Salem’s Little Italy

Some would say that Salem’s Italian neighborhood began in a small room next to a fish market at 27 Front St. in the year 1914. It was then that Rev. Pietro Piemonte began the city’s first Italian Mass with a group of immigrant families who didn’t speak English. According to city records from 1910, about 1,300 people were Italian, 3 percent of the population. Many families had settled into the area around Margin, Endicott, High and Prescott streets.

By 1925, Rev. Piemonte’s congregation had raised enough money to build the St. Mary Italian Church on Margin Street, which quickly became the center of the community.
By the time she was a teenager, Anna Della Monica played organ at the Sunday Masses at St. Mary’s. When she was 16 the church paid to have painters come from Italy to paint Renaissance style frescoes on the sanctuary ceiling. After hearing her practice her music one afternoon, the three men asked her to come back and play for them. 
 “They’d say please come, our angels will be more beautiful if you come,” she says, smiling. “I’d run all the way from school to church and play for them all day and they’d be up on the scaffolding painting.” 
Families came together at St. Mary’s to celebrate traditional Italian feasts, holidays, weddings and births. 
 “I grew up in a household where all they talked about was church, church and church. My whole life revolved around it,” says Della Monica whose father, a stonemason, built a downstairs chapel. 
Going to church was a deeply meaningful experience for Italian families on many levels. It provided them with place for worshiping God, celebrating their heritage, and over the years as they stood in the chapel, they were able to feel close to their ancestors whose names adorned stained-glass windows overhead.

La vita Italiana

Salem’s Little Italy blossomed in the 1930s and early ‘40s. During this time, former St. Mary’s historian Regina Camarda says there were a few hundred families attending church. For these families there were potluck picnics at Centennial Park and religious processions through the streets to celebrate holy days. The Italian community was close-knit and very exclusive. 
“We always thought Endicott Street was the pillar of Salem,” recalls Paul Cultrera, 94, who today lives on Prescott Street. “There were the Italian and Greek people … We never associated with the other kids.” 
Over the years Italian markets sprung up on nearly every street corner in Little Italy, offering old-world specialties like prosciutto, cheeses, barrels of chickpeas and beans and tubs of Sicilian olive. Of these shops, Steve’s Quality Market on Margin Street is the only one left today. At that time the store was in a small wooden building with a long old-fashioned counter behind which were stored bulk quantities of goods.

At that time people would come in and you had to serve them,” recalls owner Steve Ingemi, 85, who was 8 when he started working at his father’s store. “I’d say what do you want, I want a 5-pound bag of sugar, I want this, I want that — that’s the way it was then.”
In those days markets hung prosciutto and smoked cheeses from the ceiling and offered live chickens for sale in crates on the sidewalk that would be slaughtered fresh for Sunday dinner.

Italian traditions were alive and well both at home and in the streets. Former Salem mayor Tony Salvo, who used to visit his grandmother in Little Italy, recalls her trick of being able to cure malocchio, the enviously cast “evil eye,” which Italians believed could cause sickness.

“Anytime we’d get sick we’d say, “Nonna, fa malocchio please!” he recalls. “She’d get a dish of water and a teaspoon of olive oil. She’d take her finger and dip it in the oil, drop it in the glass. If it spread that means someone put the malocchio on you … she’d say prayers all the time, no one knew what they were. I don’t know if it was psychological but it worked. My brother, when he was in the Navy, he used to call her up from all parts of the world to do the malocchio.”

With houses stacked close together gossip drifted as freely between neighbors as the smell of homemade tomato sauce drifting from open windows. Many homes were connected by clotheslines that were strung between windows on pulleys. As one resident recalls, the lines often served as the excuse to talk to your neighbor, while leaning out the window. Josephine Cultrera, 90, recalls the days her sister lived behind her Prescott Street home and the two women would use their clotheslines to transport kitchen goods.
“If I needed something I’d say ‘Grace, put it on the line,’ and she’d send it right over,” she says. She laughs, adding, “If she needed something I’d put it in a bag and send it over … One time I even sent a turkey over.”

Changes in Little Italy

After World War II the Italian neighborhood started to shift. Soldiers returned and moved away to start families of their own. Steve Ingemi and his brother Joe took over Steve’s Quality Market after their father retired. The brothers had the wooden building razed and a new, modern store constructed. Out went the prosciutto, the smoked cheeses, the bulk bins of beans. And in came a more diverse mix of foods designed to appeal to other ethnic groups in town.

“There was a big French section, a big Polish section …” says Jodie Fenton, Steve’s daughter, who grew up working in the shop. “We tried to bring in whatever these people wanted.”

