Mar 13th, 2020, 10:42 PM

Italian American America

By Jenna Galowich
A look at the Italian American communities throughout the United States.

We are currently living in a time where there is so much fear and uncertainty in the world due to the COVID-19 virus. One of the countries that has been hit the hardest is Italy. As someone who is proud to be both Italian and American, this has been an especially challenging time. Watching a country that I consider to be home, just as much as the United States, go through a time where its healthcare system is on the verge of collapsing because of this pandemic is beyond heartbreaking. A lot of us Italian Americans still have family in Italy, and we worry greatly about our loved ones across the Atlantic. It's also very common for Italian Americans to inherit family businesses that have been passed down from generation to generation, and those treasured parts of our family history and story are endangered due to the restrictions put in place by various states and the federal government. The only place we can find solace is in our Italian community. The Italian American community has always been an incredibly tight-knit one––there are are countless amounts of Facebook & social groups created for the sole purpose of giving Italian Americans a platform to discuss current events in Italy, moving to Italy, visiting Italy, various traditions celebrated by families, dual citizenship, recipes, restaurants, and events that are geared towards individual local Italian American communities. In addition to that, plenty of us, and even other Americans who may not be of Italian descent but are nonetheless fascinated by the Italian language and culture, can attend classes at our local Istituto Italiano di Cultura. 

Two communities that bear the greatest importance to me are San Francisco's "North Beach" and Chicago's "Little Italy". Northern California's Italian American community is mostly comprised of those of us whose Italian ancestors hailed from regions in northern Italy, with the heart of it being in North Beach. It holds an especially large place in my heart because it's the community that my family called home when they first came to the United States from Fivizzano, a small town nestled in the mountains of northwest Tuscany. It's where my Italian American roots lie. That being said, since I was born and raised in Chicago, I also have a connection to the Italian American community there. The northern California community made me, but Chicago raised me. Lastly, arguably the most important community is in none other than New York City. The city's Little Italy is famous around the world for its food and culture, but personally, I cherish it because I think it's the greatest representation for how far Italian Americans have come, and the fusion of old-school traditions with new ones. It exemplifies how far we've come, and how much further we're going to go. 


Mara's Pastry Cannoli and Gelato, Image Credit: Jenna Galowich    

At the heart of San Francisco’s “Little Italy” neighborhood, North Beach, is Corso Cristoforo Colombo. You’ll know you’re in the traditionally Italian neighborhood when you start seeing little Italian flags painted on the lamp posts and pizzerias & pasticcerias galore lining the street. Mara’s Pastry Shop is home to what many refer to as the best cannoli in the San Francisco Bay Area (don’t forget to try the spumoni gelato too!), with an authentic Siciliano taste and crunch to it. As for the pizza and pasta, newcomer Piccolo Forno serves delectable pizzas and pasta, such as the pizza diavola (a pizza with spicy salami) and fettucine alfredo, which has just the most delicious full-bodied, creamy white sauce. The food, which is made with love by Italian chefs, is a perfect fusion of authentic Italian cuisine that is nonetheless definitely adapted to suit American taste buds.

Piccolo Forno, Image Credit: Jenna Galowich

A huge part of Italian American culture is art. It is through art that we can identify ourselves with our ancestral hometowns in Italy, and the regions in which they are in. Biordi Art Imports, a San Francisco staple, hires artisans in Italy to create ceramic art that is typically inspired by the region in which they hail from. It is said that the Italian Consul General to San Francisco, Lorenzo Ortona, frequents the shop. San Francisco is also home to the Museo Italo Americano, which not only displays art made by Italian artists with a variety of backgrounds, but they also host language classes and fun events that are often attended by the Bay Area’s Italian American community.


Biordi Art Imports, Image Credit: Jenna Galowich

Across the country is my hometown Chicago, which might not host the largest Italian American community in the United States, but it is certainly home to a hearty one. Our Little Italy is located in the city’s west side, which is the area where Italian immigrants who arrived throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries typically settled. In true Chicago fashion, one of the main attractions in the neighborhood is the typical Italianate architecture, which can be found while taking a stroll along Lexington Street. After a long walk, you’ll probably want some authentic pizza and pasta. Although Taylor Street is filled to the brim with delicious restaurants, my personal favorite place to grab a bowl of pasta in Chicago is Torchio Pasta Bar. As for drink options, they serve a twist on the classic aperol spritz: a limoncello spritz. Coming from someone who’s a pretty die-hard spritz fan, this is absolutely worth breaking tradition for. The cacio e pepe is my personal favorite, I just love the taste of the famous Roman cheese perfectly mixed with tonnarelli pasta melting in my mouth, but there are also fantastic seasonal options that are concocted by the head chef. Speaking of the chef, he comes out and introduces himself to each table, which adds to the intimate vibe of the restaurant and creates an authentic, personal Italian experience. Of course, there is also the famous Eataly, which is the perfect place to pick up some Italian groceries if you want to bring the Italian culinary experience to your home.


Torchio Pasta Bar Cacio e Pepe and Aperol Spritz, Image Credit: Jenna Galowich

New York City is home to the largest Italian American community in the US, and arguably one of the most famous in the world. Ellis Island is where many Italians arrived in the United States––it was their first glimpse of their new life in America. It was where my family landed, and it was the beginning of our community. At the former immigration office on the island, one can find the history of countless Italians who made the journey, oftentimes through Le Havre or other port cities in France. Lower Manhattan is home to NYC’s Little Italy, which similar to every other Little Italy, is filled with remnants and traditions of our Italian ancestors’ pasts as well as newer, more modern pieces of our history and traditions. Personally, I think that’s what makes this particular Italian American community so special­––it’s a prime example of how our Italian history has allowed us to become the Americans we are today. Some examples of restaurants that combine old-school Italian with a modern taste palette include Carbone (the spicy rigatoni vodka is to die for), Rubirosa for pizza, and Lilia.

If there’s one thing that I, and other Italian Americans can rely on, it is that we are an incredibly strong group of people who will make it through this. We’ve overcome so much in our history, both in Italy and in the United States, and it is evident through the growth and evolution of our community throughout the years. Siamo orgogliosi di essere italiani.