In 1956, at the age of nineteen, Rosa Morrone was almost past the prime marrying age in her native town, Polla, south of Naples, Italy. Her father was beginning to seriously worry that she wouldn’t marry.
At the same time, Gabriele Morrone, who had left Polla for New York City when he was 14, returned home to marry. But when he arrived, he found that his original bride-to-be had made other arrangements. Gabriele’s eyes turned to Rosa and the two were quickly married.
Rosa, against her wishes, sailed for New York a month earlier than planned. She had hoped to leave in July, on the Andrea Doria. Instead, Rosa sailed with the Cristoforo Colombo and arrived in New York City’s Port Authority on June 20, 1956. The following month, the Andrea Doria collided with another boat on a foggy July night southeast of Nantucket, killing 25 people.
Rosa did not return again to Polla for ten years.
After two years on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, Rosa and Gabriele opened Morrone’s Bakery on East 116th Street, between First and Second Avenues, in a part of town once referred to as New York’s "Third Little Italy."
Forty-three years, seven children and twelve grandchildren later, Rosa, 66, is still the belle of the bakery. She is a small compact woman with short, fiery red hair, brown eyes and a deep voice that booms when customers and friends enter the store. Rosa peppers her heavily accented English with exclamations from her southern dialect, which is slightly rougher sounding than standard Italian. True to the dialects of the Salerno region, Rosa drops the ends of words both in Italian and English. Napoli becomes "Napol," famiglia becomes "famil."
The number of Rosa’s Italian friends still living in the neighborhood is dwindling. Reverend Peter Rofrano, 84, pastor of the Church of Our Lady of St. Carmel on East 115th Street for over 25 years, estimates that, including himself, there are only about 400 Italians or Italian-Americans left in East Harlem.
When Italians started moving to East Harlem in the 1880s, they were resented and bullied by the Irish and German immigrants who then held sway in the neighborhood. Rev. Rofrano says that until about 1916, the Italians prayed in the basement of the church while the Germans and Irish worshipped upstairs.
By the 1930s, the Irish and Germans had abandoned the neighborhood and there were more than 80,000 Italians living on the swath of land running from East 96th to 125th Streets, from Third Avenue to the East River.
The neighborhood used to be divided according to Italian regions and dialects. Rev. Rofrano remembers that in his youth, Northern Italians lived mostly between East 104th and 106th Streets. Calabrian dialects could be heard between East 106th and 108th Streets. Sicilians dominated Ea Sunday 2:18:25 AM 1/5/2003st 107th Street. Neapolitans and "Salernitani" (people from Salerno) lived between East 108th and 116th Streets.
In the 1920s and 1930s, East Harlem was a bustling Little Italy. Rose Pascale, 84, who grew up on 116th Street in East Harlem, says that when she was young the streets were lined with basement businesses where there were baccalà (codfish) soaking in buckets, "limonata" (lemon ice) and bananas sold by the piece. Every family made their own wine with grapes bought at the vegetable market between 101st and 104th Streets. After church on Sundays, groups of friends and families stood together in the street drinking espressos and eating pastries.
But as early as the 1920s, conflict arose between the latest arrivals – the Puerto Ricans – and the Italians. Third Avenue became the dividing line between the two groups, Italians to the east of the line and Puerto Ricans to the west. Violence erupted when that line was crossed.
By the 1960s, the neighborhood had gained a bad reputation – not undeservedly. There had been no thaw in the relations between Italians and Puerto Ricans and a major heroin wholesaling operation on Pleasant Avenue prospered as corrupt city policemen stood by, or in some cases, took part. Local gangsters, mostly of Italian descent, ran the trafficking operation that was only halted in April of 1973 with a dramatic series of arrests.
In the meantime, most of the Italians abandoned the neighborhood. When Gabriele and Rosa Morrone opened their bakery in 1958, there were 20 other bakeries in the neighborhood, most of them Italian. Now Morrone’s is the only Italian bakery left in East Harlem.
A year ago, it appeared that Morrone’s might also become a memory. On October 10, 2000, Gabriele Morrone, a severe diabetic, ended up in the hospital. Then, nine days later, the arch of the bakery’s aging brick oven collapsed. The bakery closed down unexpectedly. Gabriele would not return to work. He later had part of his lower right leg amputated and now spends most of his days at home.
Anthony Morrone, 39, the younger of Rosa and Gabriele’s two sons, had worked alongside his father as a baker since he was a boy and was left with the decision of whether or not to reopen the store. "It was a big decision because, like I said, it’s a tough life." Anthony starts work at 9:00 p.m. and finishes early in the morning, around 7 a.m. He does this seven days a week.
Under the persistent pressure of neighbors and friends who were not happy about switching to soulless supermarket bread, Anthony decided to put in a new oven and to completely renovate the store. Mostly though, the decision was influenced by his parents, "I knew my parents would love to see this place keep going," he said.
Anthony found a brick French oven – a Frigand – while surfing the internet. A French technician flew over to help install it. Anthony, Ricky (a young apprentice from Queens) and the Frenchman used hand signals to communicate. The technician did not speak English and neither Anthony nor Ricky speaks French. Working 12 hours a day, they finished in one week.
Then Anthony gutted and completely renovated the store. Rosa refused to enter the bakery during that period. "It was like a bomb!" she said.
Finally, on February 19, 2001, after being closed for four months, the bakery reopened. People came in droves and a line formed down the block. Many people came because they missed the thick-crusted loaves of sesame semolina, the prosciutto bread and "anisetti" – a sweet biscuit made with anise seeds. Many came to the bakery’s reopening simply because they missed Rosa. According to Anthony, "Everybody looks for her. Without my mom in this place, it wouldn’t survive."
Rosa and the older Italians remaining in the neighborhood are witnesses to the ongoing strugge for territory. In the past ten years, Mexicans have begun to supplant the Puerto Ricans in East Harlem. For several years, especially in the early 1990s, the tension between the two groups rivaled the old tension between Puerto Ricans and Italians.
Now, many of the older Italians are being pushed to leave their apartments by landlords seeking higher rent from new tenants. In the past three or four years, growing numbers of brownstones in what was once the Italian part of East Harlem are being renovated. And judging by the increasing numbers of young middle-class whites moving there, the neighborhood looks to be undergoing yet another population shift.
Jim Parrella, 31, a musician and owner/occupant of a brownstone in East Harlem, has witnessed this most recent transformation. When he moved into the neighborhood in 1993 there were a lot of burned-out buildings and drug-dealers on corners. "General mayhem" reigned the streets, Parella said. But now, most of the drug dealers are off the streets and many of the abandoned buildings have been renovated. Parrella points out that new arrivals are moving into precisely the area that the Italians once occupied. Few have chosen to live further west, on the blocks closer to the subway line on Lexington Avenue.
Perhaps cheap rent is not the only allure. The neighborhood’s gritty, intriguing past and the continued presence of a few of the venerable old Italian establishments – Morrone’s, Rex’s Italian Ices, Rao’s, Andy’s Tavern – may also partially account for the latest settlement of upwardly mobile immigrants.
Amid the endless ebb and flow of people coming and going in East Harlem, one thing is certain. Rosa is not about to pick up and leave, not after crossing the Atlantic and living and working on East 116th Street for nearly 45 years. "Everybody moved. They think that I’m the one, that I gotta move. Everybody went. But I’m still here. They wanted me to go, but I said, ‘No, I’m not going nowhere.’"