The oldest surviving cookbook, De re coquinaria (On Cookery), was compiled by Marcus Gavius Apicius in the first century A.D., the high water mark of the Roman Empire. Each region of Italy has been reveling in its own favorites ever since: “pane con la milza” (open-faced pork spleen sandwich) from Sicily, coretello (minced lamb and lamb innards) from Abruzzo, ‘Nduja (spreadable sausage) from Calabria, and penne with arugula and tomatoes from Puglia.
For Italian immigrant families who came to the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s, village recipes were crucial parts ties to their familial and regional pasts, and they died hard in the American urban melting pot. The Philly cheese steak, supposedly “invented” by brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri, did not come along until the 1930s, and originally called for an Italian roll and provolone cheese, not the Americanized orange cheese product.
To Ronald Donatucci, the current registrar of wills and native of the Girard Estates neighborhood, the Jews and the Italian-Americans of Philadelphia shared many common cultural traits, among them a love of food, a focus on education, and (more often than not), a strong mother figure. “They’re so similar,” Donatucci recalled. “My father instilled education in myself and my siblings.” Like the Jews, with whom they often coexisted in tightly-packed rowhouse blocks, Italian immigrants quickly applied the trades they learned back in the old country to the streets of Philadelphia, especially in culinary and the building trades. And they kept these businesses in the family. Bakeries, cheese shops, and confectionaries flourished in Italian neighborhoods. Older women in various neighborhoods would go to the early Sunday Mass at their local parish church, then do their grocery shopping for the week. Young boys were expected to help them with their bags.
Food was not just central to regular family gatherings, but also to the myriad feast days and festivals of the Roman Catholic calendar year. Each village had its own patron saint. One of the biggest, of course, was the Festa di San Giuseppe (Feast of St. Joseph, patron saint of Sicily), celebrated every March 19 with limes, wine, fava beans, cookies, breadcrumbs (representing the sawdust from Joseph’s carpenter shop), and zeppole cakes.
One such culinary family was the Campo clan–friends of the Donatuccis–who settled in Southwest Philadelphia in the parish of Our Lady of Loreto. In 1905, the three Campo brothers (Fernando, Francesco, and Venerando) arrived in Philadelphia on the Red Star liner SS Friesland. They were natives of the Sicilian village of Cesaro. According to Ferdinando’s great-grandson Michael Campo, the family had been butchers for generation: there were at least seven men named Campo operating butcher shops in Sicily in the early 1900s. Most likely through family help and local Italian-American banks, Venerando raised enough capital to open his own butcher shop at the intersection of Carpenter and South 9th Street in Philadelphia. In the meantime, his brother Ferdinando opened a similar establishment in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Eventually, Ferdinando’s son Ambrose opened another butcher’s shop, this one at 62nd and Grays Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia, and joined a brand new parish that had opened its doors in the neighborhood. The church, finished in 1938, was the anchor of a neighborhood of tidy brick rowhouses surrounding the main thoroughfare leading from West Philadelphia to the new Philadelphia Municipal Airport. When aviator Charles Lindbergh dedicated the airport shortly after his epic 1927 transatlantic flight, Philadelphia’s city fathers named this arterial street in his honor. Designed in the fashionable Art Deco style by local architect Frank L. Petrillo, Our Lady of Loreto was a radical departure from the baroque and Byzantine revival popular with church architects such as Henry Dagit and Edward F. Durang. Inside and out, Our Lady of Loreto (the patron saint of air travel) looked more like a 1930s airport terminal than a church. According to Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron, “Petrillo’s design cleverly links that story with the great technical advance of the 1930s: commercial air travel. Because streamline moderne’s strong, horizontal lines evoked speed, it was a favorite architectural choice for new airports’ terminals.” The airplane theme didn’t stop with the building envelope. According to church teaching, on May 10, 1291, a flock of angels flew the house where the Virgin Mary was born from the Holy Land to the comparative safety of the Italian village of Loreto.
The mural on the church’s facade depicted this miracle as propeller-driven planes swoop around the heavy-lifting angels.
The modern style of the church reflected the forward-looking aspirations of the 1,200 or so families who belonged to the parish, They saw Southwest Philadelphia as a step up from cluttered old South Philadelphia. For the members of this parish, the most important festival was the feast of St. Anthony, which took place on the first week of June. “I remember being a kid and my parents giving me a dollar to pin on the St. Anthony statue, for which I would get a blessed roll,” remembered Michael Campo. “The roll was from Mattera’s Bakery, which was the neighborhood bakery, and located on the same intersection of 62nd and Grays Avenue, as the Church and Campo’s.” Following the parade was a carnival, complete with fireworks and a dunk-the-clown contest. “Looking back on it, it was probably a couple roman candles,” Campo said of the fireworks dislay, “but when I was 10, It felt like I was at Disney World.”
Campo family history provided to Steven Ujifusa by Michael Campo, June 23, 2016.
Email correspondence, Michael Campo to Steven Ujifusa, June 23, 2016.
Email correspondence, Michael Campo to Steven Ujifusa, October 18, 2016.
Anna Maria Chupa, “St. Joseph’s Day Altars,” Louisiana Project, Houston Institute for Culture, http://www.houstonculture.org/laproject/stjo.html, accessed October 16, 2016.
Damian D’Orsaneo, “The Sad Fate of Our Lady of Loreto,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 27, 2003, http://articles.philly.com/2003-05-27/news/25459497_1_church-attendance-final-mass-parish-school, accessed October 14, 2016.
Interview of Ron Donatucci by Steven Ujifusa, January 26, 2016.
Natalie Hardwick, “Top 10 Foods to Try in Sicily,” BBC Good Food, http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/top-10-foods-try-sicily, accessed October 14, 2016.
David Rosengarten, “The Cuisine of Abruzzo: Easy to Love, Not So Easy to Describe,” The Huffington Post, August 6, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-rosengarten/the-cuisine-of-abruzzo_b_5651554.html, accessed October 14, 2016.
Inga Saffron, “Good Eye: This Catholic Church Celebrates the Miracle of Flight Two Ways,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 14, 2016, http://www.philly.com/philly/columnists/inga_saffron/20161016_Good_Eye__This_Catholic_church_celebrates_the_miracle_of_flight_two_ways.html?photo_3, accessed October 15, 2016.
“Puglia,” Rustico Cooking, http://www.rusticocooking.com/puglia.htm, accessed October 14, 2016.
“The Best Food of Calabria,” Walks of Italy, https://www.walksofitaly.com/blog/food-and-wine/food-of-calabria, accessed October 20, 2016.