By Ken Mammarella
A new travelogue on Little Italies across America uses commedia dell’arte zaniness, three iPhones and lots of cannoli to tell the story of two brothers – both artistic and nostalgic Delaware natives – searching the U.S. for Italian culture, people and, of course, food. Spoiler alert: they succeed.
“It reconnected me, for sure, with the memories of being with our extended family and experiences like going to St. Anthony’s Italian Festival,” said Nick Santoro, an actor, juggler and film crew member now based in Los Angeles (and sometimes New York).
“We made lots of friends/family along the way and found great value in exploring some of the smaller, lesser-known Little Italies,” said Jeff Santoro, a Wilmington resident, owner of J Alexander Productions and participant, on stage and off, in local theater. (He also has a full-time job as senior director of hospital and payer partnerships for the Nemours Center for Health Delivery Innovation.)
A first cut of “BIG CITY, Little Italy” has been posted online. A longer and more sophisticated version is expected to premiere in Delaware this year, Jeff said.
There might be even more to the project: PBS stations have asked to broadcast segments that showcase their cities, Jeff said, and more of America’s 100-plus Little Italies have asked that their stories be told. The brothers have also been urged to create a companion book
And there’s certainly more to the Santoros. They both gained weight from all the cannoli and other desserts. “Twenty pounds,” Jeff said.
“At least 15 to 20,” said Nick. “When you get there, they offer you food. The table’s totally ready. Then they send you off with food. We got that everywhere we went. We immediately felt like family.”
Their cross-country journey started in early 2021 when they heard about an effort by the National Italian American Foundation and Anthony and Joe Russo, the brothers who have directed four films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to partly fund Italian-related movies.
They were among 200 pitching ideas, then one of eight awarded grants by the Russos, the Russos’ film company, the foundation and the Italian Sons and Daughters of America. After six weeks of prep, six weeks of travel and six weeks post-production in a bungalow at Fox Studios in Los Angeles, their film was one of three finalists screened in November at the Russo Brothers Italian Film Forum.
“The grants we have received have been small,” Jeff said. “Making a film is expensive.” They’ve spent $65,000 and are setting a $30,000 goal on their project’s GoFundMe page, for graphics, sound sweetening and the costs of appearing in festivals, among other expenses. They filmed in Wilmington, Philadelphia, the Bronx, Cleveland, Providence, San Diego and San Francisco. The second cut adds Chicago. The film was intended to feature histories and interviews about what makes these Little Italies thrive, “but then we stuck ourselves into it,” Jeff said in a Film Forum Q&A posted on YouTube, “and it kind of became commedia dell’arte.”
In a Zoom interview with the brothers, Jeff credited producer Ciro Poppiti, a well-connected Wilmington lawyer and an actor for 30 years, for them spending more time on camera, such as clowning while making pizza and a “Rocky run” down Ninth Street in Philadelphia with former Eagle Vince Papale. And there exists footage of them sharing a cannoli, a la the dogs sharing spaghetti in Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp.” (Poppiti also suggested an on-screen cannoli count.)
They also credited producer Kurt Leitner, a Delaware native and production expert in L.A., for orchestrating their post-production work on “BIG CITY, Little Italy.”
The 50-something brothers trace their heritage to grandparents from Tuscany and Naples. Jeff has visited Italy 15 to 18 times (helped by his conversational skills in Italian). Nick has been just once.
“Growing up in and around Wilmington’s Little Italy had a profound effect on our lives. We have fond memories of going to DiNardo’s, Fusco’s, DiFonzo’s and Furio’s Pizza with our families,” Jeff said. “All of the places we cherished are no longer around.” Ditto for the Santoros’ produce market.
“After our parents and grandparents passed, many traditions we grew up with also diminished,” Jeff said, with the brothers overlapping as they shared the story of going to Mass, stopping at DiFonzo’s and asking for permission to enjoy hot-out-of-the-oven rolls on the ride home.
“We miss the days of our mom and grand-mother baking in our childhood kitchen!” they reminisce on the film’s Facebook page, sharing a recipe for tarallucci with fans.
Jeff maintains one important tradition: hosting a Christmas Eve meal, usually with seven fishes. (If not, cue the lamentele.) And traditional gatherings all year: “lots of talking, hands rolling,” and always in the kitchen. He then quoted nephew Ryszard Bialach: “There’s nothing better than family.”
Hence their search for traditions across America – and their encouragement for communities around the U.S. to grow and, if needed, restore their Little Italies.
“It was just amazing how much the Italian-American tradition and contribution to each town was known, and we love that,” Jeff said. “But we also want to say if folks don’t make some strategic changes and planning, their little Italy is going to eventually disappear.”
San Diego’s Little Italy, for example, went from almost nothing to 30 blocks of strength, he said. “I would love to see every big city have a Little Italy.”