An industrial scene in Ensley, Alabama (February, 1937)

Yes! Birmingham, Alabama

Labor shortages drew Italian immigrants to Birmingham’s coal and steel industries. These new Americans quickly became farmers, grocers and merchants, and the next generation became doctors, bankers and lawyers. Their collective history helped shape the culture of the growing city, which was enriched by their contributions to religion, sports, art, commerce and politics. Italian immigration into the Birmingham area was widespread during the late 19th and early 20th century as rural depression in southern Italy coincided with the availability of trans-Atlantic passage for immigrant laborers and industrial expansion in Alabama. Though many had arrived in the city’s early days, the heaviest waves of Italian immigration occurred after 1890, coinciding with major migrations of rural whites into the district. By 1910 the Italian community was the city’s largest single ethnic group, surpassing German and Irish populations which dominated the earliest influx.

One Immigrant’s Story

Recalling his decision to immigrate to the United States in 1906, Giuseppe Emilio Rocconi reflects, “Sometimes I feel that I went against my destiny.”  Like the millions of immigrants that left behind their native countries, families and way of life to find better opportunities in the New World, Rocconi felt that his immigration to the United States altered what he imagined to be the natural course of his life. Thirty-four years later, Rocconi began to write, The Story of My Life  (1958), the autobiographical narrative in which he describes his early life in Italy, his immigration to the United States and his work as a sharecropper and later a landowning farmer in the Mississippi Delta. Perhaps in writing his own story, Rocconi overlooked the fact that while America changed his destiny, his presence in America altered the country as well.

Immigrants like Rocconi, who were in search of the American way of life, did not necessarily find it in the South because they had settled in a place where they were not initially granted access to white privilege and where conditions required for fully achieving the American Dream did not exist. Thus, Rocconi depicts a close-knit Italian community that maintains traditions, remains  isolated, homogenous and resists assimilation. Rocconi shows Italians relying on other Italians (rather than the larger community) for advice, job opportunities and support during difficult times. Despite this resistance, the Italian community, he describes, strives for financial progress and success. While Rocconi wanted to cling to Italian traditions and culture, he also wanted to achieve financial stability, to own property and to not be employed by anyone. 

To tackle the labor shortage in the Mississippi Delta, representatives of the Sunnyside Plantation Company, negotiated “with an Italian immigrant agency in New York and with Italian diplomats.”  for Italians to work for the Sunnyside Company. Ronconi settled with twenty-five other Italian families at Red Leaf Plantation, while another one hundred and fifty Italian families settled at nearby Sunnyside Plantation. According to Rocconi, the Italians settled in this area because “the land was our main occupation as it had also been that of our forefathers in Italy, and here too, where we had transferred, there was no other alternative but the land.”

The Italians at Red Leaf and Sunnyside depended on one another for financial and moral  support. Without any other trade experience and no knowledge of other opportunities in the United States, they found themselves bound to the land. In a sense, they were financially enslaved to the company because they could see no other way out of their debts, which compounded in a vicious cycle. Rocconi relied on the help of his brother, other Italians and his wife, who he says he shared “a life full of disturbances, of misery, work and pain”  in order to survive while living and working in deplorable conditions at Red Leaf Plantation.

During the flood in 1912, almost all of the Italian families at Red Leaf Plantation dispersed and moved to cities, such as Chicago and Memphis. When Rocconi found himself virtually alone on the plantation, he and his brother, Pietro, “decided also to leave.”  From there, he moved to Ensley, Alabama, joining another group of Italian immigrants in that area. He “liked that place [because] it promised me a little of my country. Those rolling fields, the pure healthy air; it had really captivated me.”  When Rocconi describes Ensley as “my country,” one must wonder if he is referring to America or to Italy. Did it remind him of what he had left behind in Italy? Or, was it more like what he had expected his experience as a farmer in America to have been like? Either way, Rocconi seems to be most comfortable in this area because he was not bound by a plantation company‟s harsh treatment. Source:  Bethany Santucci, great-granddaughter of Giuseppe Emilio Rocconi, theme paper (B.A. Millsaps College, 2006, May, 2011).

