ECHO Molise
  Emigration and Cultural Heritage of the Molise
ECHO: from Providence, RI                                

November 17, 1921 - December 29, 2012

The Federal Hill District of Providence, Rhode Island was the destination of thousands of Italian immigrants. 

The district's Italian-born population continued to grow in the early 1900s: 
18,000 in 1905
42,000 in 1920
50,000 in 1930 (20% of the city)

Residents of this "Little Italy" called it  "the Hill" or "the Little Hill" or "Colletto." 

Atwells Avenue lay at the center of it.

Over the years, Antonio Fantetti has delighted and enlightened us with stories about life on "the Hill."  It was, then, a great joy to learn that Tony was writing some of his memories, and a great honor that he allowed us to present his story and photos (below) as an "Echo" from Gli Immigranti of Providence.

Part 1
Seasons on Federal Hill
The Tenement
The Great Depression

Part 2:
The Federal Hill House
The Bonefro Club
Mount Pleasant Relatives
Homemade Bread, Healthcare, Evil Eye

Part 3:
The Blacksmith
Crime and Punishment
Shopping the Hill

 Slideshow of 1912 Providence,
Rhode Island (a couple decades before the Providence of Mr. Fantetti's story). 

Photographer Lewis Wickes Hine,
 for National Child Labor Committee
Child Welfare Exhibit 1912-1913
US Library of Congress (original titles and digital identification captioned)

Click a photo to enlarge and open a slideshow on a new page.



by Antonio Fantetti

Thoughts and Reflections, Part 1

Federal Hill House roof, circa 1927-1928.  Tony Fantetti, Angelo Cercè



3 young ladies, from personal collection A. Fantetti
On November 17, 1921, I first saw the light of day in a coldwater flat on 16 Piedmont Street in the City of Providence, Rhode Island. I'm recalling some of my early childhood memories and what it was like growing up on “The Hill.'' 

One could not forget the strength we (I say “we” because I'm including my brothers Michele and Jimmy and my sisters Anna and Jenny) drew from my father, Donato Fantetti and dear mother Giovannina (Barletta) Fantetti, a family unit that held together throughout the difficult depression of the 1930s and the difficult political times fast approaching. Our family was considered a stabilizing influence on a street that included the most diversified characters and family units that at times seemed to be in constant conflict with each other over matters that concerned children, husbands, the best regional cooking, peddlers, police and old world towns of origin. 

1919 Wedding J. Parazzo, I. Fantetti, D. Fantetti, G. Barletta  


 Seasons on Federal Hill.

IN SUMMER, walking the streets of the Hill, I heard the sounds of the colonial band rehearsing for a coming event-- whether it be a funeral or a parade, Marching Bandand the music from radios blaring out the Italian programs. The aroma of the Sunday meals being prepared permeated the air.


A summer activity that enlightened me on the trials and tribulations of the various families on the street was the nightly gatherings of the wives on the front stoop of our house on Piedmont Street. There were three huge granite steps that could seat as many as ten adults plus infants, at time seen breast-feeding al fresco.

Most of the tenements were hot and crowded, and on a warm evening the cool granite steps offered relief. The conversations varied from sex, religion, schoolteachers, cooking, old country, husbands, children and crime. The discourse was in English and at least four different Italian dialects. Most of the older kids sat on the curbing, with ears perked. We learned a lot about life at an early age, much to our benefit.


What were the men doing all this time? They congregated in the local bars and clubs in the area, and some in the few local wine cellars, for card games and violent political discussions about local and international news. The Duce was always the main topic, pros and cons always in verbal battle. The political future looked grim to all. After a night of cards, wine and talk, they retired to their tenements, to bed and looking forward to another day of labor and earning the family’s daily bread.


This was a ritual for all seasons. They worked hard in all kinds of adverse working conditions, language difficulties and an alien urban environment. Most men were from small hill towns in Italy and a farming background. There were a few tradesmen: barbers, shoemakers, carpenters, tailors and stone workers. All the dramas of life played out on this stage.


THE FALL was filled with the smell of wine making and the washing of the wine barrels, which left the streets and sidewalks, stained red from the draining wooden casks.


WINTER on the street was taken over by the boys. All the working and old folks and most all the “good girls” were off the street by dusk. Piedmont Street was less than 500 feet long, had 20 houses (all multi family).  Total families: 45, population: 185 (86 adults and 99 children).


There were three different gangs of boys. Each had their own hangout spot under a street lamp, where games like wild horse, jump the fence, kick the can, peggy, relivio and of course card games like tre sette, scopa, and briscola were played... and if we had money, craps.


I also remember winter nights around curbstone fires where we would cook our potatoes taken from Mr. Mattera's vegetable stand. Johnny Mattera would be in the raiding parties on his father’s store. The potatoes would be cooked and eaten just a few feet from the scene of the crime.

