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Al Bruno: West Side of the ’60s etched in my memory

When times change, distinct cultural practices and traditions often mysteriously disappear from city neighborhoods and our social consciousness, but they should never be forgotten. That is exactly what happened in Buffalo to the omnipresent, Italian cultural fixtures on the Old West Side during the mid-1960s: A golden yet turbulent time defined by memorable expressions and activities.

Born in Buffalo in 1957, my storied recollections reflect the mid-1960s when I was the only child of Italian immigrant parents from the Abruzzi region in Italy. I spoke Italian before I began to learn and speak English at my first school, Holy Angels, on Porter Avenue.

Here are three vivid images, Italian cultural nuggets from the Old West Side, that I witnessed and would like to share:

Who could ever forget the singing Italian huckster, a grocer, who came by each morning in a box truck, “Amici Italiani, fresca fruita e vegetabli per tutti,” shouting and singing loudly and proudly in Italian and marketing his fresh fruit and vegetables as he drove slowly down the street. Mama and Zia Marietta would hurriedly run to the Plymouth Avenue curb, in curlers and in full nightgowns, waiting for the Italian huckster.

When he arrived, Mama and Zia Marietta would meticulously inspect and select the fresh produce, negotiating and even arguing in Italian. It was great drama as Zia Marietta worked her old-country magic to get good produce at a bargain price. “Ho fatto una buona compra oggi, [I made a good buy today],” she would proudly say. Then Mama and Zia Marietta would reach deep into their bras for the necessary greenbacks to complete the transaction. It was a lesson on bartering, the old-fashioned, Italian way.

Prospect Park, located across from Connecticut Street on Buffalo’s West Side, was the rallying site for “morra” among the older Italian men. It was a cultural experience in Italian as the men intensely competed to win at the game of morra. Morra is usually played one-on-one or in teams of two and three, displaying fingers and sometimes dueling for hours.

I distinctly recall a tall, balding man of about 50, who always wore suspenders over his large belly. He had become notorious for his intense exhortations and could be heard from the other side of the park. In a heated and consuming morra contest, this large, Italian man became sweaty and red-faced: His eyeballs were bulging out of his skull, it seemed to me, as he shouted with fierce intensity: “cinque [five], sette [seven], nove [nine]!” until he won or lost. He was fanatical about morra, using a loud, thundering voice, theatrics and intimidation for pure effect and entertainment for the onlookers, and he hated to lose.

On Saturday nights, my parents and I often went to the wrestling matches at Memorial Auditorium, cheering on Ilio DiPaolo (from Abruzzo, Italy). We watched him flawlessly execute the airplane spin and pin his opponents, to the delight of fans, especially those screaming, “Bravo, Ilio!”

DiPaolo loved his fans, but had a deep love for his paisani, respectfully referring to most of his Italian friends as “compare.” He was a gentle giant, an Italian icon locally and regionally, whose cultural identity and wrestling legacy lives on.

These Italian cultural nuggets were real, and they still proudly resonate. I believe they are worth retelling for years to come.