Friday, August 30, 2013

It's All About Tradition

It's All About Tradition

            With this signpost beside me, where you might ask could I be?  From the way the arrows are oriented you would be hard pressed to determine whereabouts in Italia you'd need to be standing for them to make any sense.  Everything seems to be off to one side ... to the right, in this case toward the east.  It makes sense, however, when you realize that this post stands in Boston, far, far to the west of Bella Italia.
            This signpost stands on a corner in Boston's North End.  It is the Boston abandoned by the British in 1776 and won by waves of immigrants ever since.  As a traditional first stop for immigrants arriving in Boston, the 19th century saw various waves of immigrants populate the "North End" neighborhood transforming it into the hub of immigrant life in Boston.    The North End is located in downtown Boston across the Charles River from Charlestown and historic Bunker Hill, also of Revolutionary War fame.  This particular neighborhood became a center of immigrant life beginning first with the arrival of the Irish.  Beginning in 1845, following the Irish Potato Famine, the number of Irish arrivals increased so rapidly that by 1855 nearly half of its residents were Irish born.  Just five years later it was the Italians, the next wave, who arrived to help build America.  By the 1870s, things had changed dramatically.  By then the North End had became an enclave of Italian immigrants.  It is estimated that by 1920, ninety percent of the residents of the North End were of Italian heritage.  It, however, was a transition that had not always been amicable; more than just Irish resistance to the next wave.
            Much of this hostile resistance was due to a growing anti-Italian sentiment which steadily increased to the point that is became ingrained in the psyche of Bostonians.  In 1871, journalist and writer, Samuel Adams Drake, took time to describe, in less than flattering terms, living conditions in the North End:
“Nowhere in Boston has Father Time wrought such ruthless changes, as in this highly respectable quarter, now swarming with Italians in every dirty nook and corner. In truth, it is hard to believe the evidence of our own senses, though the fumes of garlic are sufficiently convincing. Past and Present confront each other here with a stare of blank amazement, in the humble Revere homestead, on one side, and the pretentious Hotel Italy on the other; nor do those among us, who [know] something of its vanished prestige, feel at all home in a place where our own mother-tongue no longer serves us.”
At some point dislike of Italians exceeded anti-Irish resentment typified in a popular slogan of the time, "Irish need not apply".  One accelerant to this widespread attitude was an intensifying resentment to the seemingly growing 'Red Scare' and its association with Italians.  I still recall both my surprise and fascination at seeing the communist sickle and hammer emblem throughout Italy on our first visit there.  It adorned campaign posters, office fronts and flapped on the red banners held aloft above the parading feet of the 'proletariat' marchers we once observed in Genoa.  Bolshevism, a panacea for the masses this side of heaven, was on the rise throughout Europe in the early 1900s.  Americans, fearing it might spread here, developed a cultural resentment against the perceived carrier of this menace, Italians!  This along with a growing anarchist movement and the rise of fascism in Italy, by association, caused Italians to be eyed with suspicion.  I can recall stories from my own family history about how my would-be mother's side of the family forbade her from dating an Italian  ... "because they all carried knives" ... a carryover from the murky criminal reputation as gangsters and hoodlums that overshadowed Italians.  Thankfully she didn't listen!

            Other events only added to the disdain for Italians and the growing animosity.  In January of 1919, for example, a 50-foot high iron tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses ruptured on the North End industrial waterfront, flooding the streets.  It caused widespread destruction, took the lives of 21 people and injured hundreds more.  Attorneys for the owners argued that the blast was a case of sabotage, the result of a terrorist act by political anarchists.  A finger pointed at Italians?  The ensuing investigation and legal hearings went on for seven years before a conclusive judgment was reached - the tank had been improperly designed and its collapse was due entirely to structural failure, not terrorism.  However, on the heels of this "molasses tsunami" and a general, though unspoken, acquittal of the Italians, came the "Sacco and Vanzetti" murder trial.

