Italian immigrants entered the Great Plains first as missionaries (Fra Marco da Nizza, 1495-1558 and Eusebio Francisco Kino, 1645-1711 were two) and later as adventurers ( Count Leonetto Cipriani, 1816-1888 and Italian American Charles Siringo, 1855-1928, for example). Since Italy was not a unified country until the Risorgimento (1860-70), early travelers were either in the service of Spain or France or were individual agents. In the mid-1800s the combination of economic and political conditions encouraged some Italians, like the officers and enlisted men in General George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry Regiment, to find adventure on the Plains. After 1869 the transcontinental rail line brought Italian journalists and tourists to the Great Plains; their letters and published travel memoirs provided information about the people, geography and potential jobs for countrymen back home.
History tells us that on June 25th and 26th, 1876 the U.S. 7th Cavalry had a date with destiny at the Little Big Horn River. On the 25th of June both Carlo De Rudio and Giovanni Martini were among the roughly 500 U.S. Troopers under Colonel Custer’s direct command. In all, the 7th had between six and twelve troopers of Italian birth in June of 1876.
Interestingly, the majority of Custer’s troopers of Italian descent served in the same unit. Part of the American military experience going all the way back to Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency was that Italians were considered highly skilled in the arts, especially the musical arts. As a result, it was common to find men of Italian descent in the military with duties that included being in the unit’s military band. This was true under Custer’s command with the majority of the members of the regimental band being of Italian descent. In fact the band director’s last name was Lombardi and he was identified as having been born in Naples, Italy.
Italian emigration began increased in the late 1880s, when political and economic upheaval coincided with natural disasters. A rapid rise in Italy’s population increased pressure on the land, which in many areas had been farmed to the point of exhaustion; years of poor rainfall contributed to famines and poverty; and in 1887 a devastating outbreak of malaria left 21,000 dead. Leaving one’s village in search of work in other parts of Europe was not uncommon in Italy. Between 1886 and 1890, however, there was a significant increase in emigration from Italy and by 1890 immigration to America surpassed movement to other parts of Europe.
All across the Great Plains, Italians worked together to help newly arrived immigrants find jobs and places to live. Small boarding houses provided familiar food, language and a comforting family atmosphere. Churches and schools were quickly established, as were mutual aid societies, such as the Dante Alighieri Society and the Christopher Columbus Society. The societies also served as sites for labor union meetings in mining regions.
“Little Italy” neighborhoods developed in urban areas such as Omaha, Edmonton and Sheridan. Italian-English newspapers were published in Omaha and Edmonton. Many Italians who decided to remain in the Plains, gradually worked up from their initial menial jobs to own shops, farms or businesses and, then, became active in local politics. In both Canada and the United States, immigration legislation in the 1920s and early 1930s, combined with Benito Mussolini’s efforts to reduce emigration, dramatically reduced the flow of Italian immigrants, although the movement was never eliminated entirely. By the late twentieth century, Italian immigrants were no longer laborers looking for manual work or skilled workers arriving with families, but were university students and professionals searching for educational and career opportunities that were difficult to find in Italy.
According to the 1910 census data, in the states of the Great Plains, Colorado had the largest total population of Italians (14,375). In Montana 2,568 made the Plains their home. In Nebraska 66 percent of the state’s 3,799 Italian immigrants lived in the city of Omaha and another 14 percent in Lincoln, with the remainder scattered throughout the state. Seventy-five percent of the 3,517 Italian immigrants in Kansas lived in that state’s southeastern coal-mining district. In Oklahoma, 72 percent of the state’s total Italian immigrant population (2,564) lived in the Great Plains and in Wyoming 1,086 of the statewide total (1,962) were in the Plains. In South Dakota the 1,158 Italians lived mainly on land along the rail lines and in North Dakota 1,262 Italian immigrants were recorded in 1910 census.
Denver’s “Little Italy” had its roots in the Highlands neighborhood of North Denver. Italian miners, railroad workers and farmers helped to develop Colorado in the late 19th century and northern Italians were well represented in the state.
In the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, the area in Denver between Broadway and Zuni Streets and 46th and 32nd Avenues was known as “Little Italy”. It was an area of Italian grocery stores and bakeries, community bread ovens, churches and schools – an area where a new wave of immigrants from all over Italy moved to and where they were comfortable and socially secure in a new country.
The area along the South Platte River, sandwiched between the growing downtown and the hills to the west, was known as “The Bottoms”. Here many of the first Italian immigrants settled. There was also farmland along the South Platte, where they could grow cash crops of vegetables that were then sold in small, neighborhood shops and from push carts and horse-drawn wagons thoughout the neighborhoods of Denver. Later it became an area of railroad yards, industries and warehouses.
