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New York News Magazine: 1976

Millie

New York News Magazine
May 16th, 1976

Benvenuto! Life in an Italian village in Jersey City.

Step into this section of Jersey City and suddenly you’re in a tiny Italian town

 

Friends and neighbors take the sun on Brunswick St., which once boasted so many fruit stands and pushcarts it was called Bushel Ave.

Friends and neighbors take the sun on Brunswick St., which once boasted so many fruit stands and pushcarts it was called Bushel Ave.

Welcome to The Village

It is Saturday morning in the Village section of Jersey Cit. At the P. Pecoraro Bakery, three generations of Pecoraros – 14 in all – are at work around a 50-year-old brick oven.

The grandchildren are shaping dough into balls and circlets and twists, whispering and giggling all the while.

Sam the son is a step ahead, chopping long tubes of dough into one-pound lumps.

Sam’s sister Rose and his wife Kitty, who arrived at 5 a.m. to stoke the coal-fired hearth, are now behind the counter.

<i>Despite its name, the Colombus Democratic Club is for playing cards, not politics. Here four of the members reluctantly interrupt an intense game: from left, Ruggiero Finnocchiaro, Tony Dilorio, Charles Santillo and Danny Bozza</i>

Despite its name, the Colombus Democratic Club is for playing cards, not politics. Here four of the members reluctantly interrupt an intense game: from left, Ruggiero Finnocchiaro, Tony Dilorio, Charles Santillo and Danny Bozza

Overseeing them all is Paul the father. He reminds you of his bread: crusty on the outside, warm and soft within.

“Everyone’s the boss, but there’s only one papa,” he says. “I’m the owner ’til I die. Then my son will take over.”

Paul Pecoraro, 83, is a tiny man, not much taller than his 8-year-old granddaughter, Rosemary, but he rules the baker with absolute authority. His weathered face, cured like aged leather, rarely smiles. His heavily accented commands are abrupt. And he guards his recipes jealously.

“I don’t want the secrets of my business to go out nowise,” he tells customers who ask about his methods. “Me and my son. That’s enough.”

Pecoraro came to this country at 13. Ever since 1923, when the bakery opened at 279 Newark Ave., he has lived in the apartment above.

His pride is his oven, whose coals glow day and night. Nearby are the hand-cranked misers, the worn wooden trough where flour is stored, the 100-pound sacks of flour in the corner, the long-handled wooden paddles used to insert the soft bricks of dough into the oven.

The specialty of the house is Sicilian bread, with its dense moist center, crusty outside, and dusting of sesame seeds. A batch emerging from the oven fills the shop with an intoxicating aroma. And loaves are cheap, too.” the biggest, the round family size, goes for 75 cents.

Dominick D’Assi from Union, N.J., got up at seven this morning to make sure of arriving while the supply lasted. He flirts and jokes with Rose as she wraps his dozen loaves.

“You know how long I’ve been coming here?” he asks.

“How long?”

“Too long. Forty-something years.”

“I remember when you were just a teller. Now you’re vice president of the whole bank.”

“Yea. And you know what I always say? I say, ‘I’m in the dough, but you make the dough.’ A pun. Get it?” He winks broadly.

Walk into the Village section of downtown Jersey City, and you are in a tiny Italian town. Here in this 20-block-area, almost in the shadow of the World Trade Center, they still do things the old way. Behind the rather ordinary brick and frame storefronts lies another time, another place.

There are nearly 120 specialty stores in the Village: bread bakeries, fresh produce markets, Italian butchers, live poultry markets, dairy stores, pastry shops, clam bars, restaurants featuring homemade pasta, a fresh coffee and tea store, and New Jersey’s only complete wine-making supply store; also the clothing store where Frank Sinatra rented the tuxedo he wore to his first wedding and the restaurant where the King of Belgium once ate.

Prices are generally 20 to 40% lower than in comparable sections of New York City, and nearly 80% of the shoppers come from outside Jersey City. On Friday afternoons and Saturdays, the busiest shopping days, thousands of people descend on the neighborhood.