           In 1921 two North Enders, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, both Italian-Americans, after a seemingly 'keystone cop' trial were convicted of robbery and murder of a shoe company paymaster and guard.  Their trial captured the attention of Bostonians and immigrants alike for months.  While nowadays we are continually beaten down with political correctness and counseled on the evils of profiling, eyewitnesses claimed "they looked Italian".  It seemed to have been enough to convict them even though both men had good alibis.  Arguments against them though specious and mostly disproven in court by witness after witness for the defense, the fact that the two men were avowed anarchists, had protested American entry into WW I and had unpatriotically fled to Mexico to avoid the draft, hadn't helped their cause.  Moreover, the prosecution underscored the fact that those who testified in support of these alibis were also Italian immigrants!  Besides, they were carrying pistols at the time of their arrest.  All this, especially in a trial that took place during the height of the 'Red Scare', apparently prejudiced both judge, jury and city against them.  Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty of first degree murder and executed.

            Enduring this anti-Italian negatively charged atmosphere, in addition to the cultural shock they experienced upon their arrival, took perseverance as well as some help.  It was during this period that various religious organizations came into being to help these mostly agrarian Italian immigrants not only cope with this strange new land of cement streets and four-story buildings but also to acquire the skills they would need in their newly adopted home.  Language, for instance, quickly comes to mind.  Societies named for the specific spiritual protector of their town in the old country were formed and played a large part in keeping the neighborhood together.  As they sought to adopt to the American dream and searched for material wealth in a new world, their protectors remained God and their patron saint.  As a displaced people, their traditions and friends who had come before them served as support, a source of stability, of the familiar, of the unity found in individual religious beliefs, family, food, and music.  Whatever the group of arrivals at any moment - the Genovese who began making their living as fruit and vegetable vendors, fishermen and construction workers or later the Campanians, followed by the Sicilians, the Avellinese, the Neopolitans, and the Abruzzesians, wherever they originated, as they settled into their particular close-knit neighborhood enclaves they brought with them not only their traditions and customs but their patron saints as well.  Today third and fourth generation North End Italians carry on their home country traditions.
            It had been miserably hot in New England.  Heat in the 90s had come and gone, but only after weeks of soggy rain.  Seeking a modicum of relief we decided to head for Boston the weekend of the last Sunday in July to the "Saint Joseph Feast", the start of the annual season of North End religious festivals.  In 1925, one particular North End group from the Sicilian town of Riesi started the St. Joseph Society.  In celebration of the feast of their patron saint, San Giuseppe, they host this North End Italian festival featuring a parade, strolling singers, marching bands, live entertainment and the best in Italian street food and desserts.  Ever tourists, we had come to sample the authentic cuisine, hear Italian being spoken, enjoy a cannoli or a cappuccino at places like Mike's Pastries and explore the narrow side-streets of what is thought to be the most European city in the U.S.  The heart of the place is Hanover Street, which extends from Cross Street by the Rose Kennedy Greenway to Boston's waterfront along Commercial Street, lined as it is with chic hotels, restaurants, even an ocean-side park.  The affair itself takes up about half the length of Hanover Street from the fire department on the corner of Charter Street down to Commercial Street by the Coast Guard Station.

            Today the North End sits in the middle of the Boston's Freedom Trail where past and present co-exist.  In addition to Paul Revere’s House, it is home to Old North Church, the oldest surviving in the city, where one night in 1775 Sexton Robert Newman of "one if by land and two if by sea" fame mounted two lanterns in its belfry to signal Paul Revere as precursor to the Battles of Lexington and Concord.  After many trips to Italy, I realize that in comparison we are as yet a young nation and this is our yet young history, still in the making, here in what has evolved during this brief interim since our birth into Boston's 'Little Italy'. 

            Entering Hanover Street from the Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market end, guarded as it is by no less than Goody Glover's Irish Pub, we passed such landmarks as Mother Anna's, Dolce Vita, Modern Pastry, and Nick Varano's coveted and costly Strega restaurant (take a look and while you do, enjoy the music:  As if some Hollywood prop master was trying to accentuate the point, that this was authentic and truly "Little Italy", there was a new shiny-red imported Fiat Cinquecento (Fiat 500) parked at the curb (difficult real estate to get on Hanover St. by the way) and a little farther along, to ice the cake, was not just a Vespa but a Vespa with matching fire engine red side car!  Its owner told us he'd purchased his sweet setup in Arizona back in '72.  I'd never seen one before (see photo album).

