A Touch of the Tucci in Erie
Italian food traditions abound here
Watching Stanley Tucci's new TV series, Searching for Italy, I found myself craving a slice of fresh mozzarella, a sliver of imported prosciutto, maybe a chunk of aged provolone.
In addition to his acting career, Tucci is also a celebrated cookbook author, and on his lush and lovely TV show, he's eating his way through Naples and the Amalfi Coast, Rome, Bologna, Milan, Tuscany, and Sicily. The final two episodes air on CNN at 9 p.m. on March 14 and March 21; the series has been picked up for another season for 2022.
Tucci's show inspired me to research the regional tastes of Italy available in Erie.
But when I learned that Erie's Italian immigrants can trace their roots to most of Italy's 20 regions, I realized it would be impossible to identify all the geographic influences on Italian food in Erie, with its rich cultural connection with the entire country. One new pizza place, though, made it easy: Coppola's Pizzeria, 1042 W. 26th St., in the former Lucchetti's, includes a green, white and red map of Italy, with a star in the middle and the name "Collopietro."
Luke Andriaccio, Coppola's owner, explained that his maternal grandmother, Antoinette Coppola, came to this country at age four from Collopietro, a tiny village on an Italian hillside. Andriaccio's Restaurant in Mayville, N.Y., already bears the name of his father Mark's side of the family. So when Luke opened a pizza place in Bemus Point, N.Y., in 2008, he named it after his other grandmother, who still lives in Mayville. He kept the Coppola name when he opened his fresh-dough Erie pizzeria in January 2020.
"A big deciding factor was that it had been a pizzeria for a long time," he said, referring to the former Lucchetti's.
But his business location is also paired with tradition. "We use a lot of Italian recipes from my grandma. She showed me how to make sauce, how to make fresh bread," said Andriaccio, 36. "There's a lot of heritage there," he said as he recalled his grandmother's Sunday dinners, when she'd plant an Italian flag on top of the food before they said grace.
My search for the history of Italian food in Erie led me to my recipe box, for a handwritten recipe for pizza from Mary Ida Martone. Her family started DiMichael's Pizza on West 18th Street in 1947, using her mother's fresh-dough recipe. "This little pizza shop was truly unique for the times," her brother, the late Ray DiMichael, told me for a feature series on Little Italy in 1988. "People from all over the city became curious, and once they tasted their first pizza pie, they became regular customers," he said.
Julie Barzano Monocello also comes from a family with a storied tradition of introducing Erieites to great Italian food.
"Watching the [Tucci] special made me hungry for my mom's sauce and meatballs," said Monocello, the daughter of first-generation Italians Sam and Grace Barzano. Her father's family came from Naples; her mom's parents were from Calabria.
"Growing up in our family meant there was never a shortage of good Italian food. It was a given," she said. "Our grandparents, aunts, and uncles all loved to cook and throughout the '40s and '50s, various members of the family at one time or another owned the A & J Dinor on West 26th and Elmwood and then later the Rathskeller's on State Street."
In 1958, her parents encouraged her older brother, also named Sam, to finish college and become a history teacher. But after two years at Gannon College, Sam Barzano left school to buy a small pizza shop at West 26th and Myrtle streets. "Although disappointed that their only son decided to quit college and risk all of his savings on a pizza shop, my mom and dad continued to support Sam by lending their culinary expertise and offering to help develop many of the delicious menu items at his small but ever-growing business," she said.
In 1968, her father left his job in the maintenance department at Villa Maria Academy to join his son's business. Sadly, she said, her father died suddenly in 1972, before South Erie Pizza moved from the south side of West 26th Street to the north side of 26th Street. The restaurant had its grand opening in the new location in December 1974 and continued there until it closed 10 years later.
"Folks around here still remember and talk about the place," said Monocello, who is retired from the Millcreek School District. Recently, she and her brother were walking at the Millcreek Mall. "A gentleman yelled to us, 'Hey, Sam, I want a half order of cheese and pep — and cut it in four pieces because I can't eat six,''' the guy joked. Her brother is now in his 80s but "absolutely loves it when his customers remember him. He is so proud of those South Erie days."
Immigrant parents and grandparents are known to encourage their offspring to seek educational opportunities they didn't have available to themselves. That's the way it was for Dr. Joseph Cerami, DDS, 93, whose father opened a barbershop at West 18th and Walnut at age 12.
I called Dr. Cerami to learn more about a guy known as Curly the Cook, a chef from a famous restaurant in New York City who was enticed to bring his skills to Erie. Curly married Cerami's aunt, Agnes Little.
But instead of Curly's career, we mostly talked about Cerami's background — and food, of course. After graduating from Strong Vincent High School and getting drafted, Cerami returned to Erie after the Army, intending to get a job. His father had other plans. "If you're living in my house, you're going to college," Cerami said his dad told him.
Cerami listened to his dad, going to the University of Pittsburgh Dental School after graduating from Gannon.
But in the kitchen, he tried to emulate his mom, to master her spaghetti sauce. "I had already conquered ravioli, meatballs, and braciole (rolled flank steak)," he recalled. "I wrote every single thing down," he said. "When Mom passed away, I could never make it taste like hers."
After he married, the first two times his wife made spaghetti sauce, it tasted just like the sauce he usually made. "Then the third time, I said to Carol, 'What did you do to this sauce?'"
His bride wondered if she had done something wrong. On the contrary. "I said, 'You made my mother's sauce!'" he said. "I asked her what she did differently. She said, 'I figured your mother never measured a teaspoon, a tablespoon,'" his wife told him. "She just dumped it in and that's what Carol does. It turns out the same every time."
His wife still makes about five gallons of sauce every 10 days or so. "She puts it in plastic bags and freezes it. Every neighbor has tasted her sauce and can't wait to get more of it."
