From the Iowa City Press Citizen By Brian Sharp

Saturday, December 29, 2001
format updated 28 Sep 2010

Rocca's past rooted in food

Six generations later, family works in diverse professions

Today's story about the Roccas of Johnson County is the final in a weeklong series celebrating people who, long ago, came to the area and settled down to raise their families.

For generations, their descendants have helped shape Johnson County.

In a thin leather-bound album, the Rocca family has penned in a six-generation history of their clan, mostly names and dates current to Mary Rocca's 40 great-grandchildren.

Nearly all of the members of the Rocca family are shown
in this photo taken in the summer of
The fruit store on 130 S. Clinton St. that
was owned by Mary Rocca’s father,
Joseph Pusateri, is shown in this
photograph circa 1908.

On the living room walls of her Iowa City home are family photos mixed with religious ornaments, reflecting what the 97-year-old values most.

The diverse Rocca family includes a nun, a machinist who handcrafts spaceship parts, the area's most prominent apartment manager and Iowa City Fire Chief Andy Rocca, to name a few. Mary Rocca has attended St. Mary's Catholic Church the past 93 years.

The Roccas trace their near century-old Iowa City roots to the grocery and bakery business.

So when they speak of their past, most of the stories are drawn not from the family album or the photos on the wall, but from the kitchen. It is there that Mary Rocca keeps the cherished recipes, some of which are passed down from unknown relatives as well as the family homeland of Sicily.

"Grandpa and Grandma had this huge house," Andy Rocca said of a 21/2 story, three-bedroom North Gilbert Street home where Mary and Pete Rocca used to live and where they raised their family. "It had a walk-in attic. I used to go up there with my cousins. That used to be our little hang out."

While the grown-ups played euchre or some other card game downstairs, the kids explored.

"We'd find duffel bags from when dad and our uncles were in the service. We'd always find something to play with," Andy Rocca said. "Then we would come down the back stairway, sneak into the kitchen and get whatever was coming off the stove.

"It was a wonderful time," he said. "But I'm sure it was a whole lot of work to prepare enough food for 50 people."

There were homemade pasta dinners, fresh rolls and other good things to eat. Mary Rocca recalls that cooking during the Great Depression and World War II wasn't just a pastime but a necessity.

"With a family of nine children, I couldn't afford to buy rolls and things, so I did it by hand," she said. "I baked about every Saturday."

Pete and Mary Rocca's children, in order, were: Josephine, now deceased, who was a head librarian in Sheboygan, Wis.; Edward, a retired pharmacist living in Muscatine; and Joseph, now deceased, who worked as an electrical engineer for IBM in Rochester, Minn. Philip, the third son and Andy Rocca's father, is a retired letter carrier still living in Iowa City.

Next came Mary Catherine, a sister of humility living in Des Moines, and Mike, a machinist with the University of Iowa Physics and Astronomy Department, who lives in Rochester, Iowa.

"We often thought that if our family got together ... we could almost be self-sustaining if we wanted to be," Mike Rocca said. "From what I understand, all my grandparents had a rough time. They did whatever they could to get by. I think the strength of our parents and grandparents has continued down through the generations. This is a good, strong Catholic family."

Rounding out the Rocca children are: James, a retired forester now doing consulting work in Missouri; Loretta, who married local developer and apartment manager Jim Clark and still lives in Iowa City; and John, now deceased, who owned a television repair shop and later worked for Central Iowa Power Company.

The Pusateri and Rocca families arrived in Iowa City in the early 1900s. The Pusateris came first.

Mary Rocca's father, Joseph Pusateri, had followed an elder sister to the United States in the late 1800s after serving in the Italian Army. Former Iowa City historian and close family friend Irving Weber once wrote about the family history, explaining Pusateri initially found work planting trees in Grant Park as the Windy City readied for the World's Fair.

The elder Pusateri later went into business as a fruit vendor before taking a job with the railroad. Working for the railroad, he made his way to Cedar Rapids, where his sister lived. In 1901, he arranged for his childhood sweetheart, Maria Augusta Geraci, to join him in the United States, and the couple married.

They moved to Iowa City about 1908 and opened the Pusateri Fruit Store at 130 S. Clinton St., Mary Rocca said. Though there were about a dozen groceries in downtown Iowa City, the Pusateri market is said to be the first that sold fresh bananas. Weber wrote that other stores bought their wares from the Pusateris.

The family lived above the store, providing Mary and her older brother, Gus, with downtown as a playground. On school days, she walked the three blocks to St. Mary's School, graduating in 1922. It was about that time her grandfather, Salvatore Geraci, came over from Sicily and lived with the family for several years.

The family store was the place of many notable events in Mary Rocca's life. It was there, as a young girl, she met St. Frances Cabrini, who stopped in during a visit to Iowa City.

She also met her husband, Pete Rocca, at the store. She was in charge of the candy case. He was commuting daily from Cedar Rapids to work at what was then the nearby Federal Bakery.

"He would come in to buy the newspaper. He had to have his newspaper," she recalled.

The two fathers knew one another, she said, and soon "his dad came down and talked to my dad" and the courting began. Often, however, the couple went out in groups with others in the small but tight-knit Italian community.

The couple married in 1926 and Pete Rocca owned and operated Quality Bakery a half block west of the public library on College Street. They lost the bakery in the Depression, and Pete Rocca went to work at area fraternal organizations, such as the Moose Club, the Eagles and the Elks, as a "steward" who bartended and arranged parties. Meanwhile, she worked as a baker at St. Mary's School and later substituted at Horace Mann Elementary.

Pete Rocca passed away in 1984. He was 85.

Shortly before he died, Andy Rocca and his wife, Terri, had their first son, making "Grandpa Pete" a great-grandfather for the first time. Andy Rocca, the first of 24 grandchildren, recalled that his grandfather was in the hospital that April, so he brought pictures of newborn Nick to show.

"I was so proud," Andy Rocca said. "I remember him saying, 'One comes and one goes.'"

During a recent 14-month stretch, Mary Rocca added the names of 12 newborn great-grandchildren to her album. The Rocca family today spreads not just across Iowa but from Boston to Seattle and Dallas to Minnesota.

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