Even the countryside reminds her of Italy, Sandrina Gnerro says. Hilly, grassy, alive with birds and squirrells. It could be Tuscany, near Pisa, where she grew up.
"Ah, but signor," says Gnerro, 82, "that was a long, long time ago." These days, she looks out the windows at the land -- "and sometimes I cry."
Pisa is 4,000 miles and 60 years in the past for Sandrina Gnerro. She lives now in Mitchellville, a small town in eastern Prince George's County. In Italy, they might not recognize the tobacco farms and subdivisions that are her neighbors. But they would certainly feel welcome, as she does, in a remarkable nursing home called Villa Rosa.
Villa Rosa is, in effect, the last Italian neighborhood in the Washington area.
About half its 99 residents are Roman Catholics who were born in Italy and migrated to the United States as teen-agers or young adults. The great majority are women -- widows of Washington-area bakers, shopkeepers, waiters and laborers -- and many speak Italian far better than they speak English, even though they have lived in the United States for as long as 65 years.
But if the population is not entirely Italian, the style of Villa Rosa is. Much of the reason is Villa Rosa's founder and administrator, the Rev. Anthony Dal Balcon, who was born and brought up in Vicenza, near Venice, and who gets glassy-eyed when he starts to talk about "the homeland."
Under Fr. Anthony's direction, pizza, spumoni and rigatoni are regulars on the Villa Rosa menu. Bocci on the back lawn is a popular warm-whether sport. Italian folk music plays on phonographs throughout Villa Rosa's four wings. And twice a year, the 83-acre grounds serve as the site of an Italian-American festival, attended by as many as 15,000 people.
"Villa Rosa is where you bring your kid when he asks you what being Italian means," said Daniel Quagliarello, the Venerable of Prince George's Lodge 2228 of the Sons of Italy.
But Villa Rosa's role as "Washington's Italian neighborhood" is being threatened by two factors -- one traditional, one modern.
The traditional: Italians consider it a point of pride, even in contemporary America, to care for their aging and sick parents themselves, even at great expense and inconvenience.
"I've seen people who should definitely be here, but their sons and daughters won't let them come," said Fr. Anthony.
Thus, Villa Rosa has chosen to fillits beds with non-Italians, and in some cases with non-Catholics, even though Father Nicholas De Carlo, the "spiritual father" of Villa Rosa, who willed the land for the home, wanted the entire Villa Rosa population to be just as Italian and Roman Catholic as he was.
"We can't leave beds empty, waiting for Italians," Fr. Anthony explains.
The modern: Holy Rosary Catholic Church, at Third and F streets NW in downtown Washington, is planning to break ground just after Easter for "Casa Italiana" -- an $800,000 building that will be devoted to Italian cultural and educational activities.
According to the Rev. John Donanzan, the parish priest, the 6,000-square-foot facility will house "diverse activities for the benefit of the entire Italian-American community in the Washington area.
"And it can't come any too soon," Fr. John said. "The fact that our people are scattered all over the area makes the need of this addtion to the church even more imperative."
Will Casa Italiana soon outshine Villa Rosa as the "neighborhood club-house" for the Washington area's estimated 85,000 Italian-Americans? Fr. Anthony fears that it might -- and thinks that it shouldn't.
"I have no desire to get into a contest," said the 58-year-old priest, who founded Villa Rosa 13 years ago after serving with parishes in New York and California, and has been its only administrator.
"But I will say we have further plans to expand, and to improve the relations between the home and the Italian community. We have a chance of becoming something more to the community, although I can't say what.
"I must be careful how I say this, but I would like to point out that there are no more Italians living in the city, near Holy Rosary, to speak of -- very few. We are much closer to all the (suburban highways). We have the room, and the setting, and the tradition. It would make sense here."
Fr. John conceded that "it's like heaven out there (at Villa Rosa). But it is a nursing home, not a museum or a community center.
"Their job is to give the elderly the best of care there. They do it in an environment that is consonant with the background of the Italians. But as far as the rest of the (Washington Italian-American) community is concerned, Casa Italiana should give them what they are looking for."
For the elderly Italian-American residents of Villa Rosa, however, there is no such thing as too much Italian influence.
"I'm enjoying talking about the old times," said Maria Clerico, 88, who has lived at Villa Rosa for a year. "It's a good thing they have a place like this. Everyone feels comfortable around their own kind."
Clerico has felt especially confortable. Shortly after arriving at Villa Rosa, she was sitting in a chair in the main entrance hall one day, and struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to her "just for something to do."
The woman turned out to be Clelia De Stefanis, 87, her next-door neighbor 63 years ago on Otis Place NW. "Now, they're inseparable," said Margie Neufeld, Villa Rosa's 24-year-old director of activities.
De Stefanis said she especially enjoys hearing so much Italian spoken at Villa Rosa.
"In the family we always spoke it," she said. "I wouldn't want to hear it all the time, and I wouldn't want everyone here to be Italian. It's just nice to be able to hear it when you want."
Other Villa Rosa residents feel just the opposite.
"It would sure be nice to have more people who spoke English," said John Daly, an 88-year-old former ticket clerk at Union Station who is half Irish and half German. "I feel like the odd man out sometimes."
"I haven't even tried to learn Italian," said Barbara Curtis, 81. "That's for them, not for me."
Sandrina Gnerro adds that Northern Italians like her have a speical reason for wanting to hear more English.
"The Southern Italians, I don't understand them. They talk a dialect. It's all different," she said.
But any simmering conflicts at Villa Rosa rest firmly on the back burner.
"I can feel the difference when I come here," said Carol Rosen, a volunteer dulcimer player for the Smithsonian Institution who performs at several Washington-area nursing homes. "It's like a family here."
Fr. Nicholas expected it to be nothing but family. An especially popular priest when he served at Holy Rosary, Fr. Nicholas belonged to the Scalabrini Fathers, an order which ministers to Roman Catholic migrants all over the world. Before he died in 1961, Fr. Nicholas willed the Villa Rosa site to the bishop of Washington -- and asked that the nursing home be named for his mother, Rosa.
"That's how personally he felt about it," said Sandrina Gnerro. "A wonderful man. I pray for him every day."
Fr. Anthony denies that the presence of non-Italians and non-Catholics at Villa Rosa has undercut Fr. Nicholas' intentions.
"I am broad-minded in these things," Fr. Anthony said. "We try to care for any kinds of migrants. It's my job as a minister of God to make myself a minister for them, too.
"Personally, I did not establish the home with that particular purpose in mind. I think Fr. Nicholas hoped Italian families would change their minds about taking care of their parents, and fill this place. But they haven't.
"About in a way, that's good. It shows me the family is still a big thing with Italian people. When you see the children and the grandchildren come here on Sunday for Mass, that's what counts."