Postcard view of the Birmingham Terminal Station

The Birmingham Terminal Station was the primary passenger station for Birmingham from 1909 until rail travel sharply declined in the 1950s

Most of Birmingham’s Italians came from a small number of villages in Sicily. The town of Bisacquino alone accounted for about a third of those arriving. Cefalu, Sutera, Campofranco, Grotte and Palermo were also well-represented. Prior to 1898 most of those arriving came through the Port of New Orleans, followed after that by New York as the primary port of entry. By the mid-1920s changes to the immigration policy, including a literacy test and the establishment of national quotas sharply reduced Italian immigration.

Many of those arriving without family already in place began their stay in Birmingham at Egidio Sabatini’s boarding house near the new Terminal Station. Many of the workers were Italian and appreciated his Italian cooking. After settling in, it was easy for the immigrants to find work in the labor-starved iron and steel industries. Families settled themselves around the various industrial plants surrounding the city proper and the Italian neighborhoods grew. By the late 1910’s several families had started operating small grocery stores or fruit markets, typically in the underserved African-American neighborhoods. By the mid-1930’s there were over 300 Italian-owned groceries in the Birmingham area. Notable establishments included the Cantanzano Brothers’ grocery, the Grand Fish and Oyster Company, the Giardina Macaroni Company, the Italian-American Importing Company, Spina Importing, Simonetti Brothers and the Rouss-Maenza Wholesale Company. Meanwhile a small colony of Italian farmers began growing fruits and vegetables in the area now occupied by the Birmingham International Airport. Domenico Lusco had a thriving farm near West End and organized the Farmer’s Truck Growers Association.

Besides learning the English language and American customs in cooking and cleaning, immigrant women at the Ensley House learned how to sew American-style clothes for their families. (Courtesy Archives of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.)

Between 1901 and 1929 thirteen separate mutual aid societies were established to provide basic insurance against illness, injury or burial costs. The first of these was the Liberty Mutual Aid Society. Many of these clubs organized dances and other social events for the Italian community. One, the Societa Italiana Umberto Di Savoia Principe Di Piemonte (USPP) helped to get Columbus Day declared a state holiday in 1911. G. A. Firpo, vice-consul to the Italian Embassy in New Orleans established an office in Birmingham.

In 1912 an experienced social worker, Dorothy L. Crim, accepted a salary of fifty dollars per month to found a settlement house similar to Jane Addams’s Hull House in Chicago. Despite a host of obstacles to reform, the Ensley Community House, which opened the next year, served its community for fifty-six years. Located in the heart of the city’s Italian District, it sought to alleviate the problems many immigrant workers faced—especially the sense of alienation and isolation from mainstream American culture. Crim felt her greatest satisfaction came, when the families she helped in turn served others.

The Italian community supported two baseball leagues and several musical groups which performed at weddings and feasts. Notable Italian bandleaders included Philip Memoli, Bill Nappi and Saverio Costa.

The first Saint Mark Catholic Church was built in 1905 in East Thomas near the Ensley area. Reverend John B. Canepa was the first pastor. The founding parishioners were Italian immigrants, many who labored in steel mills, stoked furnaces and mined coal and ore. Some were small farmers or merchants, who sold produce and groceries along the city streets. As parishioners moved away from the area, the congregation declined, and Saint Mark closed in 1997. The original building still remains and can be seen at 1010 16th Avenue West in East Thomas. Upon the closing of Saint Mark, the remaining parishioners were promised that a new Saint Mark would be built in Birmingham. Much of the interior was removed with plans to install it in the future church.

A new Saint Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church was built and much of the interior came from the old Saint Mark church. Father Patrick Cullen was appointed pastor on December 8, 2000 and he continued the construction to its completion, celebrating Saint Mark’s first Mass on August 10, 2003.

Feast of Saint Mark Italian Food Festival in Birmingham, Alabama.

For years, many people in the community had hoped for such a “festa” or feast celebrating Italian culture in the traditional Italian style. After the success of the inaugural event in 2012, there was even greater anticipation of the 2013 festival. It was an event attended by over 3,000 Italian family members! “Everybody loved it last year and so we were determined to make it even bigger and better this year and really give people a taste of Italian culture and really good Italian food,” said Robert Sbrissa, one of the organizers. Plans are for the festa to continue to be an annual event, because these festivals and celebrations are important for preserving the Italian culture for future generations.

According to the organizers, “The food experience for the 2013 Feast was a real treat. We offered wonderful Italian favorites. We also worked hard to bring the highest quality and freshest menu items possible, just like Mama. We featured delicious samplings by some of our favorite local Italian restaurants as well as a freshly-grilled Italian sausage station complete with roasted peppers and onions.” These were some of the restaurants that helped make the event special: Tellini’s Italiano, Pelotoni’s Italian Restaurant, Tony’s Spaghetti House and Mr P’s Butcher Shop & Deli. Several of Birmingham’s noted Italian chefs prepared the food for the festa. 

