Most Italian immigrants crowded into cities on the eastern seaboard. Only a small fraction made it to Washington, which in 1910 had less than one per cent of the Italians living in America. Most of them were men who had first lived in the east or who had worked their way west building the railroads. Few came directly from Italy to Seattle.
There was plenty of work, especially in construction. Seattle, in the decade following the Klondike rush, enjoyed the greatest growth in its history, tripling its population from 80,000 to 240,000 between 1900-1910. Italians, along with other immigrants and native-born Americans, shaped much of the Seattle we know today. They constructed water mains, sewer lines, buildings and shaped the Elliott Bay seawall with dirt from Dearborn, Denny and Jackson Hills which made Seattle into a world-class waterfront city.
It was not a way to get rich. Laborers made as little as $1.25 for a ten-hour day and the work was difficult. Orly Alia, now retired from his construction business, recalls an uncle who stacked 95-pound bags of cement from a rapidly moving line, 10 hours a day, seven days a week. “They were machines,” Alia recalls, “They wore themselves out and they were gone by the time they were sixty.”
The majority of the Italian immigrants found jobs in the city, even though they had been country farmers in Italy. The reason was simple. Industrial and mining jobs paid more than farm work and most of the good agricultural land on the frontier had been claimed prior to the Italians arrival. Moreover, Italians didn’t like the harsh climate or the isolation of the Western plains. The ones who got to Seattle, however, found, to their delight, that it was quite possible to enjoy the benefits of city and country life at the same time. They could make good wages in construction and in the mills and have kitchen gardens, rabbits and chickens in the yards of affordable single-family homes.
Most of Seattle’s Italians were unskilled laborers and some were illiterate. Yet nearly all of them were able, by working hard, to become successful. Alia’s father, Rocco, for example, was a construction laborer who started his own construction company. Orly went to work for his father as a waterboy and recalls that the laborers’ clothes were always soaked with sweat. Orly, as soon as he could, also started his own company and so did his son, Richard, now head of R. L. Alia Co. This pattern of sons following in their fathers’ footsteps, even to the fourth generation, would become a tradition among Seattle’s Italian families.
By 1915, 20 per cent of Seattle’s Italian community belonged to the business and professional class. They included Doctors Xavier DeDonato and A. J. Ghiglione; Joe Desimone, owner of the Pike Place Market; Frank Buty, a real estate agent whose generosity to new immigrants is still talked about by their descendants; Attilio Sbedico, professor of literature at the University of Washington; Nicola Paolella, publisher of the Gazetta Italiani. Paolella produced an Italian language radio show for 26 years.
Henry Suzzallo, whose family came from Ragusa, Italy was appointed to the presidency of the University of Washington in 1915. He held the position until 1926 when he quarreled with the state governor and resigned. He achieved even more prominence by becoming chairman of the board of trustees and president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning. He stayed there until he died in 1933.
Angelo Pellegrini (1904 – 1991) was an author of books about the pleasures of growing and making your own food and wine and about the Italian immigrant experience. He was also a professor of English Literature at the University of Washington. Pellegrini’s family came from Tuscany in 1913 and his father worked for the railroad. His first book, The Unprejudiced Palate (1948) is an important work in the history of food literature and is still in print. In 1946, Sunset Magazine published Pellegrini’s recipe for pesto, likely the first major publication of a pesto recipe in the United States.
In 1956 Albert Rosellini (January 21, 1910 – October 10, 2011) was elected governor of Washington – the first Italian American governor west of the Mississippi. Rosellini was an activist leader who worked to reform the state’s prisons and mental health facilities, to expand the state highway system, to create the University of Washington Medical School and Dental School and to build the second floating bridge across Lake Washington. Rosellini is the longest-lived U.S. state governor ever, having reached the age of 101 years, 262 days before his death.
Mario Batali, one of the country’s most celebrated chefs, grew up in Seattle, Washington. He is one of three children born to Marilyn and Armandino Batali. He spent his childhood watching his grandmother make oxtail ravioli and other Italian specialties passed down in the family. Mario’s father, an engineer for Boeing for 30 years, opened a meat-curing shop in Seattle as a retirement project, attempting to recreate the Italian food store Mario’s maternal great-great grandparents opened in 1903. The Batali family’s roots are almost entirely in the West. Mario’s great-great-grandfather left Italy for Butte, Montana in 1899 to work in the coal mines and eventually moved further west to settle in Seattle.
The community also included the first American saint, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini. Mother Cabrini, who died in 1917, was canonized during World War II by Pope Paul in the Sistine Chapel. More than 40,000 people, including American soldiers witnessed the ceremonies in the basilica.
