Milwaukee’s Italian families have a distinguished heritage, one that began in a great rush to the city shortly before the turn of the 19th century, when Italian immigrants poured into Milwaukee and quickly formed two distinct communities. The Bayview settlement was dominated by newcomers from northern and central Italy, many of whom took jobs in the sprawling iron mill on the south lakeshore. The second Italian community, and by far the largest, was in the Third Ward, just west of today’s Summerfest grounds. The vast majority of Third Warders, whose numbers swelled to 5,000 by 1910, traced their roots to Sicily. Mario Carini, an Italian-American historian and author of the book, “Milwaukee’s Italians: The Early Years,” said nearly every region of Italy was represented in Milwaukee. He noted, “Some came from the northern regions of Liguria or Lombardy and some from the more central regions like Lazio.” However, the greatest number of Italians who emigrated to the U.S. came from the depressed and impoverished regions of il Mezzogiorno, the southern regions of the Italy, the ones left behind culturally, economically and socially after the unification of Italy in 1870. According to Carini, many of the Italian immigrants from il Mezzogiorno came from the regions of Puglia, Campania, Abruzzo and Calabria. They were once part of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and the transition to Italian unification was a difficult journey. The southern economy was mostly agrarian-based, in contrast to the industrial north, and the peasants of the countryside had to work non-stop to provide the simplest means of survival. The island and people of Sicily suffered most. Sicily thought of itself as an entirely different country. It was there that peasants faced the toughest of circumstances. A few very wealthy men owned nearly all of the workable land on the sun-baked island. The impoverished laborers hired to work the land toiled long and hard and received scant returns. Life in il Mezzogiorno soon became unbearable and the lure of America became more and more desirable. By 1910, four out of every five immigrants came from southern Italy. The quest for the American dream started soon after the immigrants passed through the doors of Ellis Island and stepped upon the real America. Carini said, “as the old axiom ‘go West, young man’ holds, so did the immigrants listen. A good number did stay and seek their fortune in the bustling metro of New York City, but others, intrigued by tales of a gold rush and general curiosity, embarked on their trek westward. But as they made their way, economic necessity forced the Italians to halt their journey to sunny California”, Carini said. With the huge metropolis that is Chicago and its some 16,000 Italians, so close, many sought their fortune just 90 miles north in Milwaukee. According to Carini, there was an Italian presence in Milwaukee as early as the Civil War, but the real influx of immigrants began in 1880 and, by 1910, records show 3,528 Italian-born immigrants lived in Milwaukee. Some natives of northern Italy chose the south side and suburbs, while others lived where work was found. But no neighborhood could compare to the Sicilian community of the Third Ward, where 2,759 Sicilians settled. Dubbed the Little Italy of Milwaukee, the Third Ward afforded a place to live and a place to work for the immigrants, which is really what they all came looking for in America.
Most of Milwaukee’s early Italian population consisted of working adult males, Carini said. However, as women joined their husbands in America, their primary duty was to the family. They cared for the children in the morning, walked to the factory and put in a full day’s work and, then, went back home to prepare meals. As soon as children could have a job they did, some even worked on the coal docks next to their fathers. Though many found work and a place to live, the Italian immigrants were hardly living the luxurious life. Many men took up a second job and working conditions were very harsh. Rosario Spella, born in Milwaukee to Italian immigrants, knew the hardships of immigrant life. “Our economic situation was dire,” Spella said. “I was the primary source of income at 18 years old, since my father had gone job-to-job. There was very little money to support all of us, so we had to do whatever we could possibly do to help out.”
