Little Italy enjoys rebirth

September 23, 2004

Dick Case, Post-Standard Columnist

So, last year, north of downtown, we widened sidewalks 9 feet in the 400-600 blocks of North Salina Street, our oldest intact 19th-century business district.

We raised banners on new Victorian street lamps, spruced up parks and made a new one; repaved streets and encouraged the improvement of storefronts and the creation of new living spaces.

Soon, we had a district with a new name: Little Italy.

Many of the improvements created with state and federal money were cosmetic. This city gateway sure looked a lot better, at least at street level.

But did the Little Italy project reach further than the pavement?

It sure did, according to neighbors I talked to this week. We have a modest boom going north of Butternut Street.

"I'm overwhelmed," says Joe Daloia, of the Northside Neighborhood Group. "It's the best thing that's ever happened here."

Bob Molta's channeling his enthusiasm into bricks and beams; he owns 15 North Side properties. He says he began serious redevelopment of high-end apartments along North Salina five years ago; friends told him he was nuts.

"I like a challenge," Bob's saying with a big grin. He's now successfully renting snazzy places to live above storefronts for rents ranging from $950 to $1,100 a month.

"The big thing the North Side project did was to show people we're using our money to invest in the neighborhood," Bob explains.

"Investment is the key," according to another Little Italy entrepreneur, George D. Angeloro, the fourth generation of his family to do business north of downtown. "The city's invested, now it's the new business that will make it work."

The latest new business for the Angeloros is Francesca's Cucina, run by his son, George A., carrying the flag for the family's fifth North Side generation. The Italian kitchen named for Francesca Angeloro, George D.'s mother, opens in the 500 block of North Salina in October.

Syracuse's North Side begins as we walk North Salina under I-690. Small parks flank the street. To the east is the parking lot that used to be "City Hay Market," our early regional market.

This is the area of the original "Little Italy," which began at the Erie Canal (now the boulevard) and ran north to Butternut Street.

The old Learbury "suit factory" is now Learbury Centre. There's a new Italian diner across the way. At the corner, notice that Asti Cafe is expanding.

Across the street, Schlosser Park and the Gen. Sniper statue had a big-time makeover last year.

There are vacant storefronts, but we're told they don't stay empty as long as they used to. Joe Daloia, of the neighborhood group, senses a new interest. He says he's amazed at how the new street lamps brighten the district at night. There's also a beat cop on the job.

Across Butternut, I pass the CYO, a North Side landmark, along with the 13-foot-wide Michael's noodle factory, long gone and a neighborhood curiosity with what has to be the city's oldest dead plants in the window.

I walk into No.541 and find the two George Angeloros, father and son, and their helpers getting ready to open the family's first restaurant in years, Francesca's Cucina. We recall Angeloro's Grill at North State Street and East Belden Avenue, opened by Angelo Angeloro after he came from Italy in the 1890s.

"We're still here," George senior greets me. His building started life in the 1850s as a wagon shop. George, who's retired from the state Department of Transportation, used it as an antiques shop for a few years.

We're just down the block from another Angeloro standard, Zischang's sporting goods shop, a business his father, the late "Julie" Angeloro, had 55 years.

George explain she's landlord and construction boss for the new restaurant; the business belongs to his son, George, his first solo. When Francesca's opens next month, George senior says his next project is a redo of the State Street side of the Zischang block.

Young George's kitchen will be family, also. He's drawing heavily on recipes passed on to him by his grandmother, Francesca Angeloro, including a killer Italian take on a pulled pork sandwich that sold out at last weekend's Italian Fest.

His dad says he bought this building as an investment 25 years ago. Like some of its neighbors, it sat empty "waiting for an area comeback, which definitely didn't happen. When Little Italy came along, it made it possible to go ahead with our plans."

The Angeloros aren't the only neighbors catching the spirit. George and George guide me north on Salina, where we admire the new Biscotti Cafe and its neighbor, White Dove Tea Room, a newcomer that's now a year old.

Likewise, across Salina, Peter Ancona's Cafe Mezzanote club. Next door, a cousin is getting ready to install Frankie's Bistro where a Chinese restaurant used to be.

Bob Molta drives up in his pickup. He rehabilitated the old corner block where Mezzanote is. Bob tours us around the neat apartments he's created above storefronts in the 600 block of Salina. Rents are at the high end for Syracuse, and the North Side, but the landlord's not shy of tenants. Bob's riding the new wave of interest in downtown living.

"I love it," comments Jamie Bean, one of the tenants who says she grew up in the 'burbs.

The first phase of the Little Italy project covered North Salina's 400, 500 and 600 blocks, to the old Salina village line at Division Street. The city plans to expand street improvements to the 300 and 700 blocks in the spring.

2004 The Post-Standard.

Home Up