A pinch of this and a cup of that works for many cooks. But it really does help to put those recipes in writing — and to get the stories behind them while your relatives are here to tell the tales. That's the advice of Rhonda Schember, who served as the Erie Times-News food writer, along with Lynn Clint, her former colleague from Penn State Cooperative Extension, for nearly 30 years.
Schember, who is married to Erie Mayor Joe Schember and is the daughter of the late Jim and Theresa DeNicola Mahoney, remembers going to the home of her great-grandmother, Rosalinda Rutolo. "She made pizzelles one at a time over a gas stove. She would flip the iron to cook it and she would make hundreds of pizzelles at a time. I don't know how she had the patience or the strength in her legs to stand that long," she said.
Schember's great uncle, Philip Dell'Oso, a self-taught chef from Italy, cooked at Erculiani's in Gallitzin, Pa., near the famous Horseshoe Curve in Altoona. "It was a restaurant that Frank Sinatra and anyone who performed in Pittsburgh would drive up to for a five-star dinner," she said. Her Aunt Edith and Uncle Philip later started the fine-dining Allegro Restaurant in Altoona, now run by her cousin and her cousin's husband.
Schember grew up in North East, where "every family celebration centered around food and the kitchen table," she said. That custom isn't unique to Italians. "Every ethnicity has their favorites, and most have never been written down," she said. The next generation is left to piece together the recipes from notes on scraps of paper.
Rhonda Schember's roots in North East are a good reminder that Italian immigrants didn't just settle in Little Italy on the city of Erie's west side.
Marlene DiTullio Mosco, a retired PNC bank executive, said that immigrants who settled near Holy Rosary Catholic Church on East 28th Street came from the Abruzzi region in Italy. "They all cooked pretty much the same way — no recipes, but by feel and touch," she said.
"A very fashionable dish today, polenta, was a Lenten staple," she said. "If not Lent, they would add a red pepperoni sauce to the polenta," she said. "Traditionally, you ate the same things on the same nights. Sunday dinner was always a stuffed veal breast with roasted potatoes, always some kind of pasta, much wine and a fruit platter, with biscotti for dessert. Monday was always a soup dish, mostly white beans and greens. Thursday was always a pasta night."
Rivalries between the east and west side Italians extended to the food. "Our red sauce is exceptional," she said, with fresh pork and veal, purchased from Verdecchia's grocery at East 27th and Brandes, used for the meatballs.
Geri Cicchetti and her sisters, Ann Carlin and Tina Donikowski, come from Erie's east bayfront Italian neighborhood. They and their aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered for dinner every Sunday at 11 a.m. at their grandmother's house, with up to 25 family members crowded into an East Fifth Street flat. Cicchetti's own mother reserved Thursday nights for spaghetti. "We all knew Thursday night was the night to come home for dinner," she said.
Her mother's family came from San Lucido in Calabria; her father's people were from Petruro in Abruzzo, Italy.
Cicchetti, the director of advancement at the Hagen History Center, has a special affection for Tucci's Searching for Italy series, because she and her extended family traveled to Naples and the breathtaking Amalfi Coast in May 2018, to celebrate her nephew Brian's 30th birthday and Geri's 60th birthday.
In addition to seeing spectacular scenery and being entertained by distant Italian relatives, the family spent time at the Napoli Notte 2 Pizzeria and Ristorante learning to make the type of simple pizza that Tucci showcased — fresh dough with a little bit of sauce, topped by mozzarella and basil, then baked in searing hot oven.
"This is just simple and wholesome, just the basics," she said. "It was fabulous."
By the way, Cicchetti means "little meal," said Ann Carlin. "And we don't do little meals," she joked. Nevertheless, little ones are learning about the family traditions. Her son Brian has already introduced her nine-month-old grandson to ravioli, spaghetti, and meatballs.
Liz Allen learned to make spaghetti sauce from her Italian mother and meatballs and pasta fagioli from her Italian mother-in-law. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did you know?
or Italian Catholics, especially those of Sicilian descent, the feast of St. Joseph on March 19 comes with special traditions, including a meatless feast served at the St. Joseph Table.
Grace Bondanella of North East, who turned 100 in November, and her son, Joe Bondanella, talked about some of the foods their family ate on St. Joseph's Day. The dishes include cardoons, made from thistles, in which the stalks are stripped of their veins, boiled until they are soft, then coated with bread crumbs and fried. Another plant, called mustard greens, is picked when it's young and boiled. "Sometimes you have it in salad with oil and a little salt and pepper," said Joe Bondanella. "Or you make it with a frittata, mixing it with egg," he said.
Rigatoni is also served with sardines, but Bondanella said his mother wasn't really fond of that dish.
Her favorite treat is stuffed artichokes — filled with grated Romano cheese and breadcrumbs.
St. Joseph Bread is twisted into a braid, brushed with eggs, and topped with sesame seeds when it's baked. For dessert, there's sfingi (cream puffs).
If the food sounds rustic, that's because when Italian immigrants came here and lived through the Depression, "they made do with what they had," said Joe Bondanella. He and his mother remember driving to Buffalo to celebrate St. Joseph's Day with extended family before Interstate 90 was completed. "It was a great time, a wonderful time, not only religious-wise but family-wise," she said.
Mark your calendars
ew exhibits related to Erie's immigrant history are coming to the Hagen History Center, 356 W. Sixth St.
When the center holds its grand reopening July 17-18, part of "Erie and the American Dream," in the new exhibit building, will focus on Erie neighborhoods. In 2022, an exhibit on the second floor, "Coming to Erie," will feature the waves of newcomers who have "shaped our dynamic community," according to Geri Cicchetti, director of advancement for the Erie County Historical Society.