Italian immigrants have stamped New England as indelibly as any Puritan since large numbers started to arrive during the 1890s.
Today, the descendants of Italian immigrants make up more than 10 percent of the population of every New England state except Vermont and Maine. Any New Englander can recognize the voice of Don Orsillo, Joe Castiglione or the Magliozzi brothers; and they probably look forward to at least one of the region’s 45 summer festas, from Our Lady of Assumption in Portland to St. Bartholomew in Providence.
Italian-Americans have undeniably influenced New England’s food history. Boston’s North End brought us Prince spaghetti, Pastene sauces and Dragone cheese – and the first Italian café, Café Vittoria, in 1929. John Bello of New Britain created SoBe beverages. Amato’s Italian delicatessen in Portland, Maine, claims to have originated the Italian sandwich and Frank Pepe in New Haven invented the white clam apizza.
And yet Italian immigrants have contributed to American history and culture in ways that are typically – well, American. Italian immigrants sculpted the Lincoln Memorial, frescoed the dome of the Capitol and founded the Bank of America, which was once the Bank of Italy. S. Z Poli of New Haven founded a chain of vaudeville theaters and Charles Ponzi of Boston’s North End discovered a new form of financial fraud. Italian-American Bart Giamatti, born in Boston, presided over Yale University and Major League Baseball. Providence’s Edward Valenti created the Ginsu knife and the infomercial.
It was Mike Eruzione of Winthrop, Mass., who captained the U.S. Olympic team that defeated the Russians in 1980. And it was Filippo Mazzei, a physician friend of Thomas Jefferson, who published a pamphlet that contained the line,
All men are by nature equally free and independent.
Jefferson used it in the Declaration of Independence.
The first Italians were explorers, and not just Christopher Columbus. America got its name from an Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, who explored the east coast of South America from 1499 to 1502.
Venetian John Cabot – Giovanni Caboto -- and his son Sebastian are the reason Americans speak English. Cabot was the first to explore the mainland in North America in 1497 under the commission of English king Henry VII.
Giovanni di Verrazano, a Florentine, was the first since the Vikings to explore the Atlantic coast between Florida and New Brunswick.
Italians fought in the American Revolution. Afterward, Italian immigrants came to the United States for their professional skills and as political refugees, as missionaries and as explorers.
They also came because their professional skills were needed. In 1801, Philip Trajetta founded a music conservatory in Boston, the first in the United States. Beginning in 1871, Gaetano Lanza was a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for over 40 years.
Scattered Italian families settled in Boston between the American Revolution and the Civil War, but the city didn’t attract large groups of immigrants. There was too little land and too little commercial opportunity, and the city’s homogenous and self-contained social life made it forbidding to outsiders.
Seven thousand Italians fought in the Civil War, and six won the Congressional Medal of Honor. New York even recruited infantrymen from Italy for its 39th regiment, also known as the Garibaldi Guard.
After the Civil War there weren’t enough men to work in the mills and factories that boomed, so immigrants were recruited from overseas.
A Wave of Italian Immigrants
From 1880 to 1920, an estimated 4 million Italian immigrants arrived in the United States, most from 1900 to 1914, and most from southern Italy and Sicily. Italian unification in 1861 worsened conditions in those places, where the soil was exhausted, taxes and tariffs were high and young men were conscripted for seven years
In 1880 about a thousand Italian immigrant families came to Boston, the first wave to the city bypassed by most Europeans save for the Irish.
These immigrants didn’t speak English. They were forced to take low-wage jobs and exploited by middlemen. They settled in ghettoes known as Little Italies: Front Street in Hartford, Central End in Bridgeport, Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, the South End of Springfield, Mass. The biggest Little Italies -- the North End of Boston, Wooster Square in New Haven, Federal Hill in Providence -- were once crowded tenement neighborhoods. Today they have gentrified and are now tourist attractions.
Birds of Passage
About a third of the newcomers were birds of passage, workers who intended to stay until they’d saved enough money to reestablish themselves in Italy. It wasn’t easy. Italian men were consigned to low-paying construction jobs, while women usually worked as seamstresses in garment factories. Many Italian immigrants led the fight for better pay and working conditions. Arturo Giovanitti, Joe Ettor and Carlo Tresca organized the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, known as the Bread and Roses strike.
