Two weeks ago, we visited New York City on our family vacation. As you may remember, I stayed in the area (Newark, NJ) for the 1994 World Cup game between Italy and Ireland but our only venture into the Big Apple was to see the Yankees play in the Bronx the night before. So seeing New York City proper has always been something I have wanted to do.
On our first night we stopped into a small pizzeria called "Bella Napoli" near Rockefeller Center. The food was good and there was the constant music of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra songs playing in the background which made for a good atmosphere. There were pictures of various members of the Azzurri posted on the wall behind the counter. There was one of German coach Jurgen Klinsmann holding a super-imposed pizza that I thought was pretty funny too.
The next day we visited Ellis Island. Even though my dad did not come through there I found it very moving as I thought of the thousands of immigrants that arrived there with only the clothes on their back and maybe a suitcase or a steamer trunk with all of there possessions. I know that some of the older Calabrese that my dad knew when I was a kid had probably come through there but sadly they are no longer around to ask.
The record for the most persons processed was 11,000 in one 12 hour period in 1907. That is nearly one thousand people per hour. The medical staff had roughly 6 seconds to scan an immigrant for illness or disease and mark their lapel or shirt with a code so they could receive aid if needed. It was truly an amazing place.
The Statue of Liberty was the second part of the tour and I found it interesting that we were required to go through a security check before we boarded the boat and again before we entered the actual Statue. Again it was quite an amazing place. The National Park Service does a good job of keeping the area clean and providing adequate food and restroom facilities too.
The following evening we took the Subway to Chinatown at Canal Street. From there it is just a few blocks to Mulberry Street and Little Italy. As soon as I got there I felt like I was somewhere else, somewhere familiar. In the back of my head I kept hearing the words to a whole bunch of Billy Joel songs too. "Big Man on Mulberry Street","Scenes from an Italian Restaurant", 52nd Street" and "Anthony's Song (Movin' Out)" to name a few.
The back cover of The Stranger album was in my thoughts too. The picture of Phil Ramone, Liberty DeVito, Doug Stegmeyer, Richie Canatta and Billy Joel on that album is reminiscent of some of the basements that I spent my childhood in. Lots of stories, lots of wine and lots of good food. For me, as an Italian kid growing up in the 70's, that picture was also my idea of being Italian and what being from New York must be like. Even though Billy Joel isn't Italian, I always thought that he played the part well.
As you might find in Italy or anywhere in Europe. there were merchandise stands with jersey's, photos and posters of the Azzurri. There were photos of Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and Frank Sinatra among others. It was fun to browse and try to barter for a better price.
We ate dinner at a place called La Mela which means the "The Apple" in Italian. The food was good and there was a guy playing the guitar and singing songs. A few tables away were a group from Umbria. They were having a serious conversation about something in Italian and when they talked it sounded like they were reading poetry.
On the way out I noticed this table with some overweight middle aged guys and it looked like something right out of the Soprano's. Don't stare too long or you might get shot!
Little Italy was a great experience that didn't last long enough for me. For a brief second I felt like I might have been somewhere in Italy. Perhaps in Rome or maybe even in Fuscaldo with by dad's family.
Unfortunately the Italian identity has been diluted here in Cincinnati and isn't as noticeable as it might have been in the '70's when I was a kid. The elders don't get around very much anymore and the next generation and their kids have melded into the suburban mainstream.
While there are a few groups that continue some of the traditions, it just doesn't have the same feel that it had 30 years ago when I was a kid. I feel bad that my kids don't really get the chance to be around that very much. But I was very happy that they got to see Little Italy.