How we stopped for a pizza and stumbled across a vivid history lesson in the first person

In Sarasota, Florida, you can get some authentic Italian pizza and sandwiches at a place called Il Panificio on Main Street. If you happen to go there, you may also hear a fascinating story.

We recently visited Il Panificio during a mini-vacation. We had read a positive review in a magazine we found in our hotel room. The business was opened by a man we came to know as Nick (Nicola). We bumped into him outside the door just as we were leaving. My wife told him about the great reviews and we stood and talked and found out a lot about him.

I'll try to tell it like he told us.

Nick said he came to the States when he was 14. His mother sent him from a small town in Italy to New Jersey to join his father who was saving money for the family to emigrate. This was in the late 1930s. His mother must have seen the storm clouds brewing in Europe and wanted to ensure Nicola would not be called one day to serve in the ranks of Benito Mussolini's Fascist army.

After a seven-day ocean crossing, Nick arrived in New York and settled with his dad in New Jersey.

Some time after, war broke out in Europe. The handwriting was on the wall for the United States. Pretty soon, Nick found himself in the U.S. Armed Forces. "I left a country to get away from being forced to join an army and here I was being drafted in another," he said. He trained as a medical corpsman and wound up in England assigned to none other than General George Patton's Third Army Group.

At the age of 22, he took part in the invasion of Normandy and the fighting that took Patton to the Rhine and the famous crossing into Germany in March, 1945.

I asked him if the book and television series Band of Brothers reflected the way it really was over there. He said yes, it did.

Nick said that as they penetrated deeper into Europe, they encountered defeated Italian soldiers returning from the Russian front, many wounded and shoeless in the freezing weather. He told us he recognized them right away by their uniforms and it broke his heart to see how bedraggled they were. The only thing he could do for them, he said, was give them as much penicillin as he could find. It seemed to be a painful memory.

He told us he saw General Patton, "as close as you are to me," and agreed he was a unique leader. The Third Army went into Germany and so did Nick.

Germany fell and the war ended.

During the weeks that followed, Nick pleaded for permission to leave his unit and travel south to Italy. He wanted to see if his mother and his remaining family members were still alive. Nick told us his superior officers thought he was crazy and said only Eisenhower himself could grant permission. Nick insisted. Permission was granted.

He travelled by available military transport to Milan where his G.I. pay was exchanged into Italian Lire. He said he stuffed mounds of bills into his jacket and could barely find space for all them in his clothing. Devaluation had taken an enormous toll on the Italian currency.

He took a train to Naples and eventually made his way to his small town. Old acquaintances at the railway station recognized him as the youthful Nicola and led him to a sweet reunion with his mother and family.

Post-war Italy was in ruins. His family was suffering. Food was scarce.
Nick marched into the local mayor's office still wearing his American uniform and demanded two sacks of flour for his family and threatened to personally go to the Allied military authorities if he were denied. He received the flour.

Nick then travelled to the American embassy and pushed for immigration papers to be drawn up as soon as possible. With money in his pocket and a lot of persuasion, he obtained the papers.

He brought his mom to Jersey, where they stayed for many years. Nick married and had children, and then became a grandfather many times over.

Nick's family eventually settled in Florida and he founded Il Panificio. He still hangs around the restaurant and keeps himself busy.

If you want to meet Nick, you can see a photo of him at the Panificio website here. Just scroll down, he's the good-looking elderly gentleman with the glasses. He looked just like this when we met him a couple of weeks ago when we stopped for pizza and left with much more.

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