 G. Barletta reading Il Progresso

Later time was spent around the kitchen table or around the kitchen wood- and coal-burning stove for storytelling. My father told us tales about the old paese, Bonefro, and my mother would read the Italian newspaper Il Progresso. Her reading was for the benefit of my father who did not read well, but of course, we all benefited in the long run.


Italian became our primary language.  Though this would cause a little problem when school time came around--one of the obstacles we had to overcome--it was one of my mother's greatest gifts. Conversations with our dear mother were in Italian. With our father, English was intermingled with Italian. He was in the saloon business, came in contact with the public daily and had more opportunities to hear and speak English.


My mother was well schooled in Italy, born in San Angelo d'Alife. She was a “home body” and had very little contact with the English-speaking public, so Italian remained her language (along with some Spanish she acquired in Argentina). The sound of her voice reading the Italian paper and her letter writing instilled in me the love of the Italian language, something I cherish dearly. Language gave me a special bonding with her, which keeps her memory very close. I can still hear her voice in my memory to this very day.


 The Tenement.


The Tenement, from personal collection of A. Fantetti

Most of the memories I am recalling were events in my pre-teen years. This was before the enlightenment of the Church, the Federal Hill House, and the Boy Scouts, which came to occupy some of our evenings 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. when we were older. The comradeship that developed between us boys in those early years was developed in the street. 

We never entered each other’s homes, except on rare occasions. The tenement living quarters did not allow, and were not intended for, fun and games. Of course, within the family and close cousins, this was not the case, although I might add that holidays and Sundays were the times for family gatherings and only rarely on a weekday.

Space was limited to bedrooms and kitchen. The kitchen, which barely accommodated the family unit, was the entertainment center. In some houses, a shared common toilet was located in the hallway. Hot water for bathing and house cleaning had to be heated on a gas range or the kitchen stove. The older children made use of the public bathhouse usually on Saturday mornings. The afternoons were reserved for adults.  



My first adventure outside the family unit was attending Knight Street School. My first days seemed like I was thrown into a world I did not understand. The English language spoken by the Irish-accented teachers did not sound like words my young ears were familiar hearing in the Italian accent of our street talk.

Classroom, from personal collection of A. Fantetti

 The Great Depression.


The Great Depression of the early 1930s was most memorable not for the lack of food but for the lack of good clothing and the toys that children all craved. Boys swimming, from personal collection of A. FantettiWe made our own baseballs with string and electrical friction tape and heavy sticks for bats; oil cans were shaped and used for sleds, wood barrel staves for skis, and old wooden olive oil shipping crates for wagons; and tire hoops or old tires were rolled at running speeds.


My mother made bed sheets by sewing flour sack material together. Our neighbor and dear friend, Fortuna Mattera, made shirts and under clothing for us. Mother would buy material from the door-to-door salesmen and women. One we called “arabiana” the Arab, who was really an old Italian woman from the neighborhood. Cloth material was her specialty. The Jewish man we called “u'giudo,” was my mother's favorite because he came with material my mother was putting away for my two sisters' dowries. I remember my mother liking both these people. In fact, I am sure she looked forward to their calling days because she did not like store shopping.


She did spend most of her not at home time at her father's tailor shop on Atwells Avenue. We would be with her at all times and enjoyed the activities and some of the strange people that came and went in the course of the day. Grandfather Barletta was an imposing man with his Prussian hairdo and mustache. We liked going there.


Another thing that stands out in my mind about The Depression was the fact that my father owned the house we lived in, and as a property owner was not eligible for the various welfare items that were distributed to needy families, such as shoes, clothing and staple food goods. My brother and I would go to “papa reedy” (the term used--I guess he was the person authorized to hand out the items to the people). Like I mentioned, we would go with our friends pulling the carts with them, and could never understand why none of the goodies were for us.

Nonetheless, we made it through the hard times. Our table was always filled with the food we loved. Come to think of it, later that very food would be considered gourmet.


by Antonio Fantetti

Thoughts and Reflections, Part 2

Little Girl on Atwells Avenue

 The Federal Hill House.

The Federal Hill House was located on Atwells Avenue.  A wooden fence separated its yard with our property on Piedmont Street.  It was known to the Italians as “o'spitaleto,” meaning little hospital as it served as a clinic on Wednesday mornings. Infants were taken there to be examined by a nurse and, at times, a doctor. Vaccinations and other childhood preventive medicine took place here free of charge.  The director of the House was Miss Geary.  She had an assistant, Miss Strickland, who was the drama director.