Living quarters were described as “sub standard” and immigrants were charged relatively high rents. Families were often crammed into small houses or apartments. “Housing was a big issue,” Carini said. “We used to move around a lot, but it used to always be within the Third Ward. We’d go from corner to corner or block to block. ” That was until the railroads started to take away housing property and the family was forced to leave the area, Carini said. However, Italian-Americans prevailed and fought through the arduous task that was immigrant life. The diet of the Italian immigrants in Milwaukee was apparently not better than what they were accustomed to Italy. In America they had meat more frequently, but less fruits and vegetables. Generally the families in Sicily had meat on Sunday, eggs daily (almost every family had chickens) and fruit of every kind grew abundantly in Sicily. Fruit was cheap, especially in the villages, and almost every family owned a little piece of land on which fruit trees and greens were cultivated for family use. This simple diet, accompanied by life in the open air and vigorous work in the fields, made the Sicilian peasants healthy and strong. In Milwaukee, instead of having fruit and greens, which were too expensive in America, they learned to substitute meat and stretch it with potatoes, which were more filling than nutritious. While macaroni was preferred to any other dish, the cost was too high and with the addition of tomatoes and oil, pasta became even more expensive. Since these were luxuries for the Italian laborers in Milwaukee, they learned to prepare cheaper food.
Like the immigrants who preceded them, most Sicilians worked as laborers and factory hands, but a sizable number entered the produce business, selling fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the city. The most successful merchants graduated to their own wholesale houses on a stretch of Broadway long known as Commission Row. Others moved into the Brady Street area. Not afraid to work, the Italians were railroad employees, fruit peddlers, refuse collectors, shopkeepers, tavern owners or skilled craft workers in the masonry and stone trades.
At the time there were in Milwaukee 45 groceries owned by Italians and 38 of them crowded into three or four streets in the Third Ward. Many of the stores were one small, unsanitary room with stock consisting of a few boxes of macaroni, a small quantity of canned tomatoes and some oranges and bananas displayed in the window. Generally women attended the shop, while their husbands were at work on the tracks or in the foundries. Only three or four groceries had a large stock and did a good amount of business, but the system of giving credit to their customers, especially during periods of joblessness, made development of their trade on a large scale impossible. Better conditions were found among saloon keepers, who did not give credit. In the Third Ward there were 29 Italian saloons, 12 of which were located on just 4 blocks on Huron Street. The immigrants engaged in other businesses, but on a smaller scale. Although almost every line of business was represented, Italian bakeries, meat markets, shoe repair shops, tailor shops and barber shops were typical of the businesses operated by Italians in the Third Ward. In 1905, the Sicilian immigrants adopted the Blessed Virgin of Pompeii Church on Jackson Street. The “little pink church” quickly became the neighborhood’s hub, both for worship and for the annual round of summer festivals that featured Italian bands, tug-of-war contests, food stands and fireworks. By 1939 many of the younger families had moved to the Brady Street area and they founded a new church, St. Rita’s, on Cass and Pleasant Streets, which then became the new center of their community. The descendants of those first arrivals, today, make up an extraordinary share of Milwaukee’s business leaders, politicians, clergy, restaurateurs, educators, police officers and military personnel. The warm and welcoming spirit that the Italian immigrants spread is still very much alive today. One need only take a trip to the modern-day Third Ward to find the epicenter of Italian culture in Milwaukee at the Italian Community Center. Paul Iannelli, a long-time Milwaukee resident and an Italian-American advocate, as well as a historian on the ICC’s history and executive director of Festa Italiana, said the Italians deserved their spot in Milwaukee. “We, Italian-Americans, have long entrenched ourselves in Milwaukee. We decided to build a sort of base for ourselves, as well as being a memorial to all those who came before us and laid the way for Italian-Americans in Milwaukee” Iannelli said. So after a challenging decade in the 1960s, when the city razed several blocks of the Third Ward including the local church, the Italian-Americans of Milwaukee began a revival of Italian heritage and culture. “Our first Festa was in 1977,” Iannelli says. “It was, initially, just a way to jumpstart the feeling of Italian-American heritage and pride.” Festa Italiana, an annual event now and in its 34th year, is an Italian-American festival featuring music, guests and authentic Italian food. Since the Festa became so popular a new headquarters was needed and in 1990 the Italian Community Center of Milwaukee opened its doors. “The ICC was built to house the organization and offices for Festa,” Iannelli said. “But it also was built to be a hub for Italian-Americans, which it became, and a place where old friends could connect.” A block-long building with a sandstone brick exterior, the ICC stands as an emblem of the Italian-American tradition. Three flags — the Italian flag, the American flag and Wisconsin’s state flag — fly high atop silver poles next to a black granite monument commemorating notable Italian-Americans associated with the ICC’s birth.
