Every time I asked locals about the Italian neighborhood in Keene, New Hampshire, they answered with a question: the Italian what? Granted, most of those I asked grew up elsewhere. But even natives, on the whole, couldn’t tell me much. They had heard of the Italian Club, but they couldn’t say exactly where it might be. And Keene is a small city.
At one of its busiest intersections stands a clue, a two story house with “Antonio Carbone 1925" neatly lettered over the front door. When I first saw that doorway, and the Carbone Window and Awning Company in the next building, I felt a surge of familiarity. Something about the lettering, the tidy working class houses, the ethnicity, reminded me of the immigrant families I grew up with.
Soon after, I heard that McDonald’s was built on the land formerly occupied by Pete’s, a neighborhood spaghetti joint. Too many geographic coincidences, I thought. So I wasn’t surprised when I detoured into the streets behind Carbone’s and saw front yard shrines to the Virgin, neat squadrons of tomato stakes, number ten cans on doorsteps with seedlings emerging, dozens of plastic chairs around tables on porches and decks. It suddenly all made sense; and it was a sense of home.
The neighborhood has always been home to Dennis DiTullio and nobody loves it more. He grew up on Speaker Street in the house his mother, Helen, still lives in. It’s just around the corner from his house on Cobb. But, on one Sunday afternoon, like every Sunday afternoon, we reached Mrs. DiTullio’s’s by cutting through the back yard next door, where Dennis and Laura’s daughter Angela lives.
The first day I visited the neighborhood, Dennis and I walked a couple of blocks, up Cady Street over to Hooper, to see his cousin, Victor Dintino. Kids flew in and out of the screen door, down the steps from the deck, out to the swings in the backyard like a swarm of mosquitoes. Vic and Nancy Dintino, grandparents to most of the kids, have “always!”-- Dennis says as he cuts the air at chest height-- “always, had an open door. You never have any idea who you’re going to find at that house.”
When Dennis, his son, Anthony, and I entered the house, the crowd of family squeezed around the table tried to make room for us, to no avail. Besides, Vic was already on his feet, pouring us wine and ushering us out to the table on the deck. A party ensued when the Dintinos heard that I had come to make wine with them. Vic and his son, David, brought out bottle after bottle of their own vintages to sample. I didn’t know how much I could take until a son-in-law fixed me a plateful of linguine.
I’ve been eating homemade marinara sauce my whole life. I am grateful for every meal laid before me, but, like most people, I suffer inferior red sauce badly. Well, to compare most sauces to Vic’s is to compare Sanka to Starbucks. Later, I would learn that Vic Dintino could serve spaghetti and meatballs to 300 with about two hours notice. I think he may have done the pasta course that preceded Christ’s miracle with the loaves and fishes. A son of Abruzzi and Calabria, red sauce and wine run through his veins. So with my first mouthful of his linguine, I thought strangolopreti, a weird Italian term reserved only for dishes succulent enough to “strangle a priest.”
Let me push away from the table for a minute to end any emerging deception. I am not Italian. Never have been. But maybe my Hungarian gypsy instinct helps me decode host cultures, learn their customs, and grant them respect in turn for a seat at their tables, or, in my youth, maybe a date with their daughters. My grandparents came to this country and settled among other immigrants, mostly Italians, so I fall in with them easily.
Before Vic could say goodbye, he disappeared into the high jungle of tomato plants in his garden, then popped out minutes later with about thirty pounds of gnarly-looking tomatoes. (The perfectly shaped ones I had been buying from a local organic farm all summer tasted like balls of yarn compared to these.) Lugging my tomatoes, we skipped over to say goodbye to Dennis’ mom. She handed me a big dish covered with foil and filled with gnocchi that her 84-year-old hands had crafted early that morning. Dennis helped me carry the goods to my car in his driveway. Then he ran in the house and came out with a bottle of wine and a bag full of pears from his tree.
My god, I thought, driving home. I hadn’t been treated like this for twenty years. No, wait, it’s the same when I visit my hometown. Italians never grow out of their largess. The intensity and hospitality increases when they’re together, and this neighborhood keeps them together.
The streets are named after players on the 1912 world champion Red Sox (apart from Cobb) -- Heine Wagner, Hick Cady, Harry Hooper, Tris Speaker and Smoky Joe Wood. The flat, fertile patch of land, bounded on two sides by an elbow in the Ashuelot River, accommodated the Keene Baseball Grounds until the 1920's. Then a couple of Irish speculators bought the parcel and called it Homestead Villa, a name that promised immigrants a sense of comfort, ownership, and upward mobility. The two hunting and fishing cabins squatting on the property commended it as a place where the new settlers could live off the land.
