Italian Like Me

updated 06/06/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT WAS THE LAND OF ROCKY," SAYS BILL Tonelli, wistfully remembering the South Philadelphia neighborhood where he spent the first 35 years of his life. "All you knew were Italians. They had macaroni and meatballs every Sunday at 2 o'clock. And they had seven kinds offish on Christmas Eve. You still heard people talking Italian on the streets."

When he moved to New York City in 1989 to take a job at Esquire magazine, Tonelli, 40, says, "I felt I had moved from a southern Italian village to the 21st century." The culture shock prompted him to examine the role of Italian-Americans in the larger culture—to ask, in short, what it means to be a Tonelli. The result is The Amazing Story of the Tonelli Family in America, the just-published account of his 12,000-mile trek across the country looking for people who share his surname.

Tonelli got his inspiration 10 years ago, he says, via a junk-mail offering, for a mere $27.95, of a book listing all the Tonellis in America. When the gold-embossed volume arrived, he was hooked. "There's a Tonelli in Texas! There's a Tonelli named Abner," he says. "And to my chagrin, only two Dr. Tonellis in the whole frigging country."

The extended family tree got a fresh shaking in 1992. when Tonelli signed a book deal and began charting his course through the Tonelli nation. Using the genealogical guide, he dispatched about 500 questionnaires with queries like, "Which of your Tonelli ancestors came from Italy?" and "Which Godfather movie is your favorite?"

After more than 200 Tonellis responded—"I thought it was a scam till I called his office," says Chicago mechanic Tom Tonelli, 25—the writer mapped out an itinerary that would take him to 40 cities and towns. First he stopped in South Philly to soak up some family history, courtesy of his aunts Marie, 70, and Josephine, 75. They told him that his grandfather, pushed by his parents to accompany his brother to America 89 years ago, was so reluctant to leave Nereto, Italy, as a teenager that he stabbed himself in the leg.

Tonelli hit the road in a rented Buick. His subjects ranged from Sister Theodore Tonelli, 76, of Joliet, Ill., a retired nun who had spent 20 years ministering to prison inmates, to Bob Tonelli of Waukee, Iowa, who is serving time for killing his girlfriend's 15-month-old baby. Elsewhere along the spectrum, he met an adopted Korean Tonelli, a pair of married first-cousin Tonellis and a Tonelli family (who had, for reasons never adequately explained, changed their name from Ybarra) living with 13 sled dogs in the wilds of Alaska.

He discovered a Bataan Death March survivor and a rock drummer, a convicted drug dealer and a Los Angeles artist. He found, he says, that the Tonellis had little in common except for a fondness for food and "a preponderance of heavy Mediterranean-style furniture in the homes of some of the older Tonellis."

Tonelli, whose girlfriend is half-Italian and half-Armenian ("We don't talk about the Armenian part," he jokes), sees his book as a sort of snapshot of one Italian-surnamed clan that has long been assimilated into the American mainstream.

"We Tonellis have never been less Italian than we are now," he says, "but we'll never be this Italian again."

MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City

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