The ship Cristoforo Colombo was docked in the bay of Naples, Italy. May 20th was a warm day, the sun beating on the passengers patiently waiting for their turn to the ramp that would take them inside the huge vessel bounded for New York City. Antonio Di Cicco was one of the passengers waiting in line for what must have been a journey filled with anxiety and uncertainties.
From this verse onward we’re going to call him Tony, the American adopted name. This could be another typical story about an Italian immigrant leaving the country seeking a better tomorrow, but it has more, and you’ll see further why I decided to write about Tony.
The Cristoforo Colombo arrived at Pier 42 West eight days later on May 28, 1955. Tony was 20 years old, a young man filled with energy, self-assurance, and not at all intimidated. The American dream began in Rhode Island with a mixed bag of the low-paying job as a construction helper, followed by a jeweler polisher at UNCAS, a company owned and operated by Italians, who hired many “freshly arrived” Italians. Uncas headquarter was located at the end of Atwells Avenue, near Valley Street toward Manton Avenue, not far from the center of Rhode Island’s Little Italy known across the country as Federal Hill. Just like any ethnic group, Italians sought places where the rest of the compatriots were living, almost like redesigning the life they had left behind but, in a brand, new context. Living abroad was already difficult, due to integration and language assimilation, not to mention the social and economic disparity that confronted them every day, and adjusting was not always an easy task. But just like many of the resilient Italians, Tony found his route, secured a good apartment, while the job at Uncas began to pay well. He earned much more than most of the low-paying group because of the piece-work system that was in place-the more rings you polish the more you make. His mother eventually joined him, and with his brother Carmelo, the reunification of the family was, partially completed. His father remained in Italy, working for the local municipality.
Tony was born on October 4th, 1935 in the town of Sant’Ambrogio in the province of Cassino, southern territory of the Lazio region, near the river Garigliano. Early life took him to spend about 3 years in Albania, in the city of Durazzo. His father at the time was employed with the Italian government and stationed there, and to avoid the distancing from his family, decided to keep everyone together. Second World War had just begun, and Albania provided a safe refuge from the bellicose confrontations.
One bright morning Tony walked into Uncas for the daily shift and noticed a sign posted on a blackboard. A food store on Federal Hill was looking for young, energetic Italians to be hired as stock boys. Later in the evening, Tony paid a visit to the store and after an informal interview, he was hired. Gregory Sabatini owned and operated Gregory’s Colonial Foods, selling basic Italian imports, cold cuts, cheeses, and dry goods. The store had been on the Hill since 1920, providing ingredients for the packed Italian community and their cooking rituals. In those days the Hill counted about 40,000 residents, plenty of food stores, butcher shops, ice cream parlors topped with a daily outdoor market on Balbo Avenue where vendors lined up their wooden carts selling anything from fresh chicken, fresh fish, fruits and produce. Think of it as an elaborate outdoor supermarket. Freshly slaughtered pigs, cows, and goats hanging from the butcher’s front door, the place was a toy house for anyone into cooking, and of course, raising a family. Italian food ingredients at the time were very marginal, just one olive oil was available, some brands of second-quality dry pasta, canned tomatoes of mediocre standards, and certainly no balsamic vinegar or some of those great cheeses and condiments we find today. Italian food regionality had not arrived yet, but the immigrants were thankful that at least they were able to connect home through some food memories. This was the time when many new dishes were created and eventually enrolled in what we call today “American-Italian Cuisine”. Dishes created in Italy brought here by the immigrants but altered according to local ingredients availability and overall taste.
