The fact is, this place has always been a platform for new immigrants grasping for a toehold in America. And though the embarkation points have changed from Naples to Saigon to Puebla, the striving speaks the same language. There are whispers that some of the established Italians don’t like the Mexican newcomers. “That’s asinine,” says one of the younger Italian-American shop owners. “When I look at the Mexicans now, I see my Italian grandparents.”
Standing amid this street-level swirl of stasis and change, Emilio Mignucci seems right at home. He’s become the unofficial mayor of 9th Street, having been elected to the presidency of the market’s merchants’ association, which he helped revive after a period of dormancy.
Emilio was born a block away, walked to the St. Paul Catholic school through this corridor, started working at an outdoor produce stand when he was 12. That he insists on being back here at the store every Saturday sometimes frustrates his wife, who grew up here, too. “You work every damn day,” she tells him. “Can’t you take Saturday off?” “Why would I do that?” Emilio says. “All my life I’ve worked Saturday, since when I was a kid and worked in the stands. What do you mean, take off on a Saturday? What would I do?”
Today, business is slow, so Emilio can step away from the shop and give a tour. First stop, the little locked-up corner sandwich shop they called Di Bruno Bros. Pronto, for which he’s finally secured a liquor license and which he wants to turn into an osteria with a sidewalk café. He’s looking for a restaurateur to partner with, and the name Vetri pops up several times. (Marc Vetri calls the Mignucci cousins “great guys,” but says he is busy elsewhere right now.)
As Emilio talks, an old man slips on an icy sidewalk, and Emilio, in mayor mode, hustles across the street to help him up. The man is okay; Emilio pulls him upright, brushes him off and sets him on his way. Then he trades jibes with an outdoor produce vendor nearby.
“You in a good mood today?” Emilio shouts.
“Why not?” the man replies. “I don’t have any money, so there’s nothin’ to worry about.”
“I’d introduce you to him,” Emilio says, “but he’d probably say bad things about me.”
Emilio strolls into a cozy, bustling coffee shop owned by his friend Anthony Anastasio, a fourth-generation shopkeeper (this coffee shop was once his grandfather’s produce store) who was one of Emilio’s cohorts in recently waking the dormant South 9th Street Business Men’s Association. Emilio got the merchants back together again in 2005 simply to revive the annual Italian festival that he remembered so fondly from his childhood, with thousands of people cramming the streets, the statues of the saints from the local parish paraded through, and food and bands and a greased-pole-climbing contest.