The Power of a Mystery
In a city known for its strong presence of German immigrants, so much so that a district of the city was named “German Village,” Hamilton, Ohio was surprisingly home to many Italian immigrants during the late 1800s and early 1900s. During the Italian diaspora, roughly 15 million Italians left Italy in search of a better life and more opportunities, with about 5.5 million coming to the U.S. Many settled along the Eastern seaboard, while still others in the Deep South. The population of Italian immigrants grew steadily in the Midwest too, especially in states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Although Hamilton’s Italian community started out small, with one man arriving by 1860 and dying soon afterward, the number of Italians in the city steadily grew throughout the mid 1900s. Within twenty years, another immigrant came and settled there, starting a successful new life. Twenty years after that, the number of Italian-born immigrants grew to twenty-eight, with it finally reaching 274 immigrants in 1930. The censuses conducted excluded the children of the Italian immigrants, as they earned American citizenship at birth.
With this growing population came new businesses, innovations, and ways of life. A notable businessman at the time, Cosimo Dattilo, became the patriarch of the Italian community after he founded an extensive citrus import business. The business included a market where people could shop and place orders, as well as a delivery service, courtesy of his horse and cart. Seeing how much success and profit he derived from his market, other Italians joined him in the citrus businesses. This, in turn, created a vast distribution network where the owners of each citrus wagon or store could sell the fruit imported by Dattilo. Dattilo’s Fruit Market was operated by members of the Dattilo-Pirano family for four generations, their stores stayed open well through the end of the twentieth century and into the early 2000s.
Other notable establishments that grew from Italian immigrants and their families were Milillo’s Pizzeria, founded in 1968. Members of the Milillo family operated the pizzeria, in addition to their bakery, beer distribution business, and store. Unfortunately, the pizzeria closed in early 2023, but their legacy still lives on with all those that frequented the beloved restaurant. Some Italian restaurants in the area fared just as well, shutting their doors for one reason or another. Isgro’s Restaurant, founded by Felix Isgro and his wife, was a supper club established in the 1950s as a way for Hamiltonians to spend a nice evening out on the town. The restaurant boasted multicourse meals, ornate décor, and live music. Unfortunately, it closed in the late 1980s when Felix and his wife retired. Today, one of the Isgro’s relatives owns her own restaurant, Gina’s Italian Kitchen and Tavern, which pays tribute to the highly popular restaurant.
One Italian business success story began in the year 1954, when Chester Dadabo, an immigrant from Northern Italy, founded a grocery store and bakery in Hamilton. Both ventures were quite successful, but one day, his customers informed him that something was missing. Back then, Hamilton was home to many American veterans who had fought in Italy during World War II. While overseas, they had eaten a new delicacy for the first time: pizza. Yearning to taste their favorite dish again, they went to Chester and asked him to make them some. Seeing how much they, as well as his other patrons, enjoyed his pizza, Chester converted his business to a full-time pizzeria. Now, his grandson Chuck Vitale owns the business, and plans to continue what his grandfather started.
With how much the Italian population did to create and build up the city of Hamilton, how come we, as residents of the surrounding area, or Ohio in general, don’t know anything about it? Brad Spurlock, Smith History Library and Cummins Room Manager at Lane Public Library, wondered why too after he received a reference request about the city of Hamilton purchasing twenty-two properties for Spooky Nook athletic complex parking in Hamilton’s “Little Italy.” With the purchase, every building on the property would be razed. This seemed significant to Spurlock, until he found in library records that not a single Italian ever lived in “Little Italy.”
The reason why the newly demolished area was named “Little Italy” remains a mystery. According to Spurlock’s research, which he continued to pursue after the news of the demolition, most Italians in Hamilton lived on either Cottage Street or the intersection of South, Eleventh Street, and Maple Avenue. Sicilian immigrants mostly flocked to Cottage Street, while Italians from Naples lived on the latter streets. Both of these sections were, and still are, despite being mostly desolate, in the Fourth Ward of Hamilton. “Little Italy” isn’t even close; it’s in Hamilton’s North End.
Fascinated by everything he found about the lives Italians lived in Hamilton during the late 1800s and early 1900s, Spurlock decided to create a library program that documented his research and educated people about the Italians’ hidden achievements. He has given a lecture at the Hamilton Lane Public Library, as well as for an Italian American culture class at Miami University of Oxford. He also has plans to present the program at the Fairfield Lane Library in the Fall. Spurlock hopes to expand upon his research soon, and create more programs evolving around this subject.
One thing is for sure: without people like Spurlock, we would lose the history that built our towns, cities, states, and even nation. Italian Americans played an integral role in creating everything we know and love. We should never forget that.