These two areas – “Little Italy” and “The Bottoms” – have undergone drastic change since those days of the first Italian immigrants. Today “Little Italy” is still a residential area interspersed with small businesses. But the demographics are most different, as the neighborhood is re-populated with a new wave of residents – young (20-30 year olds) singles and couples often with young children. “The Bottoms” is no longer an area of truck farms and warehouses, instead parks and high rise apartment buildings have been built there.
The Italian immigrants who settled in Utah faced a different environment. Their numbers were relatively small, yet they settled in four major areas and contributed to the life and labor that characterizes Utah history. These immigrants, almost all of them confined to mining and railroad centers, brought with them language, religion, beliefs, customs and products of cultural distinctiveness. The first noticeable number of foreign-born Italians in Utah appeared in 1870 and totaled seventy-four. These early immigrants, Protestant Vaudois of the Waldensian persuasion from northwest Italy, were the result of Mormon missionary activity in Italy from 1849 to 1861. Almost all settled in the fertile areas of Ogden, where they began to farm.
The first Italian laborers, predominantly from the North, began arriving in Utah in the late 1890s in response to the opening of the Carbon County coalfields. The development and expansion of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad into Utah in the 1880s was a catalyst to the state’s coal mining industry. Four major camps emerged: Clear Creek (1882), Winter Quarters (1882), Castle Gate (1888), and Sunnyside (1900) Many of these early laborers were lured to Utah by agents representing coal companies.
Upon their arrival in the Carbon County coalfields, the Italian immigrants settled in two of the four main camps, Castle Gate or Sunnyside. The coal companies (Pleasant Valley Coal and Utah Fuel) furnished a few of the workers with company-owned houses on company-owned property and compelled the laborers to trade at the company-owned stores. Trading at company stores was inevitable, since miners were issued scrip instead of currency. The company town became a prominent feature of western mining life and the immigrants who lived in them were subjected to difficult living conditions. For example, the rent charged by Utah Fuel Company depended on the number of rooms in a house. In one boxcar on company property a cloth curtain was used to divide it into two quarters. When company inspectors approached, a family member would take down the partition, so as not to be charged for two rooms instead of one.
In describing the camp at Sunnyside, a resident has written: “many put up tents in the southern part of the canyon and this section became known as “Rag Town” by local town residents. Company-owned houses were hastily erected framed structures, not plastered inside, but in 1915 the company began a program of building better homes and modernizing the camp.
The mining and railroad opportunities in Salt Lake County also attracted Italian immigrants at the turn of the century. As early as 1880 there were thirty-five Italian laborers living in the mining camp in Bingham, mostly Piedmontese. Bingham was a bustling community of many diverse nationalities, described as “a town of 22 saloons and 600 sporting girls.” Like Carbon County, Bingham was susceptible to labor strife. The Utah Copper Company in 1903 became the major employer in Bingham Canyon.
By 1900, 102 of the 170 Italians who resided in the county lived in Salt Lake. Immigrants were employed by the Union Pacific and the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroads; but Italians also owned saloons, grocery stores and tailor shops. The lack of a mining town atmosphere with its potentially explosive character, differentiated Salt Lake City from other Italian immigrant localities. In Salt Lake, Italians took part in celebrations and parades that promoted good will between the Italian and non-Italian communities.
Life in Utah was a new experience, but Italian immigrants were able to maintain continuity with the past, while at the same time adjust to the new environment. Alexander DeConde, a resident, aptly described the situation as “it was mezzo amara, mezzo dolce (“half bitter, half sweet”).”
Carl L. Stranges immigrated to the United States, from Italy, in the 1880s at twenty years of age. After his arrival in the United States, he moved to Grand Junction, Colorado and resided there until shortly before his death in 1942. Carl Stranges opened his grocery store in the southwestern portion of the downtown area, often referred to as “Little Italy”, due to the concentration of Italian residents and Italian-owned businesses in the area. Three other grocery stores and an icehouse were located within a two-block area of the Stranges store. Carl Stranges owned and managed the grocery until shortly before his death in 1942. He willed the store to his niece and her husband who continued to operate the store until 1963. Since that time, a variety of businesses under several ownerships have used the building.
Italian Food On the Great Plains
Italian Sausage Soup with Pasta
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 8 oz Italian sausage, cut into 1/2-inch thick slices
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 1- 32 oz can chicken broth
- 1- 15 1/2 oz can kidney beans (rinse and drain them)
- 1- 14 1/2 oz can undrained diced tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon oregano leaves
- 1 teaspoon finely crushed rosemary leaves
- 1 teaspoon thyme leaves
- 1 6 oz bag baby spinach leaves
- 1/2 cup bowtie pasta, uncooked
- Grated Parmesan cheese for garnish
Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add the Italian sausage and cook for about three minutes, stirring often.
