In doing research for this post, I was sure that Italian immigrants found their way to Detroit, because it was a major industrial center that offered job opportunities the immigrants were seeking in coming to America. What totally surprised me was the number of immigrants who settled in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A land totally different from the warm Mediterranean country that the Italian immigrants had left behind. As you read, you will see why.

                          The Eastern Market established in 1891.

Italian Americans in Detroit

For more than 350 years, Italian immigrants played important roles in the opening and development of the land that is now Michigan, from their participation in the French fur trade up to the present day. People of Italian descent have been present in Detroit since Alfonso Tonti, second-in-command to Antoine Cadillac, participated in the founding of the city in 1701. By the close of the 19th century, the trickle of Italian immigrants had become a torrent, as thousands rushed to the growing industrial centers. They worked in stone and cement, paving, produce, tile work, at small groceries, as merchants and, of course, as part of the labor force in the auto shops around Detroit. Settling on the lower east side, the community grew rapidly, especially north and east into MaComb County. Italians in Detroit did not remain in a “little Italy,” but mingled with the diverse population of the city. Through a combination of hard work, strong family connections and community ties, the Italians of Detroit achieved their dreams of a better life. They met the challenges of living in a new land, while nurturing the culture of the old country.  Most Italians came to Detroit between 1880-1920. Detroit’s original “Little Italy” started from the lower east side (Eastern Market area) along Gratiot and Riopelle Streets near Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. They also settled in considerable numbers along Oakwood Blvd. in SW Detroit and in Dearborn early in their residency here. As they prospered, Detroit Italians in the 1950’s eventually moved into neighborhoods across Detroit and their cultural and religious institutions dotted the landscape. Their affiliations were Catholic and other Christian religions. 

Church of the Holy Family

On the right is a photo of the yellow-hued church that is very visible when you exit the Chrysler Expressway in downtown Detroit, or drive west on East Jefferson toward the Renaissance Center. It is also Detroit’s first Italian Catholic church. Shortly after 1900, immigrants from Sicily and southern Italy settled in northeast Detroit.They began to worship at Sts. Peter and Paul on East Jefferson, but in 1907, Father Giovanni Boschi arrived from Italy and sought to establish an Italian parish here. In 1908, Bishop Foley gave him permission to do so and named the parish La Chiesa Della Sacra Famiglia or the Church of the Holy Family. In 1909, construction began on a modest Italian Renaissance-style, basilica-type church. More than one hundred years after its founding, this parish is in operation with an Italian language Mass said every Sunday.  There are about 300,000 Italian Americans in Metro Detroit, today. If you are in Detroit and looking for a restaurant with authentic Italian food and a history related to the immigrant’s experience head to Giovanni’s Ristorante, 330 S. Oakwood Blvd., Detroit, MI 48219.

Giovanni Cannarsa was 14 years old when he embarked on a journey from Termoli– a town on the Adriatic coast of Italy, in the province of Campobasso, the region of Molise to the United States of America. Giovanni met a young woman, Rose Tonkery and in 1927 they were married. They moved from New York to Detroit, Michigan so Giovanni could go to work for Henry Ford. Giovanni and Rose settled in a neighborhood near the Rouge River plant, where the assembly line was first introduced during the immerging age of manufacturing. There the young couple started and raised their family, two sons and one daughter – her name is Frances. She and her brothers were born in Detroit. Frances had a best friend, Marie. She came from an Italian family that lived across the street from the Cannarsa family. It was her older brother – Olindo Truant who captured the heart of young Frances. In 1953 she married her sweetheart. Frances and Olindo had three sons, Chris – Michael and Randy. Olindo worked for Detroit Edison and Frances opened a carryout pizzeria, Givoanni’s Pizza Parlor. It was 1968. It didn’t take long for Frances to start taking charge and making changes – it was 1972. Frances decided the family style pizza parlor would one day be an elegant, award winning five-star class restaurant. Everyone thought she was crazy… but the night Frank Sinatra held a private dinner party in the back room of what was now called Giovanni’s Ristorante, was the night the whole family new Frances meant business.

