Little Italy
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  Posted December 2nd, 2015 by Zdenko  in Edmonton | 4 comments

Edmonton life

By: Zdenko Kahlina

Viva l’Italia
When a city has a Little Italy, it’s a clue there’s enough Italians culture in town. That holds true for Edmonton, which has a small, spread out Italian population and yet boasts a thriving Little Italy in the inner city of McCauley neighborhood.

Gate of Little Italy on 95th Street in Edmonton – Benvenutti (Welcome) to Little Italy

 Coffee bars, deli, bakery, imported groceries, wine grapes – 95 Street is a mecca for the city’s Italian community in which to shop and socialize. And when an international soccer is playing on TV, crowds cram into the area to cheer on the Italian team, win or lose.

95th Street or ‘Via Italia’

Good selection of Italian businesses on ‘Via Italia’

Little Italy
The heart of Edmonton’s Little Italy comprises the few square blocks of inner-city Edmonton between 107 Avenue to 118 Avenue and between 93 Street and 95 Street. As an ethnic neighborhood, it came into being with the post-World War II wave of immigration, which saw the Italian population of Edmonton grow from several thousand in the early 1950s to an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 by the late 1990s. These figures differ slightly from the Canadian census. The statistics did not capture second and third generation Italian-Canadians.

Renaissance in Little Italy
There was a time when Old Strathcona was run down and derelict. That portion of 124 Street from Jasper Avenue to 109 Avenue was all second-hand appliance stores. Railtown (just west of the downtown) was a junk-filled abandoned rail yard. All were rejuvenated and revitalized.

Matteo Saccomanno’s Sorrentino’s Little Italy, Santos & Joe Cardamone’s Santos Restaurant, Pino brothers’ (Tony and Peter) Great West Foods (now Brew for Less) and, for about 10 years, Stan Cerra’s TraAmici Cafe Bar, are neighborhood fixtures. From that strong base, Little Italy today is in the midst of transformation. Now it’s Little Italy’s turn. Little Italy runs up 95 Street from 107 Avenue to 110 Avenue. The ‘hood extends from 92 Street to 96 Street. Contrary to some of the previously mentioned recovery projects, Little Italy started out way ahead of the game.

Variety is the spice of life
Little Italy was, is, and always will be, a cultural mosaic. Its most visible community members are the older, retired Italian men who spend their waking hours drinking espresso, watching soccer together on TV and betting on the ponies at La Dolce Vita, Santos and TraAmici. Next up is the latest wave of hard-working immigrants, living in surrounding inexpensive rental properties. The African community, the Romanians, Bosnians and Czechs are quite at home in Little Italy.

This Serbian ‘Kafana’ also found its place in Little Italy.

The zone has never been seedy. But it’s never been a tourist destination. It’s always been a transition zone between the inner city and post-Second World War suburbs. The street was a little dusty, with junk in the corners, with lost souls asking for change or selling their bodies. The occasional flophouse or drug house cast a minor blight over the community as a whole.

Then things began to really change. The beat cops did a terrific job of cleaning up the low-life. The community jumped on the garbage issue. Giovanni Caboto Park, thanks to a determined local effort, is being remade into a most beautiful and well-used park. As house prices rose around the city, Little Italy began to be seen in a different light.

“Young couples saw a lot to like,” says Harry Jewell, proprietor of the Jewell of the Tile flooring, one of the pleasing new stores reflecting the change. “We’re close to downtown, with inexpensive character houses to fix up … and a neighborhood on the upswing.”

Suddenly, Little Italy is an address of choice for young adults and families seeking a distinctive, urban lifestyle… with a real house, not a condo.

The Spinellis
The Spinelli family’s Italian Centre Shop has long been its bustling anchor, the late Frank Spinelli the community’s most eminent citizen. The Spinellis – Teresa, her mother, her aunt – never left Little Italy, building their new homes on existing lots. But for most of the original Italian immigrants, making it meant a split-level in Castle Downs. Now their kids and grown-up grandchildren are leaving the white-bread suburbs to settle back in the pasta ‘hood where Nonno and Nonna first lived.

“The son of my dad’s best friend Frank, Adamo Rossi … he’s back,” says Teresa. “There’s many more like him.” For Italians, delicious, nutritious, bountiful meals are a way of life, and the dining table is where they bond. This store is where families come together, friends are found, memories are made, and business is done at the same time.

