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A very Italian tour of the North End

On Oct. 26, I had the honor and pleasure of leading a group of about 40 Italians and other Europeans on a tour of the North End. Most had visited the North End before, but they knew little about its past, either as a historical section of Boston or as an Italian-American neighborhood.

I lead the tour at the request of Andrea Ponzone, who I had meet about a year earlier at an event sponsored by the Braintree Italian American Cultural Organization. Andrea is a judge advocate for the Archdiocese of Boston. He is from Torino, Italy, and has been in Boston since January.

I ran into him again IACO’s “Immersion in Italian Culture Day” on Oct. 6, and he asked if I would be willing to lead a tour of the North End for Italian professionals like himself who are now living in Boston. I was happy to do it, just for the chance to meet these “new” Italians and to tell them something about our North End. Andrea expected about 20 people, at most, but as I noted, there was almost twice that amount.

I invited two others to join the tour. One was Francesco Gambino, an Italian professional working in the Boston area who I had meet a year ago (through my writing for Bostoniano) and have since become friends with. Francesco has been interested in meeting Italian Americans and learning about the North End.

I had planned for him to meet Nick Savino, a North Ender who I’m sure many of you know. Nick and I became friends a few years ago thorough the Italian Americans War Veterans club. The plan was for the three of us to meet for lunch at Umberto’s and then they would join the tour. Francesco’s wife and daughter would join us. I invited Nick because I wanted them to meet another Italian American, and one who is a bit older and a lot more interesting that I am.

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We met at the corner of Cross and Salem, and went from there. I wanted to give them the full tour, including both historical sites as well as points that are relevant to the Italian-American North End that we all know. It was a beautiful autumn day, and the group was excited and exciting (as only Italians can be) as we walked the narrow streets of the North End. As I said, they really had no idea of the North End’s past. They had heard it had been an Italian-American neighborhood, but beyond that they knew practically nothing.

I won’t go through the whole tour, but I’ll give you two highlights.

When we stopped at the corner of Richmond and North, I told the group about a stone tablet set into the brick above Cirace’s Liquors. The tablet has the letters TSW, standing for a pair of Puritans, Timothy and Susannah Wadsworth. Timothy was the son of Captain Samuel Wadsworth, who was killed during the King Philip’s War between the English and Wampanoag in 1675. This was interesting, of course, but nothing compared to the history Nick Savino made a few doors down when in 1962 (he was about 12 years old) he kissed a beautiful North End girl for 45 minutes straight. As he pointed out, kissing a girl for 45 minutes does not mean much in today’s scale, but back then it was an event of epic proportions. By the way, I would in turn point out that on the Puritan scale, kissing in public was in itself a punishable offense.

We also made it to the Copps Hill Cemetery just before it closed, and as the day was waning, Nick invited us all down to play bocce in the courts inside the ice skating rink. Nick is a member of the bocce club. When we arrived, there were a few men there, playing bocce or sitting at the tables. Since the men were all immigrants who came over after the war, in the 1950s and 1960s, they spoke Italian, and right away began chatting with our guests about where who was from in Italy, why and how long they were in America, etc. Some then played bocce, while the others rested, talked, or took a much-needed bathroom break. It was a fitting conclusion to the tour.

Most of the people on the tour are part of a Facebook group called “Italiani a Boston -Un gruppo alternative.” It serves as a social networking page for these new Italian immigrants. The tour brought Italian Americans and Italians, old and new immigrants, together under the Italian canopy of the North End. I’m happy to have met them.

I want to thank Nick for coming. As you can gather, he was the highlight of the tour – and I have not even mentioned how and why he sang for us in front of the Cozy Corner.

Happy New Year!

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.