          The feast itself wasn't totally reminiscent of the kind of festival we'd grown accustomed to in Calitri.  Here was a celebration more on the order of an American carnival mixed in with the trappings of an Italian party ... basketball hoop shooting and 'wack-o-mole' game booths intermingled with shaved ice, pizza, sausage-peppers, even a cigar stand.  Continuing our casual walk through the festival, we came upon "The Fury of Fleet Street", Tony DeMarco, sitting at a table under a tent canopy in the refreshing shade.  Tony had battled his way from the streets of his blue-collar, North End, immigrant neighborhood to the top of the boxing world.  In 1955, his determination earned him the title of "Undisputed Welterweight Boxing Champion of the World".  There was Tony in the flesh meeting and greeting passersby.  As a kid, I'm sure I spent many a Friday night along with my father watching Tony's bouts.  It would have been on that black and white Hallicrafter TV of ours.   Friday night fights were featured on The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports with its catchy theme song "To look sharp and be on the ball, to feel sharp ...."  Hopefully someone besides myself remembers that show or possibly the tune.  Anyone?  It was an honor to speak with Tony, the "Italian Stallion" long before pop-culture created "Rocky", and shake the hand of a true king of the TKO (technical knock-out).

         Any stroll along Hanover Street wouldn't be complete without a stop at a particularly interesting alleyway.  We never miss stopping by.  Nestled in a ten foot wide alleyway between 4 and 8 Battery Street lies one of Boston's more curious street-side attractions.  For there, behind a faded, dull-green gated doorway, which always seems to be closed when we happen by, you'll find the "Wall of Saints".  Basically this aptly named wall is just that, an outdoor shrine with labeled portraits of saints everywhere.  Think of it as the Sistine Chapel of Boston's Little Italy!  Careful to avoid fire escapes and extending air conditioners, the images of saints ascend toward heaven, row after row up the exterior brick walls of the adjacent buildings.  Just above the placard announcing you have arrived at "All Saints Way", on the crosspiece above the door connecting one side of the alley with the other and arrayed in a line of solidarity like pieces on a chess board are an assortment of religious figures flanking a large statue of Jesus.  They are guarded by two angles, one to either side, and shaded by overhanging geraniums all surmounted by an illuminated blue backdrop, on the order of a large hoop, completely surrounding a statue of the Virgin.  Strands of Christmas type lights further accent this off-the-beaten-path attraction.  Even though the door may be locked much can still be seen from the street since the framed photos, plaques and cards of saints, like an ever growing vine, extend to a considerable height up the walls of the alley behind the door.  Its creator, Peter Baldassari, said to have collected holy cards as a child, has decorated the walls with, by some estimates, thousands of saintly images.  The weathered frame of St. Joseph, a longtime member of this distinguished pantheon and namesake of the day's festival, can be identified by a purple banner with bright yellow lettering.  On the wall along with the saints, Baldassari has posted an old Italian saying somewhat equivalent to the familiar American saying "Don't mess with Texas" with his adage mindful to "Mock all and sundry things, but leave the saints alone."  Good advice!

                At some point of course we had to think about dinner.  With so many places to choose from, there in the heart of "Little Italy", it made any decision difficult so we relied on advice and reputation.  Mare had been told of a place called La Summa, on Fleet Street, named for a loved grandmother and known for its Sicilian cuisine.  We found it without difficulty and peeked inside.  It was a simple, unadorned, one-room affair and even at lunchtime was filled.  A festival like we were attending only added to the flood of patrons and obviously amplified the demands on the staff to the point of overload.  We could only imagine how it would be later at dinnertime.  It is not uncommon to see lines of would-be diners extending down the streets awaiting tables at the better known restaurants.  We kept La Summa in mind and moved on.  What better way to get some advice than to ask someone hopefully far more familiar with the area cuisine, a local.  This wasn't difficult at all since this was their festival and they were everywhere.  Not really trying to typecast, profile or stereotype anyone, I chose a middle-aged well tanned fella sporting a white Italian undershirt accented with multiple gold chains and tufts of chest hair!  All right, so maybe I was searching for a particular look.  On his advice we headed for Massimino's on Endicott Street a few blocks away from the epicenter of the festa (festival).  Only mid-afternoon, we hoped to check-out the place.

