Of Faith, Family, Food And The Best Bocce
around 5:30 p.m. each Saturday evening, the doors of St. Joseph’s
Roman Catholic Church in Astoria open and a flood of Queens residents
comes pouring out, discussing the news of the week in a variety of
Italian dialects and accents, and all trying to get their points
are leaving the church’s Italian Mass, which has been held at the
125-year-old church for the past 20 years.
Americans in Astoria saved this statue of Columbus from being melted
down during WWII by hiding it in Queens Borough Hall.
Tribune Photo By Ira Cohen
Cabelle, a 69-year-old Astoria resident who moved to Queens in 1946
from Sicily, spoke with a thick accent as she explained that she and
her husband Anthony “come to Italian Mass as often as possible . . .
. It’s nice to meet with the other Italians who still live in the
neighborhood. A lot of them have gone. My sons have gone . . .
they live all the way east, you know.”
said her two children — Anthony Jr. and Joseph — both moved to
Douglaston after they graduated from St. John’s University.
“They’re such smart boys. They went to school . . . college.
They’re the first in our family. We’re so proud.”
story of the Cabelle family is a common one in Queens, where thousands
of Italians started as blue collar workers in Astoria, and ended up as
white collar professionals in Bayside and Douglaston.
borough’s Italian roots are planted firmly in Western Queens, where
Italian meat shops and bocce courts still thrive. But strong Italian
communities thrive in Bayside, Douglaston, Little Neck, Glen Oaks,
Floral Park and Bellerose, and “Italian” is the ancestry that more
Queens people identify with than any other group.
to the 2000 Census, 187,540 residents of Queens identify themselves as
Italian in ancestry, showing an increase in the number of Italians in
the borough since 1990 and making the group the largest ancestral
category besides “other” in Queens.
Sorriso Italian Pork Store in Astoria is a reminder of the area’s
old, Italian roots.
Tribune Photo By Ira Cohen
Iannece, the chairman of Bayside’s Community Board 11 and legal
counsel for the Federation of Italian American Organizations of Queens
Incorporated, told the Tribune, “Italians have been very
successful in this borough. We’re still very strong in numbers, we
still wave the flag, we’re still very proud of our heritage . . .
Italians are the largest ethnic group in the City, in the State and in
the country. Most people don’t know that because it’s not a
politically cohesive group. There are Italian Democrats, Republicans
and so on. We don’t vote together, so we’re not looked at as a
solid group. But we are.”
added with a laugh that Italians “brought the world out of darkness
more than one time,” with the Renaissance and several inventions,
and said, “I happen to think we’re the most successful ethnic
group on the face of the Earth.”
it comes to the Italian neighborhoods in Queens, Iannece said, “I
think if you look at the Italian areas of Queens, no matter where they
are, you’ll see one and two family homes, kept very well, with very
strong family units. That’s one thing Italians have definitely kept
from their culture, the family unit. We still sit down every Sunday at
the table and eat together. That part of the heritage will never
disappear. As long as that’s the case, we’ll keep growing.”
in Their Culture
a lawyer from Bayside Hills who organizes the Queens Columbus Day
Parade in Astoria every year and was the head of Italian American
Students at New York University while in college, said he has seen a
re-emergence of Italian pride. “Pride fluctuates. I think my
parent’s generation — those that came in after the war in the
1950s — were
very in touch with their culture. Then the next generation lost touch
for the most part. The only thing Italian about them was the vowel at
the end of their names. Now, I think we’re seeing a reawakening of
that Italian pride.”
Federation of Italian American Organizations rents its soccer field in
Astoria to local schools and community groups.
Italian Federation’s Astoria Soccer field is being completely
renovated, giving new generations of Queensites the chance to play
Tribune Photos By Angela Montefinise
added, “People are getting in touch with their ethnicity and going
to Astoria to eat and learning Italian. I see more going to Italy and
learning their heritage. It’s great to see.”
example of new Italian pride can seen in Vincent Marchenzo, a
19-year-old Whitestone resident who was also leaving Italian Mass at
one recent Saturday evening. He said his parents never learned
Italian, and said, “They say they’re Italian, but really, they
just cook spaghetti and say they’re Italian.” Marchenzo learned
Italian from his grandmother who lives in Middle Village, and attends
Italian Mass with her almost every week in Astoria.
plans to visit Italy next summer, and said, “I feel a real pride in
my heritage now. My parents go to Mass with me sometimes, and they are
definitely proud of where they came from. But not as much as I am . .
. I see a lot of other kids my age really proud of their Korean roots
or their Chinese roots, but not as many in touch with Italian roots.
Now, more are feeling that way. Especially in the last few years or
said, “Italians came to Queens mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, but
some as early as the 1930s, after living basically in Manhattan,
Brooklyn and The Bronx when they first came to America in the early
1900s. They congregated mostly in one or two family attached homes in
neighborhoods like Astoria, Maspeth, Middle Village, Elmhurst and
Corona. You know, close to Manhattan where many of them worked in
factories. My mom was a seamstress and my dad was a waiter in a
restaurant, and those types of jobs were very common.
of the borough’s best bocce courts can be found in the old Italian
sections of Queens, like this one in Astoria.
Tribune Photo By Ira Cohen
Italians came to Queens for a more suburban life, and as they settled
into the borough, emphasized education and learning English. Their
children went to school, and many of them went into the professions.
