Micheal Castaldo: The Unofficial Italian Ambassador
December 12, 2011 § 3 Comments
By Cristabelle Tumola
If you met Micheal Castaldo you wouldn’t think he was an immigrant. But he isn’t American—he grew up in Canada. It’s easy to mistake a Canadian for an American, but Micheal actually isn’t a native Canadian either—he is, as his name suggests, Italian.
This two-time immigrant left Southern Italy’s Calabria region when he was three years old. He grew up in Toronto Canada, and as an adult came to America to study music, later falling in love with New York and staying for good.
It was in the United States that Micheal, 49, started his career as an Italian ambassador, but not in the literal sense.
For the past 10 years, Micheal has been exploring his Italian culture through his music, olive oil business and his restored family villa that he rents out to tourists in Calabria.
“I feel blessed that I’m able to go back to my roots and tell my story because everybody has their own story to tell and put it out there and see who likes it and who doesn’t,” he says.
With his signature pinstriped hat, suit with a pocket square but no tie and powerful voice, it’s no surprise that Micheal is a performer.
When he was a young boy growing up in Toronto, he fell in love with music. He got his start singing in the church choir when he was 10 years old. When he was in high school, a teacher suggested he apply to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He got a scholarship to the school and that’s how he came to America.
Eight years ago, a friend in Canada, also with Italian roots, wanted to honor his father through the gift of music, so he asked Micheal to send him a CD with some Italian songs. Everyone loved the music so much that he recorded his first Italian CD, Villa, and released it in the U.S. in 2004. Since then he has released several other CDS and singles in Italian, including a recently released Christmas album.
Music not only helped Micheal connect to his native roots, but it also inspired him to set up new roots in America.
After her graduated from Berklee he carefully considered all the places he wanted to live, from Los Angeles to Nashville to Toronto. But a visiting artist and teacher he met at Berklee convinced him to settle in New York City.
He moved to New York July Fourth weekend of 1986. “As I was arriving into New York I saw fireworks and I saw that as a beautiful welcome, New York welcomed me with fireworks. And I’ve been here ever since. I’ve made New York my home,” he says.
It was in his new American hometown that Micheal started his olive oil co-op. Whenever he would visit Italy, his relatives would give him olive oil from the family farm. He would give some of it to friends and many asked him where he got the oil. That’s how the New York City Olive Oil Coop came to be.
“It worked out really nice that now what started off as 25 of my closest friends is now in excess of 600 olive oil connoisseur members throughout the US and Canada,” he says.
His third Italian pursuit took him back to his birthplace, Calabria. Back in the area for a wedding, he decided to restore the family villa, the place where he grew up. “All my relatives thought I was nuts to do this because Calabria is not on many people’s radars in terms of tourism,” he says.
Three years later, he completed the project. A couple years after it was finished, he was able to rent it for 48 out of 52 weeks of the year, and he proved to his relatives that he wasn’t a “crazy American.”
Even with frequent visits back to Italy, Micheal may not have the passion for Italian culture he has today if it wasn’t for the strong Italian culture of the city in which he grew up.
His father, Pasquale, a barrel maker turned construction worker, thought he could find better pay and working conditions in Canada. After spending some time in the western part of that country, he found his “paesanos,” as Micheal puts it, in Toronto. He loved the city so much that he told his family to come join him.
His family and him came to Canada in the mid-60s, when many Italians immigrated to that country. Today, Toronto has the largest Italian-speaking population outside of Italy.
Micheal’s parents also helped him retain his native culture. “We spoke Italian home even the Calabrian dialect. We were listening to Italian radio stations; we were listening to Italian TV stations. My dad would get the Italian newspaper. We lived in an Italian neighborhood,” he says.
Today Micheal shares his home with his wife, Bozena, who is also an immigrant, from Poland. The two share their cultures with each other, which many would be surprised to learn have a strong connection.
One of the best architects who built Warsaw was Italian. History, architecture, painting and music cross over all the time, Bozena says. “I knew a lot about Italy before I met him,” she adds.
Micheal notes another link between the two countries.
“In the Polish national anthem the word Italian exists because it was the Poles’ army that helped defend or topple the German stronghold on Monte Cassino just outside of Naples,” he says. The anthem references “our Polish brothers in Italy” who helped fight and overtake Monte Cassino, he further explains.
Micheal doesn’t reserve spreading his Italian culture to his wife.
“He puts a lot of time and energy into the Italian community, says Charlotte Petzold Jayne, Micheal’s friend and the president of his fan club. “Everything he does is sort of Italian,” she says.