Once a haven for newly arrived Italian immigrants, the Village in its heyday was a bustling, thriving community, and even today retains much of its original charm. On Catholic feast days, statues on pushcarts are wheeled through the streets and showered with bouquets and dollar bills. Fig trees still grow in backyards, and many residents still make their own wine. Shouts of Italian are heard in the streets.

But the neighborhood has gone downhill in recent years, along with other sections of Jersey City. Shopping has fallen off, and many merchants are a little ashamed that their area does not have more outward appeal. To reverse this decline, Villagers and a few hard-working outsiders have begun a community improvement program they are calling a “risorgimento” (resurgence). One of their first acts was to sandblast a monument at Columbus Triangle, the geographical and spiritual hear of the area.

From Pecoraro’s it’s just a few steps, and a logical journey, to Fiore’s dairy store. This Saturday morning, as every morning, 22-year-old John Fiore is at his place beside the steaming cauldron of water in which lies the day’s first batch of mozzarella. He works the silky white stuff with his hands, kneading it, almost caressing it, until it is smooth and gleaming as marble. Mozzarella is made two or three times a day here, 50 pounds at a time, with the same loving care that went into the product when John’s grandfather started the store more than half a century ago.

Soon it will be lunchtime, and Fiore’s will be mobbed. One customer named Al has arrived early to stock up on provisions: he orders a pound each of half-a-dozen items – cheeses, sausage (200 pounds are ground fresh every week), salami, prosciutto – and heads for a local tavern.

It is almost lunchtime, too, at Feinstein’s White Front Poultry, where customers are buying freshly killed chickens that will be broiled and in the stomach within an hour. You are greeted at the door with a cacophony of cackling: ducks, geese, fat white turkeys, pigeons with magenta feet, young broilers bursting with vitality, rabbits huddled in a corner, noses twitching.

Death comes quickly, efficiently. A slit of the throat, a plunge into hot water, then the whir of the scrubber, whose rubber fingers tear off every last pinfeather. For kosher birds, Feinstein’s specialty, there are more powerful machines. A few quick strokes of the knife, and the bird is ready. The feet are still attached, for the Feinstein motto is “freshness guaranteed in two feet.” (Since it’s illegal to ship chicken feet interstate, the very fact of the uncovered feet shows that these birds are not imports, but fresh, locally dressed poultry.)

By early afternoon, winter sunshine is drifting into Di Feo’s Pastry Shoppe, onto the pink marble bar, gold fixtures, and old-fashioned circular fan that recall turn-of-the-century days when Jersey City society nibbled cannoli and sipped espresso at small tables in the rear of the store. With sunlight, the walls come aglow: they are gold leaf, hand-painted with pheasants, flamingos, an aviary of exotic birds.

Vivien Di Feo, daughter of the late owner, still speaks wistfully of the old days where there was virtually nothing her father didn’t make. But even today there’s an impressive assortment, every item made on the premises by pastry chefs just off the boat from Italy. There is strufeli, balls of egg white dipped in honey, $2 for a half-pound tray; pignolia-topped macaroon cookies; pasticiotta, a crisp pastry filled with creamy custard; rum babas; and spumoni ice, dense with fruit and almonds. The favorites are sfogiteli, a chewy pastry laced with citron and ricotta cheese, and cannoli, which at De Feo’s are left unfilled until ordered, so the crust stays crisp. Miniature pastries (a misnomer) are 20 cents each, large ones 40 cents. In summer, tables for espresso are still set up inside.

By 3 p.m. Tony Orlando’s butcher shop is filling up with customers coming to pick up orders they have telephones in earlier in the day. Orlando has been butchering for 25 years in the business his father who taught him butchering recipes for items like figatello, a sausage made with liver and bay leaf, wrapped in a lacy swatch of caul fat.

Years ago, Tony was medical student. “But the money ran out. So I dropped out. And what’s the good of talking about what might have been?” I’m a butcher, period.”