The next time I swung my car into the DiTullio’s’s driveway, the headlights swept over Anthony, bent by the curb, spraying a grape crusher with a garden hose. I hustled over to help him hold it, picking stems out of its studded steel rollers. On that starlit October night, the icy water stung. And the crusher’s oak frame and long crank handle made it a heavy, awkward piece of equipment. But it had made the trip from Abruzzi nearly a hundred years ago and the wine wouldn’t be the same without it.
When Anthony’s great grandfather, Domenic Coppola first got off the train in Keene, he was working on the railroad that connected to Boston. He had come to cut stone, but the railroad needed men and he needed money. So he drove spikes and laid ties and shoveled rocks. But every year at this time, he did what we were doing – picked up his grapes from a railroad siding, fresh from California, and headed for the cellar.
When the neighborhood took root, Italian families also clustered on Butler Court, Foundry Street, and on streets across the river. But, as the first homesteaders died off and nearby Keene State College snapped up their properties, the houses in Homestead Villa became a sanctuary, the core of the community. Today, twenty-eight modest dwellings, most with tiny yards and intensive gardens, cover the neighborhood’s seventeen acres. Coppola’s was one of the first houses to be built, hard by the banks of the Ashuelot.
His son, Joe, is now 88 and lives within a few blocks of where he was raised. He is the eldest of five siblings, and was the only boy. Three of his four sisters still playfully tease Joe about the sleeping arrangements in their three-bedroom house. The parents had one room, Joe had another, and the four girls crammed into the remaining room.
“He was the king!” Helen says. “We shined his shoes and cleaned his room.” Her granddaughter groans at the patriarchy. Dennis laughs. And his uncle Joe sheepishly looks up from his plate and whispers “I was appreciated.” One stipulation, though: Joe shared his room with dozens of sausages hanging above his bed.
Adjacent to the river, the Coppolas found rich soil for the gardens. And all the families found fish in the river and streams, rabbits and deer in the woods, ducks and geese flying overhead. “We didn’t have any money and we didn’t really do anything with money,” John Grossi told me. “We ate the stuff we grew and shot.” They walked to the Catholic church, the rail yard, the quarries and to the mills. They foraged for mushrooms and dandelion greens and berries and God knows what else. The mortar in Dennis and Laura’s chimney is mixed with silt from the river.
That masonry was the work of Clemente “Mindy” DiBernardo, who built the house in 1922, next to his parents’ homestead. He and his neighbors also poured the blocks for the cellar. They took turns helping each other and the original houses can still be identified by their distinctive foundation blocks.
Now Anthony and I were descending the bulkhead stairs, shouldering crates of grapes. I felt the sticky sides of the crate, heard neighbors laughing below, and smacked my head against the low overhang, temporarily blinding me, but I shook off the pain like a tough paisan from eighty years ago.
I didn’t want to whine in the presence of Timmy Carbone, a former football star, then coach, who was tipping grapes into a crusher while his son turned the crank. The low ceiling forced me to crouch, but I found a space for my head between the rafters while taking my turn at the crusher. The grapes, zinfandel, merlot, some carignane and petit syrah looked good going in. They were plump but with enough desiccated bunches – raisins, essentially – to give the juice character.
We worked elbow to elbow in the tiny room, which is part bottling storage, part shrine to nearly a century of wine making. There’s just enough space for two standing barrels, two barrels on their sides, a hundred or so bottles, some empty and some filled with previous years’ wines. Those bottles wear labels made of rough strips of masking tape marked with ballpoint pen – merlot 02, zin 01, muscat 02 – that kind of thing. The pipes overhead are patriotically wrapped in red, white, and green crepe paper. And hanging from nails on the rafters, as if this place isn’t hazardous enough for my noggin, are hundreds of corkscrews, from novelty pulls to picnic tools to menacing pigtailed gadgets. The more wine I sipped, the more I needed a hardhat.
But I kept my head in my work, only occasionally distracted by the robust women depicted on the crate labels, dazzling illustrations that Dennis had used to panel part of the wall I faced while cranking the crusher.
Last year, Anthony’s wine took second place in a regional competition. That fact is noted among the records of pressing dates, rankings, and comments that have been scrawled on the shelving supports, again in ballpoint, over the last twenty years. Anthony’s prize has been the family’s best showing. He poured me a glass and one mouthful sucked me back to the cellars of my youth. It has a low-tannin, smooth, drink-me-til-dawn appeal. No crappy additives. Pure juice, the essence of homemade wine.
The Carbone and DiTullio’s boys and I finished our work, took up our glasses and toasted, a salute. Anthony added, “Well, good job guys. Now it’s up to the grapes... and whatever else.” After a few days, we would press the fermenting mash and transfer the juice to the mother barrels, where it will spend the rest of its working life. During the first week in the mothers, fermentation reminds us of the living culture within. Bubbles rise and a lavender foam slides down the girth of the barrels. And then it falls asleep. That’s when we cork it and, as their tradition demands, Dennis drapes a rosary over the top of the barrel. Into the steel collar he sticks a holy card depicting Saint Rita, patroness of the neediest, a favorite among steerage Italians. She will protect the transformation of fruit to spirits... she and the grape-picking pinups on the wall.