Italian Centre Shop (Spinelli’s)

Italian Centre Shop
When you step into the Italian Centre Shop you’ll find the inviting, friendly atmosphere, knowledgeable staff, and plenty of cultural European charm. Their selection of bakery goods, deli meats, cheeses, spices, and gluten-free products are second to none. They also offer a wide variety of European health & beauty products, house wares, pasta machines, cappuccino makers, and wine making supplies. I always go there to stack up on Croatian chocolates, cookies and Italian sausages and their cheese.

Deli section at Spinellis

Great selection of Vegetables

Café & in store Bakery

Bakery with great selection of cakes

Italian Centre Shop has been a destination for the Italian community since 1961. The Spinelli family is responsible for helping to introduce Edmontonians to Italian products. Their stores (their second store is on the south side) are family-run and community minded, traditional and contemporary, friendly and social – and waiting for you!

Welcome to Spinelli’s Bar Italia…
Spinelli’s Bar Italia is a coffee shop attached to the Italian Centre Shop (or Spinelli’s) on 95 St. in Little Italy. Before it’s current incarnation it was another cafe called ‘Tra Amici’, which was essentially the same. Bar Italia is owned by the same Spinelli family that owns the big store.

Spinelli bar on 95th Street with outside tables on the sidewalk

Bar Italia is a fair size, with about 10 or so tables. They also put a few tables outside in the summer. There are some paintings on the walls of Italy, as well as your standard World Cup/football memorabilia. It is pretty basic as far as decor goes. The thing I love about it here are the prices! Cheap! I don’t usually drink coffee, but they have a big selection of coffee, cappuccino, espresso, etc.

Besides specialty coffees and teas, they also have a wide variety of cold drinks and delicious Dorgel Italian gelato. You may be surprised to know there is a legacy behind these cafés. Franco Spinelli was the first people to sell cappuccinos and lattes in Edmonton and his first coffee shop was called ‘Bar Italia’. To honor him, new cafés was named ‘Spinelli’s Bar Italia’. Spinelli’s Bar Italia in Little Italy is open for business and it totally rules! It has set the mark for other cafes.

Mr. Spinelli is Edmonton’s legend – his monument in Giovanni Caboto Park

They have a few TVs up that are always playing soccer (usually on the weekend) or some other sports. Try to go here during the World Cup or some other big tournament, but get there early! The customers are always varied and interesting – older Italian folks, young folks, families, people taking a break from their shopping. All in all, a very relaxed, inexpensive place to spend some time and catch up with friends or family. You’ll be able to visit and relax in an ambience full of warmth and tradition, and you’ll be glad you dropped in.

Giovanni Caboto Park in Little Italy

New look of Little Italy
Besides Harry’s Jewell of the Tile, new shops reflect the new-look neighborhood. Zocalo, a block south of the Italian Centre, is the leader of the new wave. It’s a self-described “courtyard lifestyle store,” a gift, flower, garden centre and cappuccino bar (one long wood table, where all the customers sit and sip).

Zocalo – courtyard lifestyle store

“We had lived here and liked it,” says co-owner Ken Bregenser of buying the property and opening the store in 2003. “We saw an area close to downtown, with an anchor in the Italian Centre, a lower-cost neighborhood where artists can be at home.” Next door is the Yoga Centre. Just down the street, the Pino brothers have built an affordable housing complex, with street front retail. While there’s change and novelty, the essential character of Little Italy is not threatened.

All the resident groups are comfortable with one another. All welcome the young professionals snapping up area homes. And folks still come to Little Italy from all over town.

“I have a good downtown clientele,” says former Eskimo Emilio Fraietta, who’s helping out at La Dolce Vita. “They come here for REAL coffee, not that Starbucks stuff!”

“It’s all to the good,” says Teresa, who’s expanding the Italian Centre by 20% to handle increased business. “We’re all happy to see young families moving in. It’s a good area. I’ve spent my life here. I’ve never been robbed or mugged. My car has never been stolen or broken into. “It’s just so nice to see the city rediscover us.”

La Dolce Vita
I stopped in to La Dolce Vita just once and it was like walking into… I’m not even sure. It’s something you could only imagine existing in the olden days to be honest.

La Dolce Vita Café & Bar on 95th Street

It’s was a tiny, cozy place but full of guys (mostly older men) playing cards and watching TV. It’s like a guys only club, there were no women here. They have good coffee which you can take to go if you feel out of place. The place was kind of funny. It just seemed like a bunch of older men gathering to get away from their wives to just do guy things. Things like swearing and arguing and cheering and drinking an espresso…

Yeah… the last part didn’t quite make sense in my brain either but it was happening and it was entertaining.

