Heart & Soul Little Italy Celebrates Both with its Classic Sense of Neighborhood
Culture can widen the mind and spirit, but it takes a community to bring the two together. Just look at an enclave like Little Italy, where mind and spirit have never been closer. As the Italian cultural center of northeast Ohio — located at the base of Murray Hill, between University Circle and Cleveland Heights on the east side — Little Italy is a place where art, food, faith and frame of mind congregate in the spirit of a classic neighborhood.
“I enjoy the true sense of community and the warmth of the people,” says Father Philip Racco, pastor at the Holy Rosary Church (Little Italy’s epicenter for catholic culture). “For newcomers, it still has that sense of a neighborhood. You walk out the door and you don’t feel estranged. You feel connection.”
Community spirit certainly starts at Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Catholic Church (216.421.2995), the Baroque-styled house of worship, founded in 1892, that still celebrates mass daily. The parish has hosted Little Italy’s biggest celebration for the last 112 years — The Feast of the Assumption — that is a mixture of faith and fun that includes a four-day street fair with rides, food and live music.
“You might say the celebration that happens in the church pours out in the street,” says Father Racco. “The Feast of the Assumption is a celebration of life. Therefore celebrating at the height of summer with the bounty of summer — the food, the festivities and the music — is most appropriate.”
The church’s old-world charm spills out into the community as well, a blend of well-preserved homes, neighborhood bistros and more than 55 artist studios, galleries and boutique shops.
“The neighborhood certainly has its color,” says Jerry Keller of Keller Art Glass (216.721.0314 or http://www.kellerartglass.com) who’s been redefining the warm glass art world for the past 37 years with his glass guitars, mirrors and stained and etched glass windows. “The brick street has turn-of-the-century buildings made of stone with long-standing inhabitants that mix with college students and the newly hip.”
Whether it’s framing, photography, sculpture, painting or glass, Little Italy can probably satisfy your distinctive taste. But, speaking of tastes, what probably draws the most visitors to Little Italy all year around is its amazing variety of bakeries, cafés, bistros and cantinas. Chef Boyardee opened his first restaurant, Il Giardino d’Italia, in Little Italy in the 1940s, and today the neighborhood still has some of the best Italian eateries in Ohio, including the oldest restaurant in Cleveland, Guarino’s established in 1918 (216.231.3100).
“Our cooking today is as it was 90 years ago,” says owner Nancy Phillips, long time family friend of the original Guarinos and owner for 25 years. “And the [décor] style is still Victorian — much as it looked in 1918. One of my seven children tells me I should change it. I said I’m not changing anything. This is the way it was when I was a little girl and it’s staying this way. Sometimes people like to step back in history. Sometimes we’re in too much of a hurry to black-and-white tile everything — to glass everything — to polyurethane everything. People forget about the old woods and the antiques. And here it’s all still this way.”
Visiting Little Italy today is not so different than when immigrant stone cutters, masons and bricklayers, carving local streets and cemetery stones, started the community in 1885. The people have changed, the businesses have evolved, the church has receded and grown, but Little Italy still retains its nostalgic neighborhood charm and spirit. – Submitted by guest blogger Keith Gribbins