They became lawyers and doctors, and the trend was that they moved
east to Bayside, Douglaston, Little Neck, Malba, Whitestone, and areas
like that . . . As they moved up in the world and had more money, they
moved into bigger homes in more rural areas. The numbers show that.”
to census figures, in 1960 three-quarters of the Italian population of
Queens lived in Western Queens. In 2000, three-quarters live in
Eastern Queens. Iannece said, “Just like any ethnic group, the
Italians moved on into nicer neighborhoods. My family moved to Bayside
Hills. Many families moved to Nassau County or Long Island. You see
that with a lot of groups.”
Symbol of Unity . . .
most of the borough’s Italian Americans live in Eastern Queens,
there are still symbols of the first Italian settlements in Western
Queens, including a statue of Christopher Columbus on 33rd Avenue and
Astoria Boulevard, right under the Triborough Bridge.
to Iannece, the cast iron statue was built just before World War II by
Italians living in Astoria, but could not be erected because the
residents couldn’t afford money for the statue’s base.
Saturday night at 4:30 p.m., St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church
Astoria holds an Italian Mass, a ritual the 125-year-old church has
for two decades.
Tribune Photo By Ira Cohen
World War II broke out, the government was melting down statues to
make bullets, and since the Columbus statue didn’t have a base, it
was a prime candidate to be destroyed.
Italians in the area decided to hide the statue in the basement of
Queens Borough Hall so it wouldn’t get melted down... and they
statue survived the war, the Italians raised enough money for the
base, and the statue still stands. Iannece said, “That’s a great
story, and it shows the resilience of the Italians. They got together
and didn’t let anything happen to that statue.”
Queens Columbus Day Parade is held near the statue every year in
Astoria, and Iannece said, “Every time I look at that statue during
the parade, I’m proud. I think everyone is.”
. . And the End Of Division
may have been unified behind the statue, but at times, differences
between Italians caused conflict in early Italian neighborhoods.
said, “People from Northern Italy looked down on people from
Southern Italy, and people from the Mainland looked down on people
from Sicily. Sure, that stuff happened. There was some jealousy and
some biasness. Even people from town to town. But I don’t see too
much of that now.”
Bucich, the president of Cosmopolitan Junior Soccer League and an
active member of the Italian Federation, agreed that bias isn’t
common anymore, and said, “There was some friction when Italians who
spoke different dialects couldn’t communicate, but that’s not an
Bucich laughed when his friend Joe DiPietro – president of Astoria
Italia Soccer – told the Tribune that his home in Sicily was
right near a mountain.
who’s from Istria, said, “That’s all you got down there, is
mountains.” He added, “There’s still a lot of pride in our own
town and culture. We joke around, but there’s no division anymore.
Maybe when Italians first came, but I don’t see it anymore.”
is part of the Istria Club in Astoria, and is proud of fellow Istria
native Lidia Bastianich, a professional chef with her own cookbooks
and television show. Bastianich lives in Douglas Manor and is a member
of the Istria club, and Bucich said, “It’s true, many Italians
left Astoria and went to Douglaston. But we like it here.” DiPietro
added, “I’m not leaving. We got roots here.”
The Old Days
Astoria and other sections of Western Queens, the “roots” DiPietro
is talking about are evident at stores like Sorriso’s Italian Pork
Store, with its hanging salami and prosciutto, and Forno Italia, with
its brick oven pizza and handmade mozzarella that has been distributed
around New York longer than any other City distributor’s mozzarella.
are bocce courts on Steinway Street between Ditmars Avenue and 23rd
Avenue. Old World Italians are always playing bocce and cards, and can
be heard discussing the latest news in Italian.
a recent visit there, the Tribune was told by 72-year-old Vito
Rippenegro that, “the games here are the best.” He added, “I
always play cards here with the boys. It’s a way to stay in touch
with the neighborhood.”
native Thomas Bufonte agreed, and said, “Some of us still stay in
touch with relatives in Italy and we hear what’s going on back
there. It’s old fashioned.”
came to America in 1939, and lived in Flatbush for 10 years before his
family moved to Astoria. He said, “I remember what it was like. All
the kids in school spoke broken English. We all spoke Italian . . .
Our parents all worked in Manhattan factories or in Brooklyn places.
Everyone in the neighborhood was like a family. We all lived with
people from the same part of Italy . . . I got married, my kids got
the same thing. Education, education, education. Now they live out
there in [Long Island]. I never could have dreamed they would have
gone so far.”
proud to be Italian,” he added. “We’re the best bocce players
Astoria is usually home to the Old World Italians, it is also home to
the Federation of Italian American Organizations of Queens
Incorporated, which is an umbrella organization for other Italian
organizations. It runs citizenship drives, announces job
opportunities, holds English classes, offers cultural trips and
several other things, not just for Italians, but for everyone.
said, “This is Italians giving back to the community that gave them
so much . . . Now, different immigrants are coming here, and we’re
helping them to succeed like we have.”
thing that the Federation offers local institutions is a soccer field
next door to the Astoria Con Edison plant.
Federation lets local schools and soccer leagues use the field for
free but recently closed the field so it can be completely rebuilt.
said, “The field is in terrible condition. Now, it’s getting
redone. New grass, new everything.” Iannece said, “It’s going to
be really nice. We’re excited about it . . . It just shows that
we’re still going strong.”