Italian American

Patrick, Joseph, and saintly parades

Festa_Poster

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, March 17, 2019. Above, poster for St. Joseph’s Day on Federal Hill in 1977.

Two Christian saints rub shoulders on the calendar this month, just as the Irish- and Italian-Americans did in the Providence neighborhood where I grew up in the 1970s.

Whether your last name was Reilly or Riccio, most kids in Elmhurst wore green to school on March 17 in honor of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. And then, two days later, many of us showed up garbed in red to celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph, whose intercessions were believed to have once saved Sicily from a severe drought.

What else do we know about Patrick and Joseph, and why are their respective feast days so beloved in these parts?

Details on both saints are sketchy, but of this we can be certain: Patrick was not Irish. Born in Britain when it was under Roman rule, he came to Ireland as a Christian missionary in the fifth century.

Patrick is said to have used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to Ireland’s druids and pagans. And legend has it he drove the snakes from the Emerald Isle, just as God had banished the serpent from the Garden of Eden. (For those keeping score at home, herpetologists tell us that Ireland has actually never been home to snakes.) March 17 is generally accepted as the date of Patrick’s death; hence, the timing of his feast day.

Interestingly, the first recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade was held not in Dublin or Galway, but in New York City in 1762 when Irish soldiers serving in the English army marched to honor their Catholic saint. Today, up to two million spectators gather for the festivities along Fifth Avenue. Closer to home, as many as 50,000 people trek to Newport’s annual parade, now in its 63rd year.

Joseph, husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the patron saint of Sicily. According to legend, he responded to Sicilian prayers during a severe drought in the Middle Ages. The rain came, a famine was avoided, and grateful believers honored Joseph with feasting and celebration, thus starting a tradition that continues throughout the world to this day.

In the late 19th century, Sicilian immigrants came to the United States largely through the port of New Orleans, and they brought their St. Joseph’s Day traditions with them. Soon parades honoring the saint were annual springtime events in the French Quarter. This year’s procession will take place on March 23, with marchers handing out silk flowers and fava beans, which is the crop that saved Sicilians from starvation during their historic drought.

Other cities in the United States with large Italian-American populations are known for their St. Joseph’s Day celebrations, as well, including New York, Syracuse, Hoboken, and, of course, Providence.

I was fortunate to have been behind-the-scenes for the St. Joseph’s Day festivities on Federal Hill in the mid-1970s after Atwells Avenue had been given a dramatic facelift. Decorative streetlamps now stood sentry over wide brick sidewalks, and a massive archway greeted visitors at the east end of the busy retail thoroughfare.

At home, my mother, who was secretary of the Federal Hill Businessmen’s Association, laid out silk sashes on our living room couch, to be worn by the politicians and dignitaries who would march in the parade. One year, my older brother’s roommate at the Rhode Island School of Design created the poster for the event. Fancy green type stood out against a screened archive photo of a marching band: Festa di San Giuseppe, March 19, 1977.

The weather was chilly that day, with the temperature only in the low 40s, but the freshly painted red-white-and-green traffic stripe in the middle of Atwells Avenue gleamed in the sun as thousands made their pilgrimage to the Hill.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! And, as corned beef and Guinness give way to zeppole and sambuca, Happy St. Joseph’s Day, too!

All Gravy: Feedback on My ProJo Column

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My op-ed column, “Please pass the bread – and the gravy,” which appeared last Wednesday in the Providence Journal, is by far the most widely read piece I have written. To date, it has elicited 477 Facebook shares and 138 Tweets from the Journal’s online edition alone.

In addition to garnering social media love, the column has prompted readers to contact me directly via email. I have heard from fellow bread and gravy aficionados, displaced Rhode Islanders, people who grew up on Federal Hill and Charles Street, long-lost cousins… The feedback has been great, and I wanted to share some of the highlights.

                                                        

“The Italian bread never tasted better than when dipped in the gravy. Not to be confused with American white bread. As I am reading the article, I’m laughing because my wife’s family and mine have been having the sauce versus gravy debate for 20 years of marriage.”

                                      

“I grew up in Mt Pleasant (born 1956) and went to many of the same bakeries. My late mother, born and raised on Federal Hill, admonished me with the same words as she sent me to the Castle Spa to pick up a loaf of Crugnale’s bread. I recall running down Chalkstone Ave with the bread ‘like a football’ and taking a piece off the end. Your words warmed me as I recalled the love of my mother.”

                                     

“Having resided in NH since 1969, I’ve suffered with the lack of food products and choices I grew up with. This problem is only rectified by numerous trips back to RI to stock up. My New Hampshire-born wife had to endure the same ‘gravy-sauce’ and ‘macaroni-pasta’ education you mentioned.”

                                            

“My mother was from Federal Hill and my father the North End or, more specifically, Charles Street. Every Sunday morning on the way back from church at St. Ann’s I would stop at a little bakery on Russo Street (Palmisciano’s, as I recall) and would eat the heel before I was at the next corner – my house. I would turn the bread upside down and it wouldn’t be discovered for at least a couple of minutes when my father would take the bread out – for the same reason.”

                                      

“My wife and I are long-time bread lovers. When we lived on the East Side, we bought bread on Federal Hill, including at the old Palmieri’s.”

                                      

“I turned a shade of pink, having been guilty of stealing the heel.”

                                             

“I grew up in the Silver Lake section of Providence and we certainly had our share of bakeries. Fact is, as a young child, I baked the bread and delivered it to houses in those days. THANK YOU for stirring up those memories.”

