Little Italy isn’t just one neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, it’s a group of neighborhoods all across America. These neighborhoods have been incorporated into the fabric of the towns they reside in and have become an essential part of each city. With a desire to maintain Italian culture, these neighborhoods prosper today through a strong work ethic that keeps Italian Americans tied to their Italian heritage.
An exodus from Italy began in the 1880’s commencing in the regions of Calabria, Campania, Apulia, Basilicata and included Sicily after 1900. From 1876-1924, more than 4.5 million Italians arrived in the United States and over two million came in the years 1901-1910 alone. Despite these massive numbers, it should be noted that roughly two-thirds of the Italian migration went elsewhere, especially to Europe, Canada and South America. Immigration to the United States before and after this period accounted for approximately one million additional arrivals—a considerable movement in its own right. Yet, there were precursors. Italian explorers and sailors venturing outward in the employ of other nations touched America in its earliest beginnings. The most famous was, of course, Christopher Columbus, a Genoese mariner sailing for Spain. Other seafarers such as John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), Giovanni da Verrazzano, Amerigo Vespucci and important missionaries, such as, Eusebio Chino and Fra Marco da Nizza all played roles in early exploration and settlement. After the American Revolution, a small number of northern Italian artisans, painters, sculptors, musicians and dancers came to America, filling skilled job openings not easy to fill. An old Italian proverb says: Chi esce riesce (He who leaves succeeds).
This initial Italian movement dispersed widely throughout America, but its numbers were too small to constitute a significant presence. By 1850, the heaviest concentration was in Louisiana (only 915 people), the result of Sicilian migration to New Orleans. Within a decade, California contained the highest total of any state—a mere 2,805—and New York, soon to become home to millions of Italian immigrants, counted 1,862. Everything changed with mass migration, the first phase of which consisted primarily of young, single men of prime working age (15-35) who lived in urban centers where jobs were more available. In the years following 1910, immigrants brought with them their family-centered cultures and their Italian regional affiliations. They typically viewed themselves as residents of a particular village or region in Italy, not as “Italians.” The organization and daily life in the early communities reflected these facts, as people limited their associations largely to kin and paesani (fellow villagers). The proliferation of regional clubs and festas ( feste or feast days) honoring local patron saints were also manifestations of these tendencies. Using kin and village-based networks to form “Little Italies,” they clustered in cities in the Mid-Atlantic, New England and the Midwest states, with smaller groupings in California and Louisiana. More than 90 percent settled in 11 states—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, and Louisiana—and approximately 90 percent congregated in urban areas. These patterns largely hold true today, although immigrants have branched out to locations such as Arizona and Florida.
Italian American Cuisine
The difficult economic conditions of daily life in Italy dictated frugal eating habits. A majority of Italians consumed simple meals based on whatever vegetables or grains (lentils, peas, fava beans, corn, tomatoes, onions, and wild greens) were prevalent in each region. A staple for most common folk was coarse bread. Pasta was a luxury and meat was eaten only two or three times a year, usually for special holidays. Italian cuisine was—and still is—regionally distinctive with even festive meals varying widely. The traditional Christmas dish in Piedmont is agnolotti (ravioli), anguille (eels) in Campania, sopa friulana (celery soup) in Friuli and bovoloni ( snails) in Vicenza.
In the United States, many immigrants planted small backyard garden plots to supplement the table and continued to raise cows, chickens and goats whenever possible. As their economic lives improved in America, pastas, meats, sugar and coffee were consumed more frequently. “Italian cooking” in the United States came to mean southern-Italian, especially Neapolitan cuisine, which is rich in tomato sauce and pasta. Spaghetti and meatballs and pizza soon became well known “Italian” dishes in the United States. More recently, northern Italian dishes— characterized by rice ( risotto ), corn ( polenta ) and butter— became well known. Garlic, olive oil, mushrooms and nuts of various types are common ingredients found in Italian cooking. Wine, consumed in moderate amounts, is a staple. Overall, Italian dishes have become so popular that they are an integral part of the American diet.
Providence, Rhode Island
Federal Hill is the Italian neighborhood of Providence with many restaurants, bakeries, cafes, art galleries, cigar shops and markets. DePasquale Square is the center of the neighborhood. Historic Federal Hill is the “Heartbeat of Providence” and begins at Atwells Avenue, the street that flows under the arch. The gateway arch over Atwells with the La Pigna (pinecone) sculpture hanging from its center, a traditional Italian symbol of abundance and quality and the symbol of Federal Hill, is often mistakenly referred to as “The Pineapple”. It is a place dedicated to the Italian immigrants who gathered here as a community and it remains today a place of charm, warmth and hospitality to all.
