Italian-Americans make up the largest European ethnic group in the United States. From the first European to arrive in New York waters, Giovanni da Verrazzano, onward through history, Italians have succeeded in many fields and proved that they as a group are nearly as diverse as Americans as a whole. Though it is often said that Italians have not had as large an impact on American culture as they have on that of other countries, like Brazil, the Italian stamp has certainly been left on the United States. Italian immigration to America was originally spurred after the Italian unification in 1861. While Northern Italy benefitted from this unification, the people of the south and Sicily found themselves met with heavy taxes and other financial repression on top of what was already a dismal fiscal situation. Instead of living under those conditions, many Southern Italian farmers chose to immigrate to America.
By 1915 an estimated five million Italians had immigrated to the United States. Their lives were far from easy – with a limited knowledge of English, they were forced to work manual labor jobs for minimal pay and live in crowded tenements. Regardless of this hardship, they managed to flourish culturally, gathering in clusters according to the villages they had come from in Italy. Over time, the Italians began to use the skills they had brought with them to make contributions to American business. Many bakeries began to open, and chocolate and pasta companies appeared.
Emanuele Ronzoni was one immigrant who chose to begin his own enterprise. After working twenty years with the Atlantic Macaroni Company in Manhattan, he opened Ronzoni Macaroni Company in 1915 on 35th Street and Northern Boulevard. By 1950 Ronzoni’s three sons had joined him in running and managing the company, which had begun to thrive. Since then, the company was absorbed by General Foods Incorporated, and now provides products both domestically and internationally.
Italians have since expanded throughout the United States. In Astoria, they have made their mark in the bakeries that sport the colors of the Italian flag: red, green and white. The shops that display large cuts of meat hanging in their windows are also typically Italian. By the end of the Second World War, Italians dominated Astoria. It was a desirable place to live due to its close proximity to the elevated train line, and therefore, Manhattan. A large number of Greek immigrants also began to influence the neighborhood after the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965. Thus, in the 1980s, nearly every resident in Astoria was either Greek or Italian.
Italian butcher shops, delis and bakeries are now scattered rather than clustered as the Italians of Astoria move even deeper into the suburbs and newer immigrant groups take their place. Although they no longer dominate, the Italian immigrants in Astoria have indisputably changed the history of the neighborhood, and of the United States itself.