Italian Recipes From A Few Milwaukee Chefs
Vicenza Barley Soup
Bartolotta Ristorante, Milwaukee Chef Miles Borghgraef Serves 6 Ingredients:
- 4 quarts of broth (either chicken or beef broth will work)
- 6 oz. pearled barley (rinsed well)
- 1 cup white onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup carrots, peeled and finely chopped
- 1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
- 1 head radicchio (shredded)
- 1 cup salumi* chopped fine
- 1 /2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese
- 1 piece Parmigiano or Grana Padano rind
- 3 tablespoons cold butter
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 egg yolk
Directions: In large heavy bottom stock pot, on medium heat, saute the chopped salumi in 4 tablespoons of olive oil (reserve remaining 2 tablespoons of oil for plating) for 3-4 minutes or until lightly browned. Add onion, carrots and celery. Cook until the vegetables become translucent. Add rinsed barley. Mix ingredients well. Pour in broth, stir, bring to a light simmer and add cheese rind. After 30 minutes add shredded radicchio. Continue to simmer for an additional 15 minutes. When barley is tender (after about 45 minutes), remove two cups of broth. In separate bowl, temper** egg yolk with the two cups of broth. Mix in 1 cup of parmigiano or grana padano, reserve the other 1/2 cup for plating. While mixing vigorously, return the tempered egg/broth/cheese mixture to the soup. Melt in cold butter stirring continuously until incorporated. To serve, ladle soup into a serving bowl and top with some reserved extra virgin olive oil and cheese. Notes: *Salumi is Italian cured meat ,such as prosciutto, pancetta, coppa and sopressata. **Temper is to add hot liquid slowly so eggs don’t cook.
Venetian Risotto with Peas and Bacon
LoDuca Brothers Wine Chef Lou Bruno & Assistant Jim LoDuca Serves 8 or more. Can be used as a side dish or main course. Ingredients:
- 1 lb. Carnaroli or Arborio Rice
- 1½ quarts chicken stock
- 2 onions, finely diced
- 8 oz. frozen peas, thawed
- 1 lb. cooked crisp bacon (cut into 2” pieces)
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1½ cups Parmigiano Reggiano
- 1/2 Bottle (750 ml) Pinot Grigio for stock
Directions: In 2 quart stock pot, bring chicken stock and Pinot Grigio to boil. Then reduce to a simmer. In a 6 qt stockpot, heat olive oil, add onion and saute until golden. Add rice and cook for several minutes, stirring constantly to coat rice. Add hot stock mixture to rice, a cup at a time, stirring constantly until the stock is almost absorbed. The rice should be never dry. When rice is still a little firm (after 15 minutes) add peas. When rice is cooked, add all the parmigiano cheese and mix well. Add more hot stock if necessary to keep rice wet and custard-like. Distribute bacon over top and warm. [Chef’s Hint: overly wet rice is best].
Sausage Rigatoni Rustica
Bravo Cucina Italiana, Milwaukee Chef Tony Evans 3-4 servings Ingredients
- 1/2 oz. olive oil
- 3 oz. Italian sausage
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic, chopped
- 3 oz. eggplant
- 2 oz. tomatoes
- 2 oz. Bercy sauce *
- 4 oz. Alfredo sauce
- 1 oz. each of Parmesan and Romano cheese
- 1 tablespoon herb butter
- 7 oz. rigatoni, cooked al dente
- 1 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese
- Salt & pepper to taste
- Chopped parsley for garnish
Directions: Preheat a grill or grill pan and oil the grill. Thickly slice eggplant and tomato. Leave sausage in one piece. Grill sausage and eggplant slices until brown and tomatoes until slightly charred. Sausage should be cut on the bias into 1/4” thick slices and then cut in half. Cook rigatoni according to package directions. In a saute pan, heat oil and add garlic. Stir for 30 seconds. Add sausage and eggplant and saute. Add charred tomatoes and saute. Add bercy sauce, alfredo sauce and salt & pepper to taste. Mix to combine and heat through. Add parmesan/romano cheeses and herb butter. Mix to incorporate. Add hot rigatoni to saute pan. Add mozzarella, toss to combine and heat through. Place in a serving dish and garnish with parsley. NOTE: *Bercy sauce is a white sauce made with white wine and sauteed shallots.
