Shortly after the American Civil War, a new kind of neighborhood emerged in New England cities: a Little Italy. They were poor, dense, Roman Catholic and very, very family oriented.
The Italians came to escape grinding poverty in Sicily and Southern Italy. They followed the Irish, who came to escape the potato famine and usually moved out when the Italians moved in.
Today, the descendants of Italian immigrants make up more than 10 percent of the population of every New England state except Vermont and Maine. A Little Italy survives in Boston, in New Haven and in Providence, but bulldozers took out the Little Italies of Northern New England to make way for hotels and parking lots.
People flock to the surviving Little Italies for their buoyant street atmospheres, their summer religious festivals and most of all for their food.
Here, then, are six of New England’s Little Italies, both lost and surviving.
Connecticut is the second most Italian state in the United States, with 18.7 percent of the population claiming Italian ancestry. So you shouldn’t be surprised that roughly half the populations of three New Haven neighborhoods — East Haven, West Haven, and North Haven — are descended from Italian immigrants.
Wooster Square is New Haven’s Little Italy, one of the densest and oldest in the country. It has plenty of Italian pastry shops and restaurants, like Tony & Lucille’s, Da Legna and Consiglio’s. Locals argue about which is better: Frank Pepe’s white clam apizza or Sally’s.
The neighborhood was named after Revolutionary War General David Wooster because he owned a warehouse near Water Street. Before the harbor was filled, Wooster Square was close to the waterfront. Ship captains and wholesale grocers built large houses near the port. By the end of the 19th century, factories moved to Wooster Square, making it a less desirable place to live.
Sargent Manufacturing, a hardware maker, moved in to New Haven and brought workers from the Amalfi coast of Italy. More Italians followed, to make corsets at Strouse, Adler, boots at Candee Rubber Co., clocks at the New Haven Clock Company and carriage parts at C. Cowles and other carriage factories. Many families opened small shops out of their homes.
The neighborhood fell into poverty when factories closed during the Great Depression. The city planned to build a highway through Wooster Square during the 1950s and ‘60s, but preservationists rallied. Wooster Square was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
For 117 years, the Society of St. Andrew has held a festa at the end of June to honor St. Andrew, who saved Amalfi from Turkish invaders.
Portland’s Lost Little Italy
Maine is one of the least Italian states in New England (along with Vermont), but nonetheless 50,000 Italian-Americans live within its borders. They began arriving in large numbers around 1900 and moved to Portland’s Little Italy on India Street. They came to work in Portland as barbers, carpenters, fishermen, longshoremen, railroad workers and masons.
Life for Italian immigrants centered on St. Peter’s Parish on Federal Street, built in 1929. Eventually Portland’s Italian-Americans moved to the suburbs, and Portland’s Little Italy is nearly gone. St. Peter’s Parish is still active, and Micucci Grocery Co., Est. 1949., is still open on India Street. Amato’s Italian delicatessen, now a chain, still claims to have originated the Italian sandwich.
The North End of Boston
People have lived in Boston’s North End since 1630. Paul Revere lived there in a house built on the site of Increase Mather’s house. The Old North Church still stands; Paul Revere saw lanterns hung from its steeple. Thomas Hutchinson, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, lived in a North End mansion before patriots ransacked it in 1765.
By the late 1840s, the North End developed a red light district and prosperous residents moved away. Irish immigrants moved in to the neighborhood, and moved up in the world. Boston Mayor John ‘Honey Fitz’ Fitzgerald and his daughter Rose lived there.
By the time Rose married Joe Kennedy and moved to Brookline, Eastern European Jews started moving in. Then came many, many Italians. At one time 44,000 Italians lived in the North End, more than three times the number of Irish at their peak — 14,000, and more than the 17,000 Jews.
Churches, Feasts, Processions
The Italians took over five Protestant churches and built new Catholic ones, including St. Leonard’s, the first Italian-speaking church in New England. They started the first Italian café, Café Vittoria, in 1929. They ran grocery stores and bakeries. Three Italian immigrants started the Prince pasta company on Prince Street, and the Pastene Corporation started in a North End pushcart.
