Looking for a Lost Little Italy in Larimer

red, white, and green painted storefront for Henry Grasso, Co. Inc. Pittsburgh, PA

Last of the red, white, and green: Henry Grasso, Co. Inc., Larimer Ave.

There’s a scene early on in Striking Distance where police captain Nick Detillo (Dennis Farina in full cop mustache and salt-and-pepper wave) downplays his career aspirations. Asked by Bruce Willis’ Detective Tom Hardy if he’s bucking for advancement in the force, Detillo responds humbly, “Not me kid. I’m just a Larimer Avenue dago.” [Please pardon the ethnic slur. We’re quoting–and it’s important to the story.]

Writer, director, and Pittsburgh native Rowdy Herrington peppered the movie’s dialog and mise en scène with local references, so it’s no surprise the Italian-American Detillo clan gets fleshed-out with a nod to the old neighborhood. But why not choose one of the more obvious Little Italys–say, Bloomfield, Panther Hollow, or South Oakland?

movie still from "Striking Distance" with character Nick Detillo's line "Not me, kid. I'm just a Larimer Avenue dago."

Who’s the best cop? Dennis Farina as Capt. Nick Detillo in “Striking Distance”

In record geek terms, it’s a deep cut–one that Rowdy Herrington gets much respect for including.

Dennis Farina was born in Chicago in 1944. Like every other member of the Striking Distance cast, he made no attempt to replicate a Pittsburgh accent for the movie–but the dates line up. From the early part of the 20th Century until some time in the 1960s, Larimer was the Little Italy for Pittsburgh. A neighborhood with any random block holding a majority of Italian surnames; the location where The Italian Sons and Daughters of America was formed; an enclave hosting the Pittsburgh Italian Hospital. [Yes: that was thing–it’s now a vacant lot at the corner of Paulson and Maxwell.] It is entirely likely that the fictional Detillo family could have all grown up in Larimer.

The amateur anthropologists and wanna-be archeologists of Pittsburgh Orbit like any challenge that invites bicycle-based poking down alleys and remorseless nebbing into empty retail windows. We set out with the loose goal of seeing what–if any–traces of Detillo-era, Italian-American Larimer we could still find today.

detail from 1924 platte map showing two blocks of the Larimer neighborhood with a majority of property owners having Italian surnames

Larimer, 1924. Map detail of two blocks between Larimer Ave. and Ashley St., Mayflower and Meadow. [source: G.M. Hopkins Company Maps]

The short version: there ain’t much left.

By our count, there are exactly two extant businesses in the neighborhood that date from the old days. Henry Grasso’s Italian foods shop on Larimer Ave. (see photo, top) is still, as the sign says, original manufacturers of the Italian sausage and capicollo. Dressed for the part in the red, white, and green colors of the Italian flag, Grasso’s is the picture of an old American neighborhood butcher/grocer you’ll see few other places.

On the other side of the neighborhood, Stagno’s Bakery no longer staffs their retail storefront, and the corner of Auburn and Lowell suffers for it. But they’re very much still baking up Italian bread in their two big cinderblock buildings. You’ll find the product on bakery shelves and restaurant bread baskets all over the city. [Side note: one of Stagno’s old blue delivery vans even gets a cameo in the Striking Distance chase scene. Coincidence?]

run down exterior of former retail shop for Stagno's Bakery, Pittsburgh, PA

Still making bread…just not selling retail. Stagno’s Bakery, Auburn Street.

The former Our Lady Help of Christians still stands on the corner of Meadow and Turrett Streets. With its attached school building, the massive Roman-Catholic church basically takes up an entire city block and reaches four or five stories into the sky.

Built in 1897 (rebuilt 1905), Our Lady Help is a crumbling beauty. The multiple copper domes remain, gleaming in even the dappled sunlight of last weekend, but since the church closed in 1992, a crew has clearly gone through and stripped anything of value. The stained glass, statuary, and thick oak doors are all gone, replaced with temporary protective plywood. Ivy climbs the exterior walls and weeds have breached the joints in the stone front stairs. Perhaps inevitable, a blue condemned notice is stapled to the front door. Sigh.

view of 1905 Our Lady Help of Christians Roman-Catholic church, now abandoned and condemned, Pittsburgh, PA

(former) Our Lady Help of Christians Roman-Catholic Church, Meadow Street

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s page on Our Lady Help details the deep Italian roots of the church:

Our Lady Help of Christians was established in 1898 as an Italian parish. The origin of the parish can be traced to the rise of immigrants from Italy in the late nineteenth century.  In 1895 the Italian Franciscan Fathers were invited to come to Pittsburgh. They took charge of the Italian parish in the Hill District, St. Peter. In 1894, the Italian residents of the East Liberty area petitioned the bishop for permission to form their own parish. This petition was denied. To meet the needs of the East Liberty Italians, the pastor of St. Peter began visiting the area to celebrate Mass.  The first Mass for Italians celebrated in East Liberty took place in February of 1895 in the school hall of Ss. Peter and Paul parish. From that point, a Mass was celebrated almost monthly for the Italians.

There are a lot of reasons why (local) Catholic churches are having a hard time. Overall, Pittsburgh has lost half its population and people just don’t attend mass like they did in the old days. And then there’s the whole, horrific priest sex abuse (and cover-up) business.

