Economic strife and social upheaval in Italy and Sicily in the late 1800s drove millions of Italians to immigrate to the United States.
Many Sicilians sailed from Palermo directly to New Orleans aboard the S.S. Manila in the early 1900s. “When the major influx came in the 1880s, they were recruited to come over here to work,” says Sal Serio, genealogist at the American Italian Cultural Center. They settled across southern Louisiana, with many going to work on plantations. “The plantation owners gave them a little plot of land, and they would plant vegetables,” Serio says.
Some 100,000 Sicilians settled in New Orleans between 1898 and 1929. So many Sicilians made the city their home that parts of the French Quarter – which in 1910 was 80 percent Sicilian – became known as “Little Palermo.”
Like many immigrants today, the Sicilian immigrants set about making a living so they could send money to their families back home in the “old country.” Eventually, many opened their own businesses; Sicilian-owned restaurants, barbershops, clothing stores and fruit stands popped up across the city. Even some plantation workers began trucking their produce to the city.
“They had so much surplus vegetables that they started putting up stands on the road and selling. Then it got to be more than that so they started hauling it to New Orleans,” Serio says.
Over time, many fruit and vegetable stands morphed into restaurants – and groceries. Records from 1937 show more than 300 Italian- or Sicilian-owned general groceries in New Orleans. Many were corner groceries, small stores that sold produce, meat, canned goods and household items. Though owned by Italians, the groceries didn’t necessarily feature Italian imports, like you’d see today in Central Grocery.
Hubs of the neighborhood
“If you drive around New Orleans you’ll still see some buildings with the corner cut off. That was a corner grocery,” says Serio, whose grandparents immigrated to New Orleans from Sicily in 1903 and owned a grocery.
Totora’s Grocery, which was open in the building that now houses Le Citron Bistro on the corner of Religious and Orange streets, was one such neighborhood grocery.
“The grocery was the hub of the neighborhood,” says Grace Hutson, whose grandparents Anna and Rosolino Totora opened the grocery in 1918 after they immigrated from Alia, Sicily, in 1903. “It had a bench outside where people would talk and visit. They might come in, buy a Coke and a cigarette and go outside and talk.”
The neighborhood around the grocery was, at the time, mostly Italian. “A lot of Italian families lived in the neighborhood and the majority would be relatives. That was how it was done back then,” says Hutson. “You’d get married and move a block away. They had common culture and community.”
A different time
All but a few corner groceries (Italian-owned or otherwise) have closed, giving way to larger stores. Gone with them is a way of life.
“They didn’t have supermarkets. They didn’t have any large stores. So everybody would walk to the store and walk back home,” Serio says.
“It was a totally different world back then,” says Hutson, who spent time every day in her grandparents’ grocery, which closed in the 1980s. Products such as Jax Beer and Nehi Soda have been discontinued, and the entire shopping experience has changed. Before credit cards, if buyers were low on cash, grocery owners would keep a log of their purchases in a notebook. Shoppers could come in and pay on their bill at any time. “Back then people were more trustworthy.”
Zuppardo’s Family Market on Veterans Boulevard in Metairie has survived the changing times. The family-owned store began as a fruit stand on the corner of Gentilly Boulevard and Elysian Fields Avenue in the 1930s.
Peter Zuppardo immigrated to New Orleans from Camporeale, Sicily, and sold green bananas to distributors who trucked them across the United States. His son, Anthony, began selling the ripe bananas.
“Uncle Tony sold bananas door-to-door,” says his great-nephew Joseph Zuppardo. “He started doing better and better and he bought a bike. He kept doing better and better, and he bought a donkey.”
Anthony’s business morphed into the fruit stand, which he later enclosed. In 1937, he opened Economical Supermarket, which he ran with his brother, Joseph’s grandfather. The grocery stood at its original location in Gentilly until Hurricane Katrina, and the brothers opened the Metairie store in ’63.
In the era of the corner grocery, shoppers didn’t browse the aisles for their own goods. “Back in the day, you went up to the clerk and said, ‘I need a pound of cheese,’ or whatever you wanted to buy. Uncle Tony’s store was the first to have self-service in New Orleans,” Joseph says. At Anthony’s store, he says, shoppers could pick from among live chickens, which would be slaughtered in-store.
Modern laws have changed groceries, too. Hutson remembers serving cold beer to customers as a kid. “We might be 8 or 9 years old and we could walk over to the cooler and get it for them. There were no laws back then making that illegal,” she says.
Italian-owned groceries were a family affair. At Totora’s Grocery, family members pitched in for the lunchtime rush when longshoremen from the nearby wharfs on the Mississippi River came in to buy poor boys. Hutson’s mother and aunts would arrive early to prepare the fixings.
“They’d cook the roast beef, cut the bread and on Fridays fry the shrimp and the oysters. Back then it was really important, being in a Catholic section of town, to provide seafood on Fridays,” she says. “Lunchtime was fast-paced because the longshoremen were in a hurry. I can remember seeing everyone running around in the kitchen trying to get it all done.”
Hutson practically grew up in the grocery, where she was surrounded by other family members: cousins, aunts, uncles and her grandparents. “I probably spent more time there than at home. We lived about two blocks away and went there three to four times a day,” she says. The grocery, which was housed in the oldest existing structure upriver of Canal Street, was connected to her grandmother’s home.
Hutson’s uncle eventually took over the store, but her grandmother was always nearby. “Even when she was too old to run the store, she sat on a bench in there all day,” she says.
Totora’s Grocery was also the backdrop of a budding romance. According to family lore, Hutson’s father came to the store every day to buy a Nehi orange soda and a lemon Hubig’s Pie, while trying to catch the attention of her mother while she worked.
At Zuppardo’s, four generations have been involved in the family business. Joseph, who’s a co-owner with other family members, started working at the store when he was 10 years old.
“Really at 10 you cause more trouble than you help,” he says. Joseph worked at the grocery every summer, rotating from department to department – even spending time as a janitor. Joseph’s grandfather, who’s 85, still comes in the store on a regular basis, and his uncle Tony stayed involved until his death in 2007 at age 93.
Many Italian immigrants built their businesses from the ground up, working hard to send money back to their families in the old country. “My grandparents came to America with $20 in their pockets,” Hutson says. “They thought they’d come and work for two years and then go back to Sicily, but they stayed.”
To succeed, the families had to be resilient – and creative. Joseph Zuppardo says Uncle Tony once sold a stray cat to a customer. It was just one of the many ways he found success.
“When I was 26, the only days I took off were Thursday and we rotated Sunday. On a Wednesday my uncle Tony tells me, ‘You’re taking off tomorrow?’ He goes, ‘You know you’re only 26, and you take a day off every single week.’ Back when he was doing this, he didn’t take any days off. That was his work ethic. If you were open, you worked,” Joseph says. He is now in the store at least part of the day on Thursdays.
Entire lives unfolded in New Orleans’ Italian-owned groceries. They were places where generations learned to cook, raised their children, took on the family business – even fell in love.