            Massimino's roots are sunk 40 years deep into traditional Italian cooking.  I hadn't sampled the flavors yet but the aromas enveloped us in the doorway.  Only a few customers were there at the time.  During this apparent lull, the staff sat together around a table having lunch.  Without hesitation they invited us to look around, which we did.  To our liking it had a cozy atmosphere with paintings, photos and memorabilia remindful of its long history as well as scenes of Italy.  We found the downstairs area with its arrangement of tables and a small corner bar especially inviting.  We then glanced at the menu.  Their dishes were a collaboration of authentic Italian recipes, unique innovation and regional culinary traditions.  Offerings like 'Sautéed Escarole and Broccoli with Garlic in Oil', 'Mussels Napoletana' or 'Scrod Pizzaiola (scrod baked in a spicy plum tomato sauce) convinced us that this was the place.  We reserved a downstairs table for later that evening and returned to the festival. 

            By the time we returned to Massimino's we were flat-out tired and grateful for the chance to sit down, relax and enjoy a refreshing drink from that little downstairs bar before dinner.  There was simple too much to choose from on the menu and seeing the portions on some plates being served at nearby tables we decided to concentrate on a couple appetizers.  Along with wine we chose an antipasto salad of assorted meats, veggies and cheeses served under mixed greens along with a spicy calamari salad.  True to form these too were gigantic (see photo album).  To accommodate their sizes one was served on a cutting board, the other in a large platter!  They were so large in fact that at first they didn't fit on our table.  Our waitress, likely very familiar with this recurring dilemma, simply increased the size of our table by sliding another alongside.  Each of the appetizers was delicious and more than enough but I was adventurous.  Being in an Italian restaurant there in "Little Italy" how could I not sample their pasta.  Pasta with "gravy" is Italian comfort food.  Today we owe the origins of successful national brand companies like the "Pastene Companies" and the "Prince Pasta Company", both begun as "Ma and Pa" start-ups, to the North End.  Pastene is North America's oldest importer of premium Italian packaged goods but it began as a Boston pushcart operation back in 1848.  Pastene today, owned and operated by descendants of Luigi and Pietro Pastene, has the distinction of being one of America's oldest continuously operated family businesses. The Prince Pasta Company began on Prince Street, which intersects with Hanover Street, in 1912.  As a kid I still recall those TV ads announcing  “Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day” featuring the refrain of a mother peering out a tenement window, calling her son, Anthony, to come home to a 'Prince spaghetti supper'.  What true Italian doesn't enjoy some pasta daily?  Even a half-blood like myself can use a dose every now and then and this was one of those "thens".  You can imagine how my sense of adventurism materialized.  It took the form of veal parmigiana with linguine!  Though we didn't finish it, I loved the pasta, especially their sauce, but we were somewhat disappointed with the veal.  Maria Elena found it heavily breaded and we both agreed that the meat tasted extremely sour.  Maybe it had to do with their particular regional style of Italian cuisine when dealing with veal or some pickling effect from an overdose of some tenderizer, certainly not milk.  Who knows?  To find out, we'll just have to return for another go.

            Out in the street that Saturday night a collaboration of some of the best vocalists and musicians in the country performed some well known Italian ballads from across the decades.  Ray Cavicchio and his orchestra with special guest vocalists Frank Zarba and opera diva Sharon Z. were featured.  Other performers that evening included "Street Magic", a male vocal quintet who performed acappella music of the 50s and 60's.  Frank is a recording artist, band leader, vocalist and brass musician who has appeared internationally, most recently at the Teatro Mediterraneo in Naples.  Unfortunately, and not from lack of interest, we missed Frank and Sharon's performances entirely.  Dinner at Massimino's had gone long.  Luckily, we were in time for the showcased headliner of the evening, Gian Faraone, a graduate of Berklee College of Music and known in Boston as "The Crooner of Little Italy".  Raised in an Italian household in Venezuela, Gian began performing at the age of ten, after his father bought him a piano.  While he stayed away from the ivory that night, his singing style was a combination of Maestro Pavarotti and the signature sounds of Sinatra (himself the child of Italian immigrants Natalie Garaventa and Antonino Martino Sinatra from Palermo).  There on a small stage erected at the very end of Hanover Street, to the accompaniment of only a drummer, an accordionist and a trumpet player, he entertained us long into the night with one memorable performance after another including classics like Nessun Dorma (None Shall Sleep).  Gian's magnificent voice and classic good looks all contributed to his unique persona and the magic of his entertainment.  Crooner of Little Italy indeed, he could certainly bang out a song!

