Maria Theresa Donofrio was born 11 May 1876 in Laurenzana, Italy, to Joseph Donofrio & Maria Johanna D'Esopo. Theresa’s siblings included three brothers: Charles, born in 1863, Salvatore, born 1868, and Dominick. There may have been other children as well.
The Laurenzana area is renowned for its fruit orchards, distilled liquors including brandies, and dairy production. The Donofrios were confectioners; they would eventually use all these ingredients in the family business.
Charles was the first of the Donofrios to come to Phoenix, where he started out selling oranges for a nickel apiece on Washington Street. In 1887 he opened a confectionary shop, selling candy and ice cream. It was just the sort of place for a young man to take his sweetheart, or for parents to bring their children for an outing. By 1891, Charles had become successful enough to move his shop into larger quarters and to send for his brothers Sam and Dominick to come and help run the business. Donofrio’s Confectionary was listed in the Bensel directory of 1892. Fourteen years later, Charles sold his shop to Dominick and went into semi-retirement.
Charles was forty when he married Hannah Marguerite Hicks in Los Angeles. He and Hannah owned a house at 125 East Coronado, where they were living at the time of Hannah’s death in 1933. The house remained in the family until 1946.
The second Donofrio brother, Dominick Anthony, came to Phoenix in 1891.. He had an entrepreneurial flair and began to expand the business. He developed Crystallized Cactus Candy, a product that became one of Arizona’s most notable exports and was sold worldwide. He also opened a flower shop, a bakery, an ice cream plant, a retail store and several other outlets. He married Clara Marie Pauline Zunkel. The couple bought a mansion at 230 E. Monroe, where the Herberger Theater stands today. In 1924, Dominick sold the house to his sister Theresa and her husband, Michael Grosso.
Salvatore, or “Sam” as he liked to be called, was the third Donofrio brother. Born in 1868, he too came to Phoenix in 1891 to work in the family business. In 1904, he married Mary Angel Pesqueria. Their daughter Mary Rosa was born in 1910 but died in 1911. She was buried in City/Loosley Cemetery. Sam lived until 1957. He was buried in St. Francis Cemetery, in a mausoleum belonging to his wife’s stepfather, Paolo Perazzo.
In 1897, Theresa Donofrio married Mike Grosso and emigrated to the U.S. Since Mike was about 28 at the time of his marriage, it is possible that he had worked as a miner in the US for a few years and then gone back to Italy to find a bride. The couple settled in Philadelphia. Their first child, Angelina, born in 1898 and another in 1900. In 1900, the couple was living with Mike’s brother Sam, running a fruit store.
In all, the Grossos had six children while living in Philadelphia. The last one, Ann, was born 1906-1907. In addition to rearing her family, Theresa took in piecework, sewing overalls at the rate of 25 cents a dozen so that the family could earn enough money for the family to join her brothers in Phoenix.
Theresa finally withdrew her money from the bank in 1907. To her surprise, her savings and interest amounted to a thousand dollars. Her husband quit his job and the family made the three-day train trip to Phoenix.
They arrived in August and bought a home at 16th Street and Washington, across from Eastlake Park. Theresa liked Phoenix; it was clean and quiet. Surely it was a big change from Philadelphia! The town was so small that Roosevelt Street, which is today in the heart of downtown, was on the very outskirts, and orchards were planted just a few blocks from the intersection of Central and Washington.
In Phoenix, the Grosso family grew to eleven children. The first child born in Phoenix was Donofrio “Don” Grosso in 1910. Having proven herself a good money manager, Theresa continued to run the household and invest the family’s savings. Mike worked in the Donofrio family businesses and turned over his paycheck to her. She eventually bought a larger house at 324 E. Van Buren.
For fun, the family attended concerts at the old courthouse, took trolley rides or attended band concerts at the Indian School. Movies were a rare treat. Most evenings, they sat on their porch and visited with neighbors. Occasionally, Theresa dispatched her squadron of children to the Dorsey-Burke drugstore at 4th Street and Van Buren for ice cream cones. Her brother’s store was too far away; the ice cream would have melted before they got home.
Thursdays and Saturdays were ‘spaghetti days’; Sundays were for church and family gatherings. Theresa held an open house every Christmas. She and Mike were too busy learning English to speak much Italian; the children grew up without learning Italian at all.
In 1924, the Grosso family moved into the big house at 230 E. Monroe, previously owned by Theresa’s brother Dominick. It was conveniently located near St. Mary’s Catholic High School. The Grossos never had a key for the house until 1940--they never felt they needed one.
Mike Grosso died in 1955. Theresa survived him by six years. Despite her hard life--or perhaps because of it--she remained in good health until the very end. She never complained about the work and sacrifices of being an immigrant in early Phoenix, merely observing that everyone worked hard in her day. A fall on the steps led to her death in 1961. She and Mike are buried in St. Francis Cemetery in Phoenix.
TFFA member Kim Koldoff Kasper is the great-granddaughter of Mike Grosso and Theresa Donofrio.
© Copyright 2017, The First Families of Arizona. Last revised 19 March 2017.