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Their home in the immigrant village

Early in the 1900s, Italians and others were creating a new life in South Philadelphia.

The Cappelletti family,newly arrived from Italy, about 1929. From left, Giovanni, his brother Michael, his mother, Emma, and brother Tony.
The Cappelletti family,newly arrived from Italy, about 1929. From left, Giovanni, his brother Michael, his mother, Emma, and brother Tony.Read morePhotos courtesy of Marc Cappelletti

Marc Cappelletti

is a Philadelphia writer

A light snow is falling on the green awnings of Philadelphia's Ninth Street Market. It's a fleeting snow, melting almost as soon as it lands. Still, I marvel. It brings to mind the snow that fell in my grandfather's stories of his emigration from Italy to America, where he landed 85 years ago.

His journey began in the back of an ox-cart. It took nine days at sea to reach New York City and then Philadelphia, where he, his mother, and two brothers were reunited with his father. I walked to the market from Center City.

Many of the stores he saw as a newly arrived immigrant are still here: Cappuccio's, Cannuli Bros., Esposito's, and D'Angelo's meat markets; and the bakeries, Sarcone's, Termini Bros., and Isgro - to name a few. Although the cobblestoned streets have been paved over, the pull to times past is as visceral as the overwhelming smell of cured meats and sharp provolone. It is at Giordano's on the corner of Ninth Street and Washington Avenue that I have my first vision of life in 1929.

From his house nine blocks west, my grandfather would have passed through a world so foreign from what he left in Italy. I imagine him running down blocks of rowhouses, past people speaking a language he cannot understand and who cannot understand his, dodging trolleys, mounted police, and then, finally, to Ninth Street and the recognizable row of shops. He weaves through the crowd, up to Washington Avenue and into the store his mom sent him to, Paul and Frances Giordano Fruit and Produce. Paul is selling live chickens on the curb. His wife, Frances, is inside piling dewy heads of escarole a foot high on one of the tables. She greets the young boy with a curious smile.

"Giovanni," she says. "Dov'e la tua mamma?" (Where is your mamma?)

His ears are on fire. Those words. That language. It sends him back, an ocean away - to that town, to the day before he left and the snow that fell like sheets. He is surprised to realize that it's been a week since he last thought of home.

Wooden crates of produce are everywhere - glistening red tomatoes, potatoes, fennel. There are buckets of olives on wooden stands and baskets of white, red, and yellow onions lining the front; apples, oranges, and every green vegetable in the world, it seems. Red, fatty meats hang from steel hooks on the wall. Wheels of cheese sit one on top of one another and whole fish rest on beds of ice; some are filleted, and others dried. He wants all of it. But he has a list. He hands it to Mrs. Giordano.

"She was tough as nails," Wally Giordano says about Frances, his grandmother, as we talk across a table of artichokes. "Everyone respected her. You had to. She was pretty incredible. She ran the business, bought the store space, and everything. Actually, when she wanted to buy it the original owner said, 'Why don't you come back later with your husband?' She pulled out cash and said, 'How about you sell me the store now.' "

Wally explains that what was mostly an assortment of Sicilian items driven down from New York by his uncles quickly grew into a sprawling selection to serve the city's diverse population.

"Everyone who worked here spoke Italian, English, and Yiddish," he says, referencing his 13 aunts and uncles, each of whom was raised in the apartments above the store. "You came into the market and it was this amazing mix of people and food, and their cultures, of course. And it is today, too."

He's right. But gone are the days when the majority of women shopped every morning (or sent their kids) in order to have fresh ingredients for the evening's meal. This has changed the way many shops in the market do business, pushing them into wholesale contracts, or to specialize in items that the larger stores can't get or choose not to carry - like the whole roasted pigs cooked to perfection and sold at Cannuli's Bros. Meats.

And gone are the days when it is just Italian, English, and Yiddish spoken. Spanish and Vietnamese can now be heard in the streets and stores, and the variety of goods has expanded exponentially.

A few more stories and it is time to go home. The snow has stopped, but my thoughts are once again on my grandfather.

With the groceries in hand and change in his pocket, he walks home, this time taking in the city slowly, block by block, every face and every building. There's Fante's, where he went with his father to buy a set of knives; the deli where people eat what to him looks like chicken soup with pale meatballs in it; Broad Street; the imposing shrine of St. Rita of Cascia, and the drug store where he sneaks a penny from his grocery store change to buy a caramel candy.

At home, he hands his mother the groceries and change. She scrutinizes the coins before sending him to his room, where he sits by the window. A new family is moving in across the street.

This story is of my imagination. My grandfather passed away almost three years ago and with him went the answers to questions I hadn't yet thought to ask. Visiting the market and talking to people like Wally (or Charles at Cannuli's, Domenic at Cappuccio's, and others) is the closest I'll get to better understanding that part of his life. But it's OK. Although even the heaviest snow melts, the families, stores, food, traditions, and stories of this market - all the answers to what life was like for a young Italian immigrant in 1929 - are all still here. In that way, he is too.