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Buffalo’s ‘Little Italy’ makes room for different cultures

Ristorante Lombardo is still there. So are Romeo & Juliet’s and Johnny’s Meats. Caruso’s Italian Imports, under new ownership, sports a new red, green and white awning.

But many Italian businesses are gone, among them Il Fiorentino Restaurant, Garangelo’s Cafe and Lunetta’s Restaurant.

In their place?

Baghdad Hookah and Tobacco, Shish Kabab Express, Jewel of India and Sister’s African Cuisine.

The Italian influence is still visible along Hertel Avenue’s Italian district, designated between Delaware and Colvin avenues, and where banners proclaim its identity. But there is also a sizable Middle Eastern presence, along with African, Puerto Rican and Indian businesses.

As the Galbani Italian Heritage Festival opens Thursday, some longtime business owners say Little Italy exists in name only.

“Is it really Little Italy anymore? My opinion is no,” said Vito Semeraro, who owns Romeo & Juliet’s Caffe and Bakery. “We lose a lot of Italian business.

“Right now we’re the only one over here, us and Lombardo. If they want to call it ‘Little Italy,’ there need to be more Italian business.”

Vito Cammilleri, who was born in Italy and has operated Vito’s barbershop for nearly 30 years, also said the district is a pale imitation of its former self.

“It’s not Little Italy anymore,” Cammilleri said. “It’s changed a lot. I don’t think it’s for the good.”

But Tommy Lombardo Jr., manager and part-owner with his father of Ristorante Lombardo, sees the changes in a positive light.

“If you were to ask someone of my father’s generation, I think their answer would be different than mine,” Lombardo said. “I think they are a little more entrenched in the Little Italy concept. That’s the way they grew up.

“But it’s less and less a Little Italy,” Lombardo said. “It’s just the natural progression of things. Personally, I don’t think it’s a detriment to the area at all. The whole strip is being diversified, and I think that’s great. Hertel is on an undeniable upswing.”

Italian ascent

Before North Buffalo was predominantly Italian, it was home to Buffalo’s Jewish population.

“Beginning after World War II, that whole North Park area was Jewish, after they left the East Side,” local historian Mark Goldman said. “Synagogues were there, and kosher butchers and restaurants. The Italians were still on the West Side. Then after urban renewal in the ’60s, which blew up the whole West Side, the Italians started to move up there, as the Jews were moving to the suburbs. It was also in the early ’70s that the Italian Festival moved from Connecticut Street up to Hertel Avenue,” Goldman said.

Today, North Buffalo’s neighborhoods continue to have among the largest concentrations of residents who claim Italian as their first ancestry, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There were 4,904 such people living in the Buffalo neighborhoods of North Delaware, North Park and Starin-Central, according to census estimates released last year. That’s more than 21 percent of the residents in those areas.

An even greater concentration of those claiming Italian ancestry live in Kenmore. Some 4,347 village residents claim Italian ancestry, more than 28 percent of residents, according to census estimates.

More than 9,000 residents with Italian ancestry live in Kenmore and the North Buffalo neighborhoods, close to the annual “Piccola Italia” on Hertel Avenue, where upwards of 200,000 people are expected to attend the four-day festival.

The growth of new ethnic businesses in North Buffalo is the latest pattern of new ethnic groups settling in the area.

Baghdad to Yemen

Most of the Middle Eastern businesses are in a three-block area between Homer Avenue and Fairchild Place.

Sometimes the different cultures are visible side by side, like next-door neighbors Al-Noor Grocery and Romeo & Juliet’s, or across from one another, with Ristorante Lombardo facing Sahara Hookah Lounge and Baghdad Hookah and Tobacco.

Sam Amim, born in Palestine, and San Francisco-born Yasmin Amim, whose parents were Palestinian, opened Jerusalem Halal Market and Manakeesh & More Cafe and Bakery about two years ago. They say they like being on Hertel.

“It’s becoming a very diverse community, very friendly. It’s a very nice neighborhood,” Yasmin Amim said.

Qusay Abdul Nanbi, owner of Shish Kabab Express, came to the United States three years ago from Basra, Iraq, where he sold dairy and ice cream products. He opened his restaurant a year after arriving, and the whole family helps out.