Life was running without major obstacles. Tony kept working long hours in the store, learning the trade, hoping to climb to another level soon. While all of this was happening, he realized that being alone was no fun. He needed a partner in life. Rooted in old world traditions, Tony returned to Italy seeking a soulmate that could accompany him in the arduous journey toward the American dream. It was 1961, just about 6 years after he had arrived in NY. Through several local connections, he was able to meet a young lady living in the nearby farm town of Sant’ Apollinare, not far from Sant’Ambrogio, and in less than 4 months he was married. Elina Costantino was barely 17 years old and her dad signed for the marriage agreement because Elina was underage. Angelic, beautiful and timid, Elina joined Tony and together returned to the States and started a family. Gregory’s Colonial Food store was doing well, but the aging owner was contemplating retiring. He deeply valued Tony’s sense of responsibility, discipline, and loyalty, and offered the opportunity to purchase the business from him. After some financial considerations, Tony decided to buy the entity as well as the real estate, and after a lengthy transaction, on July 1st, 1969, renamed the location Tony’s Colonial Foods. The store on 311 Atwells Avenue, was small in size, but it served the purpose of accommodating the alimentary needs of the local community. In the early seventies, the state of Rhode Island was going through a transformational change as far as gastronomy. As new waves of immigrants reached its shores the need of expanding became a matter of survival. It was the time when the demand for newer and exotics foods was expanding, consumers traveled more, expanded their food knowledge, and expected to find the new flavors on the shelves. This also coincided with the birth of new restaurants, led by energetic chefs, seeking leadership, on the quest of establishing the new hot spot in town. Federal Hill was booming, thanks also to Buddy Cianci, the mayor of the city who fully embraced the resurgence, by marketing Ward 13 across America as one of the most important Italian immigration colonies. Tony Di Cicco was well-aware of the occurring changes and led the resurgence by reinventing himself and his business. He traveled to Italy very often, to attend food conferences and trade shows, seeking new and innovative products for the store. Soon after the shelves were filled with the latest goodies, such as the finest in dry pasta, San Marzano Tomatoes, fresh and aged cheeses, olives from unusual regions, the finest olive oils and all the best confections available. It was certainly a gamble, not certain if the community was receptive to the changes. High-quality foods demanded higher prices offered to a community that was still trailing on the economic scale. Tony gambled on the novelty, establishing himself as an ambassador of the new Italian foods in the state. Quality ingredients paired well with his rich knowledge about food history and geography turned Tony Colonial foods from a normal grocery store to an epicurean landmark. Consumers came from all over New England, and eventually, the state’s residents embraced the fresh and innovative concept. Rhode Islanders were well-known for being food-cautious, the British slogan “apple pie and ice cream” was prevalent here. Rhode Islanders did not take too many chances when it came to the food they did not recognize; they were afflicted by the “wait and see syndrome”. Eventually, they came around and supported the idea in full.
To understand better: I opened a restaurant in the ’80s in the town of East Greenwich, designed with rich decor, expensive chairs, bone china from Portugal and cutlery from Italy. The menu was written in grammatical Italian and properly translated in English. The cuisine was fresh, creative, regionalized and Avant-guard. I became a quick sensation across the land, featured in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other prominent publications. But it took 7 years before the Providence Journal wrote an article on the restaurant and on myself. That is called Apple pie and ice cream!
Tony Di Cicco confronted similar fate, but his vision, energy, and endurance positioned his message in the primary gate. He never looked at or copied anyone else. He just led his cultural train to the station. Tony was a pioneer, an undisputed leader in his field, one that opened the doors to the many food concepts that followed. He was the initial ambassador that led the resurgence, the man whose beliefs and sense of food morality won the trust of the consumer.
He often says, “give customers the best quality and explain why”. People want to be educated on food, and education has an identical value of quality. They go together and cannot be sold separately.
Well, many years have gone by since 1969. Tony’s Colonial Foods is still on 311 Atwells Avenue, the business is now in the hands of his lovely daughter, who continues with the same intensity and quality-driven philosophy. She can always rely on her father to open the doors at 8.30 am, every single day. She can always rely on him to be behind the counter, educating consumers on the new flavors and the latest pasta sensation. Tony will turn 85 in October 2020. The journey filled with anxiety and uncertainties in 1955, developed into an immeasurable success, one that he shares with his omnipresent wife Elina, who has stood by him in any weather.
And yes the American dream for a better tomorrow was accomplished, but a legacy was also established. Tony Di Cicco has been a pioneer in the food world in Rhode Island and this chronology is a small token of appreciation from all of us who make good food our life. Chef W