Beginning in 1962 the market began carrying Polish kielbasa and corton, a traditional French pork spread, products the store carries to this day. 
Over the years, one by one, other Italian grocery shops went out of business as the community diversified and abandoned old-world traditions. 
Meanwhile, through the ‘50s and ‘60s, St. Mary’s prospered; a youth center was built and 16 tons of marble were transported from Italy for constructing new altars. 
However, the need for a separate church for the Italian people was diminishing. The children of the immigrants, in general, didn’t speak Italian. Masses were no longer held in Italian, they were in English. 
In 2002 when the Boston Archdiocese was rocked by the sex abuse scandals, the archbishop gave orders to Salem priests that one church must close and left it up to them to choose. St. Mary’s was selected, perhaps because church officials felt it had fulfilled its duty. 
St. Mary’s held its last mass Jan. 12, 2003. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” Salvo recalls. 
These days Italian-Americans still live in Little Italy, mixed in with Latino immigrants and other ethnic groups. Most are third- and fourth-generation Italians whose parents tell stories of the old neighborhood. Some residents are still upset about losing their church, which they say was the heart and soul of the neighborhood. 
“Even though you don’t leave your neighborhood, your neighborhood leaves you,” Della Monica says. “Everyone needs something to love that they can all get together and socialize about and now that’s gone.” 
Despite the loss of St. Mary’s, remnants of the old neighborhood remain. Some locals visit the Christopher Columbus Society, a social club that offers a place to get together. Many visit Steve’s Quality Market, which remains owned and operated by the Ingemi family. Others still visit the old church, which is now owned and managed by the Salem Mission, a shelter and social-services organization. 
The Mission runs a secondhand clothing store inside the former downstairs chapel. Store manager Ann Richardson says former parishioners often come to visit a grassy area outside the property, where a Mission worker recently restored an old St. Mary’s grotto. Sometimes people come in and ask to go upstairs to pray in the former sanctuary.

“Any parishioners that come in, I let them go up,” says Richardson. “We would never deny any parishioners.”

Rich Richardson has tried to make visits easier by hiding painful reminders of the old days. A room divider blocks the marble altar at the head of the chapel where people used to pray. Above it, a landscape painting partially conceals a large marble cross. 
Upstairs, Little Italy’s past is locked away in the old sanctuary. High on a balcony, beneath the watchful eyes of a painted angel, sits Anna Della Monica’s organ covered in dust. On church pews where parishioners used to sit, thrift-store boxes of old toys and clothes are piled.

It must be difficult for the Italians to see their beloved church this way, but still, five years later, they come back. They say a prayer or just look up at the stained-glass windows that bear the names of their parents and grandparents, the first Italians of Little Italy.

“Salem’s Little Italy” was part 1 of series Changing cultures, changing neighborhoods for the Salem Gazette, September 2008.

Salem Bakery Provides Sweet Retreat

As Salem bakery-owner Malita Fiore will testify, the life of a pastry chef is no piece of cake.  At 2 AM while most people are tucked snugly beneath the sheets, Fiore is already in the kitchen wrestling with endless layers of croissant dough. She has endured painful blisters while shaping sculptures out of boiling hot sugar. And she’ll be the first to admit that she’s spent much of her adult life working in restaurant kitchens where stressed-out cooks hurdle curse words as sharp as kitchen knives. Still, she carries on – and blissfully so. How does she do it?

“It’s in my DNA,” the energetic thirty-something smiles.  “My father is Sicilian and he’s very intense and passionate about food.  We used to make pasta from scratch so there was a natural transition for me into restaurants where they were like “Oh my God, we must get the ravioli done!”

After ten years working as a restaurant pastry chef, these days Fiore is channeling her creative energy into Malita Fiore:  a French-style patisserie that opened shop in downtown Salem in September.  The bakery boasts everything from individually sized hazelnut mousse tortes and eclairs to towering custom-designed wedding cakes whose life-like sugar roses seem to have sprung from a bride’s delicate bouquet.

On a recent morning, the smell of apple tarts drifts from behind a glass pastry case where brightly colored French macaroons beckon like pastel candies. Fiore is dressed in a white chef’s coat, her dark hair pulled up in a no-fuss ponytail. She leaves the warmth of the kitchen and settles down at a café table to share her story. A Salem-native, fresh out of Northeastern, in her early twenties Fiore was determined to become a lawyer.  Her younger sister Athena helped to change her path.  In 2002, Athena, who was in high school at the time, enlisted her big sister’s help working on a school fundraiser.  Malita’s job?  To cook and serve food to three hundred people. At first, Fiore, who was working in an office at the time, was terrified. But she succeeded in creating a menu and serving the large group, and afterwards realized she liked cooking “a lot better than sitting behind a computer screen.”

