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Memories of growing up in Little Italy, NY – A memory of Guz Petruzzelli

When I first came across the title of this book on Amazon.com, I knew I had to buy it. The reason? Because I also grew up in Little Italy and lived in the “neighborhood” for 48 years, before moving 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 perhaps a bit pricey at $ 15.99. But other than that, this book offers an accurate description of what it was like growing up in Manhattan’s Little Italy more than 50 years ago.

Petruzzelli is a few years older than me, and grew up in Little Italy on Mulberry Street above Canal Street, while I grew up just 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 is the dividing line. I remember that many times I crossed Canal Street and had to run for my life, lest I receive a beating from the Canal Street thugs, who considered me an invader of their sacred territory. Good thing he was a fast runner.

Petruzzelli writes short chapters, with titles like “Street Games”, “Scooters and Handcrafted Wagons”, “The Fire Hydrant” and “Street Ball” that resembles exactly how things were as a child growing up in Little Italy. . We played the same games, sometimes in the same places, but most of the time not.

Petruzzelli writes a chapter on “James Center”, a youth center on Hester Street, where I played basketball and softball many times. I remember that the James Center basketball court was short and narrow, with two beams hanging parallel from 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 special lunches, he lists ones that are totally different from what the people below Canal Street frequented. Petruzzelli mentions restaurants like Puglia’s, Vincent’s Calm Bar, Angelo’s, and Grotta Azzura, all places where he occasionally ate. But he doesn’t mention good restaurants like Forlini’s, Antica Roma, The Lime House, and Giambone’s, which were favorites of those who lived below the Canal. He writes a chapter on Dave’s Corner, which was a legendary restaurant on the corner of Canal and Broadway, but that’s the one place to eat that we both regularly frequent. (There is an entire chapter in my Find Big Fat Fanny Fast novel that takes place in Dave’s Corner.)

Petruzzelli completely misses me when he mentions the elementary schools, high schools and parks he frequented. Under “Grammar School,” he lists PS 130 as the school that “everyone in the neighborhood attended as well.” It is simply not true for us that we lived below Canal Street. Everyone he knew went to Transfiguration Grammar School at 29 Mott Street, which was a Catholic school that had a very small enrollment to attend. If someone under Canal couldn’t pay the fare, they headed to PS 24, at the corner of Mulberry and Bayard.

Petruzzelli also mentions Haaren High School in Hell’s Kitchen as the public high school that most of his friends “decided to attend.” However, under 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, on Sixth Street between Second and Third Avenue. The public school of choice for those below Canal Street was Seward Park High School, also near Little Italy, on Grand Street near Essex.

However, the chapter that really puzzles me is one titled “Playing in the parks.” Petruzzelli mentions Christie Street Park as the one he and his friends frequented, but he doesn’t even mention Columbus Park, in Mulberry, just a block south of Canal. Everyone he knew, both up and down Canal Street, hung out in Columbus Park. We played cards on the many benches and played baseball, soccer and basketball on the large concrete athletic field, with hundreds of people from the neighborhood watching league sporting events, many of them from above Canal Street.

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

Columbus Park in Little Italy not mentioned in the 50s and 60s? It’s almost like writing a book about growing up in the South Bronx and not mentioning Yankee Stadium.

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