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Utah celebrates its Italians

State marks holiday — and Nobel Prize

From Christopher Columbus to Mario Capecchi, Utah's Italian Americans had a lot to celebrate Monday.

In signing a resolution recognizing Italian Day, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. remarked it would have been "a great thing" if the resolution — drafted before Monday's Nobel Prize announcement — had mentioned the University of Utah scientist.

"We are honoring Mario Capecchi," Huntsman said. "Today, he is probably the most famous Italian in America."

Monday's announcement that a share of the Nobel Prize in Medicine would go to an Italian American in Utah coincided with the Columbus Day holiday. Huntsman made his remarks before signing a resolution acknowledging Italians' "integral role in the history of Utah, and in the fabric of our modern society."

Huntsman said the award showcases the U. as a world-class research institution that attracts some of the world's "smartest minds in unlocking human disease." He also pointed to the USTAR research initiative as an example of where the award could help economic development.

The U.'s genomics work, he said, "is a center of excellence now for the whole world."

"It was a good gift, the Nobel Prize," said Giovanni Maschero, vice consul of Italy. "In Italy, they are talking about this event. It is a great honor, and I am so glad it is in Utah."

Maschero, a physician, said he has known Capecchi for a little over a decade and has visited him in his lab.

"It was so fascinating," he said of Capecchi's research. "It was practically the essence of life."

Philip Notarianni, director of the Division of State History, said Italian Americans have been contributing to Utah since Giuseppe Toronto, a native of Sardinia, came to Utah with Mormon pioneers in 1847.

Early Italian immigrants to Utah were concentrated in coal and copper mining, along with the railroad industry.

"It was the Italians who helped at the time to develop the labor force from agrarian to industrial," he said. "Later generations went into business."

The 2000 Census counted some 57,500 Italian Americans in Utah. Maschero estimates that among those are about 3,000 Italian immigrants.

"This prize reflects it is a continuum," Notarianni said. "Third and fourth generations are now wanting to re-identify. A lot of different ethnic groups tell you, we need heroes. ... It reflects positively."