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Meet Marco. He’s an art student from Treviso, Italy, and he’s doing a semester here at Pratt. He took the ferry the other day to interview me about the experiences of Italians in New York; it will be part of a documentary he’s working on. Marco had put out a call for interviews on a Facebook page called New York Italians; it’s a place where recent arrivals from Italy, mainly the youth, exchange tips on jobs, apartments, and where to hang out.
I responded when I was in Italy and, as usual, totally forgot about it. So I was surprised when a text popped up on my phone. A little back and forth and we had a date and time, if not a place. At first Marco thought we might do a video conference interview, but knowing that I was in New York, he pushed for doing it in person. I’m pretty lazy and wary these days about getting around, so I asked if he’d come to Staten Island. He agreed, to my surprise. Usually an invitation to come to the island is met with the kind of reaction young guys had when they received an invitation from Uncle Sam during the Vietnam War.
The island was a good choice, though given the subect matter. Almost 40 percent of the population of around half a million is of Italian descent, and Italian restaurants, bakeries, and shops line Staten Island’s streets. A lot of the restaurants, sad to say, are dreck. It seems like a central kitchen somewhere produces the same menu items: “zuppa di clams,” mozzarella sticks, penne alla vodka, chicken or veal with a misspelled “francaise.” (I fully recognize that I am being an Italian food snob right now, but I have 10 years of restaurant critic experience to back up my….um, pickiness?)
For Marco, then, I picked a relative newcomer to the scene for lunch, Vinum, a few train stops from the ferry. It’s authentically Italian, not really Italian-American, and usually pretty quiet at lunchtime. It’s worth a visit if you feel like taking the ferry, and, along with Enoteca Maria closer to the ferry and the splendid Sri Lankan eatery Lakruwana, forms a triumvirate of restaurants that can hold their own against the more illustrious boroughs.
Marco used lunchtime for us to get to know each other and to develop interview themes. Speaking in a mixture of Italian and English, we told each other stories about ourselves. Being a good interviewer, he got more out of me than vice-versa. I didn’t mind, it helped me shape something I want to write about in the near future. And after decades of playing his role and trying to get people to tell me stories, it actually was fun to be on the other side. (Foodies, here’s what we had: a shared starter of shrimps and beans all’uccelletto, tagliatelle al ragù for him, tricolor gnocchi for me, Rosso di Montefalco to go with it.)
I did fall into one familiar role: tour guide. When people visit us in Umbria, we usually give them a basic orientation. I did a version of that with Marco. With him riding shotgun, I drove down Bay Street, which follows the eastern shore of Staten Island, from the ferry, through a few old towns, to Fort Wadsworth under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
One town in particular stands out, Rosebank. It was heavily Italian-American until a recent influx of gentrifiers, and could even boast that Giuseppe Garibaldi, the military firebrand who was instrumental in unifying Italy, lived there. Garibaldi, whose name appears on streets and piazzas in every Italian town, had fled an earlier unsuccessful attempt in 1848 to unify the peninsula and took refuge in the home of Italian inventor Antonio Meucci. That house is now the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum.
We got out of the car in Fort Wadsworth. For years it was a military base. Now part of Gateway National Park, it’s got a great view of the harbor and the looming bridge, and has a bunch of fascinating ruins, as well as a campground and a beach. Marco took a few videos and photos and then we had to find a place to do the interview. The weather was blustery and a sound check revealed that the wind would’ve been louder than any gems that I had to say.
But where? I wracked my brain and came up with my favorite local brewery, Flagship. It’s got a big room, good beer, and well-spaced picnic tables. Bartender Mike, intrigued by what we were doing, lit up the spots near us and gave us beer on the house. Amusingly, one of their beers is an Italian-style Pilsener called Birra Locale, meant to mimic Italian brews like Peroni and Moretti. Does it? Marco says it’s more bitter than those; Italians are just getting used to hoppy beers like IPAs.
We talked for awhile about my families on both sides and the different facets of life in the U.S. A lot of Italians don’t know about the different strains of the Italian diaspora. And in a lot of ways they echo the divisions in the home country, even if in many cases more than 100 years separate them.
I’m anxious to see what Marco does with the interview, and the others he’s spoken to. He’s been to the Bronx’s Arthur Avenue Italian enclave and others, so I hope he’s both got a complete picture and a point of view. In the meantime, we’ll get ready for the holidays here, fingers crossed that the new Omicron Covid-19 variant doesn’t spoil all of our celebrations this year.