The Theater Guild comes to mind.  Some of the adult plays: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," “Dracula” and “Moon over Mulberry Street” drew packed houses. I was one of the chosen few who would crawl under the stage to pull out the chairs stowed there, and set up the floor-seating plan directed by Miss Strickland.


Little Theater performance, Federal Hill House

The Little Theater Guild was for the younger members of the drama club.  I was in several plays. One was “Jack and the Beanstalk,” a smash hit.  Admission to the play was free.  Good behavior was the only requirement.  A few catcalls were heard, but hey, what were friends for?

Other activities at the Federal Hill House were woodworking, art, drawing, block printing and our Troop 99 Boy Scouts of America. The girls had sewing and embroidery instruction, some cooking and girl-talk clubs.  There was a small gym in the basement and a volleyball court on the roof of the building. Balls going over the roof had to be retrieved at street level--a ball chaser was on duty there.  However, at times the ball vanished, later to show up in some back yard in full play.

Miss Geary and Miss Strickland were single women.  Part of the second floor was their living quarters. Mrs. Cerce, a dear friend of the family, was their housekeeper, so at times we enjoyed special privileges when the house was closed to others. 

[Note:  The Providence, RI official website states:
Like the immigrants that came before them, the Italian immigrants had to deal with social segregation, as well as problems of overcrowding in the already densely populated Federal Hill. These problems prompted various community-based efforts such as the establishment of several settlement houses in Federal Hill. The Sprague House opened in 1910 at 417 Atwells Avenue and later, Federal Hill House was established at 400 Atwells Ave. These two entities provided services which included both industrial and vocational training and health services. Today, Federal Hill House (Association) still continues to be an active service provider. ]



 The Bonefro Club.

Another memory of my early youth was the visits to my father's Bonefro Club, where the men of the old paese would gather after work and on weekends to play cards, shoot pool and plan their social programs.  The annual outing at Bell’s farm was one of the events we looked forward to.  

At the club while the men played cards, my brother and I would shoot pool or play the pianola which had lots of piano rolls of music of the times.  The soda cooler was a treat for us.  At home, we very seldom had soda, though my grandfather's house was another place where soda was always available.  All the club's business and conversations were in Italian.



 The Mount Pleasant Relatives.


There was something magical about Friday nights.  No school the following days; the shopping; the end of the workweek for those who worked in the mills and factories; the visits to the houses of our cousins living in the Mount Pleasant section. Our visits to their houses were like going to the country.  They all had lots planted with tomatoes, zucchini, pole beans, eggplant, lettuce, apple trees and of course grape arbors.  During the holiday seasons, I remember walking with my father from The Hill to their homes to visit my father’s sisters and brothers, “Mamucc e Santoianni and family, Zio Matteo, Zia Christina Perrotta, Zio Domenico and our cousins the Agostinelli's, the Vaccaro's and our godfather Giuseppe Porazzo.  The treats that were served were oranges, apples and our favorite: the cherries preserved in brandy.  Money was never given.  After a few of these cherry treats, the walk back home for Sunday dinner was a breeze.


In turn, our house on Piedmont Street was a pit stop for all our relatives who lived in the Mount Pleasant area.  Whenever, which was often, they came to The Hill for shopping, doctor visits, etc. our house was a rest haven before the long trek back to “Monte Plesenda.”  We kids looked forward to the visits because they never came empty handed and always had goodies from the bakery shops on The Hill.

The Fantetti Family



We looked forward to weekends. Sunday Mass at the Holy Ghost church was at 9:30 in the lower church we called “the basement.”  There, the nuns kept a strict watch over us…”on your knees”...”no sitting on the bench”…“no talking”…”pay attention to the priest and the prayers.”  Most all of my friends attended Mass.  It was also a meeting place to plan the Sunday afternoon movie going after dinner.


Holy Ghost Church

My mother, with help from my two sisters, would prepare the Sunday meal, always a feast-day meal with roast chicken killed that same morning; roast potatoes; onions; macaroni with tomato sauce we called gravy, made with home preserved tomatoes, tomato paste, olive oil, chopped salt pork and garlic; braciola-bottom round; meatballs; and a piece of codena-salt pork rind.  A green salad (that never included iceberg lettuce), escarole, wine vinegar and olive oil, home-made bread, fruit and ice-box fresh cold water (never soda), sometimes wine or beer.  My father made home brew.  The leftovers were our Sunday evening snacks after the movies.

I remember my father taking a nap after dinner.  We had to wait until he awoke to ask for the money, 25 cents for the movie and candy--unless we went to the Bijou or the Capital Theater (called the “scratch house”) where it cost only a dime. In this case, we had enough for a meatball sandwich after the movie.

