Italian immigrants put their stamp on New England as indelibly as any Puritan. New England, in fact, is the most Italian region in the United States.
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 tens of thousands attend 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, Dragone cheese and the first Italian café, Café Vittoria, in 1929. John Bello of New Britain also 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, formerly the Bank of Italy. S. Z Poli of New Haven built a chain of vaudeville theaters and Charles Ponzi of Boston’s North End discovered a new form of financial fraud. Bart Giamatti presided over Yale University and Major League Baseball. Providence’s Edward Valenti created the Ginsu knife and the infomercial.
Mike Eruzione of Winthrop, Mass., captained the U.S. Olympic team that defeated the Russians in 1980. And Filippo Mazzei, a physician friend of Thomas Jefferson, published a pamphlet that contained a familiar line. It read,
All men are by nature equally free and independent.
As a result, 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. That’s because Cabot first explored the mainland in North America in 1497 under the commission of English king Henry VII.
And Giovanni di Verrazano explored the Atlantic coast between Florida and New Brunswick.
Italians then fought in the American Revolution. Afterward, Italian immigrants came to the United States as political refugees, as missionaries and as explorers.
They also came because of a need for their professional skills. In 1801, Philip Trajetta founded a music conservatory in Boston, the first in the United States. Beginning in 1871, Gaetano Lanza taught 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 then. There was too little land and too little commercial opportunity. Boston’s homogeneous and self-contained social life also 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.
Then after the Civil War, New England’s mills and factories didn’t have enough workers, so they recruited immigrants from overseas.
A Wave of Italian Immigrants
From 1880 to 1920, an estimated 4 million Italian immigrants arrived in the United States. Most came between 1900 and 1914, and most came from southern Italy and Sicily. Italian unification in 1861 worsened conditions in the mother country. Plus 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 had to take low-wage jobs and fell prey to labor brokers known as padrones. They settled in ghettoes known as Little Italys. Those included Front Street in Hartford, Central End in Bridgeport, Shrewsbury Street in Worcester and the South End of Springfield, Mass.
Burlington, Vt., Portsmouth, N.H., and Portland all had Little Italys, but they since disappeared. The once-crowded tenements of the North End of Boston, New Haven’s Wooster Square and Providence’s Federal Hill have all gentrified.
Birds of Passage
About a third of the newcomers were birds of passage, workers who intended to stay until they saved enough money to reestablish themselves in Italy. It wasn’t easy. Italian men ended up working 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.
Many blamed prejudice against Italian immigrants for the 1927 execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. And 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 abruptly ended the massive wave of Italian immigration to America. Then came the restrictive Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and Immigration Act of 1924. The Little Italys 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. The government declared them enemy aliens and required them to report regularly. At the same time, as many as 500,000 Italian-Americans served in the armed forces.
During the war, Italian-American servicemen earned the Medal of Honor. For example, Col. Henry Mucci of Bridgeport 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 to Italian immigrants in defense factories. 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.
Because they prospered, Italian-Americans gained political power. Ella Grasso won election as governor of Connecticut, the first woman governor elected in her own right. Tom Menino served as 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 has Italian ancestry.
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 since won election as governor. Buddy Cianci for years served as the colorful mayor of Providence.
Johnston, R.I., the most Italian municipality in the United States, has 46.7 percent of its 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 they had Italian ancestors.
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 ranks as 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. More than a quarter of the populations of seven Connecticut towns — Northford, North Branford, Oakville, Orange, Wolcott, Derby and Wethersfield — have Italian ancestors.
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 announces Red Sox games on the radio. And Rosa Ponselle of Meriden performed 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. That’s because close to 14 percent of Massachusetts residents have Italian ancestry, with a half-million living in metropolitan Boston.
Famous descendants of Italian immigrants to Massachusetts include 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 state in the country. Nearly 11 percent of its residents say they have Italian ancestors. Salem, along the southern tier, has the densest population of Italian-Americans in New Hampshire at 15.7 percent.
This story was updated in 2020.
Image: Atwells Avenue By Zigamorph – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 us, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3996788