If my family had a claim to fame, it would probably be our distant ancestor Eduardo Di Capua, who composed the famous Italian aria “O Sole Mio.” Like others of our clan, Eduardo descended from the sleepy town of Capua, positioned just northeast of Naples at the bend of Italy’s Volturno River. At the height of the Roman Empire, Capua served as a training ground for Colosseum gladiators. In fact, Capua’s own amphitheater could hold almost ten thousand more people than the celebrated Colosseum in Rome. Centuries later, ever since Amerigo Vespucci first claimed to have seen the Gulf Coast in 1497, Italians began immigrating to America in search of a better life for their families. The list below describes some notable Italians who left a significant and lasting mark on the Texas terrain.
Florentine Amerigo Vespucci traveled to the New World as the official observer for Spain’s King Ferdinand of Aragón. He was possibly one of the first Europeans to see the Gulf Coast, and his subsequent voyages yielded the first maps of the northeast coast of South America.
Italian architect Frederick Ruffini spent only eight years in Texas, but his legacy lives on through familiar landmarks dotting the Lone Star landscape. He arrived in Austin in 1877 and eventually established offices in a building of his own design—the Hancock Building on what is now West Sixth Street. His other creations included courthouses in Henderson, Georgetown, and Blanco; jails in New Braunfels, McKinney, and Burnet; and in Austin, the Millett Opera House, the Hancock Opera House, and the Texas School for the Deaf. Many of these buildings have since been altered or replaced. Ruffini’s most outstanding design, familiar to most Texans, is the University of Texas at Austin’s old Main Building. Only the west wing was complete upon his death in 1885, but construction of the central tower and the remaining wing were carried out according to his plans.
The Val Verde Winery in the border town of Del Rio stands today as the oldest operating winery in Texas. In 1883 Frank and Mary Qualia began making their rich wines from the Lenoir grape, using an original handpress brought from their home near Milan, Italy. Val Verde introduced Texans to the Herbemont grape, still used today to produce dry and sweet amber wines. Now run by third generation Qualias, Val Verde remains a small operation, bottling about two thousand cases a year of eight different wines including Muscat Canelli, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Don Luis Tawny Port, all made with grapes grown in vineyards across Texas. Visitors can tour the historic winery daily and taste the variety of wines that have made Val Verde a Texas favorite.
Renowned bootmakers Sam and Salvatore Lucchese settled in San Antonio in 1883, where they opened a business rooted in the traditions of their Sicilian bootmaking family. The establishment flourished as a growing clientele, including movie stars, generals, and world leaders, came to the Lucchese brothers for a custom-fit pair of boots. Mexican Revolutionary leader Francisco Madero asked for boots that were easy to put on, in case he had to flee quickly during the rebellion against dictator Porfirio Díaz; Madero later died during the uprising. Other famous Lucchese clients included Lieutenant George S. Patton, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Theodore Roosevelt, who bought his boots while traveling with the Rough Riders in 1898. Generations of Luccheses have carried on the family tradition by providing finely crafted boots to patrons world-wide.
Another Lucchese found fame and fortune in the Lone Star State. Salvatore’s niece, Josephine Lucchese Donato, sang her way to stardom, earning the moniker “the American Nightingale.” She perfected her sweet soprano voice in San Antonio and New York and spent her life touring North America and Europe. She settled down to teach music at the University of Texas from 1957 to 1970. She died in 1974 at her home in San Antonio.
Louis Cobolini is remembered as a leader in the Galveston fishing industry, an expert in labor relations, and a pioneer in port development along the Rio Grande Valley. Cobolini left his homeland in 1867 and settled in Galveston, where he found gainful employment as a fisherman. He was later recognized for his skillful approach to labor relations, and in 1894 was elected president of the State Federation of Labor. His real passion, though, was developing a port system to manage the region’s expanding fruit and vegetable output. In 1906 he began research that would prove such a venture possible, and in 1928, eight years after his death, the deepwater port linking Brownsville to the Gulf of Mexico became a reality.
Born in the Moglia Province of Mantova, Italy, Pompeo Coppini developed his talent at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. In 1896 he opened studios in New York, and later he was commissioned to design the Confederate Monument on the lawn of the state capitol in Texas. He enjoyed Texas so much that he settled in San Antonio and produced some of the most recognizable structures in Texas. These include the Jefferson Davis statue at the Capitol, the Littlefield Memorial Fountain, and the Alamo Cenotaph. He also designed tributes to Sam Houston at Huntsville, President Rufus C. Burleson of Baylor University, and Governor Sul Ross at Texas A&M University. Coppini headed the art department at Trinity University from 1943 to 1945. Coppini died in 1957, but his legacy thrives through the Coppini Academy of Fine Arts in San Antonio.
Sicilian immigrant Charles Saverio Papa founded the Italian newspaper La Tribuna Italiana, later called the Texas Tribune, as a way to bring the experiences of Italian immigrants to the forefront. Papa settled in Dallas in 1908 and launched his weekly paper five years later. He served as editor, publisher, and writer until his death, in 1947, after which the paper thrived under the direction of Bab Langley and Joe Genaroa. In 1962 the presses stopped, and Texas’ oldest Italian newspaper closed its doors for good. The University of Texas Center for American History has back issues of the Texas Tribune available for viewing.
Italian entrepreneur Frank Fossati came to Texas in 1880. After a short stint with the Southern Pacific Railroad, he founded Fossati’s Restaurant and Delicatessen in Victoria. There he sold deli-style sandwiches, imported meats and cheeses, and traditional Italian fare to political giants and everyday folks. Today the restaurant boasts that it is the “Oldest Deli in the State of Texas,” and patrons still enjoy the fresh foods that made Fossati’s the place to be seen in the early twentieth century.
To learn more about Italians and their contributions to Texas history, contact one of the Italian cultural associations located throughout the state.