Road Trip: Cleveland’s Little Italy Neighborhood

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Locals in Cleveland's Little Italy neighborhood play bocce, a game that involves players throwing colored balls as close as possible to a white cue ball.(Photo: Karen Schaefer, producer)
Locals in Cleveland's Little Italy neighborhood play bocce, a game that involves players throwing colored balls as close as possible to a white cue ball.(Photo: Karen Schaefer, producer)

Take a walk up the steep, narrow streets of Cleveland’s Little Italy and you may wonder if you’re still in Ohio.

The sounds of Italian opera spill from a corner restaurant, while across the street, patrons at a sidewalk cafe munch cannoli with their cappuccino.

Cleveland native and Italian tour guide Diana Maiola Cirino says the location of Little Italy was a perfect fit for Italian immigrants who began arriving here in 1885.

“You know, Italians have always lived in small hilltop towns, sometimes surrounded by walls. And created their own little communities that could take on a lot of dimension, with a lot of people…And that’s what they found here.”

Little Italy was not the first Italian neighborhood in Cleveland, but it has been the most enduring.

In 1911, more than 90 percent of Little Italy’s residents were Italian-born. Angelo Vitantonio invented the first hand-cranked pasta machine here in 1906. And the neighborhood is still known for its authentic Italian restaurants, most focusing on the cuisine of Italy’s southern regions.

“Moligia, Napoli, and southern Italy, Calabria and Sicily,” says Francesca Mignosa, who works for Cirino.

“Usually, southern immigrants left Italy for hope and a better life in America.”

Mignosa came to Cleveland from her native Sicily for college a few years ago. She stops in front of Holy Rosary Church, which holds outdoor processions during the four-day street festival for the Feast of Assumption in mid-August.

Mignosa says for Cleveland’s Italian-Americans, religion and education go hand in hand.

“Education is a constant and we’re in front of the Montessori School of Holy Rosary. Maria Montessori was an Italian educator that came to the U.S. And established this new way of teaching or educating which was not actually based on structure, but following a child’s own development.”

After the unification of Italy, more than 25-thousand immigrants fled to Cleveland, escaping extreme poverty. The story of that immigration is told in a mural on the lower end of Mayfield Road.

At the top of the street is Alta House, a settlement house founded in 1895 by John D. Rockefeller. Here local residents still play bocce, a bowling game that dates back to Roman times.

“Something about why they still like playing it!”

By the 1920′s there were six Italian neighborhoods in Cleveland. Many immigrants were skilled bricklayers and masons.

Pamela Dorazio-Dean, associate curator of Italian-American History at the Western Reserve Historical Society, says Cleveland’s Italian immigrant stonemasons literally helped build the city.

“People look at buildings like Severance Hall everyday, they go and admire the beauty of the building, not realizing that it was an Italian immigrant who helped beautify the city.”

Another Italian tradition has made its way here as well: the evening stroll.

“After 6 o’clock or after dinner, la passgiata allungo ligura, along the sea, or in the in the main piazza or estrada principale, the main street,” says Francesca Mignosa. “And I think it also goes back to the concept of enjoying La Dolce Vita, which in American means, the sweet life.”

Enjoying life in Little Italy is a year-round affair. In October, the neighborhood hosts a Columbus Day Parade with marching bands and the floats featuring Italian-American clubs. And Little Italy’s many galleries sponsor annual artwalks in June, October, and December.

You can download an audio tour of Route 20 and explore it on your own. Just visit seeohiofirst.org and click on The New Ohio Guide.

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