Chef Bernard

One of the biggest surprises was the contribution by Bernard Tamburello. Chef Bernard’s culinary magic and passion for his Italian culture brought authentic cuisine to the Feast of Saint Mark Italian Food Festival. He prepared main course items on site, including Chicken Marsala, Eggplant Parmigiana and Rigatoni Marinara.

Chef Bernard Tamburello blends his love of cooking with his Italian ancestry and culinary skills. In 1992, Tamburello, an award-winning restaurateur, had humble beginnings with Gus’s Hotdogs in downtown Birmingham. Later, Tamburello branched out and opened Bernie’s Grill in Chelsea in 2002, followed by Bernie’s on Main in Columbiana. In 2005, Tamburello launched La Dolce Vita [LDV] in Hoover. LDV allowed Chef Bernard to express his passion for Italian food and culture. He transformed the 1400 foot rental space with Italian accents of brick and slate and a full bar. The traditional recipes and Italian ambience, combined with Tamburello’s expertise, established the chef’s fame and faithful following.

In 2008 Tamburello launched the menu for his Tuscan steakhouse, Bellini’s Ristorante & Bar. Bellini’s had an authentic Italian atmosphere complete with a tiled floor, Tuscan brick walls, granite and polished wood. Tamburello has garnered numerous awards for his skills: Birmingham’s Top Restaurant in 2009 and Birmingham’s Top Wine list in 2009 and 2010. He has been featured in Birmingham Magazine and B Metro over 9 times, appeared on Fox 6 and ABC cooking segments and even prepared breakfast for Nick Saban and his wife Terry in their Tuscaloosa kitchen.

Birmingham’s Italian Food

Tomato Basil Soup

from Joe’s Italian Pizza, Pasta & Caffe

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
  • 4 cups ground tomatoes
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream or half & half
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

Directions:

Melt the butter with the oil over low heat in a heavy bottom pot. Add the onion; wilt over low heat for 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic during the last 2 minutes, stirring.

Add the tomatoes and broth. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cover; cook over medium-low heat for 60 minutes. Season with oregano, salt and pepper. Add basil.

Stir in the cream or half & half, simmer for another 30 minutes.

Garnish with fresh basil before serving.

Note: When tomatoes are in-season use fresh tomatoes, blanch for 8 minutes and process with food processor. In the winter, use a San Marzano-type canned tomato, drain half of the liquid and process in food processor.

Carciofi farciti di carne (Meat-stuffed artichokes)

Sicilian style cooking. Mary Jo Gagliano of La Tavolo, which is Italian for table, draws from her 40 years of experience creating delicious dishes for her family and friends, as well as inspiration and recipes from her family’s Italian heritage.

 Ingredients:

  • 6 medium to large artichokes, trimmed
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 6 oz. ground lamb or veal
  • 3 slices Italian bread, crust removed
  • 1/2 cup whole milk, divided
  • 1 large egg slightly beaten
  • Salt and fresh ground pepper
  • 3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • Good quality extra virgin olive oil
  • Marinara sauce, preferably Pomi Marinara

 Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Oil a baking dish large enough to hold artichokes upright.

Trim crust from bread and pour 1/4 cup milk over the bread. Let it soak.

Trim artichokes one quarter from the top, discarding tops. Cut off stems and reserve. Remove outer leaves until they become lighter in color; reserve outer leaves. Insert knife into center and remove hairy choke, taking care not to pierce bottom of the artichoke (a grapefruit spoon works well).

Fill a large saute pan or Dutch Oven with water; bring to a boil. Add artichokes, outer leaves, stems and wine. Return to a boil, cover and cook for 3 minutes. Drain well.

In a small bowl, add 1/4 cup of milk, soaked bread, egg, meat, salt and pepper. Mix, making sure bread is crumbled.

Place the leaves on a chopping surface, flesh-side up. Use a sharp serrated knife or grapefruit spoon to remove flesh from the leaves. Discard the leaves. Finely chop stems and crush slightly. Combine the flesh, stems and cheese in a small bowl and mix.

Stuff bread and meat mixture between each layer of artichoke leaves and into center. Spread flesh and cheese mixture over artichoke tops, drizzle with oil and place in baking dish.