Our lady of Mount Virgin Church, on the slope of Mount Baker, overlooked the Italian neighborhood in Rainier Valley. It was the spiritual center for Seattle Italians and often the first place new immigrants went to get information and meet new friends. The first pastor was Father Lodovico Caramello. He was on his way to a foreign mission in 1913, when his superiors asked him to stop by Seattle and help the immigrants there to get the church they were building started. Father Caramello agreed to a brief assignment but stayed on the job until he died in 1949. “He had nothing,” recalled Nellie Ivie, who was 88 when she was interviewed by the Beacon Hill News. “He lived in a little corner of the building above the old church. He had a wooden cot, no bed, no furniture, not enough to eat hardly. He used to go out and shoot birds – pick their feathers off and eat them. He was really a saint; everybody loved him.”
“You either loved him or feared him,” said Marie (Fiorito) Hagen in the same interview. She recalled attending a luncheon in Father Caramello’s honor, in which he insisted on covered knees and elbows, “in the house of God” even on sweltering hot days. “If your knees showed, he’d glare down from the pulpit and say, frogs’ legs,” Marie Hagen recalled.
The Rainier Valley neighborhood, which centered around the intersection of Rainier and Atlantic Avenues, was transformed into an Italian village, not unlike the ones the residents had left behind in Italy. It was a small village to be sure. Only 215 families lived there in 1915, but everybody knew everybody else. Rainier Valley was the biggest, but not the only Italian neighborhood. There were about 70 families each in Georgetown and smaller communities in South Park, South Lake Union, Youngstown and First Hill.
Families were large and close-knit, as was the community. Children attended Mt. Virgin School, where they were taught by nuns who spoke Italian and could assist students – and parents – who didn’t speak English. A 1976 Seattle Times article, quotes Sister Manette, who taught at Mt. Virgin in the 1920s and ’30s: “The immigrant parents were poor and had to take what jobs they could get because of the language barrier, so they saw education as a doorway for their children and would sacrifice anything to get it for them.” But even though many parents were eager to see their children succeed as “Americans,” they also valued the connection to their heritage. Elizabeth Yorio, a student in the 1920s, told the Times reporter that Father Caramello, “taught Italian-language classes because he dreaded to see the children getting Americanized so quickly.”
Vegetable gardens were large and prolific and fathers played bocce on weekends and made wine in their basements. Everyone who lived there remembers the aromatic smells of Italian cooking that wafted through the neighborhood, especially on Sunday. The abundance of good food also helped make up for the hungry times some of the immigrants endured in Italy and helped them convince themselves that they had done the right thing by leaving their homeland and coming to this new world. The immigrants’ love of and respect for food would lead many of them into new careers and make some of them wealthy.
In time many immigrants decided they wanted to go back to the land after all. Seattle was surrounded by some of the best gardening land in the west and the weather was perfect for growing vegetables. Moreover the land was cheap. An immigrant needed only $75 to get into farming and if he had several hundred dollars he could buy land outright.
By 1915, Fred Marino was the leading truck farmer and, in that same year, it was estimated that there were 200 to 300 Italian farming households around Seattle. The most influential farmer was Joe Desimone who arrived in America in 1897 with half a dollar in his pocket. He worked as a swineherd in Rhode Island before he moved to Seattle where he went to work for the Vacca family and married one of their daughters. The Desimone family bought up land bit by bit, drained the Duwamish swamplands and ended up owning large tracts of some of the best farmlands in the area. Desimone also became an owner of the Pike Place Market. The Desimone family proprietorship continued until it came under public acquisition by a 1971 voters’ initiative.
Whether it was truck farming or mining, Italians not only survived life in America but prevailed. When the mining industry began dying off, Italians living in Black Diamond found other ways to make a living. Angelo Merlino, while still working in the mines, began to import cheese, pasta and olive oil in bulk. He quit mining and opened a store in 1900 that was so successful, he was soon importing Italian food by the shipload. Today, Merlino and Sons is one of Seattle’s biggest distributors of Italian foods. Gradually, Seattleites developed a taste for Italian food and Italian food businesses became household words: Oberto’s and Gavosto’s Torino sausages, DeLaurenti’s, Magnano’s and Borracchini’s food stores. Italians pioneered the transformation of Seattle into one of the best restaurant cities in America. One of the earliest restaurants was Buon Gusto established in 1910 on Third Avenue by Orlando Benedetti and Giovanni Panattoni. Later restaurateurs, such as Rosellini and Gasparetti, became citywide personalities whose names and faces were known to everybody.
World War II spurred industrial growth and created thousands of jobs for Italian Americans and others. Italian parents sent their sons off to fight overseas just as other American families did but the war affected the Italian community in unique ways, as well. As “enemy aliens,” the Italian-born residents were subjected to curfews, travel and employment restrictions. The Italian social hall shut down during the war because anyone born in Italy had to be home by 8:00 p.m. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Nick Paolella, publisher and radio host, was detained by federal agents, along with dozens of other Italian newspaper and radio men in other cities on the West Coast. The newspaper, radio show and the community’s Italian language school all ceased operation during the war years.