Italian-Americans in Wyandotte

Just after the turn of the 20th century, jobs were opening up at the J. B. Ford Company and the Michigan Alkali Company. The Italian settlement in East Detroit was bulging with a steady influx of friends and relatives coming to Michigan from Italy. Many young men sought work, and Wyandotte the bustling downriver town, offered the opportunity of jobs. A street car from Detroit brought the first Italian laborers to the city. Others joined the workforce and brought their families. Statistics show that in 1890 there were only 338 Italians living in Detroit and downriver and, by 1920, the number had swelled to 29,047. In 1914, a large group of Italian workers and their families were residing in what was then called Ford City. The community had formed in an area bounded by Antoine, Hudson, 2nd Street and the railroad tracks.The families built large sturdy homes and planted gardens. Many of those early family residences still stand as testimony to the skillful construction techniques shown by those first immigrant workers. Most of the families knew each other from Palermo, Sicily in Italy and interacted socially. During the summer evenings, the men could be seen playing bocce (lawn bowling) or playing card games.

Bocce

In 1915, a concert band was organized. Maestro Pellegrino’s Italian Ford City Band attracted musicians from ages 15 to 25 and, in a relatively short time, the new musical group was presenting concerts for the entire community to enjoy. The camaraderie enjoyed by the band also gave birth to two early Italian social organizations. The San Giuseppi Society was a club that assisted many newly arrived Italian immigrants and helped them transition to the American way of life. The second organization, Santa Fara, was formed in Wyandotte during 1924 and named after the patron saint of the small Sicilian village of Cinisi. In order to become a member, one must be a “Cinisarii” or be married to one. Other organizations were formed over the years to serve the Italian community. In the 1930’s, the Non-Partisan Progressive Club was organized. One of the first projects of this club was to host a war bond drive in early 1945. Americans of Italian descent in Wayne County, under the leadership of Anthony D’Anna of Wyandotte, raised $16,000,000 to build a ship. The U.S.S. Cosselin was commissioned October 19, 1945, in memory of Seaman Joseph Polizzi, an Italian-American from Detroit killed earlier during the war. In 1970 fourteen members organized a new Italian organization, the Downriver Italian club and built a hall to host events.

Italian Americans in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Our knowledge of the Italian community in the Copper Country is credited to the research of Russell Magnaghi and to Cristina Menghini’s thesis: “Examining Patterns of Italian Immigration to Michigan’s Houghton County, 1860-1930”. Menghini’s study, the most detailed migration study of any immigrant group in the Copper Country, uncovered specific chain migration links between sending communities in northern Italy and receiving communities in Houghton County. Half of the Italians in Houghton County had emigrated from the province of Torino, in Italy’s Piedmont region and another quarter had emigrated from the province of Lucca, in the Tuscany region. Thus, three-quarters of Italians in Houghton County had emigrated from just two of Italy’s 110 provinces. Not surprisingly, Menghini found that nearly three-quarters of Italians in Houghton County in 1910 worked either in the mines or mine related occupations.  Source: Recorded in Stone is a collection of the oral histories of immigrants to the Marquette Iron Range in the central Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Produced by the Central Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan University Archives and funded in part with a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council. Italians were attracted to Marquette County through the efforts of “barasa” or what is known as chain migration: Immigrants arrived at a location and then sent letters back to Italy, which then brought their friends and relatives to America. At first the Italians who were from northern Italy: Lombardy, Piedmont, Venice and the Tyrol settled in Negaunee. Initial­ly 50 Italians arrived; followed in the spring of 1888 by an additional 100. Although they inherited the jobs at the lowest end of the employ­ment scale as trammers (miners) or iron ore shovelers, they wrote back to Italy and encouraged others to join them. The wages and living conditions on the Marquette Iron Range were a great improvement over economic and work conditions in Italy. In the 1890’s southern Italians, primarily from Calabria but also from Naples and Sicily, settled in Ishpeming. They experienced a similar migration process. By 1910 Italians comprised 15% – 16% of the labor force on the Range. In 1910, of the 907 Italians with occupations, 741 or 81.6% were miners. There were also 51 Italians (6%) working on the railroad, 24 (2.8%) listed as laborers and 20 working in the iron furnaces in Mar­quette. 