The North End became the center of world attention during the trial and execution in 1927 of Sacco and Vanzetti. The Patriarca crime family operated out of the North End for a time. So did Charles Ponzi.
Today the narrow dense streets are lined with cafes, pizzerias, small grocery stores and dozens of Italian restaurants, popular among tourists and city dwellers alike. The North End’s religious societies sponsor a dozen feasts and processions during the year. Mass is celebrated, food is served and religious statues covered with dollar bills are paraded through the streets.
The North End of Portsmouth
Portsmouth, N.H., once had a Little Italy that was a tiny version of Boston’s Little Italy. There were 300 homes in 30 acres for about a thousand people. And, as in Boston, Portsmouth’s Little Italy was called the North End.
And if Paul Revere lived in Boston’s North End, Daniel Webster lived in Portsmouth’s.
It was a crowded waterfront neighborhood with narrow, busy streets and dozens of small businesses, restaurants and shops. Families sold beer and lobster rolls from their homes, popcorn and ice cream from pushcarts.
First it was a colonial neighborhood, then Irish. The Irish moved out when a wave of Italians arrived at the beginning of the 20th century. They worked in the shoe and button factories. Or they worked in the construction trades and later at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
By 1920, Portsmouth’s Little Italy was 95 percent Italian. There were also Chinese, French, Irish, African-Americans, Russians, Jewish, Polish, Canadians, Greeks, Indians. Some people viewed the neighborhood as a slum.
Urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s leveled many of the homes, replacing them with a municipal parking lot, the Sheraton Hotel and the old Portsmouth Herald Building. Daniel Webster’s home and the Farragut School next door became an A&P and a parking lot, then a hotel. Only a few of the old buildings survive.
You can still hear Italian spoken in Providence’s Little Italy, known as Federal Hill. The neighborhood followed the typical trajectory of a Little Italy: A colonial neighborhood became a commercial district. Then Irish immigrants filled its tenements during the famines of the mid-19th century. The Italians began to arrive in the 1870s.
Today Rhode Island is the most Italian state in the country, just ahead of Connecticut, and the Little Italy of Providence is alive and well.
The gateway arch that welcomes visitors to Federal Hill is one of the most recognizable Providence landmarks. The neighborhood includes the Columbus Theater, college housing, a piazza, Italian specialty shops and bakeries and Roman Catholic churches.
Italian flags decorate the main thoroughfare, Atwells Avenue. The Columbus Day parade starts on Federal Hill in the middle of the three-day Columbus Day Festival. On March 19, St. Joseph’s Day, Federal Hill’s Italian bakeries churn out a pastry called zeppole.
More than 20 Italian restaurants such as Angelo’s Civita Farnese and Café Mediterraneo line a quarter-mile of Atwells Avenue. They attract skilled chefs because they’re so near Johnson and Wales University.
In 1954, mob kingpin Ray Patriarca moved from Boston’s North End to the National Cigarette Service Company and Coin-O-Matic Distributors on Atwells Avenue. He died of a heart attack in 1984.
Little Italy, Burlington
The Little Italy in Burlington, Vt., mirrors the history of Portsmouth’s North End. Italians arrived at the turn of the 19th century to work in lumber mills and railroad yards. They created a vibrant little neighborhood along the waterfront east of Battery Street.
Burlington’s Little Italy had 140 homes, social clubs, Catholic schools and churches and small businesses like Izzo’s Market, Merola’s and Bellino’s Grocery.
Outsiders thought they could improve Burlington’s Little Italy with urban renewal. In 1966, the final house was razed to make way for the Champlain Street Project. More than 200 people were scattered after the city bought their houses at unfairly low prices. The old neighborhood fell to parking garages and lots, concrete-and-glass office buildings, a hotel and a windowless shopping mall.
Today three interpretive signs are all that’s left of Burlington’s Little Italy. It is fondly remembered as a place where neighbors shared homemade wine and children ran in and out of their neighbors’ houses, which were never locked.
Images: Gateway Arch over Atwells Avenue, By Zigamorph – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 us, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3996788; Atwells Avenue by Jef Nickerson, Flickr; Boston North End By Ingfbruno – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27355267; Frank Pepe’s By Krista – frank pepe exterior, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38640336.