Toward the end of the war, Italian POWs captured by U.S. troops in North Africa were shipped to Seattle. The presence of their countrymen in these circumstances was a complicated situation for Italian immigrants. Many of the Italian prisoners had been reluctant soldiers with no love for Mussolini. Ralph Vacca’s uncle, who served overseas, told him that “a lot of them, they’d see the Americans coming and they’d run up to them and say, ‘Hey, take me with you!’” These prisoners were allowed to join the Army’s Italian Service Unit (ISU) and were given special privileges and freedoms. Andy Bevilacqua remembers his father taking him to visit one of the POW camps when he was a child: “There were guys there from Tuscany, like he was.”
Ralph Vacca recalls:
“They weren’t hard line fascists and, so on weekends, the Italian prisoners would get passes to go out to visit Italian families. They couldn’t speak English—but I remember they would go over to my mother’s and my mother had nine brothers and sisters in her family. So every Sunday everyone went over there. They would play bocce ball and my God, at dinnertime, the table was from here to there – twenty or thirty people. And they would talk Italian and have spaghetti and whatever else was on the table.”.
Ralph’s aunt, Mary Vacca, wound up falling in love with one of these gentlemen, Miguel Prontera – and this certainly wasn’t the only friendship or romance that developed between young people on opposite sides of the POW camp fence. At the end of the war, Miguel Prontera and the rest of the POWs were sent back to Italy but Mary Vacca went to Italy, tracked him down, married him and brought him back to Seattle. Prontera opened a barber shop on McClelland Street, where he cut hair for more than 60 years. He retired in 2008 at the age of 90.
Prontera was part of a new wave of Italian immigrants who arrived in Seattle in the 1950s. Many of these new arrivals merged seamlessly into the established community. The Pizzutos were from a rural village in southern Italy where opportunities were extremely limited and had been so even before the war. “Back in Italy”, Lauro Pizzuto later told his grandson Cory, “I played soccer and shot pool in pubs – that was it!” Lauro and his father came to Seattle to work on building the original Lake Washington Floating Bridge. The Mottola family arrived about the same time but were city people from Naples. Vince Mottola worked for an established Italian business – the Gai family bakery– before opening his own restaurant in 1957.
So many Italians arrived in Seattle in the 1950s that the Italian-born population of SE Seattle (as measured by the U.S. Census) nearly tripled: from 929 in 1950 to 2555 in 1960. Southeast Seattle’s population as a whole rose sharply during this period, but not as fast as the Italian population. The Italian percentage doubled, from 2% in 1950 to 4% in 1960. By the late 1950s, Seattle’s Italian community had reached a fairly comfortable place. The first generation of immigrants who had arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were now growing old and many of them could look back on their lives and accomplishments with some satisfaction. Several of these gentlemen were profiled in a 1956 Seattle Times article by Erle Howell. They were businessmen, musicians, professors, patriarchs and their children had, as Sister Manette put it, “turned out very well, a credit to themselves and the city.”
Leonardo Patricelli, “The Ditch Digger” profiled in Angelo Pellegrini’s, Americans by Choice, had arrived In Seattle in 1911, willing to work hard in order to give his children a chance at a better life. Forty years later he and his wife, Giovannina, had worked hard indeed – but they now had land of their own and a fine house built by Leonardo and his four sons. Leonardo had come to the U.S. hoping his children would have opportunities he had lacked in Italy and they did. His eldest son became a doctor. More recent arrivals like the Pizzutos and Mottolas could see a similar path unfolding for their own children in their newly adopted country.
Seattle’s Italian Food
Armandino Batali of Salumi in Seattle, writes: “My son, Mario Batali, may be the most recognizable foodie in the family, but the Batalis’ interest in Italian cooking and culture goes back generations. My grandfather opened Seattle’s first Italian-food import store in 1903. It was located just a few steps from where my restaurant, Salumi, is now, and it’s one of the things that inspired me to get into the business.
“The idea behind Salumi was to create a restaurant, deli and meat factory in one place, just like the salumerias in Italy. We’re known for homemade sausages and salami, but we also attract a large lunchtime crowd. Some of the specials, like meatloaf and frittata, have been in our family for years. They’re also easy to make at home.”
- 2 pounds lean ground beef
- 1 pound coarsely grated whole-milk mozzarella cheese
- 1 pound sweet Italian sausages, casings removed, meat crumbled
- 2 cups chopped fresh basil
- 2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 cup chopped drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
- 5 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 cup tomato sauce, divided
- 3 large eggs, beaten
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
Preheat oven to 375°F.
