For some reason, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was crazy enough to pay me to write this story for them. No accounting for taste, I suppose.
But there is one thing you won’t know from reading it. My favorite paragraphs are the ones about the old grocerias long gone from Pittsburgh’s Little Italy.
I got the idea for this wandering around Bloomfield not too long after I moved to Pittsburgh in October. Driving in to the neighborhood from the Bloomfield Bridge or Liberty Avenue, you can’t help but notice the giant “Little Italy” sign.
So I started walking around. Just looking. Wondering how much of that was branding and how much was a real thing. Reading business signs. Listening for accents. Following my nose.
And then I started talking to people. Just random people on the street. Asking questions, having them point things out to me.
And then I walked through the doors at Donatelli’s and the Groceria and couldn’t help but be struck by the differences. More talking to people. More questions.
And I realized I had a story to tell.
As much as I loved meeting Rose Marie and Paul and listening to them tell me their stories — and as much fun as I had writing it, because I’m kind of a dork like that — I’m a digger at heart. I love old documents, research — history. I could have written this without empirical evidence there used to be more grocerias there — I mean, there just were, right?
But where? And how many? With whose names on them? And when, exactly?
So I went to the archives at the Heinz History Center in the Strip. Found some background stuff on the neighborhood, which was all well and good. But then I got my grubby little hands on what I really wanted: old city directories. Giant, old, somewhat-stinky books that listed every business in Pittsburgh for a given year.
My research on Bloomfield’s demographics told me the Italians really started arriving in some numbers around World War I and basically owned the place by the end of World War II. So I pulled the city directories for 1915 and 1945.
For a lot of people, the next part is tedious. I was thrilled. I found the section for grocery stores and read through every last one checking names and addresses. This isn’t perfect — someone named Johnson could still be ethnically Italian or run an Italian grocery store. But it gave me something real. Something I could almost touch.
For me, it’s what brought the story together.