Bake until golden, 35 to 40 minutes. Spread warm marinara sauce on a serving platter, drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil. Swirl oil and sauce together.

Arrange artichokes in platter and serve warm. Pass the Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Eggplant Parmesan

from Bernie’s on Main

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs (about 2 large) eggplants
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
  • Olive oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup fine dry breadcrumbs
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 1/2 lbs of fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced into 1/4 inch rounds
  • 1 cup grated high quality Parmesan cheese
  • 1 packed cup fresh basil leaves

Directions:

Cut eggplants lengthwise into 1/4 inch slices. Arrange one layer in the bottom of a large colander and sprinkle evenly with salt. Repeat with remaining eggplant, salting, until all eggplant is in the colander. Weigh down the slices with a couple of plates and let drain for 2 hours. The purpose of this step is to have the eggplant release some of its moisture before cooking.

While the eggplant is draining, prepare tomato sauce. Combine tomatoes, garlic and 1/3 cup olive oil in a food processor. Season with salt and pepper to tasted and set aside.

 When eggplant has drained, press down on it to remove excess water, wipe off the excess salt and lay the slices out on paper towels to remove all the moisture. In a wide, shallow bowl, combine flour and breadcrumbs.

Mix well. Pour beaten eggs into another wide shallow bowl. Place a large, deep skillet over medium heat and pour in a a half inch of olive oil.

When oil is shimmering, dredge the eggplant slices first in the flour mixture, then in the beaten egg. Working in batches, slide coated eggplant into hot oil and fry until golden brown on both sides, turning once. Drain on paper towels.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. In the bottom of a 10×15 inch glass baking dish, spread 1 cup of tomato sauce. Top with one third of the eggplant slices. Top eggplant with half of the mozzarella slices. Sprinkle with 1/3 of the Parmesan and half of the basil leaves.

Make a second layer of eggplant slices, topped by 1 cup of sauce, remaining mozzarella, half the remaining Parmesan and all of the remaining basil. Add remaining eggplant and top with the remaining tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese.

Bake until cheese has melted and the top is slightly brown, about 30 minutes. Allow to rest at room temperature for about 10 minutes before serving.

Yield: Serves 8.

Veal Scaloppine with Lemon

4 servings

 Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 pound veal Scaloppine, cut from the top round, and flattened
  • Flour, spread on a plate
  • Salt
  • Freshly-ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped very fine
  • 1/2 lemon, sliced very thin

 Directions:

Put the oil and 2 tablespoons of butter into a skillet and turn on the heat to medium high. When the butter foam begins to subside, dredge the scaloppine in flour and cook them. Remove scaloppine from pan.

Off the heat, add the lemon juice to the skillet, using a wooden spoon to scrape loose the browning residues on the bottom and sides. Swirl in the remaining tablespoon of butter, put in any juices the scaloppine may have shed in the plate and add the chopped parsley, stirring to distribute it evenly.

Turn on the heat to medium and return the scaloppine to the pan. Turn them quickly and briefly, just long enough to warm them and coat them with sauce. Turn out the entire contents of the pan onto a warm platter, garnish the platter with lemon slices and serve at once.

Classic Sicilian Ricotta Cheesecake

12 servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds ricotta cheese
  • 2/3 cup white sugar
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 5 eggs
  • 1/4 cup amaretto
  • 1 ½ teaspoons orange zest
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

Directions:

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. (150 degrees C.). Set rack in the middle of the oven. Butter and flour a 9 ½ inch springform pan and tap out excess flour.

Place the ricotta in a large mixing bowl and stir it as smooth as possible with a rubber spatula. Stir the sugar and flour together thoroughly in the ricotta. Stir in the eggs one at a time. Blend in the vanilla, orange and lemon zest and Amaretto. Pour batter into the prepared pan.

Bake in the center of the oven for about 100 minutes until it’s a light golden color. Make sure the center is fairly firm and that the point of a sharp knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. The cheesecake will sink slightly as it cools. Cover and chill overnight.

Glaze

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup limoncello
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • Lemon slices for garnish

Make glaze by combining sugar and cornstarch, blending in lemoncello and lemon juice until smooth. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, until thickened. Cook 3 minutes. Thin with a little water, if too thick.

Chill until cool but not set. Spread top of cheesecake with lemon glaze. Chill overnight. Garnish with lemon slices just before serving.

 

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