Italy on the West Side


By Brooke Springer

Norwalk Advocate


Anthony Scalzi was born in an upstairs bedroom at 143 Broad St., in the house where his parents raised their four children and where he later raised his own four children.

The family still owns the house, which was built by their neighbor, F.D. Rich, a fellow Italian immigrant.

Daniel Scalzi came to Stamford from Castel Franco, Italy, in 1901, with his new bride, Marion, a descendent of another prominent Stamford Italian family, the Genoveses. They joined Daniel's brother, John, who had arrived in Stamford a few years earlier and opened a saloon.

Daniel dug ditches, then worked at Yale & Towne Manufacturing Co., stamping keys for a dollar a day. Later, he sold insurance for John Hancock, mostly to other Italian immigrants who were fast settling the West Side of Stamford.

After he became a U.S. citizen, he tutored others. One of the few people who owned a car, he offered rides up to Hartford so others could take citizenship tests.

Daniel was fiercely patriotic, his son, now 80, recalled during a recent visit to the family home. Every holiday, part of the festivities included hanging the American flag.

'He volunteered in World War I, but he was too short,' Anthony recalled. 'He wouldn't teach us Italian. He said, 'I'm American. You're American. You'll speak no language but English.' But I'm very sorry because a lot of people my age here were taught Italian.'

The Scalzis' story is familiar one: They came, they stayed, they grew.

'Some ethnic groups, the people came, settled and left. The Italians didn't. They're still here,' said Thomas Zoubek, executive director of the Stamford Historical Society. In 1908, 40,000 people were living in Stamford; 12,000 of them were born in Italy. Today, Italian-Americans make up the largest ethnic group in the city, with 17 percent of the population, according to 2000 census information.

The historical society is collecting the stories of these families to add to its traveling exhibit, 'Stamford's Little Italy,' which is currently on display in the Government Center lobby.

The show is a work in progress, Zoubek said. He wanted to display what materials he has so far to encourage other people to donate photographs and historical documents to the historical society's archives.

An exhibit on Irish immigration was shown about a year ago, and Zoubek plans similar ones on Polish, Hispanic, German and Swedish histories. Each exhibit will then be stored at the historical society, but Zoubek hopes cultural clubs and schools will host them.

Like most immigrants who came to Stamford, the first generation of Italians found work doing physical labor. In many cases, they learned a trade and later built their own businesses and passed them down to the next generation. Pellicci's Restaurant, Frank Mercede & Sons, F.D. Rich & Sons and Genovese Industries are a few.

'The immigrant experience is very similar for all of the groups that have come. Each group that comes here has to go through the same gerbil wheel, so to speak,' Zoubek said. 'Then they gradually make it; they begin climbing the ladder.'

Frank Mercede Sr. came with the second wave of Italian immigrants to Stamford in 1926. He got a job as a mason and eventually started a successful construction company, Frank Mercede & Sons.

Today, Frank J. Mercede not only runs his grandfather's business, he also lives in his grandfather's estate off High Ridge Road and makes wine in his grandfather's cellar.

The Italians who came to Stamford often married other Italian immigrants. Marion Scalzi hand-picked her future daughter-in-law, Celeste Troisi, at a card party at the old Italian Center on South Street, which is now Washington Boulevard. One of the Scalzi daughters married one of F.D. Rich's sons.

Italians tended to be friends with other Italians, marry other Italians, work with other Italians, but when the second generation hit high school -- there was only one in town -- they entered the 'melting pot,' said Nicholas Cognetta Jr., whose grandparents left Italy in the early 1900s and settled on the West Side.

'What I saw and what I could feel and what I could sense, the melting pot started in Stamford earlier, and I think the school situation was a very big part of that,' Cognetta said.

His father played football at Stamford High School, and it was there that he made some of his first Irish, Polish and German friends.

Today, he sees them come into his family's Cognetta Funeral Home for wakes.

'The 70-year-old men instantly became 17-year-old men again. It doesn't matter what their last name was, they were just friends,' Cognetta said.

Many Italian immigrants were civic-minded and got involved in local politics. Their sons and daughters now hold the same seats on city and charity boards.

Now, the second generation is trying to pass on the lessons they learned from their forefathers.

'Work ethic, I think of first,' said Cognetta, whose grandfather worked at Atlas Powder Co. 'Just clean living, honest, hard work.'

Last year, 14 members of the Mercede family visited Gravina, the family's hometown.

'Now that I've gone there and I went to see his house and I met my real cousin over there, I'm inspired, and I can't wait to go back there,' Frank J. Mercede said.

His enthusiasm is carrying over into his work as a board member of the Italian Center on Newfield Avenue. He is a member of its new cultural committee, which hopes to bring more Italian culture back into the center.

They're adding Italian-language classes, increasing their presence in Columbus Day parade and continuing an annual Ferrari car show and an annual homemade wine-tasting contest.

The idea for the 'Little Italy' exhibit grew out of a 2001 exhibit at the society, 'Cultural Mosaic -- and Immigrant Stories of Stamford,' which celebrated the diverse ancestry of Stamford. 'Immigrant Stamford,' a permanent display at the society, offers a walk down Pacific Street.

Now, Zoubek wants to devote individual exhibits to each piece of that mosaic.

'We really are relying on local families to give us the material, because there's no other way to get it,' he said.