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Italian traditions have influenced Southern Illinois home kitchens and restaurants
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Italian traditions have influenced Southern Illinois home kitchens and restaurants

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The promise of prosperity in the United States led to the arrival of more than 13 million Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who brought with them a rich cultural history and intense love for food and family.

Even while observing the traditions and practices of American society, these transplants from Europe have always cherished their way of life and created small communities to continue the traditions. Italian cuisine is not just an item to cure hunger and provide nutrients to the body, but is viewed as a way for family and friends to come together in a convivial nature and take time to enjoy each other. Eating around a large Italian table means plenty of laughter, love, food and wine, and the many aspects of Italian culture continue to enrich the generations following those first newcomers to America.

My great-grandparents emigrated from Montecreto, Italy in 1911. Giueseppe Dominick Fiorenzi, who later went by Joe, landed in Iowa in May of 1910, where he worked in the coal mining industry long enough to save money to return to Italy to retrieve his wife, Nazarina Anna Beneventi, and their young daughter, Nita.

Moving to Illinois upon their return to the United States, the pair had more children, including my paternal grandfather, Darrell. The importance of Italian food and mealtimes was embraced by Darrell’s wife and my grandmother, Angel, and later cherished by my father, Michael, and his sister, Gloria.

Gloria remembers her grandmother teaching her mother how to cook homemade ravioli, gnocchi, pasta sauces and polenta. For dessert, my great-grandmother, Anna, would make ice cream from leftover fresh cream and her favorite, cherry pie. Angel’s first attempt at gnocchi ended up as a lump of dough at the bottom of the pan of chicken broth, and although she ended up in tears, she later mastered many Italian dishes.

The tradition of preparing old family recipes continued into my childhood in Southern Illinois, and I remember Sunday lunches at my grandparents’ home that would consist of scrumptious entrees, both Italian and homestyle American recipes, sitting at the table long after the meal to have a cookie or glass of red wine after enjoying homemade tortellini filled with seasoned pork and macaroni with loads of cheese. My grandparents would sit around the kitchen table, rolling tortellini dough, arguing about how much nutmeg to put in the filling, and twisting the little pockets into their famous shape before boiling.

This love of cooking homemade food for the nourishment and enjoyment of one’s family is a rich Italian tradition and was thankfully instilled in me so that my love for cooking, baking, and feeding my family now enriches the lives of my children, too.

Besides just the enjoyment of cooking and eating, Italian immigrants who move to the United States have for many generations found success in the restaurant business, and these ventures are part of an amazing tradition in our country.

Like many international cuisines, Italian eateries have always been very influential in not just introducing new foods and recipes, but also have become part of the American dining experience with everything from pizza places to fine dining Italian establishments, gelato stands to sandwich shops.

While many of these restaurants remain a viable option for Italian immigrants to discover the American dream of providing a comfortable life for their families and giving them new opportunities, the first Italian restaurants were established to feed the early immigrant communities of workers and craftsmen in small, newfound Italian neighborhoods within the United States in the late 1800s. Over time, Italian restaurants changed recipes and menu items based on what ingredients were available in the area, as well as the palates of Americans who were not familiar with rustic Italian dishes.

Alongi’s Italian Restaurant

Guy Alongi III, who currently owns and operates Alongi’s Italian Restaurant in Du Quoin, is carrying on the family business that his grandfather, Guy Alongi, began in 1933 after moving to the United States from Sicily. First open as a dry goods store and later a saloon and pizza restaurant, Jerome and John Alongi took over the restaurant in 1953 and enjoyed continued success with the sale of pizza and Budweiser while making their place in the community of Du Quoin, befriending and creating close relationships with the local community and also entertaining visiting entertainers from the Du Quoin State Fair. Beloved by patrons from across Southern Illinois and beyond, the restaurant fed many happy customers while providing for the Alongi family.

“My dad and my uncle ran the restaurant for about 30 years. For them the most important thing was family first, church, and then business,” Guy Alongi III said.