This is a blast into the old world, right on the edge of Edmonton’s downtown in Little Italy. If you’re a woman, which I am, and you come here, which I did, you will experience being looked at in a way in which, you are, perhaps, unaccustomed. Woman as a divine object of appreciation is alive and well here in this transplanted little Italy. Yet, there’s a feeling you’ve stepped into a male sphere where women aren’t barred, but don’t really belong; divine intruders catching man in the act of being collectively male, in all their card-playing, sports watching, espresso-sipping, one-uping, shit-talking, back-slapping glory. Don’t get me wrong, I love it! But the coin has two sides, and I’m glad to just stop in for great coffee, a gelato perhaps, a few ego boosts, and I’m on my merry modern, North Western way. Fine coffee, superb service. Step outside the Starbucks box and taste the difference.

Italian Church on 111 Avenue – Santa Maria Goretti

Italian Catholics in Edmonton worship, socialize and practice their culture at the Santa Maria Goretti Vhurch in the older McCauley neighbourhood.

Next to the church is Italian Cultural Centre Santa Maria Goretti

Real Italian pizza, in Edmonton?”
Go to the pizza section in the phone book. You know it, you’ve been there. Grab page 1 with it’s listing for AAAA AAble DEEEEEEEEP Dish, go to Zorba’s 3for1 at the end, and pull hard. (Note to TA editors, I just made those names up). Tear out every listing, and rely instead on one pizza place from now on. Famoso.

Took the family to Edmonton for the weekend. Got hungry, as happens. Thought of going outside in minus 20 friggin’ Celsius. Then came to our senses and decided to order pizza to the hotel. A quick search through the previously mentioned pizza section in the phone book left us flat. So, we asked Prof. Google for a suggestion. Famoso turned up promising “REAL” Italian pizza. I laughed. No such thing in Edmonton. HA! Not possible.

Hidden surprise: Tony’s pizza
Located near Little Italy, Tony’s Pizza (Palace) is a favorite of all pro teams here and visiting. Design your own pizza or ask for one named after ME, a customer — Imagine.: half the cheese, crisp crust, handfulls of fresh basil and garlic, $20 extra large! House salad is excellently spiced if simply made: lettuce, feta, red onion slices,and tomatoes..

Tony’s Pizza place at 96th Street and 111 Avenue

Ale on tap is a bargain; mizzuble house wine and coffee are NOT. Service is good-humored if sometimes goofy. Chef Steve is perfect, Tony’s kids and nephews run the joint like a family home in South Philly. My Italian mom made pizza like theirs. Veal is a great filling meal. Desserts are made elsewhere and should stay there, but who cares when you are full-to-bursting from great pizza? It is comfort food and a comforting bargain, too. (And the other great pizzeria in town? Tony’s former partner — and his family! Shhhh!)

The Tony’s Pizza Legacy
It all began in the late 1940′s in the cultural city of Cosenza, Italy. Tony Mazzotta Sr. embarked on his long journey within the food and restaurant industry. He soon encountered his true calling – the art of fine pizza! In 1959, he joined his family in Canada were he worked in various hotels one being the famous

Hotel Macdonald as a sue chef gaining a great deal of experience. By 1964, he decided to pursue his dream of running his own restaurant and decided to move to New York. Once there Tony found and married the women who welcomed him into her heart as well into her family trade of fine pizza making. In 1965, Tony opened his first of many restaurants on Gun hill Road in the north Bronx, New York. As his success began to unfold, he became the proud father of his eldest child Rosanna, and by 1971 Silverio: his second child was born. During this time he could boast about his three successful Tony’s Pizza Palace locations throughout the New York

To further Tony’s success, Tony expanded his business venture in 1974 by opening a Tony’s Pizza Palace in Edmonton Alberta on 118 ave and Fort road. In 1979 Tony decided that Canada, the country that first captured his heart would be his permanent home and moved his entire family back to Edmonton. In 1981 another joy was born, a second son Anthony Jr. Little did Tony Know that this would create his own legacy.

In 1986, the now world famous Tony’s Pizza Palace was relocated to 96th st and 111 Ave. By Now, Tony Sr. was the delighted “Papa” of three and instantaneously began to further his legacy by training his matured eldest son Silverio to follow in his footsteps of fine pizza making. In 1993, Silverio was marked as Tony Sr. protégé, who enriched the family business with fresh ideas and a strong spirit. In 1997, the last piece of his legacy was puzzled together, when Anthony (“Tony Jr.”) chose to join the team. With his youth and modern ideas, this legacy was completed.

With this established Pizzeria, Tony Sr. felt confident that his dream lay in the trusting hands of his sons, who would continue the legacy and sustain it within the Mazzotta Family.

