Street sits down with Urban Studies professor Domenic Vitiello to get the skinny on Italian Philadelphians, and why it’s so hard to get a quality slice in this town.
Street: So what was the golden age of Italian immigration, and in which parts of Philadelphia did most Italian immigrants first establish themselves?
Domenic Vitiello: The era between the 1890s and World War I were the peak years of Italian immigration to Philadelphia, New York, and pretty much everywhere else. Most Italians here came from southern Italy, which was largely agricultural, so they began working on farms in southern New Jersey. In a sense, the Italian Market is really an extension of South Jersey farming, the connection between Italian immigrants across the Delaware River.
Street: Do you think Philadelphia is still a pretty Italian town?
DV: There are some Italian neighborhoods, especially north of Center City along the Delaware. I think that it’s primarily a creation, though – the Italian Market works very hard to maintain an Italian image. In a lot of people’s minds, “Rocky” is the symbol of the city, but Italians have largely suburbanized.
Street: Why do you think that pizza in Philadelphia isn’t nearly as large a cultural food as it is in New York City?
DV: I think that part of the story is that the hoagies and cheesesteaks here in Philadelphia take up a lot of room in our stomachs that pizza might otherwise take up. Italians used to work at the old Navy Yard where they would grab meat, cheese, and lettuce and put it between two slices of bread. The location of the Navy Yard was called Hog Island, so the sandwich eventually became known as the “Hog Island” sandwich; hence, the “hoagie.”
The other part of the story is that there are other sources of reasonably priced food. The Italian Market is not so much Italian as it is Mexican and Southeast Asian now, and there are other fast foods that we can eat, like tacos. There are still pizza stores around, and I think that one of them serves Mexican Pizza, even though I’m not really sure what that is .
Street: So where are the descendents of those Italian immigrants?
DV: Across the 20th century, Italians, Irish, and other Europeans worked hard to be accepted by society at large. Take a look at Frank Rizzo, who was an Italian-American mayor of Philly in the 1970s and whose son is now on the city council. Frank Rizzo as mayor symbolizes what ethnic Philadelphia is all about: larger cultural acceptance within a milieu of different people.