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A Recipe For Courage

By Deborah L. Kunesh

Michael De Massimo

Founder: De Massimo’s

Recipe for Success

Entrepreneur Mike De Massimo ’99 Uses Family Recipes to Create Line of Authentic Pasta Sauces.

As a teacher and high school principal for 18 years, Mike De Massimo, Wittenberg University class of 1999, would make his family’s homemade lasagna for his students and staff around the holidays.

“I was born and raised in Cleveland and come from a large Italian American family,” De Massimo says. His mother used to run an Italian restaurant in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and his sister is also in the industry. “Food is our love language.”

Without intending to, De Massimo’s annual tradition of celebrating his students and fellow educators with a homemade Italian dish has become a successful entrepreneurial venture, De Massimo’s Authentic Sauces and Imports located in Columbus, Ohio.

“What started out as a tribute to my family, and most notably, my grandmothers, slowly became a small business,” he says.

After his last living grandmother passed away, De Massimo wanted “to do something to honor her and [the] family who came before” him. Making pasta sauce from traditional family recipes passed down through the generations seemed a natural fit.

As a high school principal, he had partnered with adult occupational placements to help employ students with disabilities once they left the high school setting. When it came time to produce larger batches of sauce, he used a local commercial kitchen that works with adults with developmental disabilities and began selling the sauce at local farmers markets.

“The following year, I asked students in our business and entrepreneur classes if they wanted to run their own farmers markets,” De Massimo says. “Needless to say, a small business was created.”

The business has since grown and expanded, with De Massimo’s Authentic Sauces now being produced in a larger facility and sold at Meijer, Kroger, Giant Eagle, Fresh Thyme, Food City, Heinen’s, and many independent grocery stores in Ohio, the Midwest, and the South. Seven years ago, De Massimo left his job in education and now dedicates his time to building the family business. He credits his wife, Bethany Schlater ’04, with providing the support needed to make the leap to full-time entrepreneurship.

As the business grew, the village of San Giovanni in Galdo, Molise, Italy – the hometown of his maternal grandmother – noticed their likeness on the company’s packaging, and invited Mike and Bethany to visit.

“We were welcomed with open arms, given the key to the village in a ceremony, they awarded me with honorary citizen status, had a festival in our honor, and basically rolled out the red carpet,” De Massimo says. “We got to see where my grandparents were born and raised and live with our family in our ancestral roots.”

They have continued to visit the village, bringing more family members along, and now import olive oil produced in the Molise region.

At the same time, the De Massimo family in Abruzzo, Italy, home of the paternal side of the family, also invited them to visit.

“It was during one of our visits that we were presented with our family tree that was able to be traced back to 1683,” De Massimo said. “Our sauces that we sell to consumers are based on the sauces my family has created for centuries. We utilize the word ‘authentic’ in our brand identity. We take this word seriously because not only are our sauces authentically influenced by our roots, our creation story is authentic and can be attached to our past. We are proud of that.”

In addition to supporting the small producers in Molise, De Massimo’s strives to support the local Columbus community as well, by donating products to the Hilliard Food Pantry and time to St. Aloysius Community Outreach to feed the hungry.

By Debbie Ritter, Wittenberg University; Office of University Communication.

Our World Has Changed!

Reflections from San Giovanni in Galdo

Although we were invited to come to my grandmother’s home village of San Giovanni in Galdo, Molise, Italia this past fall, my wife and I still had somewhat of a nervous feeling. We had plenty of positive conversations with the village before we came but this whole situation was so new. We landed in Rome on Thursday, Oct 26th spent the remainder of the day hustling to some points of interest but really prepared for our train ride the next day to Campobasso. Early Friday morning we departed for the almost 3 hour train ride to Campobasso. It was breath-taking to see the Italian country-side as we made our way southeast.

When we arrived at the train terminal in Campobasso, we were greeted by the mayor of San Giovanni in Galdo and other dignitaries of the area. Our greeting was so warm and right away we knew we would be taken care of. We loaded our luggage into their vehicle and we made our way to my grandmother’s village.

