Los Angeles and Orange counties are home to many official and unofficial (but widely recognized) ethnic enclaves, including Cambodia Town, Chinatown, Filipinotown, Koreatown, Little Armenia, Little Arabia, Little Bangladesh, Little Brazil, Little Ethiopia, Little India, Little Osaka, Little Russia, Little Saigon, Little Seoul, Little Tokyo, Oaxacatown, Tehrangeles, and Thai Town. Attempting to gain official recognition are the Historic Central American Business District and Peru Village. Many enclaves came and went, such as Bronzeville, French Town, Greek Town, Old Chinatown, Sonoratown, and Little Italy.
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s map of Los Angeles’s Little Italy
When I first moved to Southern California I stayed with a college friend at his Sicilian mother’s home in the Inland Empire. I don’t recall whether or not she ever told me what lured her family to trade Southern Italy for Southern California, but she was hardly alone in doing so. Depending on the source, Los Angeles is home to either the fifth or fourth-largest population of Italian-Americans in the country. One of the city’s most famous icons, Watts Towers, were built by an immigrant from Serino. Our just-sworn-in mayor has an Italian family name and ancestry. Look at a map and you might notice the Repetto and Montebello Hills. Eastside and Chinatown streets like Bruno, Lanfranco, and Sotello hint at the location of a community that hasn’t entirely disappeared.
The first Italian to arrive in Los Angeles is known to be Sardinia-born Giovanni Leandri in the 1820s. He operated a shop on Calle de los Negros, an alley situated near Old Chinatown. Many of the first wave of Italian immigrants lived in boarding houses in the area around what is now part of the Arts District and Civic Center. Around the 1890s the population of around 2,000 Italian-Americans bought homes and opened businesses around El Pueblo, Sonoratown, and their neighbors, including Dogtown, Lincoln Heights, Solano Canyon, and Victor Heights.
On a gloomy June morning, I took the bus downtown to check out what was left of Little Italy in a walk that covers about 3.5 miles.
Los Angeles’ oldest brick building, the Pelanconi Building, was built between 1855 and 1857 by Giuseppe Covacicci (also spelled variously as Covacchi, Cavacichi, and Covasich), and sits on Olvera Street, which was until 1877 known as Calle de la Vignes, or “Vineyard Street” — the area was then California’s capital of wine production. The building became known as the Pelanconi House after it was purchased by Lombardy-born vintner Antonio Pelanconi. It’s currently the home of La Golodrina Café, a Mexican restaurant.
Though El Pueblo’s history is long, Olvera Street was famously given a theme-park-like makeover in 1930, and most of its charms today are decidedly kitschy. As I walked around unable to avoid the scent of leather goods and Nag Champa, I overheard a visitor express her desire to get some nachos and a man on the nearby plaza played Céline Dion‘s “My Heart Will Go On” on Andean pipes.
The two-story Italian Hall was built between 1907 and 1908 by Pozzo Construction. The ground floor was home to several shops whilst the upper hosted banquets, dances, meetings, opera performances, and weddings. On Sundays, visitors were treated to performances by Pete Pontrelli’s Orchestra. In 1932 it became the Plaza Art Center and artist David Alfaro Siqueiros painted an immediately controversial mural, Tropical America, on its southern wall. The mural wasn’t available for viewing on the day that I visited, but the nearby visitor center was still crowded with a group of toddlers from Hongwanji Child Development Center.
In 1993, the Historic Italian Hall Foundation was incorporated with the aim of raising money for the Italian Hall’s restoration and opening the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. For the past few years, the group has also organized an annual Taste of Italy. I poked my head inside, but it’s currently being restored and I didn’t bring a hard hat.
The corner of College Street and Broadway has been home to Little Joe’s since 1927. Little Joe’s began as the Italian-American Grocery Company, established at Fifth and Hewitt, by Charley Viotto in 1897. When it moved to its current location, it occupied the ground floor of a three-story hotel. The deli counter evolved into a full-fledged restaurant, named after then co-owner Joe Vivalda. The upper stories of the building were eventually demolished, and the restaurant’s exterior was changed. It was a popular hangout with Hollywood stars, and both Dodgers fans and players.
The restaurant closed in 1998, and it has been slated for demolition since 2007 to make room for a mixed-use development called Blossom Plaza. Although a ceremonial groundbreaking took place in May 2013, this vestige of Little Italy remains for the time being.
The Saint Peter’s Italian Catholic Church congregation was established back in 1904, but the building was constructed between 1946 and 1947 after a 1944 fire destroyed the old church. When I stopped by, someone was kind enough to open up the church to let me poke around the nave for a few minutes and take some pictures.
Next to Saint Peter’s is a steel and concrete sculpture called The Immigrants. Created by Alberto Biasi in 1971, its allegorical figures are intended to symbolize both gratitude and protestation against injustice, the industrialization of immigrant labor, and personal values.
The figures in the sculpture are deliberately abstracted — only the depiction of the hat of an Italian priest and the Italian flag that flies above give any obvious specific indication of the Italian-ness of the monument to all immigrants. In the course of my exploration of Little Italy I heard people speaking Cantonese, Dutch, English, Mandarin, Spanish, and Tagalog, but not a word of Italian.
Casa Italiana was built in 1971. That same year the Casa Italiana Opera Company was founded by Mario Leonetti, and is today the city’s oldest small opera company. On July 27, they’re scheduled to perform opera and jazz pieces to honor the swearing-in of councilman Joe Buscaino at the Little Italy Street Fair, to be held at the Watts Towers. The cultural center was locked when I visited, but I did get to enjoy the site of a replica of the Lupa Capitolina at its entrance.
When Lombardy-born Santo Cambianica founded The San Antonio Winery in 1917, Los Angeles was home to 92 bonded wineries. Prohibition, enacted in 1920, prompted occupational changes for most vintners. Some survived by selling legal grape concentrates that fueled a robust bootlegging industry.
The San Antonio Winery survived by producing communion wine. Nowadays its focus has been expanded to higher quality wines and the building is home to a restaurant, gift shop, and banquet hall.
Lanza Brothers Market was established in Lincoln Heights in 1926. Family patriarch John Lanza was born in Italy around 1866 and immigrated to the US in 1898. Lanza and his Italian-born wife, Phyllis, their children, grandchildren, and several in-laws, lived in several residences on the same block as the market. In the 1920s the block was home to at least three related Italian businesses. I’m not sure if even Lanza Bros is still Italian-owned, but they still have a popular deli counter that is under the watch of a Dean Martin figurine.
In the 1920s, Puglia-born Domenic Pontrelli opened the Eastside Market in Lincoln Heights. In 1929 he and Joe Campagna moved to a new, larger location in Victor Heights, on a stretch of Alpine Street that was home to three other Italian markets. Years later Pontrelli’s son-in-law launched Pontrelli & Laricchia Sausage Company from the building, which eventually moved to a larger location in 1973. Around that time former clean-up boy for the sausage company, Johnny Angiuli, took over the market with his brother, a former delivery driver, and reorganized the establishment around a new deli counter. When I visited, as I ate my sandwich, a steady stream of customers grabbed food and chummily bantered over the counter.
Little Italy’s diminishment was in some ways caused by the comparative ease with which Italian-Americans have always assimilated into mostly Catholic Los Angeles. After establishing themselves in Little Italy, many Italian Angelenos soon relocated to communities further east and north. But Little Italy lives on not just in their memories, but in the very tangible monuments that one can still experience firsthand.