It is five o’clock, and there are deep shadows in Meloro’s winemaking supply shop. The small dark store is quiet now, but during the autumn winemaking season, there is activity until 10 every night, Sundays, too. Amateur winemakers from all over the metropolitan area come to learn the secrets of the art from Louis Meloro. His store is crammed with items for the winemaker: crushers to begin the fermenting process, 5-foot-high pressers, white oak barrels holding up to 70 gallons apiece, coopers’ tools and the ingenious wine tester, which measures the alcoholic content of the wine.

At 74, Meloro is a slight man but strong; he still moves with the oiled grace of the local fighters he used to manage back in the ’30s and ’40s. In his baggy mustard vest and shapeless felt hat, gliding across a wood floor that has aged like the inside of a wine barrel, he radiates joy and mischief, like a small, spry Bacchus.

Around the corner is Larry’s House of Seafood, a fish store, flourishing since the days when shad ran in local waters. Today the bay is empty, but Larry’s is well supplied from points much farther afield. Al LaMonica, Larry’s brother and partner has a morbid fondness for the killies, silvery white bate fish whose eyes never close. “People fry them in omelets,” he says, “and their eyes look up at you when you eat them.”

The specialty at Tony Siniscalchi’s bakery is sausage bread, an item you’re not likely to find at many other places. These big round loaves ($1.50 and $2.50) are crusty on the outside, buttery soft within, and studded with spicy morsels of homemade pork and veal sausage. The slow-cooking brick oven is the secret, Siniscalchi says, for as the loaves bake, the juices and aroma of the sausage penetrate the bread dough, making it moist and fragrant.

At Todisco’s Coffee and Tean Store, Carolyn Todisco will grand you freshly roasted Italian coffee beans so oily they must be crushed on special cast-iron machines no longer available. At Blum’s Foodland, one of the village’s best specialty food stores, you can find a broad array of imported items – olive oils from Spain, for example, and Italian pastas with names that sound like the titles of operas.

The first Italian immigrants started coming to the Village just after the turn of the century, men arriving straight from Ellis Island. They were attracted by jobs on the railroad and other construction, and stayed to open small stores and raise families. Brunswick St. was called Bushel Ave. then, for dozens of pushcarts and outdoor produce stalls lined the thoroughfare. The specialty shops came early, too, along with outdoor cafes.

In warm weather, kids slept on stoops or fire escapes, if they could sleep through the noise, for the neighborhood pulsated long after midnight. Shops stayed open until one, two in the morning, some even ’round the clock. Once there were 46 fruit stands and pushcarts on a single block of Brunswick St. and six Italian restaurants on one block of First St.

“When I was young, all the stores were Italian,” recalls Tony Nicodemo, onetime star basketball player, now guidance director for Jersey City’s public schools. “On Brunswick Street, you couldn’t move on a Saturday night, the streets were so jammed. People would sit on their stoops until 2 a.m., talking, gossiping…it was some place.”

The change came in the ’50s, when the New Jersey Turnpike wiped out a large chunk of the neighborhood and spurred an already growing exodus to suburbia. One by one, stores closed, as their elderly owners died, moved away, or simply shut their doors as business dwindled. With empty storefronts came vandalism and an ebbing of community spirit.

In many ways, the changes that befell the neighborhood are epitomized in the changes that befell Zampella’s clothing store. Joseph Zampella started the store in 1903 as a custom men’s shop: its 12 tailors fitted handmade suits for the likes of Mayor Frank (“I am the law”) Hague. In the ’30s, the business when retail; the “Brooks Brothers of Jersey City,” it was in those days. Peter Zampella, the founder’s son, still talks about the day when Frankie Sinatra, then just a local boy who shot pool around the corner, came in to rent full dress suits for the wedding party for his first marriage. “Two-fifty for a tux,” Peter says today. “And we delivered, too. Now you couldn’t get the studs for that price.”

Peter Zampella got his start in politics back in those days – now he’s county freeholder – and as he rose the store became a little City Hall. The phone rang constantly, and local politicians gathered around the big wooden table in the back for the store to argue and reminisce until early morning. Later the store fell on hard times, and last year Zampella switched to an all-outlet operation. Today $150 suits go for $50 apiece, and $3 shirts are plucked from a bin.

