured a wonderful family. Surrounded by many generations of loved ones, their family continues to grow and support one another, in true South Philly style. As I pulled out of my parking space, (I found one almost in front of her house) I felt a yearning for my old neighborhood, and I was glad to know that the old values of family and food and love are still alive in the streets of South Philly.