1922

Although Italian immigration to the United States peaked between 1900 and 1914, Italians could be found in New Jersey as early as 1800. These early immigrants were mostly from the northern part of Italy. One of the first Italian immigrants to settle in New Jersey, Giovanni Battista Sartori, settled in Trenton and founded the first spaghetti factory in America and the first Catholic Church in New Jersey. The mass immigration of Italians to America began in the 1870s. Most of the Italians who settled in New Jersey during this time were from the southern regions of Italy.

Italians leaving Italy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries did so to escape diseases, droughts, poor soil and oppressive landlords. The unification of the Italian states in 1861 failed to bring economic peace to the land, prompting many Italians to look for opportunities elsewhere. In New Jersey, Italians worked in agriculture, as skilled and unskilled laborers, bakers and tailors and in many other fields. Some were recruited to work in agriculture because of a labor shortage in New Jersey. Italian agricultural workers formed settlements in Vineland and Atlantic City. Italian immigrants became an important part of New Jersey society and served as an example of the difficulties that were indicative to immigrants who spoke a different language or had different beliefs.

The story of my heritage is the story of so many Americans of Italian descent.

I grew up in New Jersey because both sets of grandparents came to the United States during the great wave of Italian immigration and eventually moved to Elizabeth, NJ.  New Jersey had and has many cities with large Italian populations, but Elizabeth was not one of them. It is an old city that has a history dating back to colonial times. It is a port city, highly industrialized at one time, and the factories that were there, such as The Singer Sewing Machine Company and Phelps Dodge Copper Refining Corporation, attracted workers to the area. My father was one of those skilled laborers, who worked in the copper plant for many years. 

The Singer Plant, Elizabeth, NJ

My paternal grandparents came from Cosenza in southern Italy and, after a short stay in New York, moved to a section of Elizabeth called Peterstown. Peterstown is a middle-class neighborhood in the southeastern part of the city that is ethnically diverse. It was once predominantly occupied by newly immigrated Italians and their descendants, but is less so today. Peterstown has a “village” feel and the area contains the historic Union Square that is home to produce stands, meat markets, fresh fish and poultry stores. Unfortunately, I never met my paternal grandfather because he died, young, a year before I was born.  However, my paternal grandmother lived in Peterstown for the rest of her life. I can remember visiting her and my many aunts and uncles, who all lived in Peterstown, when I was young. They all spoke Italian, so I never knew what they were talking about. I just smiled a lot.

My maternal grandparents grew up in Monteverde, Italy, married there, but came to the United States separately. My grandfather came in September, 1913 and my grandmother came in July, 1914 with their two-year old daughter. At first, they lived in Pennsylvania, because my grandfather was working in a coal mine. He told us that he did not like that type of work and, in his spare time, he learned how to cut cloth, which eventually led to a tailoring career. My grandfather had relatives who lived in Elizabeth and he was told about the Singer Sewing Machine Company. They moved to Elizabeth and he was able to find work with Singer, where he learned the garment business.

My grandfather’s story is the “American Dream” story that so many Italian immigrants hoped to achieve. My grandfather became successful in his career and evetually owned his own clothing factory in Elizabeth. He employed many workers from the area and he was considered a great boss. I can remember, every fall, he would tell my mother, bring the children to the factory to pick out a winter coat. We used to have great fun running all around this huge building with hundreds of sewing machines. 

Unfortunately, my grandmother died when I was 16, but my grandfather was a part of our lives for many years after. He always came for Sunday dinner, where he enlightened us, in English, about life in Italy as it compared to the United States, stories about his youth and his “philosophy” on all things. I don’t think my siblings and I realized, at the time, what a great thing our grandparents did for us by leaving their homeland and creating a new life in America. I sure do now !

Hammonton

As I was doing research for this post, the following statistic surprised me. According to the 2010 census and the latest American Community Survey figures, 44.6 percent of Hammonton’s 14,791 residents are of Italian ancestry, the highest percentage in New Jersey and the second highest percentage in the U.S.  Passaic County and Essex County follow in size. I grew up in NJ and never knew that the area in and around Hammonton had so many Americans of Italian descent in the state.

Hammonton’s annual Italian Festival, the longest-running in the country.