But when a entire congregation this large relocates to the suburbs of Penn Hills and Plum, Forest Hills and Churchill, the Latin scripture reads pretty clear on the old plaster walls.

painted sign for Fiore's Home Dressed Meats on brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost sign for former Fiore’s Home Dressed Meats (now State Senator Ferlo’s local office), Larimer Ave.

Beyond this handful of obvious touchstones, we’re really left grasping at straws.

Vacant lots outnumber buildings on Larimer Avenue today, but there are may be a dozen surviving retail storefronts on the old main drag. One of these features a ghost sign for Fiore’s Home Dressed Meats, but that’s really the only clue to what any of the businesses in these pre-war two- and three-story brick buildings once were.

While there’s still plenty of open space in the neighborhood, Larimer’s housing has fared better overall than its commercial structures. There is a particular type of after-market tin-slatted porch and window awning you see all over Pittsburgh (and elsewhere)–we imagine some door-to-door salesman made a killing hawking these in the 1950s.

There’s no way to prove this, but anecdotal evidence points to the popularity of red-and-white (and to a lesser extent, green-and-white) color combos in certain locales. There are still a bunch of these Italian-colored tin awnings throughout Larimer. [Note: You don’t have to tell this blogger–you want us to cry over tin awnings? No: but it’s all I got.]

small house with tin awning and green paint, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s a stretch, but the red-and-white awning with a green paint job look familiar. [Bonus points for the pair of old-school aerial antennas!]

Oh, and what about Mary? Every old Catholic neighborhood worth its rosaries has a couple dozen houses sporting ceramic statuettes of The Blessed Virgin doing her palms-out thing on the front lawn or nestled up against the porch. There are even more Marys relaxing in people’s back yards–but it’s harder to get the invitation to visit up close.

I’m telling you, the Orbitmobile criss-crossed Larimer a dozen times, rolling down every street and just about every alleyway coming and going. In those rides, we spotted exactly one extant front yard Mary outside a unique frame house that appears to at one time have been a pair of separate, conjoined buildings.

older wooden house with statue of Mary by the front porch, Pittsburgh, PA

Possibly the last front yard Mary in Larimer?

That home, on a short dead-end of the aptly named Orphan Street, is at a little horn-shaped peninsula forming the very northeast corner of Larimer. In front of the house, the steep drop-off down to Washington Blvd.; behind, dense greenery all the way over to Highland Park.

We don’t know who lives here–if they’re black or white, hard core Catholic or just enjoy a quirky lawn ornament–but this little icon living on the most precarious of properties feels very much like the last representative of a disappeared people.

Times and places change, people move on–these are unalterable truths. But it’s comforting to think that if Nick Detillo were to make it back to the old neighborhood today, he could still get a pound of capicollo from Henry Grosso and still say a prayer to Mary.

Italian Colors

Two rowhouses in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh: one green, one red

Green house, red house, white snow, Bloomfield

Even the most casual student of the classics will recognize the names of great Italian painters. Botticelli, Caravaggio, Verrocchio–the list goes on and on.  Their descendants made their way in droves to Pittsburgh, settling largely in Larimer, Bloomfield, South Oakland, and other parts of the city.  And they continued to paint.

The medium of choice is still oils (albeit exterior enamel) and they’ve simplified their color palette to the trinity of green, white, and red.  Boldly eschewing the staid canvas and gallery presentation, these artists work large and for the world to see: on cement walls and park benches, street lights and entire houses.

Garage wall in Italian red, green, and white

Garage (detail), Uptown

It’s curious to me that while Pittsburgh’s great expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was famously from eastern and southern European immigrants, it seems that only the Italians felt the need to reproduce the flag over and over again.  Why don’t we see crude renderings of the white eagle on garages in Polish Hill and Lawrenceville?  Why no black, red, and gold telephone poles in Deutschtown?  We’ve got (people who identify as) Croats and Slovaks out the yin yang.  Who’s representing?

Street light pole in Italian colors

Street light pole, Bloomfield

Flower pot with red and white flowers and statue of Jesus

Jesus Planter, Bloomfield

While only a fraction of the population of those other neighborhoods, the tiny neighborhood-within-a-neighborhood of Panther Hollow has possibly more Italian colored things per capita than anywhere else.  There’s a bi-lingual war memorial with the flags of The United States, Italy, and Pittsburgh, an Italian-colored park bench and picnic table, the flag rendered graffiti-style on a retaining wall, and one abbreviated stretch of picket fence.

Park bench and picnic table in Italian colors

Park bench, picnic table, Panther Hollow

It was there, at the very end of Panther Hollow, that we had the great fortune to run into lifetime resident, local historian, and maintainer of the terrific pantherhollow.us website, Carlino Giampolo. “Everyone should have a fence to hide their garbage,” Carlino told us as explanation for the curious freestanding set of tri-colored fence at the edge of his property, the last plot in the Hollow as the dead-end Boundary Street trickles into Schenley Park bicycle trail.

Retaining wall with Italian flag

Retaining wall, Panther Hollow

Carlino went on to tell us about growing up in Panther Hollow, when what is now Pitt’s lower parking lot was a ball field, community park, and cow pasture.  When there were as many as six different operating businesses in the Hollow (today there are none, nor any obvious former retail spaces).  He showed us where the hotel once stood in what is now his side yard, the community oven that would cook the neighborhood’s bread, and how self-sufficient the whole place once was (and not that long ago)–butchering their own animals, making cheese and butter from the small herd of cows they kept, etc.

Picket fence in Italian colors

“Everyone should have a fence to hide their garbage”, Carlino’s fence, Panther Hollow