It’s la Dolce Vita for Italians in Pittsburgh

We all know Christopher Columbus came to the New World in 1492, but it took many generations after that before his fellow Italians would establish a large presence in North America. During colonial times, there were a few Italians living here, but it wasn’t until later in the nineteenth century that the first sizable influx of immigrants came to the Pittsburgh area.

According to the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, before the Civil War, most Italians left the homeland for South America, settling primarily in Brazil and Argentina because employment there was plentiful. When the United States became prosperous in the late 1800s, more Italians came to America. In 1870, the U.S. Census reported 784 Italian-born residents in our state. By 1890, the population had grown to 2,794, and in 1900, the Italian population had exploded with more than 66,000 people of Italian descent living in Pennsylvania.

Italian Immigration

The Italian immigrants who came to the area in the late 1800s were often young, single men from Southern Italy. Most were agricultural workers, but some came to work in the trades. Often a padrone, or labor agent, helped them to find jobs and living accommodations. Those working in Pennsylvania kept in contact with their families back in Italy and encouraged others to immigrate as well. This led to what is known as chain migration.

Most Italians came to Pittsburgh by way of New York City over the railways, much of the track for which was laid by their fellow countrymen. Other Italian immigrants found work in the coal mines and slate quarries. Unlike other immigrant groups who came to this country and never went back home, many of the Italians went back and forth between their old and new homes, especially with the advent of the steamship travel. It was then that entire families began to immigrate in greater numbers.

Although Philadelphia received the highest numbers of Italian immigrants in PA, Pittsburgh’s percentage of Italians to the general population was comparable. Around 1890, these immigrants began to settle in enclaves such as Oakland, East Liberty, the Lower Hill District, and Bloomfield. Many of these neighborhoods had previously been home to German and Irish immigrants.

Italian Religious, Social, and Political Institutions

The Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh is known as our city’s Little Italy. The majority of the Italians who came to the area were Catholics. They established their own parishes, including Immaculate Conception in the Bloomfield, was built as an Italian parish in 1905. Among the many other Italian parishes that were founded in the Pittsburgh area were Madonna del Castello in Swissval; the now closed Regina Coeli, on the North Side; Madonna of Jerusalem in Sharpsburg; and St. Perpetua in the McKeesport area.

While the first Italians to settle in Pittsburgh may have faced discrimination from those already living here, Italian cuisine was embraced enthusiastically. In fact one of the dishes most identified with Pittsburgh today, a unique concoction of meat, cole slaw and French fries stacked between two slices of Mancini’s bread (another Italian-Pittsburgh staple) was invented by Italian descendants: Joe, Dick and Stanley, the Primanti Brothers.

Italian Restaurants

There are numerous Italian restaurants in Pittsburgh, but one well-known landmark is F. Tambellini on Seventh Street in downtown Pittsburgh. Tambellini’s has been in operation since 1950 and is famous for its delectable fried zucchini strips. Bloomfield is home to several other long-standing, independent Italian restaurants, such as Del’s. Del’s has been in business for decades and is a favorite for dining on classic Italian cuisine, as are both The Pleasure Bar and Lombardozzi’s.

The essence of Italian cuisine is the fresh, authentic ingredients, and there are many stores that specialize in Italian grocery items. Donatelli’s and Groceria Italiana in Bloomfield are where shoppers head for Italian sausage and homemade pastas while a whole section of Pittsburgh (the Strip District) is jam-packed with Italian specialty stores from the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. and Jimmy Sunseri & Nino Co. to the Biscotti Bakery.

Pittsburghers of Italian descent are proud of their Italian heritage and celebrate it in many different ways. In September, Bloomfield holds its annual Little Italy Days, and for more than two decades the city has held a Columbus Day parade on the holiday set aside to honor the Italian explorer. The parade has gotten larger each year. In the summer, Kennywood Amusement Park hosts Italian Days, and it always attracted a crowd.

Pride in Italian Heritage

Italians in Pittsburgh have expressed pride in their cultural heritage at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning Nationality Rooms. The Italian Room was dedicated in 1949 and is adorned with a gold rosette embellished ceiling, along with an architrave engraved with names of Italian geniuses such as Botticelli, Galileo, Verdi, and Marconi.

The Pittsburgh area has its own pantheon of Italian notables. Among them are Pittsburgh’s 54th mayor, the late Richard Caliguiri; NFL Dolphins Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino; crooner Perry Como; and everybody’s favorite handyman, Joe Negri from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. You don’t even have to be from Pittsburgh to have those of Italian heritage living here take you under their wings. Steelers fullback Franco Harris, the son of an African-American father and an Italian mother, found an army (Franco’s Italian Army) mobilized behind him when he helped to lead the Steelers in their heyday of Super Bowl victories.

Today, there are few first-generation Italians in Pittsburgh, and the discrimination against Italians has been left in the past. Although many of the Italians in Pittsburgh have intermarried with other ethnicities such as the Germans, Polish and Irish who also settled in Pittsburgh, anyone with even a drop of Italian blood living in the area will proudly proclaim their Italian heritage.