When a visitor walked through the door of Josephine Rotolo’s West Islip home, she never said hello. She’d give them a hug and instead ask “Have you eaten yet?”
She almost always had something prepared and if she didn’t, she’d sit her guest down at the table and whip something up, her family said.
Rotolo was the matriarch and epicenter of a large family, and showed her love for them and others around her through food. The longtime Long Island resident died June 18 at her daughter’s home in Oakdale, just one week short of her 108th birthday, her family said.
Rotolo was born Josephine Gattuso on July 1, 1909 in Sicily. She came to the United States through Ellis Island when she was 12 years old and lived in Brooklyn and later Queens with her parents and four siblings.
She later reconnected with Joseph Rotolo, whom she had met as a child in Sicily. They married in 1929 in Brooklyn and moved to West Islip where they raised their three children, Grace, Salvatore and Nicholas.
Joseph Rotolo owned a shoe factory in Brooklyn while Rotolo watched the children at home and helped support the family with her intricate beadwork. She was “old-school Italian,” clung to tradition and led a very “beautiful and simple life,” said James LaPenna, one of her nine grandchildren.
Rotolo and her husband “were some of the best people I ever knew,” said Suzanne Janson, 77, of West Islip, who rented an apartment from the couple. “She invited us to dinner at least twice a week and would come over and take care of my newborn whenever I needed her to.”
Rotolo never learned how to drive and wore only skirts — never pants. She spent much of her day preparing food for her family and thinking about how she’d gather her neighbors, children, grandchildren and later great-grandchildren around her table, said LaPenna, 53, of Hampton Bays.
“She lived for her family and really kept us together,” said her granddaughter Maria Wilson.
Rotolo filled their home on Higbie Lane with warmth and life, said Wilson, 55, of Greenwich, Connecticut.
Many of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s memories of Rotolo revolve around the food she’d cook for them. She was a wonderful cook who made her own pasta and pizza in the basement’s brick oven, and never used a recipe, said her granddaughter Lorraine Darrell, 57, of West Islip.
Rotolo continued to cook regularly until about five years ago and didn’t take any medication into her old age. She said her secret to a long life was eating large helpings of escarole and broccoli rabe, according to LaPenna.
“Her whole life was lovely,” said Darrell, who lived next door to Rotolo and for years and shared a nightly espresso with her. “She was just content and she gave us everything that she had.”
In addition to her grandchildren LaPenna, Wilson and Darrell, Rotolo is survived by her daughter, Grace LaPenna, 80, of Oakdale, six other grandchildren, and 17 great-grandchildren.
A funeral for Rotolo was held Thursday at Our Lady of Lourdes in West Islip. She was buried at St. Charles Cemetery in East Farmingdale.