The first movie house I recall was La Serena on Atwells Avenue. Admission was 5 cents.  As we handed the ticket to the usher, a scarred faced man known as “Midnight” would hand us a box of Crackerjacks.  At the La Serena movie house, we got to know the likes of Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Tim McCoy and many other old time actors. Some of the movies were silent with piano music background.

 Homemade Bread.


Mother made her own bread. Four were the number of loaves used in our family in a week. My mother would put about eight pounds of flour from a 90-pound flour sack into a large bread pan. The pan had two handles for carrying.  She would add the proper amounts of salt, yeast and water, put a bandana on her head and begin to knead the dough to the right consistency. When this was completed, a white cloth was placed over the dough. The pan was then hand carried from our house to the Patriacca Bakery on Knight Street.  This task was done by my sisters or my brother Mike and me.


Most all the families made their own bread. This caused a rush to the baker’s oven on the allotted day. The dough had to be there when the oven was emptied of the baker's own shop bread.  A number would be tied to the pan and a corresponding number on a little piece of paper would be pasted on each huge round loaf shaped by the baker.  There were occasions when we kids or the baker himself would not put the correct loaves in the right pans. This caused all kinds of problems when the mothers who made special bread dough using old world recipes ended up with Apulian or Neapolitan bread when their dough mix called for Sicilian bread. I can still hear the screams from our Sicilian neighbor, Assunta.


In time, this practice of homemade bread gave way to home deliveries of good Italian bread from the many bread bakers in the area (also see slideshow photo). Our bread was from Pracacinni's located on Spruce Street.  A sign was placed in your window reading “one Italian and one American,” meaning the bread man should leave one loaf of Italian bread and one loaf of American bread.  A stranger could not understand what these signs were for.




When my sisters were about 6 or 7 years old, one of them became very ill with a throat infection.  Doctor Romano, our family doctor, was summoned. In those early days, doctors made house calls. After examining my sister, he informed us that she had infected tonsils and they had to be removed at once.  While he was at it, he examined my other sister’s throat and advised her tonsils should be removed, too. He charged $15 to do a tonsillectomy but he would do the two of them for $25. My father and mother agreed and the stage was set for the operations.  Two chairs were set up in the middle of the kitchen.  Our family friend, Mrs. Cerce, was called in to help the doctor.  We considered her an amateur nurse because she helped at the Federal Hill House clinic.


A cone was fashioned from newspapers, then lined with cloth.  Two holes were made in a can of ether.  My two sisters were placed in the chairs, heads tilted back to receive the cone, and the kitchen operating room was now ready. Every one was sent out of the kitchen. But from the bedrooms and pantry, we could observe all the goings-on. The doctor then dripped the ether from the can into the cone, placed it over the nose and mouth of the patients, one at a time, and when the ether started to take effect he gave this job to the nurse who had been holding down the patients.  A few drops at a time as he called for ether was dispensed by the “nurse”.  The doctor operated, placed the tonsils in a glass, then tended to the patients.  My sisters looked like two little rag dolls.  They were put to bed and recovered with no ill effects.  The family was grateful for the help of Antonetta Cerce, our nurse.  Our mother's prayers were answered.


The used ether can was recovered from the trash by Tatono (Sal) Mattera. He used the fumes remaining in the can to render his pet cat into a drunken cartoon character.


One time he captured a rat, tied a string around its neck and walked around the neighborhood. Need I say he walked alone. Rats were common in the neighborhood as the garbage and trash was never wrapped. We had a bin and a few 50-gallon drums in the back yard, enclosed in chicken wire for the garbage, and a cement ashbin where our stove ashes, cans, bottles and all other trash were thrown.  


When it was time to clean out the ashbin, my father would get in touch with Mr. Zinni, the ash man. We kids would watch as he opened the bin door with pitchfork in hand, ready to strike at the rats that always jumped out when their nests were disturbed. He hauled the trash away in his horse-drawn wagon.  It was always an exciting time when Mr. Zinni came to clean the trash bin. The garbage collectors were always in peril when they came around weekly on pick-up days. The danger of rats in the barrel-drums was always there. When we heard a scream from them, we knew what caused it.


 The Evil Eye.


The malocchio was the “evil eye” ritual that my mother performed for most anyone requesting it. The person would have a headache, no doubt caused by someone envious or wishing them harm and who had gave them the “evil eye” (the horned fingers sign pointed at a person).  My mother would put some water in a soup dish with the person standing by.  If the oil dispersed quickly, it was a sign relief was imminent.  If not, try again.  Most always, the oil dispersed and the person was happy and well again. This was always followed by a cup of coffee and sometimes too long a visit. Now was it the malocchio request or the excuse for a visit and coffee that brought the distraught to my mother?  I'm sure the coffee and talk was the main reason for the visit.


When mother had a headache, she relied mostly on thinly sliced potato placed on a headband tied around the head. This practice became quite popular.  Cucumber slices were also used when in season.