“It was the most exhausting and rewarding thing I ever did,” she says.

Weeks later, high school menu in hand, Fiore walked into (now defunct) Strega restaurant in Salem and asked for a job in the kitchen. The executive chef Arnold Rossman took a liking to her and decided to bring her on. Rossman, who now works as general manager for restaurateur Keith McNally in New York City, recalls, “Malita had never worked in a kitchen before, but she was a natural; very intuitive and very eager. She also knew how to work on a timeline. She was organized and focused.”

Long afternoons of intense training followed with Fiore often putting in extra unpaid time. The restaurant owner, impressed with her passion, paid for classes with French pastry chef Delphin Gomes (who later went on to work at The Cambridge Culinary Institute).  Then, just three months after she’d started working there, Rossman left Strega for New York City and Fiore was promoted to head pastry chef. Eager to expand her knowledge, she signed up for six more months of classes with Gomes. “Delphin opened up this whole new world to me of sophisticated French pastry,” she recalls. “I discovered these French competitions where pastry chefs created whole cities out of sugar.” After two years at Strega, Fiore left for an opportunity at Chillingsworth, an upscale restaurant on Cape Cod. Here she got a chance to embrace her playful side. “The goal was to surprise and entertain the customer.  I would make these fancy deserts like towers with caramel spires that had acid in them that made them bounce like Slinkies.”

Later, time spent working in Tokyo at the Imperial Palace Hotel, helped to inform both her palette and her recipes.  “I tasted all these new things and I had all these experiences I bring to the American cake.”

Recent custom-designed wedding cake flavors have included orange cardamom with candied rose petal buttercream and green tea with wild cherry buttercream.

Finally four months ago, after years dreaming of owning her own business, Fiore opened up shop at 83 Washington Street in Salem. Like her father, whose tastes run from raising chickens to listening to Vivaldi, Fiore seems to effortlessly balance her sophisticated taste for French pastries with a girl-next-door’s sensibility.  Although the bakery with its elegant white tables can seem a bit frou-frou at first glance, it has already attracted a fair share of regulars content to hunker down with a cappuccino and a book.  Fiore’s sister Athena, dressed in a black and white ruffled apron, is a cheerful presence behind the counter, alternately helping her sister with baking and assisting customers.  And the girls’ father, it seems, has also left his mark, both on the menu, and in spirit.  On the pastry case, above a wide array of American cupcakes and French pastries, sits a jar of fresh cannoli shells, ready to be filled with sweet ricotta. “These are here because my father was belligerent about it,” Fiore smiles. “He was like ‘you must have cannoli.’”

Mr. Fiore, it seems, stops in a few times a day to check in on his two daughters. “He’s very gregarious,” Fiore says.  “Invariably one of the customers says ‘I’m here because of your father.’”

“Salem Bakery Provides Sweet Retreat” originally appeared in the Boston Globe, December 2013

Excommunicated from his church, pastor draws praise and condemnation from pagans and Christians

Pastor Phil Wyman would be the first to agree that he’s a black sheep among clergy. An expert on Wicca, a well practiced interpreter of dreams, Wyman has been an avid participant in the city’s annual Halloween celebration, supporting a holiday many Christians believe to be a symbol of darkness and the occult.

A little over a year ago Wyman was excommunicated from his church, accused of getting too amicable with the city’s Wiccan community because of controversial missionary tactics that included operating a pagan-Christian discussion forum, offering Web site links to pagan sites and fostering personal friendships with witches.

Today the church continues to operate, although it no longer has a parent church, and has about 45 members.

Wyman’s mission is to break stereotypes about Christians and Wiccans. He says many Christians don’t realize Wicca is a nature-based religion.

“Christians have a National Enquirer view of pagans,” he says. “They think they must be worshipping Satan or sacrificing babies … or they view the pagan community as a well organized machine that’s after the church. That’s a sad picture. In turn, because a few Christians have taken advantage of that to make money in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the pagans have a bad view of the Christians. We want to break that.”

Wyman, 49, is an amber-bearded man, with longish hair and a friendly face who looks like he could be a member of a Grateful Dead tribute band. He is matter-of-fact when talking about his excommunication from the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal Christian church whose congregation has 4.5 million members worldwide and is known to speaks in tongues while worshipping. (Calls made to Foursquare leaders have not been returned.)

Since October 2006, when Wyman was cut off from his church, not much has changed. He hasn’t lost any members of his congregation and, if anything, his newfound freedom has allowed him to offer more experimental programs at his Essex Street church, The Gathering — things like Lectio Divina, a type of ancient meditation using the Bible, meant to build two-way communication between the reader and God.