Combine the first 11 ingredients in large bowl. Gently mix in 1/2 cup tomato sauce, eggs and wine.
Place meat mixture on large rimmed baking sheet and shape into 16 x 4-inch loaf. Brush with remaining 1/2 cup tomato sauce.
Bake meat loaf until cooked through and thermometer inserted into center registers between 160°F and 170°F, about 1 hour 15 minutes.
Italian Bean & Chard Soup With Cheese Toast
- 1 cup small dry white beans
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 medium red onion, finely chopped
- 2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 1/2 cups peeled and diced tomatoes, or 1 (14 1/2-ounce) can peeled and diced tomatoes
- 1/2 teaspoon dried basil, crushed
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
- 1 (14 1/2-ounce) can vegetable broth
- 4 cups chopped Swiss chard or escarole
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh basil
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 6 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese .
- 12 thin baguette slices
- 1/2 cup crumbled Gorgonzola or shredded Parmesan cheese
To prepare the soup:
Put the white beans in a bowl, cover with water and let soak overnight. Drain and put the beans into a soup pot. Cover with water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer 30 minutes. Drain.
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in the same pot. Add the onion and garlic; saute 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, basil and oregano. Cover and simmer 10 minutes.
Put the beans into the pot with the broth. Simmer 30 minutes. Add the kale, basil and pepper to taste. Cook 10 minutes.
To prepare the toast:
Spread the baguette slices on a baking sheet. Toast under a hot broiler. Remove from the oven and turn the bread slices over. Sprinkle with Gorgonzola or Parmesan and put back under the broiler until the cheese bubb.
Garnish each serving of soup with a spoonful of Parmesan and toast on the side.
Farro Salad with Fried Cauliflower and Prosciutto
Recipe from Ethan Stowell chef at Tavolàta, Seattle
- 1 pound farro, rinsed and drained
- 2 carrots, halved crosswise
- 1 small onion, halved
- 1 celery rib, halved crosswise
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 bay leaf
- Vegetable oil, for frying
- 2 large heads of cauliflower (2 1/2 pounds each), cut into 1-inch florets
- 1/2 pound prosciutto, sliced 1/4 inch thick and cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 5 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 2 teaspoons chopped marjoram
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
In a large saucepan, combine the farro, carrots, onion, celery, garlic and bay leaf. Add enough cold water to cover the farro by 1 inch and bring to a simmer over high heat. Reduce the heat to moderate and cook until the farro is tender but chewy, 15 minutes; drain. Spread the farro on a rimmed baking sheet to cool. Discard the carrots, onion, celery, garlic and bay leaf.
Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, heat 1 inch of vegetable oil over moderately high heat until a deep-fry thermometer registers 350° F. Fry the cauliflower in batches until golden, 5 minutes per batch; drain.
In a bowl, mix the farro, cauliflower, prosciutto, olive oil, lemon juice and herbs. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
Seared Broccoli with Anchovy Vinaigrette
Recipe adapted from Maria Hines, Agrodolce, Seattle, WA
- 4 oil-packed anchovies
- 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large bunch of broccoli, trimmed into small florets
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
- 1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
- 1/8 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Make the anchovy vinaigrette:
In a blender, purée the anchovies, vinegar and garlic together on high speed until smooth. Reduce the blender speed to medium and slowly pour in the oil, blending until the vinaigrette is emulsified and thick. Season with the pepper.
Make the broccoli:
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add the oil and broccoli florets and season with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Cook, stirring once or twice, until the florets are caramelized, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the lemon juice and season with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt and the pepper.
Transfer the broccoli to a serving platter and drizzle with the anchovy vinaigrette. Serve warm.
Strawberries in Prosecco with Vanilla Ice Cream
- 2 1/2 pounds strawberries, sliced
- 1/4 cup sugar
- One 750-milliliter bottle chilled Prosecco
- 2 pints vanilla ice cream
In a bowl, mix the strawberries with the sugar and let stand until the sugar is dissolved, about 30 minutes.
Spoon the berries and any syrup into 8 glasses and top with the Prosecco and a scoop of ice cream. Serve right away.
- The Seattle Times
- Neighborhoods: Southeast Seattle Community History Project: Mikala Woodward
- Seattle Government City archives
- History Link.org
- Rainier Valley Historical Society
- Italia Seattle Blogspot
- Festa Seattle
- Italian Club of Seattle
- Portland’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- California’s Other Little Italies (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- San Francisco’s Italian Community (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- San Diego’s Italian Community (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Milwaukee’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- The Italians In Texas (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- https://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)
- The “Little Italies” of Michigan (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- The Hill” St. Louis’ Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)