 The Blacksmith.

Boy on pony, circa 1920s

The blacksmith shop on Lilly Street was a place of interest.  Zio Fonso Norato was the blacksmith.  His older son Alberto worked with him.  We would watch them shoe the horses, forge and shape all kinds of work tools and horseshoes.  They would fashion rings for us using horseshoe nails.  We sometimes placed the straight nails on trolley or railroad tracks, which flattened them when the heavy wheels rolled over them.  We used the flattened nails for arrowheads.


One of the cures for the whooping cough was to go to the horse manure bin in the blacksmith shop and inhale the fumes. 



Saloon at 441 Atwells Ave. circa 1939

I remember the election of Roosevelt and the singing of “Happy Days Are Here Again.”  Prohibition was repealed.  My father, during those lean years, was working at the Weybosset Pure Food Market on Westminster Street in Providence.  He made plans to open a saloon someday.  It would take another 6 years before the opportunity arrived.  The Depression, four children and maintaining a home in those days was a major undertaking.  However, he managed to put together enough money to buy into a partnership with Mr. Fratarelli, buying out Mr. Castelones interest in “The Federal Hill Tap” at 441 Atwells Avenue in 1939.

The original bar still in place at the Euro Bristro 

In 1919, the 18th Amendment to the constitution was passed by Congress.  In 1920, the Volstead Act made it a crime to distribute or manufacture alcoholic beverages.  This start of the underground saloon and speakeasy business that flourished in the “Roaring Twenties.”  The law was enforced with the wink of an eye.  Most small bars and saloons were not hounded by the Feds.  Drinking was too much a part of American life to be controlled by laws.  Prohibition ended with Roosevelt's election 1932 and the 18th amendment was repealed in 1933.  

I mention these incidents because it brings back memories of the 1917 through 1925 saloon and bar stories that I was too young to experience.  The location of this bar was 453 Atwells Avenue.  We all lived on 16 Piedmont Street.

My father and his partner Nick Vitullo had been in the saloon business from 1913 to 1925.  Seven of those years were prohibition years.  I was a baby and so were my brother Michele and sisters Anna and Jenny.  Our older brother Jimmy was in his teens and twenties during the golden days of prohibition.  He and father told us stories later... about money bills having to be dried out and ironed.  (There was no time to put the bills into the register, as business was so fast and confusing that the money would be thrown behind the bar where it was always wet.)  Stories were told how baby Mike and Tony would be on the kitchen table playing with the coins.


My father and his partner had a good reputation with the Federal Agents and were treated with occasional tips before the Feds made their token raids.  The bar would close for a few hours and then resume business.  I never heard that any payoff was made other than the fact that some of the Feds did drop in now and then for a few drinks.  They liked the homemade grappa best.


My older brother Jim remembers labeling liquor bottles at the home of one of his friends, whose father made “bathtub ginand home brew.  I lived through part of those golden years as an infant and Im thankful that the stories were told, and in my misty memory, makes me part of a time on The Hill worth recalling.

Original Bar

 Crime and Punishment.

The Federal Hill crime scene in my youth consisted of bookmaking, crap shooting, sale of stolen goods, the Italian lottery, the Irish sweepstakes tickets, the treasury tickets and the daily numbers we called “black pool.”  It was a small-time underground industry that the press and the police turned into a million dollar operation. 


My personal observation of the people in the business was that they were just small-timers who acted a part that was not their real personalities.  Most of them were influenced by the movies of the time that portrayed crime characters as heroes with charmed lives.  There were a few who became hard-core thieves, who operated mostly out of the neighborhood area.  Their demeanor on The Hill was always friendly, generous and respectful.  The Hill was always a safe, friendly place to stroll, shop, and hang out regardless of the time of day or night.  Anyone who lived there in those times will attest to this.


The press always sensationalized whatever happened on The Hill.  A bank robbery once took place in broad daylight.  The robber was known to bank officials.  He was a local boy who never harmed a fly.  He was quickly apprehended and only a small amount of money was found on him.  The papers featured a story about the criminal and the undetermined amount of money taken.  The banks always used the “undetermined amount of money taken” as a way to balance their books.


From the personal collection of Antonio FantettiThe boys who were into the crime scene in those days never hurt anyone who was not directly connected with their business.  The older people all sympathized with the parents of the unfortunate ones who met violent deaths.  They chose their lifestyle and paid dearly when things went wrong.  As kids, we felt the same way--although not realizing at the time how the street could have engulfed anyone of us.  As it turned out, most of us kids made good and in later life and would feel sad for some of the people who fell victim to crime and punishment.

 Shopping The Hill.