Prejudice against Italian immigrants was widely believed responsible for the 1927 execution of Sacco and Vanzetti despite evidence that exonerated them. Many Italians Anglicized their names to avoid the stigma of their ethnicity. Actor Ernest Borgnine of Hamden, Conn., was originally Ernest Borgnino. Steve Carell, a Concord, Mass., native, would have been Steve Caroselli had his father not changed his name.
World War I, together with the restrictive Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and Immigration Act of 1924, abruptly ended the massive wave of Italian immigrants to America. The Little Italies stabilized and prospered, and English became the predominant language. Italian Americans started to get better jobs as civil servants and skilled tradesmen, though the Great Depression reversed many of their gains.
By the time the United States entered World War II, 600,000 Italians had not become American citizens. They were declared enemy aliens and required to report regularly to the government, though as many as 500,000 Italian-Americans served in the armed forces. Fourteen Italian-American servicemen earned the Medal of Honor, including Col. Henry Mucci of Bridgeport, who led Army Rangers on a daring raid of a POW camp that held survivors of the Bataan Death March.
The war, however, opened up good-paying jobs in defense factories to Italian immigrants. Then after the war many Italian-Americans took advantage of the G.I. Bill to attend college. In the post-war era, Karen Ignani, of Providence, became CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans; Samuel Palmisano, of Southport, Conn., was named president and CEO of IBM.
As they prospered, Italian-Americans gained political power. Ella Grasso was elected governor of Connecticut, the first woman governor elected in her own right. Tom Menino became Boston’s longest serving mayor, while Massachusetts elected Foster Furcolo, John Volpe and Paul Cellucci as governors. Even Maine had an Italian-American governor, John Baldacci, and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy’s mother is of Italian descent.
Nearly one in five Rhode Islanders – 18.9 percent – claim Italian ancestry. That makes the Ocean State the most Italian in the country. In 1950, John Pastore became the first Italian American elected to the U.S. Senate. Donald Carcieri, Edward DiPrete and Gina Raimondo were since elected governor and Buddy Cianci mayor of Providence.
Johnston, R.I., is the most Italian U.S. municipality, with 46.7 percent of the population claiming Italian ancestry.
Companies like the Silver Spring Bleaching and Dyeing attracted Italian immigrants to Providence's North End in the 19th century. Today, 36.7 percent of North Providence residents say their ancestors were Italian immigrants.
Famous Italian Americans from Rhode Island include comedienne Ruth Buzzi, novelist Peter Pezzelli, hockey players Jack and Dave Capuano and Olympic skater Marissa Castelli.
Today, Connecticut is the second most Italian state in America after Rhode Island. A full 18.7 percent of the population claims Italian ancestry.
Roughly half the populations of East Haven, West Haven, and North Haven are descended from Italian immigrants. Wooster Square, home of Frank Pepe’s white clam apizza, is a bastion of Italian culture and cuisine. Italian ancestry is also claimed by more than a quarter of the populations of Northford, North Branford, Oakville, Orange, Wolcott, Derby and Wethersfield.
Stamford sent Andy Robustelli to the Football Hall of Fame and Bobby Valentine to the helm of the Boston Red Sox. Joe Castiglione of Hamden is now a Red Sox broadcast announcer. And Rosa Ponselle of Meriden was a famous opera diva with the Metropolitan opera during the 1920s and 1930s.
In Revere, 35.7 percent of residents claim Italian ancestry, making it the most Italian city in Massachusetts. Massachusetts itself ranks as the fourth most Italian state in the country behind New Jersey. Close to 14 percent of Massachusetts residents are descended from Italian immigrants. Metropolitan Boston has close to a half-million residents with Italian ancestry.
Famous descendants of Italian immigrants to Massachusetts included poet John Ciardi and artist Frank Stella. Massachusetts has also produced such Italian-American athletes as Rocky Marciano, Tony Conigliaro and Joseph Bellino. Aerosmith's Joe Perry's mother was Italian, and so was Jay Leno's dad.
Yes, New Hampshire is the seventh most Italian states in the country. Nearly 11 percent of its residents saying they have Italian ancestors. Salem, along the southern tier, has the densest population of Italian-Americans at 15.7 percent.
This story was updated in 2018.