As the vehicle approached the village, I was overcome with emotion. I couldn’t believe that I was physically witnessing the very village that I only saw in pictures. My wife and I were taken to our home for the next 4 days and then we met up with community members at one of their local bars. We got to sit down with them and exchange pictures of my grandmother and other pieces of information. Words could not express the feelings we were all having looking at the ship manifest, birth records, death certificates, and pictures.

After this stop, my wife and I were led to a local restaurant in the village that was one of the most amazing places I have ever eaten a meal. Tratorria: U Vettare du Merrutte, ran by Lucia Sassani, was an old cave that used to house wine. We sat down to a meal of fresh olives, wedding soup, cavatelli and pork, fried baccala, lamb, rosemary potatoes, various meats and cheeses, and many other foods and liquors that were representative of the village/region. Again, I was overcome with emotions because some of this cuisine was what I grew up on and still to this day share with my family.

Bethany and I engaged in all kinds of conversations about our family and the village. We were welcomed with open arms. That evening we all congregated at a couple village bars and ate, drank, laughed, cried, and hugged. We even met some people who have family in the Cleveland area…most notably the Fiorelli and Zavarella families.

The following day, we got a tour of a local winery outside the village, Colle Sereno Wines, took in the Molise country-side, and visited a church local to the village of San Giovanni in Galdo. We then got to experience one of the greatest moments of my life. The village was able to identify the street my grandmother lived on “Vico Del Fiori” and also narrowed down her living quarters to 2 places. I felt an unbelievable presence that my grandmother was there. I cannot put into words the thoughts that were and still are going through my head. I envisioned her as a little girl running out the door to the field that once stood by her home as she used to explain to me.

That evening, the village had an event planned for us. The announcements were plastered all over the village. Bethany and I met in Mayor Puinno’s office and we discussed the importance of this new-found relationship. After we discussed, we walked out to a conference area and many of the village residents were there. The mayor than began to speak about my background, our business, and how we are connected to the village. Before I knew it, we became honorary citizens of the village.

I was presented the key to the village. Afterwards, I gave a speech of thanks and was overcome with emotion. I was humbled. Then, the village presented us with a gift basket full of local items, literature specific to the village, and 2 dances performed by their cultural dance group Zig Zaghini. We were then sent down the stairs where food and more music from Zig Zaghini was being played. Local artisans from the village were also present sharing their goods with everyone.

Later that evening, my wife and I were invited to go up into the Il Campanile the bell tower that is a historical landmark of the village and a focal point of the labels on our jars of sauce. Although I am afraid of heights, I mustard up enough guts to go up. I’m glad I did. They had me toll the bell and after I tolled it they informed me this was the same sound my grandmother would have heard when she was a child in the village. When I looked on the inscription on the bell, it was dedicated in 1902 to the village from immigrants that came to America.

The next morning, Bethany and I got up early and walked the village and just reviewed everything that happened the previous day. We still couldn’t believe it. As we walked, we got to speak to some villagers and also just enjoyed the beautiful scenery and the crisp Autumn morning.

The highlight of our last day in the village will always be implanted in my memory. We were invited to dinner at the home of Ernesto Vico and his wife. We were joined by our regular crew of Giovanni, Lucia, Marco, Stefano, Mario, Vivianna, and Domenico. To my surprise, the first course was rigatoni with our sauce! De Massimo’s Authentic Arrabbiata Sauce! I was a little nervous but then quickly remembered that this is the sauce of my grandmother and of the village so to speak. I couldn’t believe my eyes…everyone was enjoying the rigatoni and talking positively about the sauce. There was not one rigatoni left! The first course was followed by one of the most amazing meals I’ve…homemade sausages, pork slow cooked over the fire, and too many other dishes to list. What was even better, we gave toasts, presented gifts, drank the wine of Molise, and simply enjoyed each other’s company.

The next day we visited Campobasso and caught our train to Rome. The goodbyes were tough seeing we met our new family and didn’t want to leave after such a short stay. Besides my immediate family, there was a synergy between us that I’ve never experienced with any one else. That synergy will be experienced again as we return in August to live in the village for a couple weeks—with my mother, father, 2 sisters, and my wife and children. We intend to visit my father’s family as well!

By Mike De Massimo, Founder De Massimo’s Authentic Italian Sauces.

San Giovanni

San Giovanni in Galdo

Our Ancestral Roots

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