The Roseto Effect

What Professor Wolf and Malcolm Gladwell got wrong about a small Pennsylvania town of ‘Outliers’

Roseto, PA is a small hillside town in the Poconos. My family is from there, and I spent most of my summers there when I was a kid. We simply called it “The Country,” back then, as in “Mom, are we going to The Country this weekend?” My grandparents had a summer house there on the highest peak in town, on Falcone Avenue, across the street from the osiana-rose-colored stucco house that had been built by my great-grandparents, Leonardo and Anna Rosa Falcone, a while after they arrived from Italy. The whole family would show up there on weekends. I mean the WHOLE family: great-uncles and uncles and great-aunts and aunts and all their kids and even some of their kids. It was a three bedroom cottage. Sometimes 20 people slept over. My grandfather built barracks in the attic for “the men” to use when it got too crowded, but sometimes us kids got to go up there, and when we did, it was a blast. He and my dad and great-uncle also built a huge screened in porch alongside the house. Several picnic tables were connected at its center, and several side chairs and rocking chairs were strewn about. It could hold three dozen people, easy.

It really was The Country back then. There was no telephone service, limited radio reception and no television at all. The house was surrounded by 100-foot trees. Mulberries grew wildly on its one side, and on the other was a patch of growth we kids were told had snakes in it. We never went in there. At the base of the hill there was a brook where I always heard you could catch shiners, whatever they are. My cousin Ron and I never caught anything. But man could we gather black, juicy mulberries!

“The Men”

Every dinner in The Country was an event. People would start showing up in the evening just as the summer heat broke. No one was invited, everyone was welcome. When too many people showed up, my grandma’ would say to my mom “Julie, we gotta’ stretcha’ the gravy,” and Mom would dutifully pour some water…well-water… into the simmering tomato sauce. All the guests brought homemade baked goods, homemade wine, small plates and, sometimes, roasted peppers so spicy-hot they made the men cry. There was always hard cheese, charcuterie (they called it “sangweech meat”), roasted peppers and olives first, then bowls and bowls and bowls of pasta with ricotta, “gravy meat” (sausage, meatballs, braciola and rolled pork skin) and then, at the meal’s end, salad. Finally, fruit, nuts and finocchio (fennel) were put on the table. Some time later, after the men’s belts were loosened and the ladies insisted that they stay seated while the table was cleared…by women only, it was time for “coffee anda’ cake.”

No one was invited, everyone was welcome.

And that’s when the stories started. And the laughter. Or the tears. The congratulations, or the comforting. Sometimes applause, sometimes an argument: “I don’t believe-a you,” followed by “I swear to god.” I could see why no one missed having a TV. Who needed one when you had this going on? And it happened every night, with only the size of the dinner party varying.

The stories continued well past us kids’ bedtime. But the walls were thin, and I only pretended to be asleep: I could still hear the stories. Stories of triumph, or loss. Funny stories. A lot of funny stories. But wistful, tender stories, too. And most often, with an affirming or unexpected twist. My grandmother told the most and got the biggest reaction. I listened to her stories intently. Most revealed the humor in everyday life. I thought that was kinda’ cool. My great-uncle, a quiet, gentle man, was begged each night to tell “The Rooster Story,” and always resisted, then gave in, then revelled in the guest’s laughter.


The Professor and the “Outliers”

A few of the stories were about this guy Professor Wolf who kept coming to The Country asking questions about everyone and everything. “Nosey baysta’.” His team gave a lot of people complete medical examinations and even drew their blood. He was trying to figure out why everyone in town lived into their 90’s and no one there had ever had a heart attack. Everyone thought it silly, and I was too young to disagree.

I stopped going to Roseto at 17. I just couldn’t live without the Yankees, Cosmos, SNL, and my friends in New York. I was more interested in the stories in the papers than those on the porch. I started referring to Roseto as “a little town behind a few trees on Rt. 191.” I wasn’t a proud Rosetani. I got tired of being made fun of for being Rosetani, and not Sicilian or ‘Napoli-Don’ (Neapolitan) like every other guy in the neighborhood. (And it didn’t help when I told the guys Roseto Valfortore was near Foggia. Foggia…you can imagine what I heard). I forgot all about Prof. Wolf. I didn’t think Roseto had had any effect on me, and I just didn’t talk about it or my time there. I didn’t think either made a good story.

I didn’t think Roseto had had any effect on me, and I just didn’t talk about it or my time there.

