Life on the Shoreline: Mary Carone Nicholson

Giovanni Billecci with his wife, Gracia Cardinalli, who was also from Isola delle Femmine. The two were married at St. Catherine’s in Martinez on May 31, 1903. (MARY CARONE NICHOLSON / Courtesy)
Giovanni Billecci with his wife, Gracia Cardinalli, who was also from Isola delle Femmine. The two were married at St. Catherine’s in Martinez on May 31, 1903. (MARY CARONE NICHOLSON / Courtesy)

Special to the Tribune

The Sacramento Italian Culture Society (see: has asked me to talk about my book “Capito!” Italians and the Development of Martinez” this Sunday, 1:30 p.m., at their Carmichael facility. All Italian voices will be heard that day, so please join us! I asked Mary Carone Nicholson – my co-speaker – what was special about growing up in the Shoreline Neighborhood: what did she have that we do not have today? This is what she said:

“I, Mary Carone Nicholson, was born 1946 to Rose Billecci Carone and Carmelo Carone, Jr. – high school sweethearts that eloped to Reno on my mother’s 21st birthday. Both were products of large Italian migrant families in the Martinez Shoreline neighborhood. My mother had 14 siblings.

“My mother’s father, Giovanni Billecci, was nicknamed “Su Giovani Francesi.” He served in the French military for eight years, which granted him French citizenry. Then he received orders for the Italian army so he left for the United States in 1899, came through Ellis Island, and arrived in Martinez the same year. He married Gracia Cardinalli, also from Isola delle Femmine, who arrived in Martinez in 1901. They were married in St. Catherine’s in 1903. They established their family at 425 Talbart Street. My Nano Billecci was a commercial fisherman in Martinez, Alaska, and Monterey. When he wasn’t fishing, he worked for Mountain Copper Co., catching a ride from Granger’s Wharf with Mr. Bianchi who hauled workers there.

“My father’s parents were Maria and Carmelo Carone, Sr. They settled at 223 Foster Street after living in Rodeo and then Benicia when Nano Carone was a Dairy Farmer and later ran the Vallejo Dump. The Foster Street house was Salvatore Davi’s. He was blind and my Nana Carone caretook, living in the back room off the bathroom with a private entry and deck. The house was deeded to my Nano and Nana as part of the settlement for caring for Davi. The house sold shortly after my Nano Carone passed away. It was renovated into offices by Baja Construction, Inc. Nano and Nana Carone also owned a home on Castro Street across from the Fire Department and Martinez Boys & Girls Club. It is now my Uncle Dominic’s home.

“Our life was filled with Italian tradition, relatives, love, laughter, and we were taught at an early age to respect our elders and that through hard work we would achieve success. My fondest memories and life revolved around both my large Italian families, especially my grandparents with whom I spent my earliest years with while both my parents worked. I learned the true meaning of love from both my Nanas’ example although neither spoke English. Their love shined brightly in how they cared and worked to make their homes a warm, wonderful refuge and gathering place for all their children and grandchildren. Every Sunday we would gather at our Nana and Nano Billecci’s home for our lively Sunday dinner, which was promptly at noon. All of my aunts, uncles, and cousins would be there, 60-70 of us. The adults spread out in the formal dining room and the children ate in the large kitchen which prevailed with wonderful aromas of spaghetti, meat balls, rich sauces, vegetables from their large garden and, of course, numerous deserts.

“Around 4 p.m. my Dad, Mom, brother, and I would head around the corner to Foster Street to eat dinner with my Nana and Nano Carone and the rest of the family. The meals here were smaller crowds but still vivacious events with great food, company, fun, singing, and playing cards. Nana Carone said the Rosary every night at 7 p.m., while others retired to the living room with Nano Carone.

“The adults would discuss the local news, politics, family news, current events and their different jobs. Uncle Frank, the eldest son, worked over 40 years at C & H Sugar. Uncle Johnny became the local pharmacist. Uncle Joe worked at Unocal and was the head of Safety. My Dad and Uncle Dick worked at Shell. This always led to discussions about which was the better company. Uncle Ralph and his son Frank worked as San Francisco Longshoremen and would travel from San Francisco to join us for dinner. Uncle Andy first worked as a milkman, later partnering with George Freschi to open George and Andy’s Bar on Ferry Street. Later, Uncle Andy worked at College Lane bar before retiring. All the Billecci brothers were avid hunters and fisherman except for Uncle Andy and Uncle Johnny. Many lovely dinners included duck or fish caught by the family. Uncle Nino worked at the cannery and then became the Director of the Martinez Boy’s Club for many years, becoming a father figure to many young men in Martinez by teaching sports, wood working, cooking, gardening, gathering them from all over town to do work, play ball, and [teach them] how to be responsible young men.

“My father, Mel Carone, was the coach of many successful softball teams sporting my uncles Joe, Nino, Johnny, cousin Johnny , uncle Ike Lucido (who was married to my father’s sister Annie), the Mecurio brothers, and both the Martinez Canners and Mitch’s Club.”

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One comment

  1. Kristin Henderson

    The publisher stated the Tribune would put a slideshow of Mary’s pictures–very interesting–with this story. I see that not yet and is anyone interested in my putting them in a cloud link for viewing?

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