The Italians came to southern New Jersey for the same reasons that settlers came from other areas of the U.S. They were looking for homes not too far from the seashore, where the climate was congenial and the land cheap. Southern New Jersey was new territory. Up to 1850 the pine barrens were looked upon as waste land. The climate and the forest did not attract settlers prior to 1860, when the land was first offered for sale. However, the Civil War stimulated a demand for fruits and vegetables and New Jersey’s sandy soil was perfect for farming. After 1865 the opening of wholesale markets in the large cities made fruit growing a profitable industry. Despite the need, the development of southern New Jersey was slow because a great deal of labor and expense was required to clear the land and immigrants who were attracted to farming preferred the more fertile western lands. If it had not been for the Italian settlers, the vicinity of Hammonton might still be a wilderness. What they did, when they arrived, was pick the berries for market; clear the land, save their earnings from their labor and buy the farms of retiring owners whose sons had gone to the city or farther west.

How this Italian community developed can best be told by of the stories of the Italians who came to Hammonton. The first family were the La Grassos, a family of musicians, who settled in a section now largely built up by Italians. Soon after Salvatore Calabrase, who was born in Sicily and was a gardener by trade, came to Hammonton after working in a nursery in Flushing, N.Y. He and La Grasso worked together on the farms, and later bought land to start their own farms. Calabrase wrote to his relatives in Sicily and soon many of them joined him in Hammonton.

Italian specialties fill the refrigerated case at Bagliani’s Market on Bellevue Avenue in Hammonton.

Other groups soon followed. Dominico Tonsola. a Neapolitan, settled in a different part of the town. He came from a small town, Casalvelino, near Naples. Finding no work in Philadelphia when he first arrived, he journeyed to Hammonton to work on a farm he later owned. He was also a successful ice dealer. He had been instrumental in bringing the Neapolitan element to Hammonton.

In fact, the Italians cleared all the southwestern part of the town of pine growth and erected many houses in that section. They came at a time when the Americans were leaving the farms, when labor was growing scarce and when the development of the pine lands was critical.

Newark

Once upon a time, Seventh Avenue in Newark was one of the largest Little Italies in the U.S. with a population of 30,000, in an area of less than a square mile. The center of life in the neighborhood was St. Lucy’s Church, founded by Italian immigrants in 1891. Throughout the year, St. Lucy’s and other churches sponsored processions in honor of saints that became community events. The most famous procession was the Feast of St. Gerard, but there were also feasts for Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Our Lady of Snow, the Assumption and St. Rocco.

St. Lucy’s Church in Newark.

Joe DiMaggio loved the restaurants of Seventh Avenue so much that he would take the New York Yankees to Newark to show them “real Italian food”. Frank Sinatra had bread from Giordano’s Bakery sent to him every week until his death, no matter where in the world he was. New York Yankees catcher Rick Cerone also grew up in the First Ward. One of the nation’s largest Italian newspapers, The Italian Tribune, was founded on Seventh Avenue.

Giordano’s Italian Bakery on 33 Seventh Avenue

Seventh Avenue produced stars such as Joe Pesci and Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons. Congressman Peter Rodino, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee during its impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon was a native of the First Ward as well. However, Seventh Avenue and Eighth Avenue were disrupted by urban renewal efforts during the 1950s and the Italian American residents were scattered. Most of its businesses never recovered. The construction of Interstate 280 also served to cut the neighborhood off from the rest of the city. After the devastating urban renewal, some of the First Ward’s Italians stayed in the neighborhood, while others migrated to other Newark neighborhoods like Broadway, Roseville and the Ironbound sections.

Frank Biondi’s butcher shop on the corner of Cutler Street and Sixth Avenue, circa 1917.

Typical Jersey Italian Recipes:

Italian Sausage Heroes with Peppers and Onions

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 large onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 2 large bell peppers (1 red and 1 green), cut into thin strips
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 4 sweet or hot Italian sausages
  • 4 hoagie or other Italian rolls

Directions:

In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.

Prick the sausages all over, add them to the skillet and cook over moderately high heat, turning frequently, until browned all over, about 5 minutes.

Transfer the sausages to a cutting board and halve lengthwise. Return the halves to the skillet and cook over moderately high heat, turning occasionally, until no trace of pink remains within, about 5 minutes more. Transfer to a plate.

