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Spirit of the North End

North End laureate, Part II


Two years after the death of his father, John Ciardi moved with his family from the North End out to the “country” (i.e., Medford) and into a house they shared with Aunt Christina and Uncle Alec. Together, the families struggled to make ends meet. Echoing the lives of many North Enders, Christina worked at Schraff’s as a candy dipper while Alec was a barber on Causeway Street. The mother kept the house with its chickens and giant garden, and then worked some nights on the late shift as a men’s tailor. The children also helped out, working various jobs after ...

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John Ciardi: North End’s poet laureate


“I was born June 24, 1916, at 25 Sheave Street in Boston’s North End, which was then as now, though more so then, Little Italy … . My mother, in the custom of her tribe, bore me in the same bed in which she connived me … . ” So wrote John Ciardi, renowned poet, translator and teacher. I had long known of Ciardi’s translation of Dante, and I knew he was Italian American, but I did not know he had been born in the North End. Truthfully, I don’t recall now how I discovered that he was. But what ...

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Homegrown verismo

Il Padrone

George Scigliano was the first Italian American elected to public office in Boston. His story was brought to life by Steven Puleo in “The Boston Italians.” As Puleo notes, Scigliano fought hard to end the exploitation of Italian immigrants through the corrupt padrone system. His death inspired the unsuccessful effort by James Donnaruma to rename North Square after him. Scigliano’s work also may have been the inspiration for something else: an opera about Italian immigrants set in the North End. That opera is George Whitfield Chadwick’s “Il Padrone” (1913). Chadwick is one of the most well-known and accomplished American classical ...

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Here at last: North End’s story on film

Pasto - Film Image

In July 2013, I wrote about the North End Historical Society’s documentary. I had thought that the film would be premiered in early 2014. I was optimistic. Nevertheless, good things come to those who wait, and the film was finally premiered on Jan. 20, 2016 at Suffolk University’s Modern Theatre on Washington Street – and with our thanks to Suffolk University and John Nucci. This is only its first showing, and there are many others planned. The film is called “Boston’s North End: An Italian American Story.” As the title indicates, it is not so much a documentary history as ...

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World War II and the North End


In his book, International Conflict in an American City: Boston’s Irish, Italians, and Jews, 1935-1944, Rodney Stark discusses the conflicts between Irish, Italians, Blacks, and Jews before and during World War II. The book is a reminder that a war which eventually became a paradigm of ethnic unity was preceded by often acrimonious inter-ethnic battles about the fascism, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Roosevelt’s’ WPA, Mexican anti-clericalism, and growing anti-Semitism. We get some insight into this in some letters between William Foote Whyte and North Ender Frank Luongo, which I found in Whyte’s archives at Cornell University. Whyte, who had ...

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The Meals Who Make Us What We Are

Seven Fishes! (photo courtesy Austin Kleon)

One of the things that came out of my article on “The Eternal Italian Debate: Gravy vs. Sauce” was that Italian Americans don’t agree on everything. Some people wrote to me that they never called “it” gravy, that it was not gravy, but that it was sauce. Some said the opposite. I had concluded my article by saying that “What is sauce for the goose is gravy for the gander.” I call it gravy and I still do. But this article is not about gravy. It is a little bit about the foods that went with the holidays of Thanksgiving ...

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North End sounds (and Scorsese’s passion for doo-wop)


I was not one of those kids who sang on the street corners. I didn’t have a good voice and by my teen years I tended to hang out less than I did when I was younger. But I remember the kids singing in the park during the day or on cold fall nights around fire-lit barrel. Just like in the movies, as the saying goes. In doing my own research on the North End I spoke to Nick Savino a while back. Nick spoke about his love for doo wop and acapella. He told me how he and his ...

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Italian American Heritage Month – Something to Celebrate


This month is Italian American Heritage Month and as always there will be many events, programs, and celebrations in Boston, including a Columbus Day parade. In all of this it might be easy to miss a very vital contribution of Italian American heritage, one that is literally staring you in the face. I refer to Bosontiano itself, both the magazine and the website. The website began in 2011, followed by the magazine in 2013. Both have already become important local icons of Italian American heritage, just as both mark the continuity of that heritage through the lives, stories, and announcements ...

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The North End Connection

J & N Market, Corner of Prince and Salem Street (North End of Boston), 1980 ©Anthony Riccio

In February I wrote about what I called “The American Connection” and some people misunderstood what I meant. Some thought I meant that I grew up with doubts or confusion about my Italian identity. That is not the case. I want to clarify what I meant and then use it as a stepping stone to talk about “North End identity.” In that February article, I talked about my former BU colleague Patricia Park’s frustration at often being perceived as non-American because of her Korean ancestry and physical features, and of her own sense of not feeling fully American because of ...

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Growing up speaking North End English

Image courtesy https://italyonmymind.com.au/

In his 1975 study of the North End, “The Italian-American child: His sociolinguistic acculturation,” Fr. Lawrence Biondi stated that “The English spoken in the North End is English that is heard nowhere else in New England or Boston. North Enders have a strong tendency toward being uniquely apart — they are not quite Italian, but not quite American either” (p. 36). Those of us who grew up in the neighborhood would not be surprised at this statement. We did have a way of speaking that was unique to the North End, though much of it was shared by Italian Americans ...

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July 14, 1863: The day the North End said ‘no’ to conscription

The North End riot happened one day after the bigger New York Draft Riots pictured above (picture courtesy https://clevelandcivilwarroundtable.com/)

The Boston Draft Riot of July 14, 1863, is remembered more as the “North End Draft Riot,” since it began in the North End and the worst part of it occurred in the nei. The context was the American Civil War and the resistance of many Irish immigrants to conscription into the Union Army. Immigrant resistance stemmed in part to the fact that the wealthy had the option to pay a $300 substitution fee, which was often purchased by the destitute to support their families, giving rise to the saying that the Civil War was “a rich man’s war but ...

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Celebrating Slow Food in the North End

From left: Rocco and Bartolomeo De Stefano, Carlos inside Boschetto Bakery (now closed).

The “Slow Food Movement” was founded in 1986 as an alternative to fast foods and with the goal to preserve and promote regional cuisines. Now an international movement, it was founded in Italy (of course) where it grew out of a protest against the building of a McDonalds near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Its “Manifesto,” initially endorsed by delegates from 15 countries in 1989, reads in part: A firm defense of quest material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life. May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long lasting enjoyment preserve ...

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