The Pasta Tree Restaurant & Wine Bar, Milwaukee Chef Suzette Metcalfe Ingredients
- 1 1/4 cups strawberry preserves
- 1/3 cup + 4 tablespoons Cointreau or other orange liqueur, divided
- 1/3 cup orange juice
- 1 lb. Mascarpone cheese (room temperature)
- 1 1/3 cups chilled whipping cream
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups espresso
- 1/2 cup chopped dark chocolate
- 1 ½ pounds strawberries, divided
- About 52 crisp ladyfingers (Boudoirs or Savoiardi)
Directions: Whisk preserves, the 1/3 cup Cointreau and orange juice in a 2-cup measuring cup. Set aside. Place mascarpone cheese and 2 tablespoons Cointreau in large bowl; fold just to blend. Using an electric mixer, beat cream, sugar, vanilla and remaining 2 tablespoons Cointreau to soft peaks. Fold 1/4 of the whipped cream mixture into mascarpone mixture. Then fold in the remaining whipped cream. Hull and slice half of strawberries. Spread 1/2 cup of the preserve mixture over the bottom of an oblong serving dish or a 13x9x2 inch glass baking dish. Arrange enough ladyfingers, dipped in espresso, over strawberry preserve mixture covering the bottom of the dish. Spoon 3/4 cups strawberry preserve mixture over ladyfingers, then spread 2 1/2 cups mascarpone mixture on top. Arrange 2 cups sliced strawberries over mascarpone mixture. Repeat layering with remaining ladyfingers, dipped in espresso, strawberry preserve mixture and mascarpone mixture. Cover with plastic and chill at least 8 hours or overnight. Slice remaining strawberries. Arrange over the top of the tiramisu and sprinkle with chocolate.
The Italians In Texas (jovinacooksitalian.com) http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2013/06/14/little-italy-new-orleans-style/Birmingham, Alabama’s “Little Italy” (jovinacooksitalian.com) West Virginia’s Little Italy Communities (jovinacooksitalian.com) Baltimore’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com) Western Pennsylvania’s “Little Italies” (jovinacooksitalian.com) Philadelphia’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com) Chicago’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com) Cleveland’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com) New England’s “Little Italies” (jovinacooksitalian.com) Italian American Neighborhoods – Boston (jovinacooksitalian.com) Ybor City – Florida’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com) Little Italy – Manhattan (jovinacooksitalian.com) http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2013/03/08/new-yorks-other-little-italies/ http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2013/03/15/little-italy-new-jersey-style/ http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2013/04/12/delawares-little-italy/ The “Little Italies” of Michigan (jovinacooksitalian.com) The Hill” St. Louis’ Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com) http://jovinacooksitalian.com/2013/05/24/indianas-little-italy-communities/
June 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm
Just love your photos and historical perspective Jovina!
June 28, 2013 at 1:15 pm
Thanks so much Karen. I appreciate your gracious comments and for reading these little histories.
June 28, 2013 at 2:26 pm
I’ve made a number of your recipes and without exception they have been excellent. I’d gladly contribute a little in compensation for the great service you’re providing.
June 28, 2013 at 2:33 pm
Thank you so much for your wonderful comments. I enjoy cooking and writing about my heritage. I am so happy to read that you enjoy cooking the recipes I write about on this blog.
I'm paying attention
June 28, 2013 at 5:25 pm
The risotto looks like my weekend project.
June 28, 2013 at 5:38 pm
That’s a good one!
June 28, 2013 at 10:05 pm
Very educational post. That risotto and strawberry tiramisu have me drooling.
June 29, 2013 at 8:38 am
Thanks Pam. Two recipes that are difficult to resist.
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