Peak immigration from Italy to the United States died down three-quarters of a century ago, but generations later their influence is still obvious in America, especially in southern Queens.
Try buying fish from Brothers in Howard Beach in the days before Christmas Eve, when many Italian-Americans still practice the old-world tradition of serving seven fishes on the night Jesus was born. Attend a banquet at Russo’s on the Bay or Villa Russo in Richmond Hill, whose Il Palazzo banquet hall is a throwback to a town square in any rural village in Italy.
Look around during the World Cup tournaments every four years and see the green, white and red displayed in windows and on front stoops.
Italian Americans are still a force in the borough, even many generations after their families arrived here, but protecting their cultures and traditions are still key.
“Our strength is in numbers and we need to strengthen our culture,” said Rosemary Ciulla-Frisone, president of the Sons of Italy’s Fiorello LaGuardia Lodge #2867, which is made up of Italian Americans from South Queens. “The younger generations today, many of them really have no interest in joining organizations. It’s really hard to go out and try to get membership.”
Ciulla-Frisone said culture comes first and foremost in home and the community; in the food cooked in the kitchen, the music playing in the living room and the stores that line the neighborhood commercial strip.
“Growing up in Ozone Park, there were always the Italian bakeries, restaurants and cafes,” she said. “Those were all the trademarks of the community.”
And those trademarks can still be seen today along Cross Bay Boulevard and even on Liberty and 101st avenues, where changing demographics has not made the canoli or baked ziti extinct.
“Pizza, pasta, they’re now as American as they are Italian,” noted Rosa Morabito, an Italian American who grew up in Ozone Park.