And Wyman is still running the same program he began when he moved to Salem from California with his wife and son eight years ago, an e-mail discussion group between pagans and Christians called Circle and Cross Talk. He’s continued to grow his church’s array of controversial street theater events, offered during the month of October, things like dream interpretation; psalm readings, where a costumed monk confesses the ancient sins of the church; and the Brimstone Chronicles, where participants “travel” through Dante’s heaven and hell and are forced to face their own mortality.

Spreading the word

In his ministry Wyman insists he is not out to convert anyone, but to act as an educator for pagans and Christians alike. In fact, the California native flinches at the word “convert,” though he admits he sees himself as a missionary. “That is one of my philosophical differences with a number of Pentecostal and evangelical people,” he says. “I don’t look at conversion as something I’m trying to make happen, I think it just happens in life … when someone says ‘I like what you’re doing and I want to be a part of it.’”

He continues, “… If I get a call on my home phone and I say I’m not interested and the guy goes on … and I feel rude because I have to hang up on him. That has become the model of evangelism. American Christianity has taken on the cultural perspective of intense capitalism. We think we have to sell what we have.”

Some Christians see being a missionary as a street campaign with brochures, Bibles and the plenty of opportunities to speak of heaven and hell. Each Halloween for decades, Christians of different stripes have been coming to Salem in hopes of converting the pagan community.

Michael Marcavage, 28, is the founder of Repent America, a Philadelphia-based organization of missionaries that spent five days in Salem this October spreading their beliefs via brochures and amplified talks on the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall. This, Marcavage believes, is the proper way to go about spreading the gospel.

“Jesus began his ministry by saying repent or perish,” he says, admitting that Wyman has spoken to him in the past to criticize his gloom-and-doom approach. “Jesus preached in the open air and declared truth. That does in fact call for people to either accept or reject it.”

Marcavage accuses Wyman of affirming the pagans’ beliefs. “Is he reaching out to them?” he asks. “He has no division from them … They’re so comfortable with what he’s doing they haven’t taken issue … The word of God invites confrontation.”

Instead of preaching about heaven and hell, Wyman chooses to explore wider topics and compare the spiritual basis of Wicca and Christianity.

“Why should we as Christians be limited to talking about heaven and hell?” he asks. “Jesus didn’t say ‘follow me or go to hell,’ he had many other things to say. It’s not that it’s not a part of what we say, it’s just not everything.”

Which man has been more successful in his ministry? Marcavage says his people talked to thousands on Halloween day and made a meaningful connection with at least 10 people who signed up to start an e-mail dialogue. Wyman says he’s attracted only a few pagans to his congregation since he moved to Salem nine years ago. He seems unconcerned about this, saying he sees Christianity as a viral thing that is passed on and “caught instead of taught.”

Two sides of the coin

Despite his blasé approach, or maybe because of it, he’s gained the respect of one of the leading members of the Wiccan community, Christian Day, 38, a witch and psychic who says he is able to communicate with the dead.

“If ever there was a person that could make me want to become a churchgoing Christian it would be Phil,” Day says. “Not because he’s tried to convince me that witchcraft was evil, or hell is fire and brimstone, but because he leads a life of honesty. He’s one of the most honest people I know … and I’m a psychic. I look at people and I see their dishonesty.”

The two men have been friends since Wyman contacted Day back in 1997 when he was considering moving to Salem to minister to the pagan community. Though he’s never been to a church service, Day often stops by The Gathering to say hi to Pastor Phil and says he’s attended several church events.

“I go to church to break bread with them,” he says, admitting he often enjoys the company of Christians more than his own community, which he considers “full of gossip and innuendo.”

It is easy to see why Day and Wyman get along so well. In addition to sharing a theatrical flare and offering the community psychic services (Wyman dream interpretation, Day psychic readings), both men have in the past two years had experiences that resulted in them being ousted from their spiritual communities. With Day, the schism came last year when he was accused by a fellow witch of planting raccoon remains at downtown shops, a false rumor that rippled through the pagan and Wiccan community.

Because of these common experiences, perhaps, the two men have fostered a symbiotic relationship. Wyman donates dozens of church chairs to Day’s annual psychic fair on the Museum Place Mall. And Day offers the pastor free marketing advice for his church events.

“If I can sell Jesus, I can sell anything!” he says. Recently Day admits, he donated $200 to The Gathering.

“I don’t believe in Moses and the Red Sea,” says Day, “but I believe in doing good for the community. Maybe evangelicals will vote for things I don’t agree with but they do good things for humanity.”

“Excommunicated from his church, pastor draws praise and condemnation from pagans and Christians” originally appeared in the Salem Gazette newspaper, 2008