Only a few traces of the past remain. One is old Joseph, 91 now, a frail man dressed all in black, who comes every day from 10 in the morning until 5 at night shuffles with tiny steps up and down the length of the store – a specter from the past.

The other reminder of the past is the talk and reminiscing that still goes on around the big wooden table. Peter removed the chairs, but the phones still ring nonstop, and today men like Peter and Tony Nicodemo perch on the table’s edge and talk about their youth.

“Remember how we used to play football back in those days after the war? With those combat boots the guys brought back from service? And our shoulder pads stuffed with paper?”

Peter is called away by the telephone: a woman is having trouble with her welfare checks. He calms her, then returns to the conversation. His thin cigar never leaves his lips.

The talk of the Sunspots, of the Bengals from Third St., and the Destroyers from Wayne, and the street gangs that kept the neighborhood straight.

“Those guys we used to fight once a week. What was their name?”

“The Whalings.”

“And the Islanders, remember? We fought them twice a week, just to keep in shape.”

“Yeah, the Islanders. Irish. I remember.”

They talk of the past, too, at the Tripoli Restaurant, where things have hardly changed since the restaurant opened in 1909. It’s still a family-run place, with the mother in charge of the kitchen, still the kind of place where it takes Tony Scerbo, the fourth generation owner, 40 minutes to make his way from one end to the other, what with stopping to chat with the woman who know Sinatra’s first wife, and pointing out the table where Sinatra’s folks, Dolly and the old man, used to sit whenever they came, and unearthing, for a newcomer, Scerbo’s framed photograph of King Leopold of Belgium, who dined there in 1963.

The king was a regular guy, Scerbo says, although he didn’t know much about Italian food: “He didn’t know what an eggplant was. He never tasted Galliano. He learned a lot that night.” Upon his return, the king received a cheese cake made according to Tripoli’s secret 60-year-old recipe.

“You see two or three generations of a family that have worked hard to build a business, and when the time comes to retire, they can’t even sell the store,” says Jack Stokvix, a Jersey City resident and urban planner. “Yet this area is probably unique in New Jersey, the only place where you have the variety and quality of specialty shops. If you could improve the outward appearance, you could attract new people and make them aware of what the Village has to offer.”

What emerged from his concern and that of others is the risorgimento – a concerted drive to restore the old neighborhood to something more of its old character. Tony Nicodemo, in his role as head of the local civic group called VITO (Village Italian-Americans Take Action), is a key figure in the drive, along with Stokvis and Martin Holloway, an art professor at Union’s Kean College.

For Nicodemo, who married a local girl and is one of the few younger college-educated Italians to remain in the neighborhood, the project is almost a personal crusade. “It’s a close neighborhood, even now. But not like the old days. We want to bring this area back to life.”

The first step in the effort to identify and enliven the area was a beautification program launched with the help of students from Kean, Jersey City State College, and the local Feriss High School. Within the last year, three large colorful murals have been painted in the Village: one, which masks a graffiti-scrawled railroad embankment, features a swirling yellow sun – symbol of rebirth – and the invitation “Welcome to the Village;” the two others provide street directories and maps showing the locations of neighborhood specialty stores.

Several storefronts have been adorned with witty illustrations of the products within – fruits for a produce market, cheese for a dairy store, and street signs have been painted red, white, and green, the colors of the Italian flag. Cheerful flower boxes have sprouted in windows, the city has helped by pointing traffic lights and fire hydrants, and the Columbus Triangle monument sparkles anew.

Though the risorgimento began as an all-volunteer effort, it has received seed money from the Keep America Beautiful Fund and a $13,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for future projects. Additional murals and signs and a more ambitious storefront refurbishing program are in the drawing stages. Initial skepticism from older merchants has softened into admiration.

But the risorgimento is racing time. Within the last year, two butchers disappeared from the Village, and a woman who did custom monograms moved away. Just after New Year’s, the man everyone called Erk, Peter Ercolano, owner of one of the Village’s oldest restaurants, suffered a fatal heart attack during a game of pinochle.

“Erk’s going makes a big difference.” said Nicodemo a few days after the funeral. “Guys like him kept the neighborhood going. We have to work fast.”