In 2007, Village Preservation published “The Italians of the South Village” by Mary Elizabeth Brown, Ph.D. The report is exhaustive and highlights buildings, people, and dynamic histories of a long-storied community in an historic neighborhood. The report opens with a map of Italian-American Sites in the South Village, which lists 45 sites in this relatively small historic district, three of which are designated as “former entertainment establishments.” These three sites reveal much about the neighborhood’s Italian history and culture, as well as ways that the area intersected with other cultures and communities.
Italian-Americans of the South Village: Background
An estimated 5.3 million Italians immigrated to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries; more came through New York City than any other port of entry. To this day, the greatest concentration of Americans of Italian descent can be found in and around New York City. Like many immigrants to New York City, Italians originally coalesced into well‐defined communities in Lower Manhattan. The South Village and Little Italy were the most prominent of these. While they have no doubt undergone significant change, they maintain a sense of connection to that past, helped in no small part by the historic district designation Village Preservation has been able to secure for the area over the last ten years. Our Executive Director Andrew Berman wrote in the report in 2007:
“Whole streets of the South Village look more or less the same today as they did one hundred years ago, lined with the same tenements and small storefronts which catered to turn‐of‐the‐century immigrants. And while only a fraction of the current occupants of these buildings are first‐generation Italian immigrants or their descendants, the South Village retains a modesty found in few other surrounding neighborhoods in Manhattan, and tends to draw those who appreciate the same down‐to‐earth qualities and bustling mom and pop shop‐filled streets that have characterized this neighborhood for generations.”
Beyond the Italian South Village’s Storefronts…
Many of the most prominent and popular sites in the neighborhood connected to its Italian heritage provided sustenance of a spiritual or culinary nature. But ultimately the Italian immigrant and Italian-American community of the South Village and environs, and the institutions they created, provided sustenance of many different types. The arts and entertainment were certainly prominent among them. Some examples include the Amato Opera, Ferrando’s Hall, and Pietro De Silvestri’s bar. Amato’s was the longest-lasting of these sites, started by a couple who were involved in opera and performances in and around New York. Ferrando’s Hall, later Villa Manganaro, illuminates the relationship between “ethnic” theaters in our neighborhoods and beyond at the time. And while we don’t even know what Pietro De Silvestri’s bar was called, that space had been a quite infamous gay bar that was closed in 1892, and continues to be an entertainment venue to this day.
The Amato Opera
The Amato Opera was the brainchild of Anthony Amato and Serafina (Sally) Bellantone. Sally was born in Manhattan in 1917, while Anthony was born in 1920 in Southern Italy, and immigrated at age seven. In a not-uncommon immigrant story, Amato’s father wished for his son to go into business, while Anthony himself pursued singing. And he succeeded in turning that skill into a profession, singing with the Philadelphia and Hartford Operas. Sally was also a performer, and met Anthony working in a production of The Vagabond King at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 1943. Two years later they were married, and in 1946, Anthony took a job as Director of the Opera Workshop at the American Theater Wing’s school.
Anthony and Sally founded the Amato Opera in 1948, to provide experience for his students and an opportunity for working‐class people to attend the opera. The first local performance of Rossini’s Barber of Seville took place at Our Lady of Pompeii in Greenwich Village. In May 1951, the Amatos purchased the Bleecker Playhouse Theater at 159‐161 Bleecker Street for $68,000. They used the theater as a venue for their own operas and a source of income until August 1959, when Circle in the Square took a long‐term lease on the space.
The Amatos rented other places for their operas until September 1964, when they bought a building at 319 Bowery that they turned into a theater, opening with a performance of Puccini’s La Bohème. Throughout the years, Tony selected the operas and rehearsed the cast, and Sally sewed the costumes, seated the audience, and ran the light board during the show. She passed away at the age of 82 in 2000.
Amato Opera closed after its last performance of The Marriage of Figaro on May 31, 2009. Anthony Amato announced the planned closure on January 10, 2009, before a performance of The Merry Widow. He told The New York Times, “Now, with Sally gone, I have decided that it is time for me to start a new chapter in my life.”
