Four million Italians came to the United States from 1880 to 1920. That’s more than the current population of Milan and Rome — combined.
And about 80 percent migrated from the hard land south of Rome, Campania to Calabria, the city of Naples to the island of Sicily. They left provinces ravaged by deep poverty and high taxes, joblessness and overpopulation, disease and natural disasters.
At first, men made the voyage, as the first Italians did with explorers and missionaries 500 years ago. The new immigrants began to find work as migrant laborers, building roads, digging tunnels, cutting stone, setting train tracks, toiling in sand pits and on farms. Some returned to Italy. Some sent money back. And some abandoned those left behind.
But countless others would call together families, reunite, and seek new lives in “La Merica.” While men worked in construction, many women became seamstresses in sweatshops in Manhattan and Brooklyn. A third of the 146 victims in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire were young immigrant Italian women.
Today, “one in four Long Islanders has Italian ancestry,” said Salvatore J. LaGumina, emeritus professor of history at Nassau Community College, and author of three books on Long Island’s Italian-Americans.
Italian immigrants settled in big cities in neighborhoods from East Harlem and Belmont to Bushwick, labored at very low wages, and faced other hardships. A turn-of-the-century advertisement for property in Woodhaven ended with “Italians Excluded.”
But LaGumina said, they were resolved to overcome it, to find even the smallest plot of land for themselves. And many Italian immigrants would move “increasingly to the suburbs, in Nassau and Suffolk.” That meant Port Washington, Westbury, Oyster Bay and Glen Cove, as well as Patchogue, Bellport and Copiague. “The suburbs had industries that provided work,” he said, and that led to emerging Little Italys east of “the city.”
The Italian population of Glen Cove was about 24 in 1900; 1,163 in 1915. It was in Glen Cove that Frank and Concetta Stango, who had emigrated from the town of Sturno in Campania and would meet in Brooklyn, settled in 1914.
Stango’s closed in 2015, after an approximately 96-year run.
In the early days, “they started by feeding lunch to workers,” mainly unmarried immigrant men who labored in “Gold Coast mansions,” and lived in boardinghouses in The Orchard, the city’s seven-square block Italian neighborhood, said their grandson John Cocchiola. They didn’t cook and went to Stango’s. There were no menus. “It was whatever she was cooking.
“At the time, there wasn’t a lot of Italian food around here,” Cocchiola said. “It was a real novelty.” Restaurants were rare, too. The result: a big takeout business, as laborers also brought soups, stews, and pastas in pots back to the estates where they were landscapers, gardeners and construction workers. Years later, Cocchiola said, “We were the first place east of Brooklyn that had pizza.”
Nine years after Stango’s arrived, New York City restaurateur M.L. Basso opened his Casa Basso in Westhampton. It’s still cooking, under Bejto Bracovic, who emigrated from Montenegro, and began working there in 1972. He said Italian-American creations such as veal Parmigiana and spaghetti with meatballs were popular at Casa Basso in the 1920s.
Veal Parmigiana, with mozzarella, is distinctly Italian-American. If you order veal Parmigiana in Parma, Italy, the cheese will be grated Parmigiano-Reggiano; in areas south of Rome, Pecorino Romano. Mozzarella in Campania means mozzarella di bufala, from the milk of the water buffalo; in the United States, it’s pasteurized cow’s milk.
The “Parm” is among the popular adaptations Italians made in America, using the abundance of ingredients to invent a new, hybrid cuisine from a traditionally frugal one. The chefs of the early decades were locavores before the term existed.
It’s why, for example, Bolognese sauce includes lots of tomato, a generous amount of chopped meat, and is tossed with dry pasta. In Bologna, the pasta is likely to be fresh tagliatelle; the sauce, a meaty ragù that may be tinted with tomato, but not overwhelmed by it.
In Italy, scampi is a shellfish, with a flavor near that of lobster. It’s found primarily near Venice. And scampi not a style of cooking with garlic, butter and white wine, though “shrimp scampi” in a menu staple.
Lasagna alla Bolognese at the source will be made with spinach pasta, layered with a meat ragù, béchamel, and Parmesan cheese before it’s gratinéed. The original leaves out ricotta and mozzarella, tiny meatballs and crumbled sausage.
“Food is a symbol of Italian identity,” according to LaGumina. So much so, that, in Italian, a fine person would be called “buono come il pane” — as good as bread.
And the immigrants understood that the actual recipes and memories they’d brought from the Old Country could be adapted in the new.
“Everything changes,” Bracovic said.
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