View Larger Map

You can use the map above to follow the "tour" below.  Use your cursor to scroll to other parts of the map.  Clicking the "View Larger Map" link will open a larger map in a new window.

A few feet from our house in any direction would lead you to a variety of stores and shops.  


Giordano’s Macaroni Factory was at the corner of Piedmont Street and Atwells Avenue.  My father arranged for me to work there one summer.  I liked the factory area where I was to help the men dump the flour into the dough-mixing machines.  One attempt at trying to lift the one hundred pound sacks of flour was the end of my job.  However, I did enjoy hanging around there watching the macaroni-making machines.  So my first so-called job lasted about 15 minutes.  My mother was furious with my father.  I was about 9 years old at the time.  The flour sacks weighed more than I did!

Street Venders that lived on our street are worth mentioning.

v     Antonio Campania Mary Camp’s father

v     Mr. De Meio, who moved to Piedmont Street from Republic Street (later called Marcello Street), the father of the Zinc brothers, Joe and “Baby” Zinc.

v     Mr. Bova, who lived in the Vingi house, specialized in bananas-we called him “the banana man.”  Mr. Vingi was the most prosperous of all the peddlers on the street.  He did not use a pushcart.  He had a truck designed for selling produce and was able to cover more streets in the area and some of the summer beach areas.  Before Mr. Vingi acquired the truck, he used a horse-drawn wagon, which still gave him an advantage over the pushcart produce peddlers because the horse barn also served as a storage area for his goods and allowed him to buy in quantity.  A son, Salvatore, who was always with him, never was involved with the rest of us kids growing up on Piedmont Street.

The pushcart peddlers had a more difficult time trying to make a living.  I remember Mary Camp’s father had to remove the three steps in the narrow walkway so he could roll the pushcart to the street.  Then, the long walk down Atwells Avenue, down Balbo Avenue (earlier called Arthur Avenue), down the steep hill over the railroad bridge across Harris Avenue, down Acorn Street to the Farmers’ Market located between Valley and Promenade Streets.  After buying his produce and loading the pushcart, with a de Noboli cigar in his mouth, the long trek back to Atwells Avenue began.

Puschcart shopping, Providence

Now that the pushcart was loaded, it was slowly pushed to the bottom of The Hill on Balbo Avenue.  There, an enterprising young man stood with his “Tin Lizzy Ford,” and for a 10 cent fee would hook up the pushcart to the rear of his truck and pull it to the top of The Hill.  The peddler would take over on the level street and begin to hawk his produce, pushing the cart until the end of the day.  This was a daily ritual.  Sunday was a day of rest or making minor repairs on the pushcart.  

Some of the peddlers rented spaces along Balbo Avenue and were stationary.  These were choice areas, reserved for the members of the Federal Hill Pushcart Peddlers Association.  Dues were $5 a month.

I remember other interesting people who came to our street.


v     The one-armed man with his megaphone.  If you threw him a coin, he would sing under your window until he heard another coin drop from a different window.

v     The legless man on his little wheeled platform.  He pushed himself around the neighborhood.  People were always generous.

v     The “raggie” or ragman with his horse and team paid pennies for the rags, bottles, brass, copper and lead we collected from the near-by dumps.  John the Ragman sent two sons to medical school.  [One dump we called the Mellucci dump, I don't know why.]

v     The lupini man came pushing his cart, selling a cone shaped from newspaper filled with lupini for a few pennies.  Rumor had it he urinated in the lupini jars.  This rumor came about when he was seen at times relieving himself under the cart.  He always did a brisk business.

v     The knife and scissors sharpener with the grinding stone wheel he powered with his foot.

v     A favorite was the waffle man truck, with hot waffles on the grill.  We lined up for this treat.

v     The umbrella repairman with repair kit slung over his shoulder.  He would yell “umbrellaro.”

v     The live chicken vender with his scale hanging from his truck would pull a chicken out of one of the several cages using a wire hook, tie a loop using twine around the legs, hang it on the scale, place the chicken in a paper bag, make a hole at one of the corners so the chicken’s neck could stick out.  He charged by the pound, $1.25 was the average price.  You took the chicken home to be kept alive until a few hours before cooking time, when it was killed.  I remember holding the chicken’s legs while my mother used a scissors to slit the throat.  It was bled put into hot water for a short time, then plucked and gutted.  All parts were used.

v     I remember some of the milkmen used inflated tires on their horse drawn wagons.

v     Our neighbors, the Mattera’s, had a horse-drawn ice cream wagon.  The young daughters, Fannie and Yolanda, could be seen grooming the horses and cleaning the team when the father returned in the evening, and in the morning before he left.

