Columbus, Fabian, Rizzo and Me

Philadelphia and Italians — Perfect together. A new book explains why

Arizona, Rhode Island and New Mexico have had Italian-American U.S. senators,
Connecticut an Italian-American governor. Not Pennsylvania. Even in the underworld, we’re small-time. The Philadelphia contemporaries of Chicago empire-builder Al Capone were the immemorable Lanzetti brothers, mere gangsters. Our only underworld legend was Angelo Bruno, an easygoing don best remembered for his modest ambitions, a man who inhabited not a Corleone-style compound but a rowhouse on a run-down stretch of Snyder Avenue.
Philadelphia has produced some Italian-Americans of genuine noteworthiness. But they are appreciated mainly by connoisseurs (jazz guitarist Pat Martino, playwright Albert Innaurato), or they chose endeavors that doom one to relative obscurity (U.S. Mint chief engraver Frank Gasparro, photographer Severo Antonelli) or at the very least guarantee something less than star billing (Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, boxing wizard Angelo Dundee).
There are reasons for the unspectacular performance of Italo-Philadelphia, reasons that have as much to do with the New World as the old one. Just as there are reasons that in my father’s view (mine, too) practically any fate — municipal cataclysm included — was preferable to taking a chance that the city’s highest elected official might call us that particular hateful name. There are even connections between those circumstances. But the reasons, and the connections, would have remained obscure (to me, I mean) were it not for La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience (HarperCollins, $30), a compelling work of social history written by Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale and published to coincide with the quincentennial of Columbus’ big trip.
I wish I could include Professore Mangione (emeritus, at Penn) among the city’s accomplished Italian-Americans, but he’s a transplant. Both he and fellow resident scholar-author Camille Paglia hail from … upstate New York. Mangione has built a long career on writing with insight about Italians (Monte Allegro, An Ethnic at Large, Reunion in Sicily), and his eye-opening new book — from which all of the history and much of the interpretation that follow derive — gave me a better understanding of my forebears, my father, and me, and how we all turned out the way we did. I also now know this fascinating fact: Philadelphia can make the strongest claim to the title of Most Typically Southern Italian City in America.
The Negro is not the man farthest down. The condition of the colored farmer in the most backward parts of the Southern states of America, even where he has the least education and the least encouragement, is incomparably better than the condition and opportunities of the agricultural population in Sicily. —Booker T. Washington, writing aftet a trip to Italy
THIRTY-SIX YEARS after Columbus, Giovanni de Verrazano, the first European to enter New York Bay, was killed, roasted and eaten at a Native American beach party. Things could only go up from there, and they did. From Italy — from the north of Italy — came men like Francesco Vigo, the first Italian to become a U.S. citizen and a financier of (and colonel in) the Revolutionary Army, and Filippo Mazzei, who wrote the words, "All men are by nature equally free and independent," to be edited slightly by his friend Thomas Jefferson for use in a political manifesto.