The jewelry and silverware industry in Providence attracted Italian immigrants to Rhode Island at the turn of the twentieth century. They settled close to downtown Providence in Federal Hill, about a mile from Narragansett Bay and the harbor. The fast-industrializing city became home to a large Italian population — 50,000 by 1930 — and businesses providing food, merchandise and services, they required, soon filled the area.
The Italian population isn’t as prominent today, but the Italian presence is felt with the numerous Italian restaurants and business that line the main thoroughfare, Atwells Avenue and its surrounding area. Garibaldi Square with a bust of the “Hero of Two Worlds,” DePasquale Plaza with outdoor dining and two bocce courts all contribute to the Italian atmosphere.
The centerpiece of the area is the fountain at DePasquale Plaza, where tables turn the square into a sitting area for the surrounding cafes. At one such café, Scialo Bakery (257 Atwells Ave.), the Scialo family has been serving Italian classics from their brick oven since 1916. Around the corner, Venda Ravioli (265 Atwells Ave.), has been in the pasta business since the 1930’s, beginning as a small pasta shop and expanding into a large storefront offering 150 kinds of pasta with an espresso bar for waiting customers. Another throwback to bygone times is Antonelli’s Butcher Shop (62 De Pasquale Ave.), where customers can have their chicken or rabbit slaughtered to order. Toward the end of the block, two landmark restaurants still serve the diverse needs of the community. Camille’s (71 Bradford St.) opened in 1914 as an upscale restaurant and Angelo’s Civita Farnese (141 Atwells Ave.), opened in 1924 as a workingman’s restaurant.
Italian Specialties of Providence
Lobster and Asparagus Agnolotti
From Venda Ravioli, Providence, RI
Yield: 1 serving. This dish can easily be doubled.
4 agnolotti filled with lobster and asparagus (available fresh or frozen at Venda Ravioli and other upscale Italian Markets)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 4 Rhode Island Littleneck clams
- 3 large shrimp, with heads still attached
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 1 small ripe tomato, diced
- 1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
In a pot of boiling water, cook the agnolotti according to directions on the package.
In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil and add the minced garlic, being careful not to burn the garlic. Add the red pepper flakes, clams and shrimp. Once the clams have opened and the shrimp have turned pink in color, add the white wine and diced tomatoes. Allow the wine to evaporate. Finally, add the chopped parsley. Drain the agnolotti and place on a serving dish. Pour the sauce over the agnolotti. Serve with salt and pepper for individual seasoning.
Almond Biscotti: Quaresimale
Recipe courtesy Scialo Brothers Bakery, Providence, RI
- 1 cup white sugar
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
- 3 tablespoons soft unsalted butter
- 3 cups whole almonds (skin on)
- 2 beaten eggs
- 3 tablespoons pure vanilla
- 1 beaten egg mixed with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Put brown sugar, white sugar, flour, cinnamon, baking powder, butter, and almonds in a large mixing bowl. With mixer on low speed, add beaten eggs and vanilla. Mix just until dough holds together.
Put dough on a floured surface. Cut in half. Roll each piece into a log. Place on parchment-lined cookie sheet. Flatten each log slightly with palm of the hand. Lightly brush the top of each log with egg wash.
Bake for 25 minutes or until firm to touch. Remove from oven. Cut dough diagonally into biscotti. For harder biscotti, return to 300 degree F. oven until sufficiently dry.
New Haven, Connecticut
Italians came to New Haven to work in factories in the late 1800’s and formed a community around Wooster Square. Between 1890 and 1939 the Italian settlement had developed and its major institutions had formed. There were 41,858 Italians in the city in 1930, of whom 14,510 had been born in Italy. One or both parents of another 27,348 had come from Italy. The Italians comprised about one-fourth of the total population and were highly concentrated in the southern and eastern parts of New Haven.
Life was not easy in the first half of the century, but the neighborhood provided its people with all their needs: a live chicken market, Italian banks, bakeries, drug stores and push carts loaded with homemade meats. The founder of Pepe’s pizza rode a wagon through the streets from which he’d sell hot pizzas for 25 cents. In the summer children played baseball in a vacant lot or at Waterside Park, at the site of Long Wharf. Good times were not just for kids; the Amendola Brothers had a music store with numerous instruments. Every Sunday morning, after church, there would be some kind of performance. People would gather around the piano and sing. During the summer, the windows were all open, operas would be playing and people would sing along. The bakers in the neighborhood cooked during the night and they delivered on foot at five o’clock in the morning. One baker, known for his singing, would often wake up the entire neighborhood.