                              

“My husband is half Italian and did exactly what you did when asked to go to the bakery. To this day, he dips a crusty piece of bread into the ‘gravy’ just to test!”

                                   

“Don’t we love the food debates and yes, a good local bakery that you can walk to is such a treat. Moreover, it brings back those great childhood memories.”    

    

“The scent of all those neighborhood bakeries rose off the newsprint. Thank you so much for that memory.”

                                            

“I was once in a high-end store in the Berkshires and following a couple whose wife asked her husband, ‘What kind of pasta should I get?’ Unable to control myself, I said, ‘Why the ‘rigs’ of course.’ They turned to me somewhat confused… ‘Uh, I meant rigatoni.’”

                                      

And finally, this gem:

“Thank you for supplying me with new material to use in the never-ending ‘sauce versus gravy’ wars we enjoy with our old Italian friends. I can still recall, as a child in the fifties, loitering in the kitchen waiting for my mother to ask if I wanted to try the gravy on a piece of Italian bread. She eventually taught my Hungarian wife to make equally high-powered gravy. One of our Hunga-Wop daughters carries on the tradition. We never, ever, used the word ‘pasta,’ either. That was for people on TV macaroni commercials.”

 

Thanks to all for sharing their bread and gravy stories. And if you haven’t done so yet, feel free to add your thoughts below – would love to hear from you.

 

Please Pass The Bread – And The Gravy

 

 

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As published in the Providence Journal on July 16, 2014.

My wife and I had only known each other for several weeks when she asked me a serious question: “Do you eat bread with every meal?”

My astonishment foreshadowed the mash-up of backgrounds that our eventual marriage would bring. “Don’t you?” I said.

Deb was raised in Canton, Conn., up in the hills northwest of Hartford. Lots of pine trees and farms and country roads — a great place to grow up. But the nearest Italian bakery was at least 30 minutes away.

I was raised in Providence. There were bakeries everywhere, and Italian bread was a staple at our supper table. When I learned the Lord’s Prayer at catechism, “give us this day our daily bread” made perfect sense to me.

Up on Federal Hill, where I worked at my grandfather’s baby clothes store, my aunts would send me to Scialo’s for bread. Papa had his own preferences. Driving home from the Hill to Elmhurst, he sometimes stopped his copper ’75 Olds Cutlass at Amore’s Bakery on Valley Street, or at a neighborhood market, where there might be a loaf of Crugnale’s. And on Sunday afternoons, with her gravy simmering on the stove, my mother would ask me to run up to La Salle Bakery for bread. As I bounded out the door, I’d hear the familiar refrain: “Don’t eat it all on the way back!”

I’d walk the eight blocks home, fresh loaf tucked under my arm like a football, further proof of Pavlov’s theory. I couldn’t resist tearing off the heel of the bread and biting into its flaky, crunching crust. When I got home, I’d tear another piece off and dip it into my mom’s burbling gravy before she could shoo me away.

“Gravy” was another point of courtship conversation for Deb and me. “You mean sauce, right?” she asked. “No, I mean gravy,” I replied.

My mother was a Pantalone, and on Sundays, she made “the gravy.” All my aunts made gravy, too. But I understood Deb’s puzzlement. As I moved beyond the Providence enclave of my upbringing — teeming with first- and second-generation Italian Americans — my use of the term gravy for tomato sauce had produced similar confusion in others. In college, a friend asked, “You put brown gravy on your pasta?”

A quick Google search shows that the gravy-versus-sauce debate is spirited and ongoing. This much seems clear: gravy, as my mom and aunts knew it, is a meat-based tomato sauce, cooked slowly for hours. The term is peculiar to Italian Americans in the northeastern United States. And, yes, it is red, with a hint of brown from the meat and a depth of cooked-tomato color that can make store-bought red sauces look like cheap ketchup.

The word “pasta,” which Deb used, revealed another instance where our vocabularies forked. It was always “macaroni” to me — any of the tubes or shells or twisting ribbons that, coated lightly with my mother’s gravy, made up the first course of Sunday dinner or Wednesday supper. I can hear my mom’s voice across the decades: “Have some more ’ronis.”

During our first trips to the market together, Deb laughed when she found me pondering the options in the pasta aisle (by then, pasta had entered my lexicon). I insisted that the different shapes had different tastes or, at the very least, different textures when cooked.

If nothing else, pasta presented a feast of melodic words and delicious etymologies: “farfalle” meant butterflies; “rotelle” translated as little wheels; “mostaccioli” were little mustaches (it is the staple macaroni in our house today); “cavatappi” meant corkscrews; “orecchiette” were little ears (though we called them pope’s hats because they resembled the pontiff’s zucchetto or skullcap).

After college, most of which I spent living on the East Side, I moved back to Federal Hill and rented an apartment near Holy Ghost Church. Next door stood a small bakery. Each morning, I’d awake to the smell of bread baking in the ovens. Heaven.

Fast-forward 31 years to last winter, when a sign appeared in the window of a vacant store on Main Street in East Greenwich: “Coming Soon: Palmieri’s Bakery.” I looked closely at the logo: “Federal Hill Tradition. Established 1898.” I couldn’t believe it: the legendary Providence bakery was opening a new location right around the corner from my house.

On the Sunday after Palmieri’s opened, I hustled down to Main Street and bought my first loaf. Walking home, I resisted the urge to tear off a chunk. But that didn’t last long. With the first bite, I was a kid again.

Back in my kitchen, I smiled as my daughter dipped her bread, with a communicant’s care, into my simmering gravy.

 

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