By Tom Cesarini
The Convivio Now and Again Series comprises oral histories from Italian-community members. In this excerpt from an interview with Little Italy resident Andy Asaro, he discusses some of the character behind Little Italy of long ago.
In the Disney-Pixar film “Up,” the elder protagonist refuses to give up his longtime home to commercial developers, and when he finally must leave, his journey begins as he takes his house with him by helium balloons in great animated fashion. I was reminded of this Disney character when I conducted an oral history with longtime Little Italy resident Andy Asaro as I sat in his family home on India Street and made note of the rampant commercial redevelopment all around him. In contrast to his “Up” curmudgeon counterpart, Andy’s affable nature has made him a fixture in the Italian neighborhood.
Andy recalls the many tastes, smells and sounds of the Italian neighborhood, which still form many of the memories of his youth. As he describes, for instance, “When my dad came home from fishing or my uncles would come over or whatever and they[‘d] recap the trip — while they were doing , everybody would have a shot of whiskey, and everybody was real oiled by the time they were done — either that or wine. And then toward the early ’50s, they got a liking for Manhattans, so I became the official, one of the official, Manhattan makers. I got really proficient at making Manhattans, and I still like them to this day. We made wine every year, and I just could not stand the taste of wine. We had booze all over the house, and [I] never touched it — never — because I didn’t like it. But once I turned about 22, 23 my taste buds completely changed.”
Andy laughs at that remark, and he continues by going into detail about winemaking, an important activity for his family. “I used to love to make wine. We used to either go to Patella or go up to Escondido or Ramona. Patella was a wholesale produce man down on J Street, and so we’d order the grapes from him. We’d order about 1,200, 1,400, 1,500 pounds. So my grandfather had the press and the grinder, so we’d do it all here and squeeze it out in the garage and then bring it down [to] the cellar and put the wine in the barrels down there. Once, I almost blew myself up because they used to sell used whiskey barrels because they would use them once and then they’d put them up for sale. So they were ordinarily very cheap — $8, $9, $10 a barrel. So you’d wash the barrel out, and then you would, if it had been used for wine or whatever, you[‘d] burn a sulfur stick in there and top it up so it would kill all of whatever bacteria was in there. So you’d fumigate it, basically. So you had to be careful with the whiskey barrels because the fumes of the whiskey were still in there even though you washed it out. If you [tried] to burn a sulfur stick in there without washing it out first, the thing would explode. Well, apparently I didn’t wash it well enough. The sulfur stick — I put it in there, and it went vroom! It didn’t blow up, fortunately. And around the whole neighborhood during that season all the gutters would be running red. And the smell [of the wine was] tremendous.”
Other smells — the “aroma,” of the neighborhood, Andy says, included the fresh bread from the many bakeries around town: Roma Bakery, Frank’s Bakery, Quality Bakery, and Victor Lupini’s Bakery. And he recalls Ben Hur Coffee and Sun Spices. About Ben Hur Coffee, Andy remembers, “My grandmother’s house was right behind it. [Ben Hur Coffee] had this giant hopper on the roof, and they used to roast coffee in there and then grind it and put it in bags and take it out. When they roasted coffee — what a smell, whoa — you just couldn’t believe it. Yeah — just terrific.”