Little Italy, Big Festival
In the early 1880s, immigrants from a newly unified Italy began appearing in northern Delaware, mostly in Wilmington, searching for work. Many immigrants moved on to other American towns or returned to their homeland after a specific job was completed. However, a few saw something they liked in the rolling hills of northern Delaware and, despite a language barrier and the unfamiliar culture, chose to stay and set down roots. Most early Italian immigrants were from southern Italy, an agrarian and economically stagnant region in the decades following Italy’s unification. They came to America in search of material prosperity.
Eight identifiable enclaves, or pockets of settlement developed in northern Delaware in the early 20th century. Four were outside Wilmington: Montchanin, Claymont, New Castle, and Hockessin. Four were within the city: the “East Side” pocket, “The Valley,” the 11th Street Pocket, and “The Hill”. The pockets gradually faded during the twentieth century except for one; the largest and most self-aware, known as the “The Hill” due to its elevation on Wilmington’s west side, today known as “Little Italy”. The unique personalities and the community spirit on “The Hill” fostered the survival of Little Italy as a distinct ethnic enclave throughout the 20th century. However, the founding and galvanizing influence of Saint Anthony’s Church and Parish and its regionally famous Carnevale, also known as The Saint Anthony’s Italian Festival, is the cornerstone of Little Italy’s history as “un villagio vivace e unico,” a vibrant and unique village.
Origins. Exhibits have a story too.
The current Willingtown Square Gallery exhibit “Little Italy, Big Festival” began in an unusual way. While out west I was driving along Route 93 on my way to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. My girlfriend and I decided to check out Hoover Dam in Boulder City, Nevada, only a wiggle off Route 93. We hit a few traffic lights and some minor urban sprawl. While stopped at a light, I casually looked to my right toward a small strip mall. There, in a hazily familiar letter font were the words Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop hovering above a store front. “You don’t think that’s the same Capriotti’s we know from Delaware?” I asked. “ The one that began in Wilmington?” We shrugged. After the trip I looked into it. Sure enough, Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop, which first opened at 5th and Union Streets in Wilmington, Delaware in 1976, now has franchises out west. It made me think of Wilmington’s Little Italy. Many businesses come to mind…Mrs. Robino’s, Madeline’s, Papa’s, Marcozzi’s TV Repair, Pastabilities, Mona Lisa, Blue Parrot Bar (which used to be Tonik’s), Sansone’s Seafood, the old Dinardo’s Crab House (my favorite restaurant in the 1980’s), and others. A colorful array of businesses for a small enclave, I thought. Then there is Saint Anthony’s Church and the famous Italian Festival. The idea for an exhibit was taking shape.
A few weeks later, Karen Duonnolo Tate, who has been coming to the DHS library for several years to research her Native American, Italian, and Irish ancestry, came in to explore Little Italy in maps and city directories. I related the story about Capriotti’s near Hoover Dam. It dawned on us that Little Italy just might deserve a higher profile. We agreed an exhibit would be fun and interesting. Plus, the timing made sense. My DHS colleague Heather Isbell Schumacher’s exhibit on New Sweden was coming to a close. Little Italy, Big Festival would make a nice follow up. December ’13 became a nonstop tumult of image gathering, fact finding, label writing, photoshopping, gallery designing, editing, and story collecting.
There are four separate wall cases for an exhibit in the Willingtown Atrium Gallery. I suppose for the sake of asymmetry, I divided the exhibit into five. Actually I simply had more than would fit in four booths so a fifth zone was added to display a beautiful, hand painted banner, various sashes and documents pertaining to the Regina Elena Society, a female beneficial society which existed in Little Italy for approximately fifty years.
The other four cases cover the immigrant generation, early businesses and clubs in Little Italy, the founding of Saint Anthony’s Church, and lastly, the Italian Festival with photos of the beloved Father Roberto Balducelli, who passed away a few months ago.
Karen agreed to meet with her relatives on “the Hill,” as the Saint Anthony’s area is known, and to serve as a community liaison for memorabilia and information. Her knowledge of and enthusiasm for the history of Little Italy, from little sidelights to the big events, is a big reason the exhibit exists and why it has a nice variety of materials.
Many stake holders in the Little Italy community are to be thanked for loans, input, and time spent. Among them: Lewis Crusco III, President of the Saint Anthony’s Club for meeting with us and providing photographs for the exhibit; Father Nick Waseline, Pastor of Saint Anthony’s Parish. Father Nick graciously provided loans for this exhibit from the Italian Festival planning committee archives; Rick DiSabatino, great grandson of Ernesto DiSabatino, for loans of construction instruments; Tom Malgiero for photographs and information on Nicola Fidanza (Fidance) and Sarah Fidanza Corletto; Luigi Vitrone for insights on today’s Little Italy; Anthony J. Albence for images of stained glass and of Saint Anthony’s Festival; Robin Robino of Mrs. Robino’s Restaurant for a tour of this classic italian eatery; Rebecca Simeone for photographs of modern Little Italy businesses; and Alan Margolet, co-founder of the original Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop for indicating a front page article on the shop in Delaware Today Magazine (and for the awesome complimentary bobbies!)
The exhibit is full of rare images and detailed histories of the Italian-American communities in Delaware are available in the adjacent library. Come on in and see it.