Elsa DeChellis DiCicco was a small woman with an impeccable sense of style that included a trademark upswept, oversized hairdo. Yet what really commanded attention, say those who knew her, was the size of her heart.
When the longtime Coraopolis resident stopped volunteering at Sewickley Valley Hospital (now Heritage Valley Sewickley) two years ago because she could no longer drive -- a gig the homemaker started at age 45 in 1959 -- she had logged a whopping 19,000 volunteer hours, "if not more," said Cliff Glovier, director of development for Heritage Valley Health System's Office of Institution Advancement.
That's the equivalent of working eight hours a day, five days a week, for more than nine years without a single vacation.
"That high level of commitment, it's very special," Mr. Glovier said, noting that she also was an active member of the hospital auxiliary until it disbanded last year. "It shows her dedication and love for serving her fellow man and community."
Mrs. DiCicco also did well by her family, said her daughter, Jayne Keffer, be it sewing clothes for her children, helping out at her husband's Electronic Supply Co. store on Fourth Avenue or cooking delicious homemade meals for friends and neighbors. Her energy was inexhaustible: At age 95, after teaching herself to use a computer, she compiled the best of those recipes into a self-published cookbook titled "Elsa's Blue Ribbon Dinners."
"She was driven and strong," Mrs. Keffer said, who lived across the street from her mother in Coraopolis. "People used to say, 'Where would your mother be if she had been born in America?' "
Mrs. DiCicco died at home Wednesday, surrounded by family. She was 99.
Born in Pacentro, Italy, Mrs. DiCicco came to the U.S. when she was seven, settling in Monaca with her mother, Maria, whose family imported wine and olive oil to the U.S., and father, Antonio, who was a foreman on the railroad.
Like many new to this country, the family congregated with other immigrants who had moved to the area from the Abruzzo region of Italy and shared the same values and traditions, including match-making: It was through the many community weddings, baptisms, communions and other parties that she got to know Italo (Leo) DiCicco, the dashing Italian teenager with a passion for singing and opera who would become her husband in 1936. They would remain married until his death in 2002, raising three children in Coraopolis.
Ambitious, Mrs. DiCicco dreamed of becoming a beautician after high school. However, her traditional father felt women shouldn't work, so she never got to finish beauty school, Mrs. Keffer said. Instead, she settled for getting her hair done up, big, each and every Friday.
The ultimate people-person, Mrs. DiCicco loved socializing and entertaining. In the 1990s, she and her husband starting singing for "The Robert Morris Independents" theater group. They would continue for more than a decade with the group, which eventually became known as the "Better Than Ever Independents," delighting scores of local audiences as well as ones in Las Vegas and Disney World in Orlando.
She also found joy in cooking. Nothing made Mrs. DiCicco happier than whipping up a pan of homemade manicotti or batch of anise-infused pizzelles, made so often when she was younger that she burned her way through six of the Italian cookie irons. Meals were always served on china on top of real tablecloths, with homemade wine and lively conversation.
"Her cooking was incredible," said NewsRadio 1020 KDKA host Rob Pratte, who met the diminutive cook in 2005 when he was judging a chili-making contest she'd entered, and won, at age 90.
A devoted listener of the station's annual "Feast of the Seven Fishes" show each Dec. 24, Mrs. DiCicco wasn't afraid to voice her opinion and quickly became its unofficial mascot.
"She was the go-to source for Italian heritage and cooking because she lived it," said Mr. Pratte, who came to view her as a surrogate mother. "She may have been small in stature, but she had a supernatural power. It was like she had a force field around her. ... You couldn't get enough of her."
The same could be said for her recipes, which son-in-law John Keffer begged her to write down in a memoir for posterity. It took some cajoling, but eventually the great-grandmother of 10 took his advice and wrote out a few of her favorites in longhand before switching to a typewriter. In 2009, after a decade of work that included teaching herself to use Microsoft Word, she published the spiral-bound "Elsa's Blue Ribbon Dinners."
"She was sheer determination," Mrs. Keffer said. "She was always doing something."
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. DiCicco is survived by two sons, Robert A. DiCicco of Baltimore and Richard DiCicco of Hendersonville, N.C.; eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
A Mass of Christian burial will be held at 11 a.m. today at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, Coraopolis.
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published October 11, 2013 8:00 PM