Italian Day 2018: Little Italy reflects rich heritage of Commercial Drive

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      Eat well. Laugh often. Love in abundance.

      Or as they say in Italian: “Mangia bene, ridi spesso, ama molto.” That’s the tag line on emails sent by the executive director of the Italian Day Festival Society, Brunella Gaudio. It also sums up the mood that she and other Italo-Canadian community leaders are trying to create this Sunday (June 10) on Italian Day in Vancouver on Commercial Drive.

      But what if it were Italian Day all year round on the Drive? Imagine piazzas where locals could take a leisurely stroll in open areas on summer evenings. Or beautiful giant archways, like you see in Rome or Milan. Or statues outside buildings, like in Florence. And all over the place, the green, white, and red bands of the Italian flag along with all that tasty pizza, luscious gelato, and fine Italian restaurants on the Drive.

      Over lunch at the Italian Cultural Centre (Il Centro), Randy Rinaldo, the son of Italian immigrants, can barely contain his enthusiasm as he describes what Vancouver’s Little Italy could become. “I want it to look like Italian Disneyland,” Rinaldo tells the Georgia Straight. “I want the fire hydrants painted green, white, and red. I want it to feel warm and fuzzy when you go down there.”

      In 2016, Rinaldo, Gaudio, Il Centro’s Mauro Vescera, and Nick Pogor of the Commercial Drive Business Society spoke to city council to support a motion by Melissa De Genova to designate eight blocks Little Italy to reflect the neighbourhood’s deep Italian heritage. It came after Rinaldo obtained the consent of community leaders to create a Facebook page calling for a Little Italy in Vancouver, which generated more than 500 likes.

      When De Genova brought the issue before council, it was approved. In a recent phone interview with the Straight, De Genova says there’s a good chance that the green, white, and red colours of the Italian flag will be seen on the crosswalks at East 1st Avenue and Commercial Drive. This is because FortisBC is digging up East 1st to replace its underground gas line, which means new pavement will have to be laid down by the end of the summer.

      “That’s an option I’ve discussed with staff,” De Genova says. “I’m hoping I won’t have to bring a motion forward.”

      Little Italy isn’t a new idea, according to Federico Fuoco, owner of Federico’s Supper Club on the Drive. In a phone interview with the Straight, he notes that the notion gained momentum after Italian Day was resurrected in 2010 by him and Commercial Drive Business Society president Carmen D’Onofrio. They were helped by Il Centro president Michael Cuccione and Italian Day Festival Society president Beppe De Lucio.

      “Coun. Kerry Jang approached me and we were talking about the Little Italy designation,” Fuoco recalls. “We thought it would be great to have it.”

      Fuoco’s parents immigrated from Calabria in southern Italy and he grew up near Commercial Drive and East 2nd Avenue. He says he can remember when Italian immigrants in the area used to “dress to the nines just to go shopping”.

      His musician father regularly played at the annual Confratellanza banquet, which was founded by legendary jurist Angelo Branca to bring Italian Canadians together.

      “They worked their butts off and sacrificed for the kids and their families,” Fuoco says. “That’s who I admire and honour. That’s who I want to pay homage to.”

      Randy Rinaldo shows off the new street signs highlighting Little Italy on the Drive.

      D’Onofrio also grew up on the Drive. His mother was from the Abruzzo region, east of Rome, and his father was from Molise in the south.

      “They went on a honeymoon to Italy, which was their first buying trip for Kalena’s Shoes,” D’Onofrio tells the Straight by phone. “The business, the family—everything started from there.”

      Kalena’s celebrated 50 years of continuous operation in 2017. But it’s just one of more than 30 Italo-Canadian–owned businesses in Little Italy, which extends four blocks north and four blocks south of East 1st Avenue on Commercial Drive. “It’s a neighbourhood that is Little Italy,” D’Onofrio emphasizes.

      He acknowledges that it might be challenging to create an archway because it might interfere with overhead wires for trolley buses. But at the very least, D’Onofrio says, a “Welcome to the Drive” sign would reinforce the neighbourhood’s authentic Italian identity.

      According to Gaudio, the Buonassisi family, which owns Magnet Home Hardware, has been doing business in the 1500 block of Commercial Drive for more than 80 years.

      When asked to name Italian gathering spots, Gaudio first mentions coffee bars, including Cafe Calabria and Toscani, for soccer games and other sporting events.

      “Then there are the pizzerias and there’s lots of them, from Marcello, Lombardo’s, Famoso, and also Sopra Sotto,” she says. “Then you’ll have restaurants like Arriva and Federico’s. Federico’s is the only dine and dance in the city, really, so lots of tourists find out about that.”

      For Fuoco, this is a special year because Federico’s will celebrate its 20th anniversary in December. He also noted that new Little Italy street signs have arrived and will soon be installed along the Drive. And on October 6, he will be celebrated as Italian Canadian Man of the Year by Confratellanza.

      “I remember as a kid just getting excited going to that banquet and watching my father perform,” Fuoco says. “It’s a real honour.”