Tuesday, April 09, 2002

City's Little Italy gone, not forgotten

        Whereas a right bright light shines on a piece of forgotten Cincinnati history, thanks to 73-year-old Joseph Martinelli.

        Martinelli, now of Pittsburgh, grew up here in a pocket of Walnut Hills that in the '30s and '40s was known as Little Italy. The Italians have since moved on.

        But back then, what with all the neighbors freshly moved here from Italy, it was a tightly knit community — the kind where kids play in streets and moms run between houses, usually armed with food.

        Anyway, it started bothering Martinelli that so few today know about the neighborhood. So, being retired from General Electric and with nothing but time and a lot of golf on his hands, he wrote a book about it. Or at least a manuscript. He calls it Little Italy.

        “I couldn't stand to see it forgotten because there were such wonderful characters there, and it was such a wonderful way to grow up. There were no cars, no TVs, just the people, and they shouldn't be forgotten.”

        Which is what his folksy manuscript is about: People who learned to dance peeking into the night clubs; who learned about, uh, biology peeking into the strip joints; who learned to get along with each other playing in the alley.

        It's a piece of Cincinnati that Martinelli thinks will be valuable to historians as well as people who grew up there — “many of the people in the book are still alive,” he says — and are looking to reminisce.

        Two powerhouse local institutions think so as well: Both UC's Archive and Rare Book Department and the Cincinnati Historical Society are holding copies for anyone who wants a look-see.

        Big Apple: Merciful heavens, it looks as if a little piece of Cincinnati is being imported to New York. Specifically, J's Fresh Seafood owner Jimmy Gherardi is on the brink of opening J's Seafood and Steakhouse in Great Neck, a New York 'burb nine miles from LaGuardia Airport.

        He's teaming with a few family members who live there — it's his hometown — and planning a soft opening April 23. “I'm staying here, but I'm sending Paul (Nichols, former chef at Walt Disney World's Grand Floridian, now at J's) to open the place.”

        The New York branch came about, he says, when he was commuting back and forth to New York, working on benefits in the wake of 9-11.

        “People kept telling me I need to open up there. Plus, I have a lot of New York customers who come here when traveling, and they say the same thing. So I went for it.”

        Farewell: And on a sad note, Jeff Koury, J's wonderfully inventive bartender — do not let him serve you one of those SSPs he invented unless you want double vision after one gulp — for these past seven years, has moved on. He's now managing Barresi's in Deer Park.

        “I hated leaving so abruptly — Jimmy didn't want me to stay once I gave notice — because I had so many regulars coming in two or three times a week, some even more. I didn't get a chance to say goodbye.”

        So he's doing it now: Goodbye, regulars.

        E-mail jknippenberg@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/knip


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