The more things change, the more they stay the same. Welcome to Wilmington’s own slice of the Old Country.
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A banquet manager for the Christiana Hilton was looking for a good source of Asian appetizers. “If you want authentic Asian food,” an employee said, “you should call the Italian pastry shop in Little Italy.”
The recommendation was not the result of ethnic confusion. It was more like global fusion, as Tom Oei likes to call it. Oei and his wife, Nanik, are first-generation Indonesian immigrants with family backgrounds in industrial and retail baking. They bought the iconic Papa’s Pastry Shop in Wilmington four years ago.
The Oeis have transformed the shop, which had been almost exclusively a cake shop, to one that offers baked goods with French, Asian and Spanish influences, not to mention traditional Italian. “We’re now catering about one quinceañera (a Latina coming-of-age celebration) per month,” Oei says. “This shop is nothing like the way it was before we took it over.”
You could say the same of Little Italy itself. It’s nothing like it used to be—though longtime residents don’t see it that way.
“I’ve been living here for 60 years,” says Virgil Pacelli, who operates a dental lab on West Eighth Street. “The neighborhood hasn’t changed a bit.”
“People say that Little Italy is more diverse today, but that isn’t true,” says barber Gus Perodi. “The neighborhood has always been a mix of ethnicities that included Jewish shop owners and blacks who served as domestics for DuPont executives and as postal workers.”
It is the genius of this neighborhood, bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue on the north and Fourth Street on the south, that it has been able to flow with both economic and demographic change while maintaining its Italian identity, even as that identity extends to include thriving Greek, Polish, Hispanic and Asian populations. Those groups blend with those of the old country
during the iconic St. Anthony’s Italian Festival, which, this month, will turn Little Italy into a kind of United Nations of Wilmington. It truly is a place for all.
Dating to the Settlement House Movement of the 1880s, The West End Neighborhood House—originally the Italian Neighborhood House—was founded to help in housing, employment and literacy training for Italian immigrants. Their descendants continue to provide stability and perpetuate traditions. Today West End Neighborhood House provides employment and housing services, along with youth services and financial education.
“We are one of the largest real estate developers in the city and the state,” says West End executive director Paul Calistro. He cites more than $35 million invested in neighborhood housing projects over the past 10 years.
Page 2: Ciao, Italia, continues...