Cooling off under the stars in Dennis’ back yard, the river only a few yards away, it’s easy to see how the river and the railroad tracks once set the borders of this enclave. And it’s also hard to forget that this house arrived by rail, from Sears Roebuck in Chicago. Mindy DiBernardo took a crew to the siding to pick up the shipments, piece by piece. Maybe the wine set loose my imagination, but the recent past comes alive here. I can almost hear the trains. When I cut across Angela’s yard toward Helen’s house, from what was center field to left, I’m tracking down a line drive off the bat of Red Sox slugger Hick Cady. Like the wine in the barrels, much happens out of sight.
In another subterranean haven, the first generation of immigrants built the Marconi Society, officially the Gugliemo Marconi Societa Italiana Di Mutuo Soccorso (William Marconi Italian Society of Mutual Help), a men’s club. The windowless basement serves as the historical and structural foundation for The Keene Italian Club, a private bar and function room upstairs. For the women, the basement of building on Wood Street also houses Societa Italiana Femminile Santa Francesca Romana (Women’s Italian Society of Saint Francesca Romana), named for a Roman aristocrat legendary for her charity.
Although the Italian Club welcomes all nationalities, the Marconi Society requires Italian heritage. With 120 members, the society is now growing by the month, reflecting a boom in the local population and an increasing number of Italian men who like each other’s company and want to preserve their traditions. At their meetings, they wear tri-colored sashes and plan community support events. They award scholarships, buy health insurance, and help families who fall on hard times. After they meet, they eat, and Vic Dintino is usually in the kitchen. The night I visited, the chatter at my table surrounded the upcoming Pumpkin Festival and preparations to raise money by selling meatball sandwiches. The Social Committee will make enough for six hundred sandwiches, and Timmy Carbone will brew sixty-four gallons of minestrone – just like last year.
Should it be any surprise that the kitchen takes up almost half of the society’s square footage? On the night of meatball-making, vats of sauce bubbled on the stove. Meatballs roasted in a multi-tiered oven that had been salvaged from a defunct hotel. By nine o’clock, the temperature in the kitchen had risen to 85 degrees. Around the center butcher block worked six helpers, surrounded by another twenty tasters and happy hangers-on. Kids played red-rover in the empty meeting room while the adults crammed into the hottest space, snacking, sweating, drinking, howling, and loving each other at the top of their lungs.
To survey the scene, I stepped away, into the meeting room. Plaques, banners, and photos line the walls. One plaque lists the founders’ names – many of the same names belonging to the kids locking arms and issuing dares. Over in the corner, two of the founders’ progeny, Michael and Dori Carbone, who are now in their eighties and married sixty-two years, sample the meatballs with their granddaughter, a doctor up from Boston.
I suddenly feel like I’m standing inside a throbbing heart, one that pumps blood,wine, sauce, heritage and pride into gardens and basements and veins. Over five generations this community has changed, yet nothing has died.
The wine barrels and crushers, the recipes, the children carrying the same names, the memories, the very handiwork, the trodden shortcuts, all evoke the daily lives of those who had gone before and bring them, front-and-center, into the midst of the living. They brush the skin and raise goose-flesh through accounts and appearances, like the time Mindy and Sabat DiBernardo materialized at the foot of the newly married DiTullios’ bed. Laura woke Dennis and described a couple she had never seen -- to a tee – welcoming her to the house they had built.
Twenty-six years after his father’s death, Dennis still can’t even speak of him without choking up. He quietly wept throughout our visit to the family graves in the cemetery. Their presence, the bubbling in their kitchens, the kick of their wine, the assurance of their embrace and affection, clings to him. He knows that his people, corralled by the river and the rails, will always be together. Here, he feels their company.
On Halloween night, the neighborhood glows with jack-o-lanterns and porch lights, chirps with toddlers and laughing parents. Dennis and Laura hand out candy at the bottom of their steps, around an inlaid stone map of Italy. Through the shadows pass railroad men and resilient women. In the cellars crouch brothers of the grape and sisters of mercy. The wind rattles through the dry leaves, applauding the boys in flannel and spikes.
And the Ashuelot cradles the neighborhood in the crook of its elbow. With the mill ponds gone, the river runs freely through this intimate quarter. Abruzzese and Calabrese ancestors marvel at a scene they could only imagine -- the abiding gardens, the sheltering trees, the whispering river and the giggles of enduring love. In all of this, nature often takes a turn for the better, and here it takes a turn for home.
Causes Paul Hertneky Supports
Monadock Area Transitional Shelter
Monadnock Humane Society
The Harris Center for Outdoor Education