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Residents fondly remember Italian heritage in Pitcairn

| Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, 4:24 p.m.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Times Express
Junior Ventresco and Rich Tartaglione reminisce about the earlier days of The Italian Club in Pitcairn and how it has changed while staying the same over the years.
Submitted
The Pizzuto family making sopressata, a spicy Italian cured sausage, last January at the home of Pitcairn Councilman Patsy Pizzuto. From left to right: Mike Pizzuto, Blair Hohn and Anthony Pizzuto.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Times Express A portrait of Gabriele D' Annunizo, an Italian poet and World War l hero hangs on the wall of the club. The full name of the club is the Gabriele D' Annunizo Social Club.
Lillian DeDomenic
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Times Express The original honor roll of Pitcairn Italian Club members hangs on the wall near the entrance.

There was a time when the Italian Club on Eighth Street in Pitcairn was booming.

“This was the place everybody came to on a Friday or Saturday night,” treasurer Rich Tartaglione said. “And on a Sunday after church, every table was full.”

As Italians across the country celebrate their heritage on Columbus Day this year, Italian families in Pitcairn reminisce about a time on the hill when comforts of the old country were around every corner. An Italian bakery, barbershop, shoe-repair shop and convenience store were a few of the businesses.

There were more than 500 Italian Club members in the 1950s and 1960s, said head trustee Junior Ventresco, whose father and five uncles were among them.

Men brought vegetables from their garden and the women — who were considered auxiliary members — would prepare meals inside the club. A house band played every Saturday night, and the bar always was lined with patrons.

“It's not like it used to be,” Ventresco said.

Pitcairn was booming, both on Broadway Boulevard and on the hilltop. The rail yard and the brick yard provided the jobs, while two movie theaters and more than a dozen bars provided entertainment.

“They were busy streets,” said Pitcairn Mayor Betsy Stevick, who grew up in lower Pitcairn. “When you were little, you weren't allowed to cross the street.”

The hilltop had its own mom-and-pop stores, Ventresco said.

“At one time, there was at least 10 stores just on this hill,” he said.

Membership at the Italian Club remained strong through the 1980s, But as the rail yard and the brick yard closed and the population in Pitcairn dropped from about 7,000 people to about 3,000, membership at the club followed suit. A few years ago, the club was forced to reduce its hours from seven days a week to five, as membership dropped to about 100.

“(Watching)‘Monday Night Football' died out,” Tartaglione said. “Business is slow.”

While the number of Italians has dwindled, some traditions remain alive on the hilltop.

Three generations of Pizzutos have gathered with friends and family for the past 10 years to make a spicy cured sausage called sopressata.

“A lot of the old-timers are impressed that we're carrying it on” said Mike Pizzuto, 32, who is a fifth-generation Italian American.

The Pizzuto family's lineage in Pitcairn can be traced to the early 20th century, said Pitcairn Councilman Patsy Pizzuto, who is a third-generation Italian-American, and Mike Pizzuto's grandfather.

One out of every six people living in Pittsburgh in 1930 was an immigrant, and many of them were Italian, according to “Italians of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania” by Nicholas P. Ciotola.

Many were drawn to the area by industrial jobs including the rail yard and the brick yard in Pitcairn. The Italian Club on Eighth Street was chartered in 1934.

Tartaglione said he made a trip to the Allegheny County Courthouse recently in search of the club's charter.

“The last names were all this long,” he said motioning with his hands. “And everybody had a nickname back then.”

Remnants of Italian tradition still exist on the hilltop, including family dinners on Sundays and homemade wine, but it's not like it used to be, said Anthony Pizzuto, who is fourth-generation. He is Mike Pizzuto's father and Patsy Pizzuto's son.

“I've seen some change,” he said. “The old traditions are going away.”

Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or klawson@tribweb.com.

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