Holy Ghost Church, Providence exteriorSome of the stores and shops that stand out in my mind as one walked down Atwells Avenue from Piedmont Street, toward the Holy Ghost Church:

v Giordano
’s Macaroni Store at the corner (macaroni was not packaged then).

v     The little fish store.

v     v Giagniazzare’s small vegetable store and his always smartly dressed wife.

v     v Jack’s Meat Market across the street.


The shoemaker with a mouthful of tacks.  I always wondered how he managed not to swallow them, watching his hands go from his mouth, place a tack on the heel of the shoe, hammer it in, repeating this motion with great speed.

v     Next came an alleyway that led to the “brick yard” where Mr. Sciolto's monument works was located-the source of constant noise and dust from the chipping and drilling of the huge granite blocks he turned into beautiful cemetery monuments.  The gray dust from the yard settled everywhere in the neighborhood.  On hot summer days, Mr. Sciolto received lots of “blessings.”  Windows had to be kept shut to keep out the dust.

v     A shoe store on the corner of Republic Street and the Avenue, owned by Jewish man, Mr. Lewis and his daughter who was disfigured (she had no chin).  We bought some of our shoes there before the arrival of Thom McAn shoe stores.

v     My grandfather’s tailor shop came next.

v     Then came the Greek’s, where we bought olive oil for 25 cents a quart.  I would go there with an empty bottle.  The clerk would fill it from a huge wood barrel.  We knew the store as “u’greco.”

v     Then came “u Tuscano,” the bakery where we bought our New York cakes for a few pennies.  The cakes were made from leftover pastry, all mixed with some kind of goo, cut into three inch squares one inch thick.  Some of us kids were recruited by my uncle Tony Barletta, to help haul wood to the backyard of the bakery.  We would be rewarded with a little bag of goodies.  The ovens were heated by a wood fire, so we were needed quite often.

v     Mr. Felici’s store, Roma Grocery, was followed by the little hat store, Lombardis, carrying quality imported hats from Italy.

v     Then came the Atlantic gas station selling gas at eight gallons for $1.00.  All the pumps were hand powered.  I remember the little office where we would listen to a battery operated radio (which eventually ended up at our house).  We had no radio at the time.  Crystal sets were the rage if one had no radio set.  My uncle Al Lofredio worked at the gas station.

v     The three-decker tenement house at the corner of Knight Street and the Avenue was where my grandfather and his family lived on the third floor.  At street level was Ferri’s Drug Store and Soda Fountain.  I bought Lucky Strike cigarettes there for my brother Jim, two packs for a quarter.  We saved the lead foil from the cigarette packages and formed balls of lead we would sell to the “raggie” for a few pennies at time.  We started to form the lead around a stone to give it more weight.  The sharp ragman would hit the ball of foil with a heavy hammer.  He knew all the tricks.  We also knew his trick when weighing a sack of rags or other material.  He would twist the hook at the bottom of the hand-held scale.  This gave a reading of less weight, less pennies to give us.  We got even at times by raiding his team and walking his horse to a different location.

v     Across from Grandfather’s house was the Holy Ghost Church.

v     Next came De Falco’s funeral home.

v     Groom Street and the famous “shoo fly” area, also known as Hollywood, along the railroad tracks.  Along the retaining wall near the tracks, someone painted in huge letters "Hollywood."

The California Hollywood sign

At this point Federal Hill ended.  West of here on the Avenue was foreign territory.  At this point, we cross the Avenue and walk back towards Piedmont Street.  I remember: 


v     The Snow White Fruit Store and the women who owned it (the names escape me)

v     Next to it, Lionelli’s Barbershop, the variety store and coffee counter. 

v     In 1914, my father had a grocery store in this area then 435 Atwells Avenue.  My Grandfather Barletta had his first tailor shop at 433 Atwells avenue.  Later, in 1918, the tailor shop was at 452 Atwells Avenue.  My father, in partnership with Nicole Vitullo, in 1918 was in the saloon business located at 453 Atwells Avenue.

The next street we come to is Dale Street on these two corners.  One side was a location of one of my fathers stores.

On the other side, Minicucci’s Five and Dime.  The Almonte family ran this store. We pass Jack’s Meat Market and the Colantonio Building where on the second floor was the beauty parlor run by the Colantonio girls.

Ames Street faced Piedmont Street.  At the corner of Ames St. was Sam’s clothing store.  Sam was always on the sidewalk collaring anyone who walked, being a great talker.  I dont think his store made much money-he was always out front.

We have covered both sides of Atwells Avenue from Piedmont St. walking west to “shoo fly.”  I will now walk you down memory lane along “Atwells Avenue” going east towards downtown Providence.

At the corner of Piedmont and the Avenue was a store that changed ownership many times.  I recall it as Capuano’s store.  Capuano was in the banana importing business.  Green bananas were hung in the cellar where gas heat was used to ripen them.  A spectacular fire put an end to the business.  No one was injured; the building was rebuilt.