Typical Italian style house in Little Italy

Typical Italian style houses on 96th Street

In present times, this once traditional Pizzeria has evolved into a classical home for not only Tony’s family, but also for the dedicated supporters of his legacy. This is why they are grateful for their guests, who appreciate the traditional yet unique cuisine, the warm and comforting ambience and the genuine service. This perfect combination is what makes the Tony’s Pizza Legacy everlasting.

New mural unveiled in Little Italy

Edmonton’s Little Italy can now be reminded of how local winemakers fought an Alberta government that banned them from keeping their homemade spirits back in the 1960s.

Hundreds of Edmontonians filled the streets of Little Italy Friday to catch a glimpse of a new Italian mural paying tribute to those winemakers. The colorful 63-square-foot mosaic mural was painted on a wall of the 10878 95 St. Italian Centre Shop.

For store-owner Teresa Spinelli, the mural is a part of her family’s history as the piece is a rendition of a similar mural painted by local artist Alberto Fontana who displayed it on the side of the Spinelli home in the 1960s.

“It’s really important because…I live here in the neighborhood, I’ve been here my whole life, I was born here and it means a lot to me,” says Spinelli.

The mosaic depicts three women — one holding baskets of grapes — walking in an orchard at, what appears to be, a winery.

“I based the whole thing off of the bylaws of the time that said we could make the wine, but could not drink it,” says Fontana.

The latest piece was a collaborative effort between Erin Pankratz-Smith, who is the artist behind the new Edmonton International Airport’s mural, and Theodora Harasymiw.

Giovanni Caboto Park in Little Italy

 The two worked tirelessly for roughly 200 hours over a period of two months. The mosaic contains between 3,000 to 4,000 hand-cut tiles or “tesserae” made of glass and porcelain, and peppered with gold. Pedestrians stopped to marvel at the work but the biggest praise came from the original artist himself.

“I think the artists did a terrific job,” says Fontana. “They managed to capture the feelings and the colors of the original mural.”

Teresa Spinelli unveils the new mosaic mural on the Italian Centre Shop. Little Italy’s newest residents are ten feet tall, made of thousands of bits of glass and set to pretty up our City. Three voluptuous Tuscan beauties carrying a bounty of harvested grapes, olive oil and wheat are the main feature of a new mosaic to be unveiled by The Italian Centre Shop’s owner Teresa Spinelli and other dignitaries on Friday July 6th at 10 am. The design is inspired by a mural hung fifty year’s ago by Teresa’s father Franco in his campaign to lift a Provincial ban on homemade wine. The words on the wall, “You can make wine, but cannot keep it,” refers to a Prohibition-era ban on storing alcohol. Thanks to his efforts, home brewing has been legal since 1964. July 6, 2012

Have a good and healthy season. 

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4 comments to “Little Italy”

  1. Comment by iPhone:

    Wow! This can be one of the most helpful blogs… I’ve ever arrived across on this subject. Good for you. Edmonton need people like you… keep on writing!
    Basically Fantastic. Love it…

  2. Comment by Jessy:

    Beautiful blog with nice informational content. This is really interesting and informative post. I am from Edmonton, so I know what you’re talking about… little Italy rocks!!!
    good job! keep it up, hope to read more of your other updates. Thanks for this nice sharing.

  3. Comment by Mary Medurecan:

    Zdenko, what a fantastic piece! It brings back so many memories for me since my parents as new immigrants to Canada (1957) settled in the McCauley area (109 Ave. & 96 St.). This is where I spent my childhood. Playing in ‘the park’ (Giovanni Caboto), calling Teresa and her late brother Peter friends. Friends with whom we played with and had attended Sacred Heart School together. Amazing, since I haven’t taken the time in years to quite appreciate the area for what it is/was. As always Zdenko – thank you! A true eye-opener for me…

  4. Comment by Mina Cangianiello:

    I enjoyed reading your blog, it brought back so many memories. I moved to Edmonton with my boyfriend at the time, that was 1980, knowing absolutely no one, our favorite place was going to Spinelli’s on saturday, to shop for their deliscious deli meats, then we would go to Sceppa’s for a piece of pizza, sundays if weather permitted we would go to Spinelli and pack a picnic with everything italian to eat.

    I remember the hustle an bustle of the store. Also remember Mr Spinelli loud voice. Caboto Park sure has changed. I moved away from Edmonton in 87 but I still remember the first hood I visited and missed over the years and that is little Italy in Edmonton… planning a trip down memmory lane soon…

    un espresso e svogliatella..grazie

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