Today Wooster Square, nicknamed the Little Italy of New Haven, has preserved many traditions of an old Italian village. The park in the center of the square is framed with precision by an iron fence and with an oval path laid out inside it. Throughout the year the park is filled with festivals and surrounded by parades in honor of patron saints of native Italian towns. The restaurants and pizza parlors along Wooster Street have retained their old family recipes through many generations. And at the heart of the neighborhood, beside the Square itself, stands the oldest Italian church in Connecticut, St. Michael’s, whose gold dome can be spotted from all over New Haven. Along the park at Chapel Street are two major sculptures, one dedicated to the square’s Italian past and another to the neighborhood men who gave their lives in World War II.
The most famous contribution to the Italian American culinary repertoire is New Haven-style pizza. In New Haven, Connecticut, a different style of pizza, known as apizza, evolved from the same Neapolitan roots. Frank Pepe opened his pizzeria in that city’s Little Italy in 1925 and today his establishment and neighboring ones still make pies that are thinner, wetter and more heavily charred than most New York-style pizzas. In 1960 Pepe introduced its signature, clam pizza. The locals call their crust Neapolitan style, but it is definitely not like the original Italian Neapolitan style. The dough is more bread like, puffed up along the edges, crackly and slightly charred underneath. Rhode Island Littleneck clams, freshly shucked on the premises, garlic, dried oregano, a dusting of grated Pecorino Romano cheese and good olive oil are the toppings. No tomato sauce. No mozzarella. No sausage or pepperoni.
Pepe’s is one of those “only in America” stories. Frank Pepe was born in 1893 in the village of Maiori on the Amalfi coast of Italy, southwest of Naples. Broke, illiterate and only 16 years old, he made the crossing with many other immigrants in 1909. He worked for a short while in a factory and then returned to fight for Italy in WWI. He married Filomena Volpi, also from Maiori, and in 1919 they moved to New Haven, where he worked for others making macaroni and then bread on Wooster St. In 1925 he started his own business, a bakery at 163 Wooster. Apizza was among his baked goods and it took off. In 1937 Pepe bought the larger building next door, now the main restaurant. The original location with the original oven is still running under the name, Frank Pepe’s – The Spot. Frank, Filomena, and their daughters, Elizabeth and Serafina, lived upstairs. Filomena could read and write and learned English quickly and was essential to operating the financial side of the business.
Italian Specialties of New Haven
Pepe’s New Haven White Clam Pizza
- 1 package dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 cup warm water
- 2 to 2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons salt cornmeal
- 3 large garlic cloves
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 dozen just-shucked littleneck clams
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Make the dough:
Dissolve the yeast and sugar in 1/4 cup of the warm water in a small bowl. Stir the remaining 3/4 cup water into 2 cups of the flour in a large bowl. Add the salt, and when the yeast is bubbly, add it, too. Stir it all together and turn the dough out onto a floured board. Let the dough rest while you clean and oil a large ceramic bowl.
Knead the dough vigorously for a full 15 minutes, adding flour if necessary to create a silky dough. Return it to the bowl and cover it with two tight layers of plastic wrap. Let it rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 2 to 3 hours.
Place a pizza stone on the bottom rack of the oven and preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
Punch down the dough and flatten it on a lightly floured board. Pounding with the heel of your hand, carefully and methodically, work the dough into a circle no more than 1/4 inch thick in the center, rising to a 1/2- inch ring around the circumference. Sprinkle a baker’s peel generously with cornmeal and put the circle of dough on it. Cover it lightly with a sheet of plastic wrap (so it doesn’t dry out) and let it rest while you open the clams.
Make the topping:
While the dough is resting, mince the garlic and let it steep in the olive oil. After the dough has rested for 10 to 12 minutes, brush on the oil and garlic, leaving the half-inch circumference untouched. Spread the clams around the dough with a dash of their own juice. Sprinkle on the oregano and cheese.
Use the baker’s peel to transfer the pizza to the preheated stone in the oven. (The cornmeal will act as miniature ball bearings to help it slide neatly onto the stone.) Bake for 15 minutes, or until the crust is light brown. Remove the pizza, slice and serve with beer or soda and plenty of napkins. Makes 1 – 12-inch pizza.
Some New Haven Classics
Chicken Parm Sub
- Italian American Neighborhoods – Boston (jovinacooksitalian.com)