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Home » Art and Culture News, Culinary Geography, Linguistic Geography, Northern California

The Oldest Italian Restaurant in the U.S. Closed Its Doors

Submitted by on May 23, 2012 – 6:07 pm 8 Comments |  
Fior D’Italia, a legendary Italian restaurant, has been serving diners since 1886 in a number of locations in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, known as the city’s Little Italy. But it took its final orders from customers on May 21, 2012. The restaurant survived several disasters, including the Great Quake of 1906. The day after the earthquake the restaurant “reopened” with great kettles of soup in a tent in order to feed the public. The restaurant operated out of the tent for about a year while San Francisco was rebuilt. As the city grew, the restaurant also expanded until it could seat 750 and serve 1500 meals a day. It became a center of cultural and social events for the city and the Italian community, as many banquets, parties, business events, and weddings took place at this restaurant. But in 2005 another disaster struck: a fire forced the owners, chef Gianni Audieri and his wife Trudy, to move the restaurant to another location. The general economic downturn starting in 2008, as well as locals’ increasingly cosmopolitan tastes, prompted the owners to shut operations down for good.

Fior D’Italia claimed to be the oldest Italian restaurant in the U.S., which is perhaps surprising, given that most Americans of Italian ancestry now live on the East Coast (see map). Midwest, Florida, and California have smaller Italian communities. However, “the Italians immigrated to California 50 years earlier than they did back east”, said Gianni Audieri to reporters. While most Italian immigrants came to the U.S. between 1880 and 1920 and settled in the large cities of the East Coast, a sizeable number of Italians came to California during the gold and silver rushes, where they were drawn to by work opportunities in mining, railroad construction, lumbering, and agriculture. It was in San Francisco that the first Columbus Day celebration was organized by Italian Americans in 1869. Among notable San Franciscans of Italian descent is Amadeo Giannini, who founded the Bank of Italy in 1904 in an effort to cater to Italian immigrants denied service by other banks; later it became the Bank of America.

With little ongoing immigration from Italy, fewer and fewer Americans speak Italian although as many as 17.8 million Americans claim Italian ancestry. According to the 1990 U.S. census, 1.3 million Americans claimed to speak Italian at home, but by the 2000 census this number was down to 1 million and by 2005 to 800,000. Together with Yiddish, Italian is the fastest shrinking Heritage Language in the U.S. The highest concentration of Italian speakers live in New York, where over 220,000 people or 28% of the state’s population claim to speak Italian at home. New Jersey is a distant second with 89,000 or 11% of its population speaking Italian, followed by California (66,000 or 8%), Pennsylvania (55,000 or 7%), and Florida (52,000 or 6.5%). Sizeable Italian-speaking communities also live in Massachusetts, Illinois, and Connecticut.

With Fior D’Italia closing, the oldest Italian restaurants are Ralphs in Philadelphia, opened by the Dispigno family in 1900, and Barbetta in New York City, founded in 1906 by Sebastiano Maioglio. While Barbetta is a few years younger than Ralphs, it has a triple title of the oldest restaurant in New York that is still owned by the family that founded it, the oldest Italian restaurant in New York, and the oldest restaurant in New York’s Theatre District.

 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Rosa/1593565364 Peter Rosa

    I grew up in a Connecticut city that has long had a very large Italian-American population.  Back as far as I can remember, in the 1970′s, except for a very small number of recent immigrants the only Italian speakers were elderly.  I’m sure they’re all gone today. The handful of 1970′s-era immigrants probably are English speakers by now.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for sharing your story, Peter! As you observed in your hometown, most people who speak their heritage language are either first- or second-generation immigrants. This is true of many immigrant communities in the U.S. Very few preserve the language beyond the second-generation, if that. The lists of “growing” (French Creole, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean) and “shrinking” (French, German, Italian, Polish, Yiddish, Greek, Armenian, Hebrew) heritage languages coincide with “new” and “old” immigration patterns.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Rosa/1593565364 Peter Rosa

         Today’s immigrant groups might preserve their heritage languages for longer than in the past, because people today are more concerned about ethnic pride and language is a vital component of that concept.  It probably is too soon to tell.

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          You may be right here, and it is indeed too soon to tell conclusively.

          However, some groups show no sign of better heritage language retention. Take Russian, for example: in the 1990s (from 1990 to 2000) it grew proportionately more than any other heritage language, nearly three-fold, from 242,000 to 706,000. But since 2000 the growth is much smaller: from 2000 to 2005 it grew by less than 18%, to 832,000. Immigration from Russia seems to fit the pattern: it is during the 1990s that it’s reached its peak and has gone down since then.

          Based on my personal experience, those who arrived as children or were born here in Russian-speaking immigrant families speak very poor Russian (if at all) and most do not know how to read or write in Russian. Most also speak Russian only to older family members but not among peers. It is hardly likely that these immigrants will pass Russian on to their children: there is simply nothing to pass on.

          It is thus a more complex issue, I think, where the number of immigrants in a given linguistic group, the density of communities, the level of assimilation, and many other things play a role alongside the issue of ethnic pride. I am hoping to write more on this topic in GeoCurrents, as this is an important issue: when talking about “immigrant languages” people often think of just Spanish, but there is so much more going on!

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-T-Wilson/682045086 James T. Wilson

            It strikes me that, while individual pride in one’s “heritage” may have increased, the institutional supports–clubs, Saturday schools, and especially churches–may have decreased in support.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Rosa/1593565364 Peter Rosa

            I’m also going to surmise that maintaining one’s heritage language into the second and especially third generations is going to require the presence of a community or at least neighborhood in which that language enjoys wide use.  Even if you learned the language as a child, if your only regular opportunity to use it as an adolescent or adult is when you talk to your grandmother, it’s not going to last and certainly isn’t going to be passed down to your children.

            With a few exceptions, such as Chinatowns or the Little Vietnam in Orange County, there just aren’t many communities or even  neighborhoods in the United States in which one has the opportunity to use a foreign language other than Spanish on a regular basis.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            These are some excellent points, Peter! How important a community density is can be seen from the contrast between Russian-speaking communities in the U.S. and in Israel. In the latter, children of immigrants speak a perfect Russian, whereas their American counterparts often speak “pidginized Russian”…

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            That’s an excellent point, James!