Copper Miners; Calumet, Michigan; between 1907 – 1920.

The first Italians who arrived on the Marquette Range were usually single men, who once they got settled, sent for their wives or got married. At first, many lived in company housing but, as soon as was possible, they purchased their own homes. Families took in boarders from the same Italian village and/or family members, as a means of providing housing and adding to the family income. Most of the Italian businessmen were located in Negaunee and Gwinn at that time. There were 16 boardinghouse keepers, 11 saloon keepers, 5 merchants, 5 bakers and 3 shoemakers.  Each family maintained a garden which provided the household with much of the vegetables that the household needed during the year. Besides what was planted, the women and children gathered fruits and berries and made jams and preserves from them. If possible families kept a pig and cow. In November the pig was usually butchered and prime pieces were preserved in a crock jar, covered with liquefied lard, and the small pieces were processed into different types of sausage. The cow pro­vided milk, butter and cheese for the family and, if there was a surplus, it was sold to neighbors. The Italian family became self-sufficient, so that they only had to purchase certain items, like coffee, sugar or olive oil. Pasta and Italian bread were often made at home, but were sometimes purchased. In the late summer, orders were taken for grapes and beginning in September train loads of grapes arrived at railroad sidings in Negaunee and Ishpeming. Most families made as many as 150-200 gallons of wine, which would last them through the year. Most of the Italian immigrants who settled on the Marquette Range were literate. As a result many of them kept in touch with the news through Italian-language newspapers. Some subscribed to papers published in New York City, like the popular Il Progresso, while others read the Il Minatore Italiano (The Italian Miner) which was published in Laurium, MI between 1896 and the 1930’s or the transient papers, such as La Democrazione Italiana of Hancock or La Sentinella (The Sentinel) published in Calumet, MI.

Portrait of an Italian Musician
From the collection of the Central Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan University Archives

The Italian love for music is well known. As early as 1884, the Marquette Mining Journal noted that an Italian band provided excellent dance music in Marquette County. A number of Italian music teachers appeared in the various communities, such as Nettie R. Calamata, who in 1906 offered mandolin, guitar and banjo lessons. The Italian Band of Negaunee was organized by January 9, 1907, when it provided music for Mike Marrietti’s saloon, called Hogan’s Place and in the summer, it provided music for picnic dances. The most famous band in Ishpeming’s history was Vampa’s Band. Professor Vampa arrived in the community in 1915 and organiz­ed the band. He was able to get even the most musically illiterate to read music and, by January 1916, his band with thirty-four members, played for the first time and was an immediate success. Vampa’s Band played at the Marquette County Fair, Memorial Day and Columbus Day celebrations and at other dances and festivals given by local clubs and lodges. The local Italians directed their entertainment and recreation toward their families. Home parties were popular with an accordion and violin or guitar providing the music on a Saturday night.The men played bocce in their backyards or saloon-side courts or played the Italian card game, morra. Some of the Italians fished and hunted both as recreation and also a means of augmenting their families’ food supply. The mutual beneficial societies were a characteristic feature of all Italian communities, wherever the immigrants settled. At a time when there were no Social Security benefits for unemployment or disability insurance or death benefits, the Italians  established these societies. The oldest of the Italian fraternal organization in Marquette Coun­ty was Società Fratellanza e Mútuo Soccórso/Fraternal and Mutual Aid Society which was established in Negaunee in 1890. The biggest activity for the lodge was the annual picnic ,where there was boating, swimming and athletic events, eating contests and card games. Over the years a number of fraternal organizations were formed in Negaunee. Società Italiana di Mútuo Soccórso Giuseppe Maz­zini/Italian Mutual Aid Society Giuseppe Mazzini was founded on June 24, 1908. They built a series of Italian Halls, which were used for  meetings and social events. Like many benefit societies, the Italian Mutual Beneficial Society transformed itself in a social organization. It was through such organizations that Italian immigrants and their children located housing, found work, organized political blocks and met their prospective mates.

Calumet’s Italian Hall

Funeral of the Victims of the Italian Hall Disaster, Calumet, Michigan, December, 1913.

