The Hill Offers More Than Great Italian Food
By Cheryl WIittenauer - The Associated Press
On a late Friday afternoon, the old men of The Hill gather at the upscale Italia-Americana Bocce Club, a center of life in what is arguably the last viable ethnic neighborhood in St. Louis. Men in their 80s, most of them boyhood friends, play cards at small tables, joke easily with each other and play bocce, an ancient sport popularized in modern Italy on sand-covered alleys.
If men like 82-year-old Oreste Zoia are The Hill’s older face, the neighborhood’s future can be found down the block at Milo's Bocce Garden, a casual beer and pizza bar. There, 38-year-old Mark Garanzini plays in a weekly bocce league, a happy returnee to the neighborhood where he grew up. “I can go block by block and tell you who lives in every other house, same as when I was growing up”? said Garanzini, who lived for a while in another part of St. Louis. “It’s a neighborhood. I don’t have to get into a car to go to a restaurant or bakery or grocery store.”
The Hill, a heavily Democratic enclave of Italian immigrants and their descendants, is the premier destination for Italian food in St. Louis. While The Hill abounds in Italian restaurants, pizza parlors, bakeries, delicatessens and specialty shops, food is only part of its allure. A buoyant urban community in southwest St. Louis, The Hill has flourished over the last century and somehow managed to repel the decay, neglect and suburban flight that have wracked other neighborhoods.
Of all the ethnic-immigrant settlements in late 19th century- and early 20th century-St. Louis (including German, Irish, Czech and Polish) The Hill is the only one that remains intact. “It’s the only viable ethnic neighborhood left in the city and state,” said former Missouri Baking Company. owner Joann Arpiani, who was born on The Hill 85 years ago.
The area originally was settled by English Quakers, and German and Irish immigrants drawn by the discovery of clay deposits in the late 1830’s. Later, a French socialist commune settled there for 10 years before disbanding. Italians came in the 1890s to work in the clay mines and smelters, and they built frame shanties and tenements to accommodate the influx of immigrants. The Hill, so named because it is the city’s highest point, recalls a bygone era with its quiet and tidy residential streets, brick bungalows and shotgun houses. Some homes, according to Rosolino Roland DeGregorio, a local historian, are framed with free lumber that immigrants hauled in wagons from disassembled 1904 World’s Fair exhibits.
The Hill’s streets are virtually free of litter and crime. Its homes are modest but impeccably maintained, and these homes recall an era that predates the three-car garage and bedroom for every child. Yards are lovingly embellished with small flower and herb gardens, fountains, brightly painted flower pots, strings of lights and statues of the Virgin Mary.
Across from Missouri Baking Co., Salvador Palmeri, an immigrant from Sicily, hoses the alley behind his home every day because, he said, “I like to keep it clean.” His wife, Josephine, paints ceramic flower pots and animal figures for a patio menagerie. “I love the area,” said Frank DiGregorio, 49, who arrived from Italy as an 8-month-old baby and helps run family-owned DiGregorio’s Imported Foods. “I can walk up and down the streets and talk to Italian people. It’s a community. We’re a small town in a big city.” Bill Holland, who married into the family that runs the 101-year-old John Volpi Co. Inc., an Italian meats company, said The Hill is St. Louis’s only 24-hour neighborhood, a fragile ecosystem that has been immune to urban blight and whose anchor is St. Ambrose Catholic Church. He said the neighborhood has a healthy balance of homes, businesses and entertainment that spins positive energy around the clock. “When the restaurants shut down at midnight, the bakers all come in at 2 a.m.,” Holland said. “We start our business at 6 a.m. There’s always something positive in the neighborhood.”
(In the summer of 2003)The Hill was the backdrop for “The Game of Their Lives,” a feature film about the St. Louis-dominated soccer team that scored a historic upset in the 1950 World Cup. The Hill produced four of the five St. Louisans on the team that defeated Britain. Hill customs hark back to an earlier time: a neighborhood procession on the religious Feast of Corpus Christi, the annual Columbus Day parade, a soapbox derby and the “Giro della Montagna” Bicycle Race on Labor Day weekend.
What’s the magic? “I don’t know. Maybe it’s the way our mothers raised us,” said Mary Torno, 88, the child of northern Italian immigrants.
A lean woman with light blue eyes, Torno was taking her nightly walk as she spoke. Around her neck she wore a medal and relic of St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost items. “That guy is always helping me,” she said of the saint. For the Hill’s overwhelmingly Catholic residents, St. Ambrose Church and grade school are the center of life, a throwback to the role of churches in Italian villages. “It’s the social, religious and educational center for that whole neighborhood,” said Monsignor Sal Polizzi, former associate pastor. “Everything centers around that church.” In the 1960s, The Hill had become a stodgy old lady, complacent and ill-prepared for threats to the community”, he said. Polizzi saw them coming, organized the community and founded what would become today’s Hill 2000, an organization dedicated to preserving the neighborhood.
The Hill lost 100 homes to construction of Interstate 44, which divided The Hill’s northern tip from the rest of the neighborhood. But Polizzi’s group successfully fought for a highway overpass to bridge the community. The group also defeated development of a drive-in theater and illegal underground dumping of wastewater from a nearby manufacturing plant. Today’s challenge is maintaining The Hill’s ethnicity, so “it doesn’t become a neighborhood that used to be known for its Italian heritage,” Hill 2000 president Tom Stremlau said.