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A song of the streets of Boston

Nick Argiro Buying his Daily Fruit on Salem Street (North End of Boston), 1982 ©Anthony Riccio

Nick Argiro Buying his Daily Fruit on Salem Street (North End of Boston), 1982 ©Anthony Riccio

There is a reason that reality show producers from all over the country make Boston their first choice to mine new talent. Our city has a scruffy vitality, a vibrant underside, rambunctious characters who speak with salty language in an accent that is virtually impossible to master. There is no place like Boston to take in a kaleidoscopic look into real people: the shabby, the chic and everything in between.

And Boston Italians are truly certainly among the most colorful.

Listening to Italians debate, about who makes the best espresso (Some say Wy, the Chinese American who has worked behind the counter at Hanover Street’s Caffé Paradiso for decades. Others insist that only an Italian can make a truly Italian espresso and opt for the Café Napoli on Salem Street.) is like listening to a song of the streets. That poetry was created by the long history that Italian forged here from 1920s when they arrived to America’s waterfront and climbed the East Boston’s “Golden Stairs” to the immigration station. The “Golden Stairs,” which remain there today and I run up often to take in my neighborhood’s beautiful panoramic view of the best city on the planet (except maybe Rome), earned its nickname because it represented the final climb to the land of golden opportunity.

Men like Fred Tobia made much of that opportunity. Eight decades ago, the cabinetmaker was among the Italians to climb those stairs and set up roots not far away with a small shop in Maverick Square. After WWII, Tobia expanded his business — New England Casket Company — to its current location on Bennington Street. His son succeeded his father in the early 1960s. In 1990, the third generation of Tobias joined the company, which has provided caskets for funerals all over the world. Most recently, there were whispers that the Tobia’s built the casket for the singer Whitney Houston, which was then dipped in 24-karat gold. But because they treasure their clients’ privacy, the family would not confirm or deny that they were involved with the singer’s funeral.

The Fredella family of Sterlingwear

The Fredella family of Sterlingwear

Another example is Sterlingwear, the Italian family-owned maker of the original pea coat. Yes, the very pea coat worn by our heroes in the United States military. When the news broke that the 2012 Team USA Olympic ensembles were made in China, and even sported embarrassing labels courtesy of Ralph Lauren, I was apoplectic. How can an American Olympic medalist wear Chinese-made clothing, with a beret no less, when there is an iconic American clothing designer like Sterlingware with three generations of Italian tailoring behind it? And to find out that Ralph Lauren charged the U.S. Olympic committee exorbitant prices for the ugly outfits was even more infuriating given the that Eastie-based Sterlingware is still priced for the workaday American.

Caffe Sicilia in Gloucester (photo courtesy of Paul Cary Goldberg from his upcoming book of photos "Tutta la Famiglia")

Caffe Sicilia in Gloucester (photo courtesy of Paul Cary Goldberg from his upcoming book of photos “Tutta la Famiglia”)

There is Italian influence in each one of the 351 cities and towns that comprise the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I have driven an hour just to buy bread at Virgilio’s Italian Bakery and Deli in Gloucester and sip a cappuccino across the street at Café Sicilia. I have organized overnights to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts just to eat at Mazzeo in Pittsfield after a night under the stars at Tanglewood. And I have been known to wangle my friends into a long day trip to Cape Cod just for a scoop of egg custard ice cream, Italian-style of course, at Caffé Gelato Bertini.

So when Nicola Orichuia told me he was starting a magazine expressly for tapping into Boston’s Italian-American voice, that song of the streets I have loved so much as an Italian-Irish American, I knew immediately that I wanted to profile the very people who have made Boston so eclectic, so exciting, and frankly, so uniquely European. Just like the journalist Joseph Mitchell profiled the wonderful characters that made New York City and Mike Royko dug up dirt on the people who made Chicago a world-class destination and Gay Talese told us stories of the rich and famous in Los Angeles but also wrote of the down-and-out with the same passion, I knew I wanted to capture the spirit of Boston in the same way.

And there is no community more celebrated than the Boston Italians.

I hope to use this column space to write about our family-owned businesses, the very people who built our cities by hand and the men and women who have carried on those legacies through the decades. Italy is renowned for its food, its art, but mostly for its people. I know Boston has that same passion and energy. Bostoniano is exactly the forum we have been craving to tell the stories of the people who keep it that way.

- Michele McPhee / [email protected]

About Michele McPhee

Michele McPhee is a best-selling author, emmy-nominated investigative journalist and award-winning columnist. To share stories about local Italian-American family businesses, e-mail [email protected] To find out more about Michele, visit www.michelemcphee.com.

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