Business, Nanbi said, “is actually very good.”

Abnan Abdulnaid, a former manager and cook at the restaurant, came to the U.S. 15 years ago from Iraq, where he was a neighbor of Nanbi’s. He said he expects the street to continue growing more diverse.

“It’s going to be an international street,” Abdulnaid said, welcoming the trend. “I like every kind of nation. Live in peace, love everybody, and let everybody love you.”

Nagi Berman, who is from Yemen and lives in Lackawanna, opened Al-Noor Grocery seven years ago.

“The Italians are nice people. Business is very good.” Berman said. “I don’t have any problems with anybody.”

But one Arab business owner, who asked not to be named, said the Italian Festival creates an economic hardship for non-Italian businesses.

“The Italian Festival killed our business last year,” he said. “Five days we closed here, because nobody walked in except to use the bathroom. They can’t find parking. I don’t say don‘t have [the festival], I say but maybe they can move it up a little bit,” he said, meaning farther east along Hertel, away from the Middle Eastern businesses.

‘A cultural pot’

Other ethnic businesses have also blended onto Hertel.

Mahawa Cherrey, owner of Sister’s African Cuisine, moved to Buffalo from Liberia 10 years ago.

Probably 20 years ago, diners could “probably just get spaghetti and meatballs” on Hertel, she said, laughing.

Now, there are “so many different things on the street that you can get. There is a lot of competition,” Cherrey said.

Most of her customers are Italian, she said.

“People like to try new things, and as long as it tastes good, they always come back,” she said.

There’s also a second African business, Germa’s Brooklyn Beauty Salon & Finest Hair Braiding.

Karen Kaur, manager of Jewel of India, said the variety of cultures has brought new business to Hertel and made it a more interesting place to visit.

“It’s not Little Italy anymore, it’s more like a cultural pot, a culturally diverse strip,” Kaur said.

She sees Hertel drawing more customers as a result.

Justin Hoffchneizer, who co-owns The House of Olives, said the diverse clientele on the street helps his business. Most of his customers, he said, are Italian and Middle Eastern.

A new breed

Younger people with Italian ancestry also bring a new sensibility.

Michael Petrillo, 44, said his restaurant, Salumeria Belsito, east of the Little Italy district, is not the red sauce and red-and-white checkered tablecloth establishment once common along Hertel.

“I go to those places all the time and I love them, but that’s not what we are,” Petrillo said.

Belsito’s offers authentic Italian cold cuts, plates of Italian meats and cheeses, Italian sandwiches, neapolitan-style pizza with imported Buffalo mozzarella and Italian wines and beers.

While Petrillo had a fondness growing up for Little Italy, he said he’s under no illusion he’s part of that now.

“There was someone from out of town who came here because a hotel said something about Little Italy, and I almost felt like apologizing,” Petrillo said. “There is some signage on the light poles, and some garbage cans that have been painted in Italian colors, but people expecting an Italian neighborhood when they come here are disappointed.”

Hertel on the move

Still, many shoppers return to Hertel to find Italian foods. Marilyn Gruttadauria is one. She grew up on the West Side when it was Italian, moved to North Buffalo and now lives in Amherst.

“Years ago there was a lot of Italian businesses, but there are still places like this. That’s why I come back here,” Gruttadauria said, while shopping at Caruso’s.

“I just love everything happening on Hertel now,” she added. “It’s come to life.”

Michael Aloisio, who owns Johnny’s Meats, a local Italian institution that’s been on Hertel since 1960, said infrastructure improvements over the past decade – upgraded sidewalks, roads, lighting and sewers – and new businesses have boosted property values and brought more affluent people into the neighborhood.

“It’s not as Italian as it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” Aloisio said. “But the changes to the street are a good thing. It’s come a long way.”

Tommy Lombardo Sr. said Ristorante Lombardo may be one of a handful of “remnants” from when Little Italy had a larger Italian presence, but at the same time, “business has never been better.”

“It’s more of an eclectic neighborhood now than Little Italy, but as long as the merchants take care of their buildings and do the right thing, I’m fine with it.”