Then Malcolm Gladwell published “Outliers” in 2008. It’s Introduction was entirely about Roseto. To explain the concept of an outlier, he described the people of Roseto Valfortore, Italy, and something called The Roseto Effect. Most of that town’s people emigrated to a hillside in PA in 1882 and in 1912 started a town there that they named Roseto. My great-grandfather was its first Sheriff. In the 1950s, Dr. Stewart Wolf discovered that almost all of them were still around, and that no one in town had ever suffered from heart disease. This intrigued him, and he began a multi-year study of the people of the town including their physical makeup, work, diet, exercise, culture, lifestyle… pretty much anything he could think of that could play a role in heart disease. Nosey bastard.

Wolf discovered that the Rosetani did not eat healthily or exercise. Despite this, they still had no heart disease. Wolf concluded that their lack of heart disease was caused by the closeness of their families and their network of friendships. Indeed, all the people in the community lived with multiple generations of their family in or near their homes, and were close with their neighbors. They knew each other very well and were there for each other. This close-knit and expansive support group was Wolf’s only explanation for the Rosetani’s lack of heart disease.

Wolf called this “The Roseto Effect.” And Gladwell called Roseto a town of “outliers”: anomalous people who prevented heart disease by surrounding themselves with family members and friends. I still just called it The Country.

Neither Wolf nor Gladwell mentioned the stories. THE STORIES.

Not The Rooster Story

Then, I was at a cocktail party given by a philosopher/guitarist friend of mine, Larry. He toils as an attorney, but has advanced degrees in both music and philosophy, and his gatherings attract a thoughtful and musical crowd. An actuary/cellist began pontificating:

“I’ve become fascinated by the people of Roseto. You have read “Outliers,” haven’t you?”

“Oh, of course,” every attendee responded. I bet some were lying.

“Gladwell’s description is so compelling and he and Wolf’s explanation so curious, I have to know more,” he continued.

“You can start here,” I said. ”My family is from there.”

He then asked me everything about myself but my shoe size. Then we got into my family. Nosey bastard. But I was a bit of a celebrity for the rest of the day. Or maybe a circus freak. I dunno’ which, but I attracted a crowd. People were soo inquisitive about what I regarded as so ordinary. I played along. And I told some stories. Of course I told stories. A lot of stories. But not “The Rooster Story”: I hadn’t been properly begged.

After that, I started talking about Roseto a lot. People were fascinated. I guess I made a good story of it all, because they remembered my Roseto connection long after we spoke. And so the first night PBS broadcast the series “The Italian Americans,” my phone blew up! A good dozen people called to excitedly say they were watching the introduction, and it was about…Roseto! I tuned in to find my great-grandfather with his shock of white hair, grey eyes and thick mustache staring right back at me. Old photos were shown, towns people were interviewed, and The Roseto Effect was vaunted. It seemed Roseto was back in my life.

I tuned in to find my great-grandfather with his shock of white hair, grey eyes and thick mustache staring right back at me.

But the truth is it never left me. In fact, it’s always been there. It’s inside me…it made me! And I’m not talking about my LDL or HDL or any other measure of health. I’m talking about STORIES. Caps intended. I LOVE STORIES. I love to read them, write them, tell them, hear them. I learn from stories. I teach with stories. I tell stories to juries. People ask “how do you come up with these stories?” I tell them “stories are happening all around you. Pay attention and repeat.” I can sit at a kitchen table or in a cafe’, a bar or in a backyard, and swap stories with folks for hours. I just love it. Who needs TV, or YouTube or whatever? Give me family and friends and stories.

I got that from Roseto. I listened to my Grandma’ and my family and their friends. I learned how to tell a story by listening from ‘the kid’s table’ and from under a quilt. That was the Roseto Effect for me.

But I didn’t know all this until recently.

In Vino

My family was vacationing in the Poconos with my bestie, Prof. Chas., and his family. And we were pretty close to Roseto. I proposed an excursion to what I jokingly called my ancestral homeland. I wanted my son to see it. And I knew that Prof. Chas, an epidemiologist by trade, would be interested. I did a little Googling first to make sure the stories I grew up with and planned to pass on to my son were actually true. And they were. But when I Googled, I also learned of a winery in the nearby hills that was crafting a red wine called The Roseto Effect. It was called the Rowan Asher Winery, and it promised that its wine was made according to the old Rosetani recipe. It had a tasting room in nearby Stroudsburg, and now I wanted to go there too. Luckily, Prof. Chas. and my family did too!

