I was born in 1958. My mother, father, sister and I lived in a small (600 sq. ft. maybe) apartment in a building off Charter Street. The toilet was outside in the hall, the heat came from old radiators, and the windows had drafts. But it was the most comfortable and warmest place I have ever lived.
My father was from East Boston while two of my mother’s sisters had moved to the North Shore. But my Aunt Sylvia lived with my grandfather Antonio a block away from us, and I had other ‘aunts’ as well — friends of my mothers who were really like second mothers to me. There was Auntie Anna, and Auntie Josie, and another Auntie Anna. My mother was like another mother to their children. And the people who lived around were “paesani,” or lifelong friends. That was what the North End was like – like a single family.
We had dinner at my grandfather’s apartment during the week. My aunt Sylvia worked so my mother cooked for my grandfather and it was easier for all of us to eat there together. On Monday nights, my mother usually cooked some kind of Italian dish. One I remember was called “La Wedza.” It was made with pepperoni, cabbage, and beans, olive oil and garlic. Tuesdays and Thursdays were macaroni or spaghetti, with gravy (not sauce) meats, a cooked vegetable (maybe broccoli rab), followed by salad and fruit. Wednesdays weren’t Prince Spaghetti night, but ‘American’ night, when my mother might have made a soup with hot dogs or steak, with rice and peas or corn, (and salad after, always). Friday nights were either fish or pizza — with salad.
I don’t remember what we had on Saturdays, but Sunday was always the big family dinner. I don’t have to tell you what we had because if you’re Italian then you know. By the way, every meal had wine made by my grandfather in his cellar. And just like we didn’t call the North End “Little Italy,” we didn’t call our food “Italian food.” It was just our food.
I gave a whole paragraph above to describing the food we ate because it was such a big part of growing up there — just like family. Food and family were “two very important things to a child growing up in the North End,” Victor Passacantilli said in a documentary now being made about the neighborhood. That documentary is being produced by the North End Historical Society, of which I am a co-founder. The film is part of a wider project of preserving the Italian history of the North End, from personal stories of the people who lived there to new archival research on key historical events.
I want to share some of this history with you in my monthly column. I plan to write about better and lesser known historical events, talk about changes in and to the North End, past and present, highlight Italian and Italian-American organizations, and sometimes talk about people who helped make the neighborhood the wonderful place it was. In some columns, I might describe an event tied to a current date; in others, I might report on new research or studies, or perhaps older research that is not well known. Whatever the topic, I hope to bring you something interesting about the North End, that Italian village on the East Coast of the United States.
James Pasto – [email protected]