Angelo Tortola / Credit: Helen Epstein

It was in my Italian language class in Lexington that I first learned about Angelo Tortola and the fig trees he grows at his home off Wood Street. Angelo is an electrical engineer and life-long inventor. His engineering company VTi produces a computer-based training system for surgeons performing laparoscopic surgery and he holds some 30 patents. But my Italian teacher knew him as a winemaker, good cook and master gardener. I was particularly interested in Angelo Tortola’s fig trees. We made an appointment to meet and he gave me the gift of a tree as well as his family history. 

Angelo was born in 1949 in the village of Miranda in the Abruzzo-Molise region of Italy northeast of Naples. That year, his father Berardino (sic) Tortola became part of the 25 million-strong Italian diaspora that left Italy in search of pane e lavoro (bread and work) in the 19th and 20th centuries. They and their descendants established Italian communities in many countries of Western Europe, North and South America, New Zealand and Australia. A carpenter and a mason, Tortola emigrated to Venezuela where the government welcomed skilled labor. He planned to come back for his family when he was established and Angelo grew up close to his maternal grandfather for whom he was named.

“We were a village of three or four hundred families living on a mountain that went up 4500 feet,” Angelo recalls. “Every family in Miranda owned a piece of land. My grandfather Angelo kept a horse whose saddle had two baskets: from the time I was small he put me in one, the farm tools in the other, and led the horse to our land where he grew grapes, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, and corn. We also had cherry trees, peach trees, and of course, figs. I learned how to prune them and pick the figs. We dried them. It was our sweet in the winter.” 

Figs grown in Angelo’s garden here in Lexington. / Credit: Angelo Tortola

In 1959, when Angelo was ten, his father sent for his family to join him in Maracay, a small city between Valencia and Caracas in Venezuela. Their house was new and far more modern than in Miranda, with running water and a bathroom. “But my mother wanted to go right back to Italy because life was very different in a jungle – with little monkeys, iguanas, rattlesnakes. The language was not as difficult as the culture. Our society included indigenous people, mixed-race people, and Italian, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Germans. I liked it.” 

Like Italian immigrants everywhere in the diaspora, the Tortolas cultivated a vegetable garden, growing tomatoes, peppers, basil, potatoes, eggplant, parsley. They also raised rabbits and ducks to eat and chickens whose eggs they sold. Though first held back to learn Spanish, Angelo excelled at school. Many of his classmates quit after a few grades and he, too, planned to quit after working part-time at a garage and falling in love with auto mechanics. Then one of his teachers intervened — “my teachers in Venezuela were excellent,” he says — and convinced his parents that he should continue to liceo.

At high school, Angelo was interested in both humanities and science – and particularly drawn to physics. “I got it into my head to replicate Marconi’s radio telegraph and spent all my free time in the library learning the technology. After eight months, I built a radio transmitter. By that time I knew I would go on to university, and I would have gone to university in Caracas, but it was in such turmoil in the late 1960s that it took a friend of mine ten years to graduate. I set my heart on Boston. California was not on my map. Route 128 was then the cradle of tech.”

Neither Angelo nor Berardino Tortola spoke English, but they visited the American consulate and wrote to Boston cousins from Miranda whom they had never met. They were told about Northeastern, whose co-op program alternated quarters of work and study, and made it less expensive. When Angelo arrived late, he was advised to first attend the Wentworth Institute of Technology, during which time he learned English in the street, in class and by working in restaurants. Northeastern provided key placements as he worked toward a degree in electrical engineering. When he graduated in 1975, the Bowmar company — which made the low-cost, four-function calculator — hired him. Eight years later, he started his own consulting business. By then, he was married to Marianne Pizzi, a third-generation Italian and teacher whose grandparents also came from Miranda.  

The Tortolas and their two children moved to Lexington from Belmont in the early 80s. “It wasn’t for the schools,” Angelo replies to the usual question. “I just liked the feel of the place.” They first lived on Hastings Road facing the gazebo, but as their children grew and parents aged, needed a bigger home. In 1992, they visited a four-bedroom house on an unusual seven-acre lot. “We saw this long 600-ft driveway and were surprised that there was a house at the end. Very private, looks like you’re in the woods. But there was an open space and enough sunlight to have a very reasonable vegetable garden. In Belmont and at our first house in Lexington, we never had enough light. Seventy years ago, it was the Schumacher farm — and we still have rhubarb, blueberries, blackberries and concord grapes from that farm.”

Angelo’s tips for how to prune a fig tree. / Credit: Angelo Tortola

For years, Angelo had been contending with challenges of vegetable gardening in Massachusetts: short growing season, unpredictable weather and not enough sun. As soon as the family was settled in the new home, he set about designing a vegetable garden behind the house and driveway that would be 15 by 50 feet. 