So off to Roseto we went. It had only changed one bit: my great-grandparents house was now yellow. We toured the Falcone points of interest, took pictures with the Falcone Ave. sign and visited the park. Then we went to the local deli, Ruggiero’s. It’s sign does not say “Italian Deli.” In Roseto, that would be redundant. And no one calls it Ruggiero’s: locals know this place as ‘Ma-may-sh’. That’s phonetic, of course. I asked the woman at the register if she knew how the place came to be called “Ma- may-sh.” Turns out she was the grand-daughter-in-law of Ma-may-sh himself, and she knew and told the whole story. It was colorful and funny, but boiled down to this: it’s the tail end of an immigrant mispronunciation of the word ‘fishmonger.’ Feesh Ma-may-sh, shortened. Very Simple. The story…not simple. It built and had tension and then resolved. It had an arc. It took her only a minute, yet she took us on a journey. And made us laugh.

“She made a whole big thing outta’ that?” my wife commented as we left.

“Sure,” I said.”I liked it.”

“You would.”

Prof. Chas. interjected “That’s probably the communication style here. It’s narrative. It’s not Q and A. Very old world.”

“It was a good story,” I said.

Next we went to the Rowan Asher Winery Tasting Room on Main St. in Stroudsburg. It was a very stylish room, and struck me as a slice of Williamsburg inserted into PA. There were antique mirrors and furniture, shabby chic pieces and chachkas, a fireplace and a bark-edged wood bar. It looked like a good place to write, to me. Two lovely women greeted us from behind the bar, and Prof. Chas. and I ordered The Roseto Effect, my wife a moscato, and Little Lenny, well, he’s little: Snapple. I swirled and sniffed my wine and took my first sip. I put down the logo etched stemmed glass. I was looking straight at Prof. Chas.

“What?” he asked. “You look like you just saw a ghost.”

“I tasted one! This is the exact wine we had at my grandparent’s as kids. They made it in town. People brought it over all the time. My grand-pop would slip me a sip before bed. This is it!”

One of the lovely women approached us again. She asked if we knew what The Roseto Effect was, and I gave a comprehensive explanation. She was surprised.

“I’m from there,” I explained. I didn’t used to say that, ever.

“Really? So’s my husband. I have to bring him out to meet you.”

A minute later I was introduced to Matthew Carrescia Stallard. He and his lovely wife Misty own the winery. We studied each other’s faces. He really looked familiar to me, especially his eyes.

“I’m Lenny Falcone,” I said, offering my hand.

“I’m Matt,” he said, still studying me. “Which Falcones?”

He was right to ask. Remarkably, there were 2 in Roseto.

“The Falcone Avenue-Falcones.”

“Oh, right.”

We launched into conversation as if we knew each other our whole lives. Stories were told. Funny stories. A lot of funny stories. We were laughing and drinking and we were damn near ready to hug.

I told Matt and Misty that I had gotten a call from a genealogist in Roseto, Valfortore in response to a question I recently posted on the Two Rosetos’ Facebook page. I asked if anyone had any information about the Falcones that came before my great-grandparents. This guy responded as a random act of kindness.

“How far back do you want to go?” he asked.

“Take me to 1776…the Revolutionary War.”

He emailed me a family tree that started in 1750. It included many names…maiden names, that I knew from Roseto, but never knew were in MY family tree…and were a part of me.

One of them was Finelli. Matt’s great-grandfather was Domenico Finelli. He handed down the Rosetani recipe for red wine to Matt. So Matt’s apparently a distant relative of mine. We decided it was just too hard to figure out exactly how we were related, and we resolved to just go with “cousins.”

My new cousin and I drank our ancestors’ wine and told stories that made everyone laugh, just as they had. And I must say, Matt could really tell a story. But I think I got game too. It was fun. And eventually, we did hug.

When we left, Prof. Chas commented “I wasn’t really buying the whole Roseto Effect thing. I saw it as selection bias: you take the strongest folk from Italy, folks strong enough to be stonecutters, with constitutions that just brush-off all the stresses that that exposes them to, and you bring them here to intermarry, and what do you expect? You’re gonna’ get some very healthy people, and they’re gonna’ live a long time. But today I saw another Roseto Effect. No, no…I heard it.”

“What did you hear?”

“Stories. You’re all storytellers.”

“So that’s the real Roseto Effect? Roseto makes you a storyteller?”

Prof. Chas. didn’t answer. He just gave me a look.

“Mmm. Maybe there’s a story there.”