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Little Italy: Newark, New Jersey

THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE appeared in the September/October 2001
Issue of PRIMO Magazine
 and is reprinted with permission.  
For the "full effect" and to help support the preservation of Italian Culture, please
subscribe to this magazine and/or order back issues at www.flprimo.com/subscribe2.html

Little Italy Across the Hudson
By Justin R. Cristaldi

On a rainy weekday morning in New Jersey's largest city, a short, elderly white-haired lady walks into an unassuming storefront bakery. She picks out a medium loaf of panelle from the wooden rack that was just baked fresh an hour or so ago. She hands it to Monica Giordano to have it sliced. "Thank you Ms. Serafina" Monica says as the lady exits. The lady says nothing the entire time because she speaks no English. She is probably one of the last few Italians who have lived in this neighborhood all her life.

Newark's First Ward, The North Ward (now the Central Ward) was once 95% or more Italian. Right off of Interstate Highway 280 are very few remnants of what is left of the Little Italy section of Newark, New Jersey. The "old way" to get there used to be straight down Bloomfield Avenue which starts in Newark and goes all the way through Essex County to the Caldwells.

Somewhere around the turn of the last century, in 1891, the church of St. Lucy was built. A half century later, the center of this neighborhood was St. Lucy's. Newark's Little Italy Inclucded 6th, 7th and 8th Avenues, down to Stone street, past Garside Street, Mt. Prospect, Cutler Street and Clifton Avenue. This was the 5th largest Italian Community outside of Italy. It was once also the home of Frankie Valle (and the original Four Seasons), Frank Langella, Connie Francis, and numerous others who may not be famous, but had built much of that city from scratch, and many of the surrounding areas.

Back in those days, on any given Sunday, you could see as many as 5,000 Italians in church. Sicilians, Calabrese, Neapolitan, and others from many other regions in Southern Italy. These different regions were like separate countries rather than states in Italy. With all these different dialects, how were they able to give a mass everyone would understand? "Easy, back then the masses were always in Latin" Says Msgr. Joseph J. Granato, who has been with St. Lucy's for nearly 50 years. He recalls leaving all the parish doors and windows open, "we were all one big happy family" he says. Many agree St. Lucy's is one of the most beautiful churches in the diocese.

You could see many New York celebrities taking the trip to this area of Newark to dine. Joe DiMaggio would take his fellow Yankees teammates to Vittoria's Castle for "real Italian food". DiMaggio was the equivalent of a Roman god to the Italians in those days, and still is to many.

Some of the property for the courtyard in front of St. Lucy's was donated. The church is an official historic site and Sheffield Street is now part of Ruggiero Square where St. Lucy will have its Annual Feast of St. Gerard.

The parishioners from the region of Teora brought the feast of St. Rocco; the people from the region of Calabria brought Our Lady of the Snow (a feast paying tribute to Christmas); St. Anthony serves as a saint for all people; those from the Maddaloni region celebrated St. Michael and of course, the Sicilians brought St. Lucy for which the Church was named. The feasts of these saints would go on nearly every week from June all the way though the end of October. Imagine a street fair, party or carnival lasting nearly five months? "Paradise" is how some described it, it was as if they never left Italy but had all the advantages of being in the United States. With row after row of Italian cheeses, breads, pastries, music and everything Italian you can imagine, if this wasn't paradise, what could be? The church has seen 108 years of history, and how the neighborhood has changed over the years, from its establishment, to the heyday of the Italian community, to current times, where now St. Lucy's is a national historical site, and the Shrine of St. Gerard, people come from all over the world to see the shrine and pray to St. Gerard for fertility. Many insist it's the only thing that has worked for them.

Today the Feast of St. Gerard still occurs every October, as it has, for over 100 years (this year will be the 101st). They pin dollar bills on the statue of the saint as the men carry it through the streets of the city. This feast not only serves as a major fundraiser to help support St. Lucy's school right next to the church, but it is also where people come every year, like a family reunion. The place is jam packed of generation of generation of people who have special memories here.

Does anyone remember zeppole when they were three for a dime?  Today you can find them for about a dollar or more for three of these sugary Italian treats.

Today, July 2001, it is actually a pretty quiet neighborhood, in spite of a major highway of I280 just a few blocks away. After World War II, many of those who served were actually able to go to college courtesy of the GI Bill. With more money in their pockets from better jobs, most of the Italians moved into the northern part of Newark, and the surrounding suburbs of Belleville, Bloomfield, and other parts of Essex County.

Charlie and Larry DePasquale (born as Calogero and Loreto and later using the English spelling). Part of first generation of Italian-Americans who were born here, they pay a visit their parent's house on Garside Street, which will forever remain "headquarters" of the family, in our hearts and our minds. Even years after moving from the neighborhood once the children were married, they would still be back every Sunday at 2 p.m. for dinner.

The DePasquale (Circa 1943) outside their home on Garside Street in Newark's Little Italy.

What is left today other than St. Lucy's? The coffee houses which roasted and ground coffee, the pasta shops that you had to pick out of a barrel and buy by the pound, and the 15 bakeries, Seventh Avenue once had, are all gone. The only original establishment that still exists is Giordano's Italian Bakery on 33 Seventh Avenue, which is right down the street from St. Lucy's. Frank Sinatra loved this old world brick oven bread so much, that he would have it shipped to him no matter where he was, whether at home in California, or on location of a movie set, or even performing at the Sands in Las Vegas. In fact, the last shipment of this bread was sent out to Sinatra the day he died, a shame he couldn't have one last taste of bread from his home state before he left us. Sinatra's favorite? The medium panelle and the bastone bread made with pepperoni, salami and mozzarella. It's almost ironic that the man who has world fame and more money than most people could imagine, is willing to pay more in shipping costs than what the bread is worth, just to have the simple old fashioned taste from back home. But don't take Old Blue Eyes' word for it, you can find articles written about this famous bakery in the New York Times, The Star-Ledger, American Scene, The Italian Tribune and many others.

Joseph Giordano feeds the 100-year-old brick oven with loaves that will soon be fresh, hot bread.

Giordano's still stands, with its tattered sign and fading awning next to an abandoned building. But there is nothing discouraging about this place, they have another store I Belleville, and Giordano's has been making bread the same way it has for over three generations now, and the taralli is the best I've ever had. Taralle ("tarals", as they are pronounced) are the Italian answer to hard pretzels, but instead of salt you get black pepper and fennel seeds for a savory taste of the old world.

"There were six of us in a three bedroom house" Stephano Giordano laughs. That is actually quite roomy for many of the families that actually had nine children in a three bedroom apartment. These were very proud Italian families, though poor, they never accepted welfare from the government, instead, they would take jobs sweeping up in bakeries so they could bring home the old bread they could not sell.

Today Girodano's supplies bread to over 50 restaurants and restaurants. The 200-year-old recipe was brought over from Naples by Stephano Giordano's Grandfather from Caserta. "Caserta is about as far from Naples as Belleville is to Newark" he says as he compares the distance.

You can bet that Giordano's bread will be served at the Feast of St. Gerard this October, and you can bet there will be many old friends and family members, along with great food, drink, memories and return to the old days. I plan to be there myself, only 2½ months until then and I am counting each day…

About the Author

Justin R. Cristaldi is a Computer & Internet Consultant and is involved in many non-profit projects that benefit the community and holds a MA from Montclair State University. Currently he is a member of the Verona Chapter of UNICO, and also is the Director of SicilianCulture.com which focuses on the positive aspects of the Sicilian and Italian cultures.


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