On Christmas Eve, 1913, members of the Upper Peninsula mining community of Calumet, Michigan gathered in the upstairs of the Italian Hall for a party. The gathering was supposed to be one of a few happy times for the town, which was ravaged by a bitter strike between miners and owners. Popular history has it that someone ran into the party and yelled “fire”, causing a stampede down the stairs into doors that opened inward, resulting in a deadly pile-up. Some claim the incident was plotted by local copper bosses. So was it murder or an accident? Author and lawyer, Steve Lehto, goes back to find the answer in his book, Death’s Door: the Truth Behind Michigan’s Largest Mass Murder. Lehto uses his skills as a lawyer to investigate the deaths of 74 people, mostly children. His research led him to the conclusion that the doors opened out and were purposely held closed, resulting in the murder of the party-goers. Claims that the tragedy was an accident, Lehto believes, were the result of carefully placed stories in the mine-controlled newspapers.

Cuisine of the Early Italian Families in Michigan

Antipasto of Italian vegetables and fish Baccala – Italian dried cod fish Bagna Cauda – garlic, olive oil dip Rustic Bread Cornetti -Italian rolls Grissini – Italian breadsticks Porchetta, Abruzzi Style  Salame Milanese for sandwiches Cudighi Italian Sausage – Italian sausage originating in northern Italy and made in the homes of many Michigan Italian Americans. It is made from pork meat on the hind section of the hog, this sausage is a combination of coarse ground pork, pork fat, red wine, and seasonings such as salt, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. The meat is then typically aged only for only a few days before being served. (See recipe below) Sautissa Piedmontese Sausage – pork sausage from the Piedmont region of Italy that uses cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cloves to impart a unique flavor. Often used as a filling ingredient for ravioli.  Suppressa – Italian cured meats Garden Vegetables Pasta Torchetti cookies Cookies: biscotti, pizzelle, cialde Grappa  – Italian brandy Homemade wine

Try Some Michigan-Italian Inspired Recipes At Home

Northern Michigan Cherry Bruschetta

Ingredients:

  • 18 1/2 inch thick slices of small baguette-style bread
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1 1/2 cups pitted fresh sweet cherries, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup each diced yellow sweet bell peppers and green onions
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Fresh mozzarella cheese
  • 1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh basil

Directions: Toast one side of baguette slices at 350 degrees F for 5 minutes. Turn slices, brush with the 1 tablespoon of olive oil and bake 5 minutes longer. Combine cherries, bell pepper, green onions, lime juice, salt, pepper and remaining olive oil; mix well. Top each slice of baguette with a thin slice of fresh mozzarella cheese, a heaping tablespoon of cherry mixture and sliced basil.

Homemade Cudighi Sausage

Unique to the central part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the cudighi is an excellent example of the Italian-American food of this region. This one is made the more modern way, dressed like pizza. The classic sandwich is sausage with mustard and onions.  (Paisano’s in Negaunee, MI, an Italian-American restaurant on the shore of Lake Teal in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) Ingredients:

  • 6 lb coarsely ground pork butt
  • 1 clove garlic chopped fine
  • 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
  • 6 tablespoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons fennel seed

Mix well and refrigerate for 24 hours. Directions: Form into thin, 1/2 thick patties into or oblong shapes. Brown in oil , cover and simmer in a little water to help with the dryness, for 25-30 minutes or until no red shows and pork is fully cooked. Serve on a Ciabatta roll or italian bread with grilled green pepper rings and grilled sliced onion, mustard, ketchup, pizza sauce or mozzarella cheese. Freeze extra cooked patties. Some other serving suggestions: You can make this into links or leave in bulk. Use it in Italian cooking for lasagna, pizza, etc. You can also serve this as a sandwich, either grilled or pan fried. Can be served with mustard and onions, but the most popular way is to top with mozzarella cheese and some spaghetti sauce. You could add some green peppers and mushrooms also. Can be served as an appetizer with cheese and crackers. Roll the sausage into log. Wrap in foil and boil in water for 45 minutes. Let cool and serve sliced.

