Traces of Italy in Sacramento
Sacramento’s Italian community is known to produce gourmet food, but there’s much more to the community than Biba, Sofia’s and Hot Italian.
With this weekend’s Festa Italian opening Saturday and running through Sunday at The Croatian Culture Center, we take a look back at the role Italian immigrants and their descendants played in Sacramento’s history.
Italian Americans have a long history in the Sacramento area. Agriculture and food processing are just some of the many successes of Italian Americans who settled in the area in the early 1850s, but their successes are hardly limited to that.
Early Italian Americans
Many of the earliest Gold Rush settlers who migrated in the "Mother Lode" area surrounding Sacramento were from the Liguria region of Italy — specifically the city of Genoa. That was followed by a second wave of Italian immigrants from other areas such as the Veneto region.
By 1880 an estimated 10,000 people from the area around Genoa began to dominate the farming industries to meet the demands of the local population. The people are known as "The Genovese," which also refers to the regional Italian dialect they speak.
By the end of the century, Italians were one of the largest groups of immigrants working in the deep gold mines. But they were also masons, woodcutters and ranchers.
The Italians continued to thrive after the Gold Rush, Italian farmers produced large amounts wine, olive oil and other crops. Italian fishermen established themselves on the Northern California coast.
After the Gold Rush, Ligurians Antonio Cerruti and Marco Fantana founded the Del Monte canned food label. Giovanni Lombardo built the Lombardo Winery in El Dorado County, which is now the award-winning Boeger Winery.
Domenico Ghiradelli, who had traveled through the Gold Rush towns selling chocolate and candy, settled in San Francisco and built a chocolate empire. Many local Italian Americans shared similar stories of success.
"Italians in Sacramento had a concentrated community," said Bill Cerruti, founder and executive director of the Italian Cultural Society. "Many had farms and lived in East Sacramento near East Portal Park."
By the mid-1900s, the community, now unofficially referred to by elders as "Little Italy," had a weekly newspaper called La Capitale, which ran from 1906 to 1945, as well as festivals and dinners.
Men were known to play bocce ball in East Portal Park. The group is now the East Portal Bocce Club.
Italian American Internment
As America’s involvement in World War II became imminent, many Japanese, German and Italian immigrants in Sacramento were detained and forced to relocate. Italians, who were at the time the largest immigrant group in the United States, were interned, restricted and taken from their homes.
"Ten thousand were forced to relocate," Cerruti said. "The Exclusion Act used on Italian Americans destroyed the [Northern California coastal] fishing industry."
After the end of the war, Italians built East Sacramento’s St. Mary’s Catholic Church in 1948. This was the "golden era" of the community, according to Cerruti.
Italians from other areas in the city moved to East Sacramento, and the community reached new heights. But in the 1960s, Cerruti explained, many second generation Italian Americans looked to drop their "foreign" identity to assimilate into a more "American" identity. The next generation, in the ’70s and ’80s, wanted to learn about their Italian roots again.
Italian Cultural Society
In 1981 Cerruti created the Italian Cultural Society (ICS) with several goals in mind. His dream was to create a newsletter, have a location where Italians could gather and learn to speak Italian and hold a cultural festival. All of these dreams were realized in the first five years of the ICS’ operation, which was originally headquartered in a room at the Sierra 2 Community Center in Curtis Park.
As the ICS grew, so did the need for new facilities. The group used a second classroom in the Sierra Center and other facilities such as Cal Expo and the Croatian Cultural Center, for its festivals.
Then, in 2007, the ICS moved into a building in Carmichael, near Carmichael Park.
Complete with custom marble flooring, a library, four classrooms, a full kitchen, a ballroom with multimedia equipment and alabaster chandeliers and a patio overlooking Carmichael Park, the Italian Cultural Center is a sight to behold.
Cerruti took out a mortgage for the center, located at 6821 Fair Oaks Blvd. The biggest question is how to pay it off.
"Basically we figured to pay it off in 10 years," Cerruti said. That was before the economy tanked. Now the ICS must cut costs and hold more fund-raising efforts, he said.
Currently the ICS has more than 1,000 members, and its monthly newsletter Altre Voci (other voices) is sent to nearly 11,000 households. Annually, more than 1,000 students attend 13 levels of Italian language classes at the center.
The original location in the Sierra 2 Community Center still holds half of the ICS’ language classes.
Lately, Cerruti said, traditional dinner dances have become less popular. In order to increase community involvement, a youth group named Gioventú formed to bring together a younger 18- to 40-year-old Italian American crowd.
"I’m amazed at the activity in the Italian American community," Cerruti said. "Right now there’s more activity than ever before, due to a revitalization in Italian American culture."
A "Hot" Italian
Igor De Angelis is one young Italian immigrant from Milan who wants to bring an authentic Italian flavor to the community. Currently working as a waiter at Hot Italian, Igor’s dream is to be a successful rapper.
"It was an obsession," De Angelis said of his love of hip hop. "My dream was always to make my music."
As a teenager, he became a member of a graffiti team, break danced and studied the lyrics of American emcees. After moving to the United States to pursue his dream, he bought a laptop and began making beats.
By chance, De Angelis ran into an old friend of 2Pac’s, who listened to his music. She told De Angelis that his beats were better than many other musicians’ who had been in the industry for years.
This motivated him to find a recording studio, and he eventually record an album. In 2008, De Angelis was finally able to achieve his dream of creating his own album, called La Nona – The Ninth District of Milan, rapped almost entirely in Italian. It was recorded under the stage name "Rigo of Di Casa Nostra."
"Rigo" was his nickname name back in Milan, when he was in a graffiti crew called Di Casa Nostra, or DCN for short. It means "our house."
A single from the album, "Grand Prix," was recently played on Yuba City’s KRYC 105.9. Having a friend tell him, "I heard your song on the radio," De Angelis said, was a great moment.
This weekend, everyone is Italian at Festa Italiana. The ICS’ 24th annual celebration of all things Italian will be held Aug. 1-2 at the Croatian Cultural Center at 3730 Auburn Blvd. (The Italian Cultural Center would hardly hold the estimated 3,500 attendees)
The highlights include an Italian marketplace, car show, children’s activities, festival queen pageant, bocce ball, music and dancing. The festival features food from Northern California’s Italian restaurants and caterers. On the menu is calamari from Monterey Bay Calamari, lasagna from La Famiglia and Gelato from Hot Italian, among other dishes. The ICS describes the festival as "like attending two-day wedding reception."
Festa Italiana will take place from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m.- 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $10. Visit italiancenter.net for more information.