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Italian-American History On Long Island

Long Island is home to 700,000 Italian-Americans, more than any area outside of Italy itself, said author Salvatore J. LaGumina, an emeritus professor of history at Nassau Community College, where he serves as director of the Center for Italian American Studies. He was speaking at the Koenig Center of the Oyster Bay Historical Society (OBHS) on Sept. 17 about his new book, Long Island Italian Americans. In his introduction, OBHS Executive Director Philip Blocklyn said that it was a return engagement for LaGumina. He had taken part in the OBHS exhibit The Italian-American Experience in Oyster Bay in 2001.

LaGumina opened with a slide show that illustrated the scope of the Italian-American influence on Long Island that because of the easy name recognition reminded everyone of how extensive their influence has been. Today, he said one of four residents of Long Island is of Italian-American heritage.

Last year the publisher of History Press asked him to update his writings, which include about nine books on the subject. The book details Italians in business, education, politics, medicine, acting, construction, restaurants and even wine making.

To set the stage, showing it was not an easy climb from the shores of Ellis Island to the heights of politics, where Nassau has a choice of a new County Executive, Ed Mangano or Tom Suozzi, both Italian-Americans; he showed an advertisement for a development named Oakland View in Woodhaven that said at the bottom left, “Italians Excluded.”

Today Italian-Americans live in Port Washington, Westbury, Inwood, Patchogue [as well as locally]. One could assume today, there is no area without an Italian-American presence.

He said what brought the Italians here, was the opportunity to work, and to buy land, something that in Italy, they couldn’t afford to do. When a young man first arrived here, he earned $3 a week, more than his father was making in Italy.

He mentioned a book, How Italian Food Conquered The World by John F. Mariani that tells the story of why we see Italian restaurants and piazza parlors in great abundance. Stanco’s in Glen Cove is the oldest Italian restaurant on Long Island. It opened in 1919 and last January the family sold it. After a renovation it has re-opened and Tom Suozzi is one of the partners.

He mentioned names that are iconic: Castro, Genovese, Grucci. As background music to the slideshow, “Mama” was being sung by Connie Francis, actually Francisconi, he said. He mentioned Kenneth Langone who founded Home Depot; he is worth $2.1 billion (as of Sept. 2013 according to Forbes); he was listed as being worth $1.6 billion half a year ago.

“Up half a billion in the space of a year. That’s pretty good,” said LaGumina.

Hard And Dangerous Work

LaGumina said the Italians were willing to do hard and dangerous work including in the sand pits in Port Washington and helping build the LIRR.  More names with great recognition on the Island include: Posilico Construction and Perry Como of Sands Point who returns to play golf in the new links in Port Washington for a benefit for St. Francis Hospital.

There is also the Suozzi family: two brothers whose sons are Ralph and Tom who have both held the office of Mayor of Glen Cove. Tom’s father was a judge.

“Steven Levy’s mother is Italian,” he added, to pull Suffolk County into the discussion. He showed a picture of a young Joseph Margiotta, a famed Nassau County politician and added names like D’Amato, Joseph Carlino and Delia deRiggi-Whitton to the list.

He spoke about the many Italian festivals and asked if many had seen a “Giglio,” a constructed tower carried by a large group of men in a festival parade.

When it came to food, the names flew by: Ivarone Brothers; Uncle Guiseppi’s, the Scotto family, caterers. Then came entertainers: Guy Lombardo, Alan Alda, Patti Lupone, Isabella Rossolino, and he added Van Patten: mother Joyce Van Patten is Italian.

LaGumina had an interesting comment on the Italian work ethic. He said most of the Italians came from the south of Italy and were peasants who had a Protestant work ethic. He said, “People had the mission to work to the best of their ability and to show responsibility in the eyes of God.” He said there were Protestant churches in Italy. He added the Italians were helped by their family structure, and connections with family members that depended on and supported each other.

LaGumia was asked to expound on the “exclusion” subject and he said the Italians were not welcome in the Ivy colleges or Columbia University. In response he added, Edmond Pelligrino started Stony Brook and Georgetown Universities. He said, “The [exclusion] actions were done subtly but they got their point across.”

In the 1960s a similar thing happened with an Italian in Connecticut who was not allowed to join a golf club, and instead built one in the 1990s.

The professor also wrote a book with a striking title, WOP. Grace Searby, an Italian-American whose maiden name is Savino, asked him to explain the meaning of the word WOP, which is “Without Papers.” [Grace said her mother is from Sicily and her father is from Bari/Naples.] He said that was an abbreviation used in Ellis Island but added that it might be a version of a Neopolitan word, Guapo.

The professor urged people to learn more about their backgrounds saying, “You are more comfortable when you know who you are.” “And to appreciate the culture,” added a lady.

That set the stage to mention the art, music, design, fashion and engineering talents of the Italians.

Later Phil Blocklyn summed up the importance of Italian culture saying it is the basis of our European culture.

The professor said Nassau County will be celebrating Italian Heritage Day on Oct. 21.

Donald Zoeller, Esq. who is married to an Italian, his lovely wife Sue, had a story to tell. He said two men left another firm and joined his explaining that the older lawyer recommended the younger one to become a partner. He was told “no, that the younger man had an Italian name and looked Italian.”

The lecture guests included a visitor from Wilder, Vermont. Arlene Alfano Wright, originally from Bayville, drove to Oyster Bay expressly for the lecture. She said she follows John Hammond, Oyster Bay Town Historian online and got the information from him. She added she is a 1959 graduate of Oyster Bay High School.

Local Italian Flavor

Exiting from the Koenig Center, the evening was brightened with the lights from the Bocce court at the Italian-American Citizens Club of Oyster Bay, next door. There the spirit of their Italian heritage is flourishing.

Playing Bocce was Mary Pilla who works at the Village Gourmet delicatessen owned by Coleen Bagan. It is across the street from the OBHS on Summit Street. FYI: Summit Street sports several signs on the corner of South Street: one of them states Campbelltown Way. Oyster Bay is a sister city of Campbeltown, Australia because of its Italian connection to Oyster Bay immigrants from the same town in Italy, Pulio.

Rae and Pat Natale were playing Bocce. She has worked with Henry Encarnacion and Alan Tebaldi for many years in creating the Haunted Halloween Firehouse in Bayville.

“The basement was under 6-feet of water after Hurricane Sandy,” she said. That is why sadly, there will be no Haunted Firehouse this year.

Italian Fare

The lecture was free and open to the public. Light refreshments were provided by the OBHS and by Jacqueline Blocklyn and Nicole Menchise and included: Tortichilion di mele [apple cake]; Zaletti [cormeal raisin cookies]; Ricciarelli {almond cookies]; Madorle con Zucchero al Forno [baked almonds and sugar] in honor of the Italians. Copies of Long Island Italian Americans are available for purchase at the OBHS.

For more information, please call the society at 516-922-5032, or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Or visit oysterbayhistorical.org.