Iron Mountain Vegetable Lasagna

Ingredients:

  • 2 zucchini, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 cup fresh peas
  • 2 cups fresh asparagus, cut on the bias
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 cups besciamella (recipe follows)
  • 8 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano cheese
  • 1 -16-ounce package lasagna noodles (or use fresh)

For besciamella sauce:

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 6 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3 1/2 cups milk, heated
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

For vegetable filling: Heat oil in a skillet and lightly saute vegetables, in steps if needed, until vegetables are just tender. Cool to room temperature. For besciamella sauce: In heavy saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. Add the flour and cook, whisking constantly for 2 to 3 minutes, not allowing mixture to brown. Slowly whisk in the hot milk and bring just to a simmer, whisking frequently. Reduce the heat to low and cook, whisking often, until the sauce has thickened to a creamy consistency, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Allow to cool for a few minutes before using. For lasagna: Preheat oven to 350°F. Cook lasagna noodles to desired tenderness, drain. In a 12-by-18-inch pan assemble the lasagna, beginning with a layer of besciamella in the bottom of the pan, followed by a layer of pasta, a scattering of vegetables, a layer of besciamella, a sprinkling of grated Parmigiano, until all sauce, vegetables and pasta are used up. The top layer should be pasta with besciamella over it. Top the lasagna with grated Parmigiano and bake, loosely covered with foil in the oven, until the sauce is bubbling, about 45 minutes. Remove and allow to cool for at least 20 minutes before serving.

 

Pork Roast alla Porchetta

 Ingredients:

  • 4 pounds boneless pork loin roast
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 bulb fennel, fronds chopped and reserved, bulb thinly sliced
  • 2 pounds ground pork or Italian sausage with casing removed
  • 2 tablespoons fennel seeds
  • 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
  • 6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 4 red onions, halved

 Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Have your butcher butterfly the pork to an even 1 inch thickness, you should have a flat piece of meat about 8 inches by 14 inches. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and set aside. In a sauté pan, heat olive oil until smoking. Add the onion and fennel bulb and sauté until softened and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add ground pork, fennel seeds, pepper, rosemary and garlic and cook until the mixture assumes a light color, stirring constantly, about 10 minutes. Allow to cool. Add chopped fennel leaves and eggs and mix well. Spread the mixture over the pork loin and roll up like a jelly roll. Tie with butcher’s twine and place in roast pan on top of halved red onions. Place in the oven and roast for 2 1/2 hours, until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees F. Remove and allow to rest for 10 to 20 minutes. Slice into 1 inch thick pieces and serve.

Northern Michigan’s Mario Batali Shares His Recipe for Ciambella with Summer Berry Compote

The chef summers in Northern Michigan. By: Mario Batali A ciambella is a simple ring-shaped bread made of egg, shortening and sugar. Ciambelle were for a long time a symbol of luxury in Italian culture; a fancy bread pictured next to royalty and aristocracy in Renaissance painting. Today, ciambelle are often served as an afternoon snack at a bar or cafe. They can be dressed with glazes, syrups, or, in this case, a berry compote. In this recipe, I incorporate berries abundant in this area, but you can easily substitute whatever berries are available at your farmers’ market. With the listed ingredients, this ciambella makes the perfect summer dessert in this fertile area that I’ve come to love—Mario Batali (www.mynorth.com) Serves 8 Ingredients:

  • 1 pint blueberries
  • 1 pint blackberries
  • 1 pint raspberries
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/4 cup cold milk

Directions: In a large saucepan, combine the berries, lemon juice,and 3 tablespoons sugar. Place over medium heat and heat just to the boiling point, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a cookie sheet. Combine the remaining 1/2 cup sugar, flour and the baking powder in a food processor and pulse quickly to blend. Add the cold butter and pulse quickly until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. In a separate bowl, beat the egg, almond extract and milk until smooth. With the food processor running, add the liquid all at once and blend 10 to 15 seconds, until the dough just forms a ball. Transfer the dough to a well-floured cutting board and shape into a log about 14 inches long and 1 1/2 inches thick. Form the log into a ring in the center of the cookie sheet. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until light golden brown. Remove, transfer to a rack, and cool to room temperature. Cut the cake into slices about 1 inch thick, top with 2 tablespoons of berry compote, and serve.    

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