Berardino had followed Angelo to Boston and helped him. First they cleared the brush with a Gravely tractor and made a road from the house to the garden. Then they roto-tilled the plot. Because there wasn’t much topsoil, they brought in two truckloads of new soil from Wagon Wheel. The original farmers in Lexington were, of course, Native Americans, followed by the English and Irish. But by the time Angelo was creating his private garden, the Busa, Ricci, Cataldo, Tropeano, Cannalonga, and Chiesa family farms had become a recognized part of Lexington geography.   

Early on, Angelo realized that the garden attracted fauna. “Woodchucks, deer, chipmunks, moles, rabbits and birds come into the garden so, with my father’s help, I put in a chain link fence, a chicken wire fence and a birdnet. Even though the fence was five feet high, the deer would jump over it and eat everything except the tomatoes. They particularly loved the parsley. I learned that there was a family of woodchucks every hundred feet. Like in Venezuela, where the monkeys used to eat the fruit, I learned to share.”

Every March, Angelo starts 120 tomato seedlings – keeping just a few for himself. They include three different strains and have a special significance since they were given to him by Marianne’s late cousin a week before he died. “I never find it boring to plant and transplant,” he says. “You’re actually promoting life and get rewarded with real fruit.” At the end of May or beginning of June – depending on the weather — he puts them and his other seedlings in the garden. “We are in the middle of hills, in a valley where cold air sets in. The plants didn’t like it when I planted them. They just sat there and didn’t grow for two or three weeks so I noticed that we were a few degrees cooler than downtown Lexington. I have to wait an extra week.”

“I water by hand with a hose. I don’t like using a sprinkler because that way I was watering the weeds and they love it. I also developed a watering tool that allows me to water each plant from outside the fencing. Lately I turn on the water using my cellphone, usually every other day depending on how wet the season is. This summer, I hardly did it. I had to pick tomatoes every other day because the wetness makes the ripe tomatoes crack. You learn a lot about the weather while gardening. I try to keep weeds down with layers of lawn clippings or leaves. I stake the tomatoes and tie them with string like my father and grandfather did.” 

In mid-July, Angelo begins picking large yellow zucchini flowers to bake or fry according to his late mother’s recipe. Some of the zucchini squash itself is sliced, breaded and baked into zucchini chips.The tomatoes are used for sauce and salad, or just plain.  He usually goes out to garden at about 6:30 in the morning, “alone with the birds, communing with nature. Sometimes I listen to classical music. I spend usually an hour or two before I change and go to work in my office in Waltham.” Sometimes his grandchildren come to water the plants.

When Angelo and Marianne Tortola’s son Carl was born in 1980, a Belmont neighbor gave them a cutting from his fig tree. “In Italy, you start a family, you need a fig tree. In Italy and in Venezuela the temperature stayed warm enough to leave the fig tree where it was. In Belmont, it did not, and every year I had the task of burying the fig tree, on a slant, putting leaves and soil on top so it would survive the winter. In Lexington, if you put it in a big pot, prune its branches, and keep it in an unheated garage, it will do the same. But since it’s potted, the root system needs to be trimmed every three or four years.” 

A pulley system Angelo designed to lift fig trees from their pots so he can trim the roots. / Credit: Angelo Tortola

To do that, Angelo designed a pulley system involving his son’s old basketball hoop stand. He places the pot beneath the hoop, pulls the tree from the pot onto a table and cuts about half of the volume of the root system. He keeps the pots on rollers and ties up the branches so he has room for his two cars. “The trees start to sleep in November and, over the winter, I give them each maybe a half gallon of water per month just to keep the roots moist.” 

He has given away many cuttings and maintains a fig tree email list as well as a tomato group, “young folks — not all Italian, not all family.” Every year they send him photos of their trees and ask him when and what to trim. He keeps his own mature fig trees in large pots at the end of his driveway where the asphalt keeps the plants warm and they greet him when he returns from his office. 

At 74, he continues to be President and CEO at VTi Medical, Inc in Waltham. “Everything I do is who I am,” he says. “I apply my knowledge to my surroundings every day. I learned that my fig trees produce daughter trees, either from cutting that I take or from their roots. If you’re interested, please get in touch.”

Helen Epstein is a veteran journalist and author. If you would like to suggest an (Extra)ordinary Lexingtonians please write to

HELEN EPSTEIN ( is a veteran journalist. Her latest book is Getting Through It: My Year of Cancer during Covid.

Join the Conversation


  1. Great idea for a column. I used to do a Meet your Neighbor piece for my local paper and enjoyed interviewing locals. This one is so interesting! E

  2. Such a lovely story and delighted to have neighbors in our community like Angelo! Where can we find more info about the fig and tomato groups? I am a third generation Italian-American and my tomatoes did not do well this season. I could use some tips to have a more fruitful crop. I also adore figs and would love to invest the energy in cultivating these and have no idea where to start.

  3. What a lovely article. But how does one get on the fig email list? Enquiring novice fig growers want to know!

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