History, traditions, and exquisite taste for the real thing bind the ingredients in the Italian South End
(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
It was only midmorning, but we were fighting hunger pangs as Mayor Domenic Sarno sat behind the desk in his wood-paneled office and described the pastries, pastas, and pizzas of Italian Springfield. He easily recited the families who own every Italian restaurant, bakery, and market in his city of 152,000. But that's not surprising, since many of those families, including his own, hail from the same town in Italy.
Today, three times as many people from Bracigliano live in Springfield as in the hill town (population 5,230) north of Salerno and east of Naples. In June, Sarno played host to Mayor Ferdinando Albano of Bracigliano in a "family reunion" in the city's South End. "It was the proudest day for my parents," he said of Bracigliano-born Alfonso and Clara Sarno, who run Al's Barber Shop and Clara's Alterations near Forest Park.
Visitors who come to Springfield to hit the Basketball Hall of Fame or tour the Quadrangle museums might never glimpse this vibrant Italian-American community, yet it's hiding in plain sight. Historically, the South End was Italian: a dense neighborhood stretching from State Street south to Mill Street, and from Main Street west to Interstate 91.
It used to go all the way to the Connecticut River, but the construction of the elevated interstate ripped up the heart of the South End beginning around 1960. "We lost a lot of the residences," says Franco Daniele, president of the Mount Carmel Society, established in 1897 by Bracigliano immigrants. "But we're trying to hold together the businesses."
Daniele, who immigrated as a teenager in the 1960s, imports food. Italian businesses here, it seems, often have something to do with food. While many South End families have dispersed to nearby towns and other parts of Springfield, the restaurants, delis, and markets still draw them back to the old neighborhood.
One stalwart is Albano's Market on East Columbus Avenue, the central artery of the Italian neighborhood until I-91 was built on top of it. On the advice of Sarno and Daniele, we made a beeline to the old-fashioned storefront for a cup of lemon ice. Melissa Ketchell of Enfield had the same idea. She was making a quick stop on the way to see her obstetrician. "Every time I get pregnant," she said, resting a hand on her belly, "I get a craving for lemon ice." Why Albano's? "My mom used to come here."
Filomena Bruschi runs the grocery with her sister Theresa D'Angelantonio. "We've been making Italian ice here for 66 years," Bruschi said. "We make it the old-fashioned way, like ice cream without the cream. We're the last store that does it." And they don't make it in cool weather. Bruschi's husband cranks out the frozen treat only from Memorial Day to Columbus Day.
Fortunately, a hungry traveler can get sfogliatelle every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at La Fiorentina Pastry Shop. ("They're better than any I've ever tasted in Boston or New York," Sarno had told us as he rhapsodized about the shell-shaped Southern Italian specialty.) "We make a couple thousand every week," co-owner Anna Daniele said, describing the laborious process of mixing the dough, rolling it out, and shaping it into disks - with overnight resting periods between each step. Finally, each ridged disk is filled with a custard of ricotta cheese, semolina flour, sugar, and candied citron, folded over like a clamshell, and baked for about 45 minutes.
"We're not a typical Italian bakery that brings in a lot of American stuff," said Anna's husband, Leo , a distant relative of importer Franco Daniele. Leo's father, Mauro, opened the shop in 1947, a year after leaving Bracigliano. Leo and Anna still use the recipes developed by Leo's grandfather, a master baker who won several prestigious awards at pastry competitions in Florence - hence the name of the bakery.
La Fiorentina is especially busy on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning when worshipers stop in for a box of sweets after Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The church was renovated last year on the centennial of the founding of the parish by Italian immigrants. Its 80-foot bell tower is a landmark and served as the pre-highway center of the neighborhood.
"It's a touchstone for the Italian community in Western Mass. If you're Italian, then Mount Carmel Springfield is your reference point," the Rev. Robert S. White told us when we stopped in to see the faux marble columns and modern frescoes.
If the church is the neighborhood's spiritual center, the photo- and clipping-covered walls of Mom & Rico Daniele's Specialty Market are the unofficial archives, as well as the headquarters for all things boccie. (Rico helped get two courts constructed in Forest Park and sells his own line of boccie-themed sodas.) The Danieles - no relation to Franco or Leo - came from Bracigliano in 1954 and opened the market in 1976. One of the big draws is the daily buffet lunch. Rico's mother and sister do most of the cooking, though his father makes the tomato sauce.
"We used to always eat 'pasta fazool' [pasta with white beans] on Friday," Rico said. "Now we make it every day." You might also find meatballs, broccoli rabe, malone (sauteed escarole with beans and mashed potatoes), and a five-cheese macaroni pie.
But when Springfield Italians want a sit-down lunch, they often head to Red Rose Restaurant Pizzeria. "My mom took over an ice cream store in 1963," says Tony Caputo, who joined the business in 1986. "My mom didn't believe in day care, so my two sisters and I grew up under the pizza bench."
That first shop had just three tables, but several expansions later, the restaurant seats more than 400. Despite the crystal chandeliers, marble statues, and Bay of Naples murals, pizza is still a mainstay, and diners can watch the staff divvy up a giant mass of dough into individual pies. The signature pizza, says Caputo, is "between a thin New Haven and a thick New York." It's topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, and mixed sweet and hot peppers.
"Sunday afternoon we get the families," Caputo said. Even at a weekday lunch, practically every table was full and diners departed with hefty doggie bags of eggplant rolatini, chicken marsala, or shrimp scampi from recipes by Tony's mother, Edda. Before Edda became a Caputo, she was a Daniele - Franco's aunt.
But not every Italian in Springfield is a Daniele from Bracigliano. There are other tastes in town.
You might guess from their restaurant's name - Typical Sicilian - where Alfonso and Margaret Amore hail from. Although they even attended the same village elementary school, the pair met and married in Springfield. They opened the restaurant a decade ago near The X, as Springfield residents call the intersection of Belmont and Sumner avenues with Dickinson Street. It is an area where many Italian families moved after the interstate rumbled through the old neighborhood.
In 2004 the Amores moved into the current space, with its spare trattoria look, soft jazz soundtrack, and fancy-date vibe. Margaret's son Vincenzo ("call me Enzo") was just completing the day's supply of meatballs (polpetti) when we arrived for lunch. Although Enzo does most of the cooking, his father created the restaurant's signature "penne typical" of sauteed garlic and spinach with grilled chicken in a cream sauce on pasta.
Back in the South End, Joe Frigo is the third generation running his family's eponymous deli. His grandfather, a cheesemaker from Asiago in Northern Italy, came to the United States with four brothers to make cheese in Wisconsin. Relocating to Springfield, he peddled the family's Asiago all over New England. In 1950, he opened a cheese shop across from Mount Carmel church. "He figured it would always be safe," Frigo said.
Frigo's father expanded the business to include custom butchery, and Frigo, who took over more than a decade ago, has branched out into prepared foods. He still sells the Frigo-brand Asiago (the family sold the cheese business years ago) but only after aging it in his cellar.
"It's like a candy store," said police officer Sean Murphy, who was ordering lunch from display cases filled with risotto cakes, gnocchi, pasta Bolognese, chicken Florentine, chicken a la Frigo (mushrooms, broccoli, and Alfredo sauce), spinach lasagna, and giant manicotti stuffed with sausages, spinach, and ricotta. "It's all good," Murphy told us, "but be sure to stop by Albano's for the Italian ice."
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@ verizon.net.