In 2010, Amato published a book about the company called The Smallest Grand Opera in the World. Amato died on December 13, 2011, but his legacy lives on in the opera companies and theaters that were founded by his colleagues and students, some of which sill exist to this day.
Ferrando’s Music Hall was located at 184 Sullivan Street. This name stayed from 1902-1905 when it changed to the Villa Manganaro. Here they showcased vaudeville acts, cinematic expositions, trapeze and acrobatic artists, cyclists, magic shows, international singers and dancers, vocalists performing ballads, duets, opera selections, and folk songs. This space no longer exists, but its memory highlights much of the variety of the South Village’s Italian community.
No immigrant group is a monolith, and many of the regional differences that immigrants brought with them persisted into their community building in their new homes. Ferrando’s Hall (later Villa Manganaro), hosted performances in both northern and southern Italian dialects of Piedmontese and Milanese, among others, while also advertising in English to attract a wider audience.
It’s unclear whether there were tensions culturally between northern and southern Italians in the South Village, though in Village Preservation’s South Village Italians report, writer Dr. Brown speculated that it was unlikely that such regional antagonisms would simply cease upon arriving in America. Catering to separate regions for separate performances likely allowed Ferrando’s to build a larger community without further aggravating tensions.
Ferrando’s also took methodological lessons from other “ethnic theaters,” as is pointed out in the book “Italoamericana: The Literature of the Great Migration, 1880-1943,” edited by Francesco Durante, Robert Viscusi. “In fact,” they write, “New York’s Lower East Side was made up of just such a mixture or mosaic of different traditions.” This includes other theaters, also on the Bowery, that hosted theater in Yiddish, German, English, and Italian.
“In a period of immigration for the most part still highly transient, it was exactly there, in the cafe, that one could find one’s countrymen, those who might be able to address the problems of the newcomer.” They describe Ferrando’s as one of a handful of café-chantants which arose at that time, using the French term for something that combines cabaret, music hall, vaudeville, etc. where small groups of performers performed popular music for the public.
Pietro De Silvestri’s Bar
This establishment has largely been lost to history, as so many small business are, even as they helped to define a neighborhood and its culture during the years they functoined. What we know is that Pietro De Silvestri was born in Arona in north‐central Italy in 1866. He ran a bar at 157 Bleecker Street from 1901 to 1904. We don’t know the name of the bar, or much else about Pietro, who shares a name with a Pope from the 1800s, which doesn’t help with research.
We do, however, guess that De Silverstri had help in securing the space for his bar at 157 Bleecker, where “Papa” of the South Village Luigi Fugazy had once worked. Fugazy was known for helping his community members to find rents, loans, legal advice, travel arrangements, and much more. This shows that Pietro was likely part of a broader community network of immigrant entrepreneurs.
What we know about 157 Bleecker Street as a venue is much more robust. Prior to Pietro’s three years of ownership, the space was — also for three years — The Slide. It is here where we see the historic Italian and LGBTQ communitites in the Village meeting, handing off spaces, and likely overlapping to some extent.
According to Village Preservation’s “The South Village: A Proposal for Historic District Designation:”
Frank Stevenson’s Slide [was] located in the basement of no. 157. The Press characterized the Slide as… “the wickedest place in New York.” The Slide was
especially popular with what historian [and author of Gay New York] George Chauncey has called “fairies”: described by The Press, in derisive terms typical of the time, as men who were “not worthy the name of man…effeminate, degraded and addicted to vices which are inhuman and unnatural.”
After Pietro’s ownership, the location changed hands a number of times. From 1976 to 2012, Kenny’s Castaways hosted music shows by folk, blues, jazz, rock, hip-hop and punk performers, including greats like Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, and more.
Now, it’s called Caroll Place, an Italian wine bar and gastropub which also hosts live music. The venue is named in honor of Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. Owners re-designed the space while still paying homage to it’s roots, re-purposing the original wall paneling, shelving, banisers, and 180-year old floors and wood beams throughout. They also set up a display of artifacts uncovered during renovation in the lower level.