(Black and white photograph of Mama Maria and her granddaughter. 1958. WRHS Library.)
Today’s Little Italy is one of Cleveland’s “hottest” neighborhoods with an incredible set of restaurants, artist boutiques, and, of course, the annual Feast of the Assumption.
This year, because of the Covid-19 crisis, the neighborhood is quieter than usual and absent the Feast and even the procession that is the religious center of that celebration. Everything seems far different this August. It is a time, perhaps, to reflect on what the neighborhood was, and how it has changed. And a good spot to begin with is food. And, there probably is no better place to start than with Guarino’s. founded in 1918 by Vincenzo Guarino, an immigrant who had come from Sicily in 1898. It is the oldest restaurant in the neighborhood and, one of the oldest in the city. Its story tells us much about the neighborhood and how it has changed over the years.
It began as poolroom and tavern with an apartment above. It was purchased by Vincenzo in 1918 with savings he had accumulated from his employment as a road worker. When he married that same year his wife Mary, began preparing meals in the back dining room. The clientele were neighbors and friends. So, it was an intimate, integral part of the neighborhood at a time when few people in Cleveland traveled far from home to eat out and a time when eating out was not the norm. It was a working class neighborhood. Many worked at Lake View Cemetery, but there were numerous businesses and industrial sites along the railroad line at the northern border, including the Ford Assembly plant (now home to the Cleveland Institute of Art) that provided employment. During Prohibition, the restaurant served liquor in coffee cups – it was not so much “breaking the rules” but keeping with the tradition of a true taverna. And it fit the clientele nicely – many of whom came to celebrate baptisms and weddings.
Over time Guarino’s attracted a wider, non-Italian clientele as Italian food became more popular, many of whom would probably have been academics from nearby Western Reserve University and the Case School of Applied Science, and University Hospitals. That trend would accelerate in the years after World War II when eating out became more common and Italian cuisine began to appeal to a broad spectrum of Americans. Some historians credit this to the experience of GIs who in served in Italy in World War II and acquired a taste for the cuisine. And certainly that new affinity for Italian food was reflected in the success of Cleveland Chef Hector Boiardi’s products, marketed via television in the post-war years.
Nevertheless while Guarino’s attracted new customers, it still served a neighborhood clientele. That continues today, although many “neighbors” now commute from suburban homes to enjoy meals there. Vincenzo died in 1954 while on a trip to Italy and his son Sam took over the business, running it until his death in 1987. Then his wife Marilyn and her friend Nancy Phillips continued the tradition.
Yet, while that tradition continues, so do the changes on the “Hill”. Many of the boutiques that now attract tourists were formerly “Ma and Pa” grocery stores, hardware stores, a travel bureau (which helped arrange passage to and from Italy), and a variety of other enterprises that made Little Italy – like other Cleveland ethnic neighborhoods – a self- sufficient entity. And today it is sometimes difficult to see the “past”. The change has been problematic for some – one sign recently posted on a street read something like the following: “This is a Neighborhood, not Tourism Site.” But amidst the change, it is good to have Guarino’s and other evidence of the past. Murray Hill Road is still paved with red bricks – a pavement that many Italian-Americans laid on Cleveland’s streets in the early 1900s. Walk the streets and look at the wrought iron fences. They are likely the product of a company that once stood near the Rapid Transit station. Also look for the names carved on stone blocks set into the upper level of many buildings – they are the names of those who proudly built them in the early years of the twentieth century.