NUTLEY, NJ — From its humble beginnings as a group of men concerned with preserving Italian American heritage and expanding their political footprint in the community, Nutley UNICO has become an organization synonymous with ethnic pride and commitment to civic duty.
In 1953, a group of caring Italian American men in town founded the Columbus Civic Club of Nutley, which was the predecessor to Nutley UNICO. The Columbus Civic Club lasted until 1958, and in 1959, Nutley UNICO came into being. The signature page of the original UNICO National Charter application, signed Aug. 12, 1959, includes the names of 53 men; the inaugural Nutley UNICO dinner, chaired by Frank Cocchiola Sr., was held just two months later, on Oct. 10, 1959.
“UNICO has more than 100 chapters nationwide, and more than 5,000 members, with our chapter being the third or fourth largest in the country,” former Nutley UNICO President Frank Cocchiola Jr. said in a recent phone interview with the Nutley Journal. “There are 152 people in the Nutley chapter. We are a service organization, and scholarships are our biggest initiative. In 2020, we handed out 35 scholarships, totaling $34,800, and more than half of that was raised from members who donated in the name of loved ones.”
In 2002, Nutley UNICO was recognized by UNICO National as the model chapter in the United States.
“We like people to know we donate to local initiatives: Nutley Thriving Survivors, The ARC of Essex County, Nutley Public Library, the Scarpelli Civic Association for autism and the local food pantry,” Cocchiola Jr. said. “We have a dinner meeting every month and celebrate our Italian heritage/ethnicity.
For Cocchiola Jr., who has been a member for 35 years and served as president from 2001 to 2003, joining the organization that his father helped found was almost predestined for him.
“I joined in 1985; my father was a charter member and I followed in his footsteps. When my dad was young in Nutley, there were certain areas where Italian American men were not allowed to walk through, and they weren’t involved in town decision-making. As Nutley UNICO got organized, they got more involved in civics and politics and I carried on my father’s legacy,” he said. “Some of our initiatives are state based and some are local and national. We like to concentrate on local first — anything the town has, we like to do a community service project to support it.”
During the height of COVID-19, the organization bought gift cards from local restaurants to help support the economy and will raffle the gift cards off at the organization’s next monthly dinner.
And while Nutley UNICO may have begun as a group of Italian American men who gathered monthly to enjoy a pasta dinner and work on improving their foothold in the community, this changed in 1999, when the UNICO chapter voted at its national convention to allow women to join.
One of those women is Marie Solimo, who from 2009 to 2011 served as Nutley UNICO’s first female president.
“It was originally just a men’s organization, but in 1999, as soon as the national organization voted to allow women in, I was sponsored to join,” Solimo said in a recent interview with the Nutley Journal. “I didn’t know a lot of people and they were very gentlemanly, cordial and welcoming. I was in it for the purpose of the organization, so I didn’t shy away from being one of only three women there. The Nutley UNICO now has 40 to 45 women; after the first year they started asking me to take offices; I worked my way up and eventually became president.”
The organization’s main emphasis is on service, and Solimo said the organization also hosts guest speakers throughout the year, including news and TV personalities and authors.
“You have to be 21 years old to join, but you don’t have to be a resident of Nutley,” she said. “We don’t allow any political campaigning or business promotion. Our goals are to serve the community and celebrate our heritage. We are a service organization, and if there is a person, family or group in need of help in Nutley, we will find a way to do so.”
Current President Lorraine Kucinski celebrated 20 years with the Nutley UNICO on Sept. 13 and is proud of the work that the organization has accomplished both nationally and locally.
“We’ve come a long way, and it has taken a very long time, and I think in adding women to the organization, our male counterparts decided it was time to open the doors,” she said in a recent phone interview with the Nutley Journal. “The reason why I love this organization is that at UNICO we do a lot of good. Every month you get the opportunity to sit around a dinner table and be able to talk about growing up Italian in America. Some are first, some are second and some are third generation. You see generationally how the stories change over time and the experiences are different, but keeping traditions alive is a very important part of what we do. Family is very important to us, giving back to your community is very important to us and helping each other is very important to us.”
Photos Courtesy of Nutley UNICO