            We returned on Sunday afternoon to watch the festival parade that drew the celebration to a close.  Its route followed Hanover Street beginning at the society's headquarters at 467 Hanover before it snaked through adjacent narrow streets lined with both the devout and the curious.  At least to us, there was an evident separation of Church and State.  In Italy there is no such firewall. There a parade would be incomplete without the sindaco (mayor) with his colorful sash of office draped across his chest flanked by a priest or two along with uniformed Carabinieri military policemen, their oversized hat insignias gleaming, their silver scabbards swaying at their sides, led the parade.  Noticeably absent these classic Italian trimmings, and with no priests in sight, an official of the society simply read a proclamation from the mayor's office!

            The society's statue of Saint Joseph, lovingly restored over the years, was carried on the shoulders of society members.  It followed behind the "Italian-American Band" of Lawrence, MA which led the parade along its familiar route.  The statue of Joseph, holding the Christ child, was adorned with dollar bill donations.  This is tame by Italian standards.  For instance, in the town of Cocullo, located in central Italy, slithering snakes, not money, cover the statue of their patron saint during a procession!  Docile in comparison, these offerings to San Giuseppe were taped like flowing ribbons, one beside another, draped down the length of the statue so as to completely hide the torsos of Joseph and Child.  All that remained visible were their heads, and interestingly, the top of St Joseph's staff adorned with real lilies, all abloom.  I instantly recalled as a child hearing the story of St. Joseph's flowering walking stick.  Though nowhere in the Bible, this legend is extracted straight from the apocryphal gospels.  If I have it right, one story related how the blooming staff of Joseph, from among the staffs of other eligible partners for Mary, was a sign from God revealing that Joseph was to take the virgin Mary as his spouse.  Over the centuries, this tale has been depicted in sacred art, both paintings and sculptures, showing St. Joseph holding a staff from which flowers, always lilies, are blooming.  As unofficial as it is, this story somehow crept into my parochial school education.  My grammar school nuns must have related this story to me.  Young and naive as I was, I never thought to ask for chapter and verse!

           An Italian immigrant from the early 20th Century would best sense how much things have changed in Boston’s North End.  While it retains much of its “Old World” feel, many neighborhood grocery stores, fruit vendors, butcher shops, bakeries, shoe stores, clothiers and cobblers have simply disappeared.  In many cases they have been replaced by streets lined with restaurants and souvenir shops pampering to tourists like us.  There is now even a Chinese restaurant on Hanover Street!  With a population barely a quarter of its former peak, fewer services are required to sustain the community.  As families moved to the suburbs, schools have closed only to resurrect as pricy condominiums.  Church properties have been auctioned off to the highest bidders with the result that today only 12 of the once 50 related religious societies remain.  But traditions die hard.  Saint Leonard's, for instance, which you can't miss on the corner of Prince and Hanover Streets, begun in 1873 as the first Catholic Church to be built by Italian immigrants, remains a vibrant parish.

            In another city, through which all these immigrants once passed on their journey, there stands a great lady.  With a torch raised high in her hand, visible to each of them, she announced to the world, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free".  From far off Italy, symbolically identified by that Hanover Street lamppost, they saw her light, heard her words and they came.  I myself am a descendent of one such immigrant couple who took that life changing, leap-of-faith journey in 1906.  Among other destinations many came to Boston and helped create a great city.  In the midst of change, in some instances dramatic in its nature, the St. Joseph Society continues to add to the best of that patch-quilt of American ethnicity through its continued emphasis on the importance of Italian traditions and customs.  Though sometimes tattered, frayed and torn, it is of strong fabric, continually mended with a golden thread of equality and freedom for all.  With this sense of commitment to the past and continuity on into the future, the customs of family and place endure on the streets of Boston.  Events like the "Saint Joseph Feast", along with others throughout the summer months, are proof that the past keeps lingering.  It's all about tradition - maintaining the spiritual foundation of their Italian community, "Boston Strong", as part of the American tapestry.

From That Rogue Tourist,


For related photos (as well as those from other adventures ), click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Traditions”.