December 8, 2013

Author Q&A: Gathering ingredients of father’s full life

The story of an Italian immigrant in Portland who made his mark in cooking and teaching is told from his perspective and his daughter’s.

By Tom Atwell
Special to the Telegram

Armando Polito sailed to the United States in 1920, when he was 10 years old, with his mother and siblings. His father, Giovanni Polito, had been in America for eight years, successfully running the Napoli restaurants in Maine.

Shortly after Armando died in 2003, his daughter – Nancy Jo Polito – had trouble sleeping one night, and listened to some tape recordings he had made.

The result is “Nobody Washes Me, I’m Italian,” a 270-page book telling a story similar to that of many Italian immigrants. In the first 50 pages, Armando tells about his ancestors, his life in Bovino, Italy, the Napoli restaurants in Portland and Old Orchard Beach through the 1940s, and the creation of Luigi’s spaghetti and pizza sauce.

For Armand (he dropped the “o” at some point) Polito, that was just the background.

Nancy Jo Polito tells the rest of his story – decades teaching Romance languages at Deering High School, doing all of the cooking at home and raising a family.

The book is available at Amazon or by contacting the author at

Q: Is your father’s story pretty typical of Italian immigrants around that period?

A: Most definitely. They were a proud group of people who came through and worked really hard to assimilate. It hit me when he got sick at age 90 how different my life was, growing up with him. He was very self-sufficient. He told all about his life, about how a lot of Italians came at that same time, settling in Little Italy and Middle Street.

I belong to the Italian Heritage Center, and there is a whole group of people there with the same background.

He was a character, a no-nonsense person. He was like Desi Arnaz and was sometimes called Babalu, and my mother was Lucille Ball.

He had us drilled over the years on food. We were never allowed to have ketchup on Tater Tots, with him cooking all of the food.

Q: Did your father make the tapes about his life on his own, or did someone do it for him and ask questions?

A: A couple of my cousins and I did this, asking him questions about his early life. This was when he was in his late 80s, and he also did some tapes for the Italian Heritage Center.

When his father came over and started the Napoli restaurants, it was real hard on them because they were used to drinking wine all the time, and they couldn’t here because of Prohibition.

Q: Is taping older people and maybe even writing a book like you have something you think most families should do?

A: I tell people that all of the time, when I give talks, that people have to write down their splendid memories, just so they can pass them on. People have a legacy and they won’t talk about it unless you force them. Whether someone is a writer or not, they should at least put it in a little journal.

Q: Toward the end of your father’s life he seemed to regret never going back to Bovino, Italy. Is that something you think immigrants should do?

A: He never wanted to go back until he got sick. He had cancer for 20 years and never told anybody. He was busy all the time. He did all of the cooking and everything.

When I went to Italy, I asked if he wanted to go and he said, “No. My life is in the United States.”

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)



More PPH Blogs