Add in the onion andcook for another three minutes or until the onions become tender and the sausage browns.
Add the chicken broth to the saucepan ,as well as, the tomatoes and the red kidney beans.
Stir the soup while you add the oregano, thyme and rosemary. Bring to a boil.
Once it boils, reduce to low heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
Finally, stir in the pasta and the spinach and turn the heat back up to medium-high. Let it boil.
Once it boils, reduce to low heat again, and simmer for another 10 minutes or until the pasta is tender. If you used fresh tortellini, you don’t have to let the soup simmer as long.
Serve this hearty winter soup with some garlic bread and garnish the soup with cheese.
Braised Short Ribs
Serve with Mashed Potatoes.
6 bone-in short ribs (about 6 pounds)
Seasoning for short ribs:
- Fresh cracked black pepper
- Kosher Salt
- 1/2 bunch fresh thyme picked clean
- 1/2 bunch fresh rosemary picked clean and chopped
- Flour to lightly coat the short ribs
- Olive oil (to brown the short ribs)
Coarsely chop all the following vegetables and garlic in the food processor
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped large
- 2 ribs celery
- 2 peeled carrots cut in chunks
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
- 1 1/2 cups chopped plum tomatoes
- 2 cups Merlot
- 2 cups beef stock (homemade or low sodium purchased)
- 2 bay leaves
- Water to replenish evaporation during the cooking process
Fresh chopped Italian parsley for garnish
Dry the short ribs of any excess moisture with a paper towel. Season each short rib generously with salt, fresh cracked black pepper, rosemary and thyme. Coat a roasting pan (that will fit all the meat and processed vegetables) with olive oil and bring to a high heat on the stove.
Lightly coat the seasoned short ribs with flour, add them to the pan and brown very well on all sides, about 3 minutes per side. Do not stuff the pan with short ribs or they won’t brown. Better to browm them in separate batches, if necessary.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
When the short ribs are browned on all sides, remove them from the pan. Leave the fat in the pan to saute the vegetables, add a drizzle of olive oil, reheat and add the chopped vegetables.
Season vegetables with kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper. Cook the vegetables until they begin to caramelize. There will be a natural glaze of browned vegetable and meat juices on the bottom of the pan.
Add the Merlot and chopped tomatoes, along with the bay leaf and bring to a simmer scraping the bottom to assure all the caramelized juices are returned into the braising liquid.
Add 2 cups of beef stock.
Cover the roasting pan and place in the preheated oven for 3 hours. Check periodically while cooking and add water, if needed, to keep the liquid level just under the top of the short ribs.
Halfway during cooking turn the short ribs over to allow foe even cooking and tenderness.
During the last 20 minutes remove the cover, so the short ribs can caramelize. Garnish with fresh chopped Italian Parsley
Buffalo Cacciatore with Polenta
Serves 6 to 10
- 3 lb. buffalo roast cut into 1 inch slices
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 cups white wine
- 4 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, plus juice
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Mix all dry spices together and rub on the meat.
Over medium high heat, heat oil in a Dutch Oven and brown the meat. You may need to do this in two batches.
Place browned meat in a dish and set aside.
Add onion and garlic to the pan and saute for 4 minutes.
Deglaze the pan with wine; then add the tomatoes and tomato paste. Bring to a boil.
Return meat to the pan, cover and place in the preheated oven. Braise for 1 1/2 hours. Check for tenderness and continue braising until tender.
Prepare polenta as directed on package.
Spoon polenta on serving platter and top with Buffalo Cacciatore.
Chocolate-Almond Cookies (Strazzate)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 ¾ cups finely ground, plus 2 tablespoons roughly chopped almonds
- 1 ½ cups plus 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons chocolate chips
- 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 cup Strega or Galliano liqueur
- 1/3 cup coffee, at room temperature
Heat oven to 325°F. Coat 2 parchment-lined baking sheets with cooking spray and set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together baking powder and 1 tablespoon lukewarm water until dissolved, about 20 seconds.
Combine ground and chopped almonds, flour, sugar, chocolate chips, cocoa powder, oil and salt in a large bowl.
With a wooden spoon, vigorously stir in the baking powder mixture, liqueur and coffee to form a wet dough.
Divide the dough into 1-oz. portions. Using your hands, roll dough portions into balls and transfer to prepared baking sheets, spaced about 1-inch apart.
Bake until set, about 30 minutes. Transfer cookies to racks and let cool to firm before serving.
- 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)