Monti’s Meat Market and Produce Store followed.

Then, a Greek market.

Finally, Giuseppe Mattera and family moved out of their little flat across from our house on Piedmont St. and took possession of the property.  They opened a fruit and produce store, and became a landmark.  The best of wines came from his cellar.

The Federal Hill House was next door.  

Across from the Federal Hill House was the Bonefro Club, over the Greek’s importing store.  The club had several earlier locations.

Then came Hewitt St., a dead end street.  The Scorpio, Pistacco, Mandell and Cacchiotti families and Marianna Bucci stand out.

There was the Benardoni family and store at the corner, where one could buy Wings cigarettes two for a penny.  Across the street, the Altieri brothers ran Smith’s Tap and Grill, later to be owned by the Norato brothers.  The elder Altieri and Norato boys were blacksmiths, hence, “Smiths” Tap and Grill.”  There was Lilly Street where Norato’s Blacksmith Shop stood.  


Street market scene, Providence


Back to the right side of the Avenue on the corner of Vinton Street:

Aldo Fredo’s Pharmacy,

Lombardi’s Barbershop,

Dr. Scanlon’s office where Mrs. D'Angelis, the midwife, worked as a cleaning woman.

St. John’s, the Irish church.

Across the street:

Angelonis clothing store where my father bought some of his clothing.  It took days of airing before the smell of wine left his clothes, as this store was a wine making and distribution center, raided a few times by the law.  The wine barrels were emptied into the street sewers.

Next door, La Serena movie house.

There followed the Enterprise Hardware Store.

This part of Atwells Avenue I write about was my immediate turf in my preteen years.  Other than walking to Knight Street School and later to Kenyon Street School, all other areas of The Hill remained to be explored a few years later, always in groups of three or four friends.


A brisk walk to the downtown area of Providence, where most of the movie houses were, took about ten minutes.  Along the way, you passed meat markets.  The Rossi brothers ran two of them, one on each side of the Avenue.  They were related to us in some way, I believe.  The Rossi family was from St. Angelo d’Alife, or married into our clan on my mothers side.  I remember my mother sending me there with 15 cents; I would come home with a good piece of soup meat, a soup bone and ribs plus enough parsley to last days.


Another landmark was the fire station at the corner of America Street.  During the summer, the firemen would sit by the opened doors of the station listening to the radio broadcast of the Red Sox game announced by Jim Britt, one pitch at a time.  There was no color commentary to fill in between pitches then.  We were Yankees fans, and many remarks were passed as we walked by.  The Yankees had no problems in those days, thanks to Joe DiMaggio.
At this time, all the firemen were all Irish.  They wore tan trousers with suspenders and a black shirt, which was changed when the “black shirt” became a Fascist dress code.

Behind the fire station was a public comfort station for men only.

Verdi’s Pool Hall was on the second floor across from the from the fire barn.  We would go there, pay a nickel for a table, play and watch the Damon Runyon characters at work.  For some of them, this was their work in more ways than one.  I liked it there.  Verdis Pool Hall was a grown-up place to be.  If you behaved, there was no age ID required.

Penza’s cigar store and newspaper stand, where the Italian newspapers were sold and read aloud to those who gathered there but could not read.  There was always some volunteer to read and show off his schooling.

Pizza parlors were not to be found in these early days on The Hill.  There were restaurants like Joe Mazzillis Old Canteen, Marconis Roman Gardens on Bradford Street, La Civita Farnese, which became known as Angelo’s on The Hill.  Hot dogs and wieners were sold in some of the smaller eating-places scattered along the Avenue.


Euro Bistro (original bar location) 2003


Balbo Avenue was the Friday night shopping mecca on The Hill.  People came in from the suburbs to do their shopping.  Whole families would visit the ice cream parlors: Modern Ice Cream Parlor, and the new creamery owned by the Iacono family, were the most popular.

There were lemonade stands, pushcarts filled with iced watermelon under glass, cooked crabs heaped on crushed ice, plus the many stalls and pushcarts of fruit and produce.

On feast days, music was always part of the scene.

The many bars in the area did a brisk business on Fridays.  Most all the bars served hot food and sandwiches prepared by the bartenders.  Felix Marcello’s on Spruce Street was well known in those days.


From this point on, the walk downtown was rather dull to us boys.  There were banks, clothing stores, shoe stores, music shops, funeral parlors, Derico’s Travel Agency where one could book passage to Italy on one of the liners sailing out of New York or Boston, the public bathhouses, then Uncus Manufacturing building and finally La Salle Square, a cobble stoned circular area and trolley stop that led to our favorite movie houses, which we called “shows.” 







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