An enduring love that began with a photo

Almost 75 years ago, Orazio Dell’Olio saw a photo that enchanted him, a photo of a smiling young Italian woman, who was walking arm-in-arm with her friends through the piazza. He couldn’t get her out of his mind, so he took the bold step of writing to her…but only after asking her cousin for permission. His letter, dated January 4, 1950 from New York City, began:

“Dear Signorina,

“I truly hope that you permit me to write to you because I feel in my heart that I am so in love with you. That is why I pray that you accept this dream of love that has yet to begin between us. I would be so proud to have you write to me.”

Nicoletta accepted Orazio’s invitation, beginning a transatlantic correspondence. Over two years, their 22 letters nurtured a relationship that lasted more than 60 years and was blessed with 58 years of marriage, four children, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. And through it all, their love and devotion overcame the crises and challenges they confronted.

Dr. Mario Dell’Olio, their youngest child, has chronicled their story of family, faith and love in his book “Letters from Italy: A Transatlantic Love Story,” recounting the saga of the Dell’Olio family, which settled in Bridgeport and later moved to Trumbull.

“They loved each other unconditionally and were each other’s best friend,” Dell’Olio said. “They were so different from one another, and despite those differences, they loved each other and supported each other through every phase of their lives and were a united front with us, their children. It’s not that they didn’t disagree, but nothing got personal.”

Dell’Olio, a graduate of St. Raphael School and Trumbull High School, is chair of the music department and ethics teacher at Marymount School of New York. Previously, he taught at Fairfield College Preparatory School, where he established the music program and led a choir that performed for Pope John Paul II. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s in education from Fairfield University and has a doctorate in sacred music and a master’s of music in voice.

To write “Letters from Italy,” Dell’Olio relied on hundreds of stories that his mother and father told him about their culture and heritage and personal lives.

“I came to know Nicoletta and Orazio as individuals who grew up during the Second World War, fought to survive in a country mired in economic ills, and took a leap of faith, traveling thousands of miles to create a life in a foreign land,” he wrote.

After two years of corresponding, the couple met in person in November 1951, when Orazio traveled back to Italy to see her for the first time…even though his best friend told him he was taking a big chance to leave the U.S., since he wasn’t a citizen. That didn’t stop him.

“He was so eager to see her that he jumped off the train on a country road with all his luggage,” Dell’Olio said. Fortunately, he was able to hitch a ride into town with the milkman, and knocked on her door at 6 in the morning. When Nicoletta heard his voice, she pinched her cheeks—on the advice of her cousin—and prepared to meet the man who had shared his fervent feelings for her in his letters.

“He came in and sat on the edge of her bed,” Dell’Olio said. “He told her, ‘You are the most beautiful girl in the world!’”

They spent a chaperoned month together, during which time all her relatives met him, and then on December 29, 1951, they were married. Orazio returned to America, and Nicoletta followed nine months later, arriving the day before Thanksgiving in 1952.

Thus began a relationship between two people in love, who shared the joys and adversities of life for six decades. While they built their life together in America, they had to learn a new language, work in factories and start from nothing, he said. In this new country, they were known as Larry and Tina.

“They were Italian immigrants during the 1950s, whose struggles and determination helped shape and form them into the parents who raised me and my three siblings,” Dell’Olio said.” I discovered that there is so much more to whom they were and are than what I experienced as their youngest child.”

Tina, whose strong faith has been an inspiration to her family, was orphaned at 6. As a girl, she would go and talk to a statue of Our Lady.

“‘I don’t have a mother and father, and now you must be my mother,’ she told the Blessed Mother,” Dell’Olio said. “Her faith was always central to our lives, and that is why traditions were so important and Sundays were sacred.”

Their lives centered on St. Raphael Church in Bridgeport, where Mario and his siblings Frankie, Marisa and Annette attended school. At one point, their late cousin Msgr. Frank Dell’Olio was associate pastor of St. Raphael before being appointed pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Fairfield.

Looking back, Dell’Olio says, “Family and faith are the most important things they imparted to us.” And there were occasions when their faith and love served them well in trying times. He still recalls his parents’ 25th anniversary, when they went on a trip to Italy and Tina suffered an aneurysm…and his father’s unwavering devotion helped carry her through.

“I remember the image of my mother’s Rosary beads—and the doctor taking them out of her hands as she was going under.”

Her devotion was just as strong for Larry, who developed Parkinson’s disease in later life. Over the years, his physical and mental condition deteriorated and put a strain on the family.

On the day he died, February 17, 2010, Ash Wednesday, “Tina took her place beside him in the narrow bed and held him in her arms. She could tell he was in pain…. She was beside him, holding his head when he breathed his last breath.”

In the years following Larry’s death, Tina would read her precious letters to Mario, who was the only child who spoke Italian. From these letters and her memories came the inspiration for him to write “Letters from Italy.”

“Each line would spark more memories and tales of family drama,” he recalled. “During those sessions, I got a glimpse into the 18-year-old girl whose dreams were well beyond her imaginings and the reality of her life in the small town of Bisceglie. I discovered that my father, who rarely showed emotion, was a hopeless romantic who swept Mom off her feet with his heartfelt poetry written on elegant stationery. Revealed in decades of oral history and now in letters long forgotten were tales of two idealistic dreamers that I had only ever known as Mom and Dad.”

The process of writing the book began four years ago, when Dell’Olio said to Tina, “Mom, I would love for you to read the letters to me.” For hours, he sat at his computer while she read them and offered vivid recollections of the past.

He also did considerable research about Italy before and during World War II, Fascism, the economic crises, immigration and the millions of Italians who came to America looking for a better life.

“Letters from Italy” ends with the last letter that Tina, now 90, wrote to her beloved Larry. She wrote:

“Dearest Orazio,

“It has been over 10 years since you left this earth, and I can still feel your presence within me. Not a day goes by that I don’t turn to ask you something. There are moments I wish I could share a thought or a fear with you and must be content with my own thoughts. I speak to you every night before I go to sleep. When I awaken during the night, I reach out to touch you, but find the empty place beside me.

“We spent 58 beautiful years together and raised a family that we were both proud of. I picture your face smiling at me at each special moment we shared. You promised me back in Bisceglie that we would have a home of our own that was bigger and better than the house my parents left me, and you were so proud when we crossed that threshold.

“I marvel at how we first came to be. From that tiny photo your brother sent you from Italy, you chose me. What drew your eyes to me, Orazio? What was it about me that drew your attention? And what gave you the courage to write to me? So many questions remain unanswered. But what is certain is the fact that the photo transformed both our lives beyond our imaginings. The tiny image of five young people strolling in the piazza started us on this fantastic journey together…”

(Editor’s note: “Letters from Italy,” published by Black Rose Writing, is available on and

By Joe Pisani