Add the onions and cook over high heat, stirring frequently, until golden, 10 minutes. Stir in the paprika and red and green bell peppers. Reduce the heat to moderate and cook, stirring occasionally, until the peppers are softened, about 12 minutes. Stir in the water and oregano. Season with salt and pepper, cover and keep warm.

Halve each roll (keep it hinged). Pull out some of the bread within. Toast the rolls.

Drizzle the cut sides of the rolls with the remaining olive oil and set 2 sausage halves on each roll. Top with the sautéed onions and peppers, close the sandwiches and serve immediately.

Mussels Marinara

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 small white onion, finely chopped
  • 4 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 2 (26.4 oz.) containers Pomi chopped plum tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon fresh chopped oregano leaves
  • 1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley leaves
  • 4 pounds fresh mussels, debearded, scrubbed and rinsed
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon fresh chopped basil leaves
  • Italian bread for dipping
  • Crushed red pepper, optional

Directions:

Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute until cooked. Add the wine and reduce it by half, then add the plum tomatoes, oregano and parsley. Add the mussels to the pan and allow to cook for about 10 minutes until all the mussels are open. Transfer mussels to a platter. (Discard any mussels that do not open.)

Adjust the seasoning for the sauce with salt and pepper, as necessary. Coat the mussels with the sauce and sprinkle with fresh chopped basil and crushed red pepper just before serving.

Stuffed Calamari

Serves 6–8

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 small yellow onion, minced
  • 2 teaspoons tomato paste
  • 4 tablespoons red wine
  • 14 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes in juice, crushed
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 12 cleaned calamari
  • 1 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 cup finely grated pecorino
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped oregano

Directions:

1. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 4-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat. Add dried oregano, garlic and onions; cook until soft, about 6 minutes. Add tomato paste; cook until caramelized, about 2 minutes. Add 3 tablespoons wine, tomatoes and bay leaf, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until thickened, about 20 minutes. Stir in remaining wine and vinegar; season with salt and pepper. Set sauce aside.

2. Heat oven to 350°F. Heat remaining oil in a 10″ skillet over medium heat. Chop tentacles and add to skillet;cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat; stir in breadcrumbs, pecorino, parsley and oregano. Season with salt and pepper. Stuff each calamari body half full with bread crumb mixture; place in a 9″ × 13″ baking dish. Pour sauce over calamari; bake until warmed through, about 30 minutes.

Cavatelli With Italian Sausage and Broccoli Rabe

6 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium-size onion cut into small dice
  • 3 cloves fresh garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 12 ounces coarsely ground fennel sausage, casing removed.
  • 1 bunch broccoli rabe, tender tops and tender stems only, cut into 3- to 4-inch pieces,
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon hot chili pepper flakes
  • 1 pound fresh cavatelli
  • 6 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan

Directions:

Place extra virgin olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook for 10 minutes but do not brown. Remove onion and garlic from pan with a slotted spoon and set aside. In the same pan, add ground sausage meat and sauté for 10 to 15 minutes or until sausage has rendered its fat and is lightly brown.

Add broccoli rabe and saute until soft but still green and firm. Next, add in onion, garlic and chili pepper flakes and simmer sauce for 5 to 10 minutes longer.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add salt, then add pasta. Cook fresh or frozen cavatelli according to directions.

Drain pasta and add to the sauce in the skillet. Mix well and add Parmesan.

Lemon Blueberry Tiramisu Trifles

Ingredients:

  • 2 fresh lemons, juiced and zested
  • 2 tablespoons Limoncello liqueur
  • 1 17.6 oz container plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/2 cup prepared lemon curd
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 30 ladyfingers
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries

Directions:

Combine lemon juice and Limoncello, then set aside. Reserve the lemon zest to add later.

In a mixing bowl with an electric mixer, blend together yogurt, lemon curd and sugar, beating until well blended. Cut each ladyfinger crosswise into 3 pieces.

Arrange 5 ladyfinger pieces into each of 9 wine glasses or small bowls, then drizzle each serving with about 1 teaspoon Limoncello mixture.

Spoon on 1 tablespoon of blueberries, then top with 2 tablespoons of yogurt mixture in each glass. Repeat layers, then sprinkle evenly with reserved lemon zest and a few fresh blueberries. Cover and chill at least 1 hour.

Number of Servings: 9

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