A tiny, secluded village deep in Sicily claims to be the birthplace of the grandfather of the soon-to-be first lady of the United States. But a neighboring town insists that's not true.
Gesso, part of the city of Messina, is an off-the-beaten-track, remote and sleepy hamlet of barely 400 residents. It’s one of those spots that just doesn’t make anyone’s travel bucket list, not even that of an Italian tourist. I had never heard of it before Joe Biden’s victory. Simply because nobody, apart from locals, really knows it exists or where to pinpoint the exact location on a map.
Messina itself is not part of the elite circle of Sicily’s top destinations–if you’ve heard of it at all, it’s probably because of the yet-to-be-built bridge that’s long been discussed to connect the island to mainland Italy. So forget the glamour of Taormina with its Greek theater and glossy boutiques; the Baroque, exotic elegance of Syracuse; and the spellbinding blue-blood villas in Bagheria. This is a corner of rural, simple Sicily, roamed in the past by monks, pilgrims, shepherds, and peasants, where living conditions were so tough many families escaped overseas in search of a brighter future.
Now Gesso is basking in glory and its residents feel proud. Jill Biden is set to be the first-ever Italian American first lady and her nonno allegedly hailed from here.
A team of local bookworms addicted to tracing family trees claim this is where Jill’s great-grandfather Placido Giacoppo departed when he set sail for the New World in 1900 with his family, including two-year-old Domenico, Jill’s grandpop. Once in the States, the family switched to the more American-sounding surname of Jacobs and Domenico turned into Dominic. One researcher, obsessed with Jill Biden’s lineage, spent a decade digging out old archives from Ellis Island showing the names of the Giacoppo family landing in the U.S.
The “discovery” has breathed new life into the village, bringing back a glimpse of bygone days before emigration almost emptied the place, covering it with a blanket of silence. Locals are thrilled and feel as if they were touching the sky. The elders are jumping up and down with joy and there’s a constant chit-chat.
It’s party time.
The “Biden buzz” has shattered the daily dullness, as curious visitors and reporters flock in. Time no longer stands still but Gesso is not used to being popular, let alone a tourist magnet.
Over here, so-called “tourist promotion offices” don’t even have pamphlets or photos of the picturesque highlights of the village, and if you happen to be looking for a hotel, best drive downhill to the coast.
But Gesso has tons of plus points, other than the Jill Biden link. Pristine nature, lots of folklore, and heaps of pastries to stuff oneself with. Prepare for a rich diet that will destroy your waistline: heaps of lasagne, twisted handmade ‘ncasciata pasta with aubergines and tear-drop caciocavallo cheese, stratified oily fried aubergine dishes of parmigiana, pig steaks braciole, sausages, and other grilled meat delicacies.
Most locals kill time eating, gossiping, and staring out from terraces with a breathtaking view of the sheep grazing on the green rolling hills dotted with centuries-old olive groves and abandoned chalk caves. There’s a bucolic, idyllic vibe perfect for people looking for a detoxifying, unplugged stay. On clear days the view stretches all the way to the Etna volcano and the shimmering blue sea of the mythological Aeolian islands, a stone throw’s away.
The village usually comes to life on special occasions such as farmer fairs and festivals with lots of gourmand dishes, music, and wild dancing. Traditional Sicilian puppets mingle with dancers dressed in old costumes and masks, while horse-drawn wagons parade along narrow alleys lined with old farmer stone dwellings and a few aristocratic buildings. Orange trees dot gardens and a flowery lush vegetation grows over old buildings. There’s a flabbergasting skeleton of a crumbled church without a rooftop and only the walls still stand, making it looks like a pagan temple.
Locals are deeply religious: legend has it the village was born in the 1600s as a miracle made by the statue of a saint dumped by a ship under an oak tree.
Old, wholesome spinster rituals survive, though. Every June, young single girls searching for a hunk dangle a clean white bed sheet from their balconies at night and when they pull it back the next morning, the guy who happens to walk below on the street is said to be their soul mate.
But enough with the Old World. Gesso now is dreaming of a U.S. stars-and stripes-future, hoping to lure American tourists.
The bookworm Federico Antonio says his quest was triggered by an interview Jill Biden gave 10 years ago talking about her Sicilian roots and original family surname. “Giacoppo is a very popular name around here, and so many people migrated to [the] United States so I analyzed the family trees of nearly all Messina area families until the data pointed to Gesso as the original village of Biden’s Italian forefathers.”
That’s how the existence of Dr. Jill’s distant relatives was unearthed. They popped up, flabbergasted, totally oblivious of such an “elite” connection. I tracked down five of them, who still own the crumbly rural stone dwelling where Jill Biden’s grandfather was born.
And they’re super happy, feeling a bit like superstars.
Cetta Giacoppo (short for Concetta) is the daughter of an eighth-degree (very distant) cousin of Biden’s wife. “This is super cool, I had no idea [I was] in any way related to her until the U.S. vote, and I’m so excited about this. We knew little about our distant American relatives, just that they had emigrated,” she says.
Blood ties can be nasty. Italians have a saying: “parents are serpents.” So when one other remote cousin (Cetta’s aunt) started vying for the spotlight, starring in Italian TV programs calling herself “Jill’s cousin,” the others got mad.
“My aunt told us nothing about this, she kept us in the dark and got the fame. That’s unfair. We also exist, and we are numerous,” says Cetta. I was personally sent a handwritten copy of the Giacoppo’s family tree as proof.
Envy is the main ingredient of Sicilian-style family rivalries and town feuds. The closer they are, the more bitter the dispute. As Gesso’s fame spread, other nearby villages stomped their feet in protest and began bickering over the Giacoppos’ real origins.
A few kilometers from Gesso rises Castanea delle Furie, a windy hilltop village of 2,000 people famous for its noble mansions and a huge living nativity scene that’s spread across an entire park and draws hundreds of visitors at Christmas. It has a dreadful name that the locals seem to be living up to, which literally means “the chestnuts town of the Furies”—the mythological deities of vengeance and mayhem.
Gesso risks being blown away from its new shiny altar of popularity by Castanea, because in Castanea, other researchers found different documents. These claim that the real Giacoppos who migrated to the States was comprised of another family altogether and that Jill Biden’s great-grandfather was in fact a native of Castanea delle Furie who happened to marry a woman from Gesso. The paternal bloodline in Italy is considered more powerful when it comes to generating offspring, as women lost all rights when they tied the knot.
However, as opposed to Gesso, no distant relative of Dr. Jill Biden has stepped forward in Castanea delle Furie—so far.
Sooner or later, a third town might pop up with a third claim given Giacoppo is a popular name in the entire Messina area. Once upon a time, marriages were celebrated between families of neighboring villages, so in the end, everyone within the radius of a few miles ended up related.
One thing is certain: tourists are bound to embark on a treasure hunt across half of northeast Sicily chasing after Jill Biden’s Italian casa dolce casa, aka “home sweet home.” Even if it might end up like searching for the origin of the surname “Smith”—a needle in a haystack.