Alongi himself understands the importance of family gatherings around the dinner table with the busiest day at the restaurant being Sundays after church. His family continues to work to provide a place for families to come together while filling up on comforting Italian dishes alongside salads topped with his grandmother Rosalie’s famous house recipe. After the passing of his father, Alongi carries on the traditions of Alongi’s Italian Restaurant while cherishing the memories of he and his father working together at the family business.

“My dad died when he was 92, he lived upstairs, and was inside this building for 80-something years. There are pictures of him everywhere. It’s a great thing, but it’s also a constant reminder,” said Alongi.

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At the beginning of the pandemic, Alongi worried about regular customers being forced to visit drive-thru restaurants only or eat take-out from containers and was happy when restrictions were lifted enough to allow patrons to return to the patio at Alongi’s and indoor, newly spaced-out seating. With value placed on time spent around the family dinner table, seeing diners return to Alongi’s, breaking bread together once again, was a happy sight.

Alongi and his family were scheduled to make their annual trip to Sicily at the end of September, but COVID-19 restrictions forced the family to cancel their plans. But Alongi looks forward to future trips to spend time in the birthplace of his grandparents

“When we’re there we have many long meals together. Food is very important,” said Alongi.

Cummare’s

Daniela Brooks, the youngest daughter of Cummare’s Italian Restaurant’s original owners, Pietro and Stephanie Galati, moved to Murphysboro with her parents and sister shortly after she graduated high school in Sicily in 2007. With an American-born mother and Italian-born father, Brooks was born in Italy, lived in the United States for about seven years as a child, then moved back to Sicily. She speaks both Italian and English fluently and enjoys the cultures of both heritages, but the move to Southern Illinois in 2007 seems to be a permanent one for Brooks as she is now raising a family of her own thanks to the hard work of her parents.

“There are certain things I miss about Italy, but what really matters in life is the wellbeing of your family and the opportunity your kids will have. And now I understand why my parents made the transition that they made and I’m grateful that they did,” shared Brooks.

The Galatis wanted to settle in the United States to provide their children financial, social and educational opportunities and they saw much success with their restaurant before selling the business in 2019 and moving back to Sicily in 2020. Over their 12 years in business, the Galatis became a fixture in Southern Illinois dining with their scrumptious pizzas and hearty pasta dishes at Cummare’s, and locals and travelers alike filled the building for lunch and dinner day after day. From the beginning, they were accepted in the Murphysboro community and were able to realize the goals they set forth to accomplish.

“My dad worked in a decent sized factory in Italy but he was the only income for our family of four and it wasn’t enough to support all four of us. So instead of staying there and being miserable we knew we had the opportunity to come here and make it work,” said Brooks.

Brooks, whose husband is originally from Murphysboro, loves the Italian traditions and recipes that his wife incorporates into holidays and family gatherings.

A skilled Italian cook, Brooks prepares most of the food for events and is always asked to make pasta al forno for special occasions. A layered dish made with small ring-shaped noodles, ham, eggs, sauce and cheese, the dish is versatile and perfect for large gatherings as it can be enjoyed hot from the oven or snacked on throughout the day at room temperature.

Brooks and her family celebrate the Italian workers’ day of rest around Aug. 15 each year at home. The holiday is a week-long celebration in Italy that usually consists of camping trips to the beach or grilling out. At home in the United States, Brooks’ family usually has a bonfire to commemorate the occasion.

Also an Italian tradition, Brooks looks forward to opening Christmas gifts at midnight on Christmas Eve once her daughter gets a little older. This is a practice widely accepted in Italy, but something new to her American family. While Christmas morning is spent shuffling around to different houses for visits with relatives, this Italian Christmas Eve tradition creates more time for the immediate family.

“On Christmas morning there is so much going on that kids don’t get to actually open their gifts and appreciate them,” said Brooks.

While she misses certain things about her birthplace of Sicily, she is glad that both she, and also her daughter, have more favorable circumstances in the United States.

“Just remembering you are where you are. You just have to find happiness where you are. Look around and appreciate where you are,” said Brooks.

The Italian way of life is something cherished by those born in the European country as well as the families born in the United States who continue these traditions. A love of food and family is common in many cultures, but as anyone familiar with Italian families knows, food equals love.

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