Memories of Growing Up in Little Italy, NY – A Memoir by Guz Petruzzelli

Memories of Growing Up in Little Italy, NY – A Memoir by Guz Petruzzelli

When I first came across the title of this book on Amazon.com, I knew I just had to buy it. The reason? Because I grew up in Little Italy too, and lived in the “neighborhood” for 48 years, before I relocated to Sarasota, Florida in late 1995.

“Memories of Growing Up in Little Italy, NY – A Memoir by Guz Petruzzelli,” is only 83 pages long, and maybe a little expensive at $15.99. But that aside, this book gives an accurate account of what it was like growing up in Manhattan’s Little Italy more that 50 year ago.

Petruzzelli is a few years older than me, and he grew up in Little Italy on Mulberry Street above Canal Street, whereas, I grew up just a half a block south of Canal, one block west of Mulberry on Baxter Street. Believe it or not, these are basically two different neighborhoods; Canal Street being the dividing line. I remember many times crossing Canal Street, and having to run for my life, not to catch a beating from the above-Canal Street toughs, who considered me an invader on their sacred turf. Good thing I was a fast runner.

Petruzzelli writes short chapters, with titles like “Street Games,” “Hand-Made Scooters and Wagons,” “The Fire Hydrant” and “Street Ball,” which exactly parallels the way things were when I was a kid growing up in Little Italy. We played the same games, sometimes in the same places, but more often not.

Petruzzelli writes a chapter on “James Center,” a youth center on Hester Street, where I played basketball and softball many times. I remember the basketball court at James Center was short and narrow, with two beams hanging parallel on the ceiling, from one basket to the other, making it impossible to shoot from any corner. The only jump shots that were possible were from around the key.

But when Petruzzelli writes about neighborhood restaurants and specialty luncheonettes, he lists totally different ones than people from below Canal Street frequented. Petruzzelli mentions restaurants like Puglia’s, Vincent’s Calm Bar, Angelo’s and Grotta Azzura, all places where I occasionally ate. But he fails to mention fine restaurants like Forlini’s, Antica Roma, The Lime House and Giambone’s, which were the favorites of those who lived below Canal. He writes a chapter on Dave’s Corner, which was a legendary eatery on the Corner of Canal and Broadway, but that is the only eating place we both frequented regularly. (There’s an entire chapter in my novel Find Big Fat Fanny Fast that takes place in Dave’s Corner.)

Petruzzelli totally loses me when he mentions the grammar schools, high schools and parks he frequented. Under “Grammar School,” he lists PS 130 as the school that “everyone in the neighborhood went too.” Simply not true for us who lived below Canal Street. Everyone I knew went to Transfiguration Grammar School at 29 Mott Street, which was a Catholic school that had a very small tuition fee to attend. If someone below Canal couldn’t afford the fee, they went to PS 24, on the corner of Mulberry and Bayard.

Petruzzelli also mentions Haaren High School in Hell’s Kitchen as the public high school most of his friends “decided to attend.” Yet below Canal, most of us went to Catholic high schools like Cardinal Hayes in the Bronx, where I attended, or Lasalle Academy, located almost right in the neighborhood, at Sixth Street between Second and Third Avenue. The public school of choice for people below Canal Street was Seward Park High School, also close to the Little Italy, on Grand Street near Essex.

Yet the chapter that really puzzles me is one entitled “Playing in the Parks.” Petruzzelli mentions Christie Street Park as the one he and his pals hung out in, but he doesn’t even mention Columbus Park, on Mulberry, just one block south of Canal. Everyone I knew, both from above and below Canal Street, hung out in Columbus Park. We played cards on the numerous benches and played baseball, football and basketball in the large concrete athletic field, with hundreds of neighborhood people watching the league sporting events, a lot of them from above Canal Street.

Those differences aside, “Memories of Growing Up in Little Italy, NY – A Memoir by Guz Petruzzelli” is a fine read. I just wish the book was a little longer, so Petruzzelli could have included the places in Little Italy which those of us who lived below Canal Street frequented too.

No mention of Columbus Park in Little Italy in the 1950’s and 60’s? That’s almost like writing a book about growing up in the South Bronx, and not mentioning Yankee Stadium.