Friday, November 21, 2014

Framingham's Italian Culture Lives On in Tripoli

When I moved to Framingham fifteen years ago, I knew very few people in town. I grew up in a close-knit, heavily Italian-American neighborhood in Quincy, Massachusetts, and when I was a child, a lot of people in my neighborhood spoke Italian, and for some it was their first language. In Framingham I got used to hearing people speaking Spanish, Portuguese, and sometimes Russian, but not Italian.

Then one day at the supermarket I passed a middle-aged woman in one of the aisles speaking to what appeared to be her very elderly mother in Italian. I was so excited I walked up to them and told them in Italian how good it was to hear the language again. I think I startled them with my exuberance but we chatted for a minute, and probably told each other where our families were from in Italy, because no matter where in the world you meet someone with Italian roots, that's the first thing you talk about.

So began my search for Framingham's Italian-American culture. Most of it is centered in Tripoli, the south side neighborhood astride Waverly Street (Route 135) at the edge of downtown, near the Ashland line. The area began to fill with Italian immigrants in the 1880s during the huge immigration wave that brought so many Italians to the United States over the next twenty or thirty years. A large Italian-American community grew and thrived there, but as the old generation passed on and the newer generations assimilated and moved out, the community shrank and other newcomers took their place.

So what are the remaining institutions of Tripoli's Italian past, where you can step back in time a bit, and experience a taste of Boston's North End or New York City's Little Italy (also both greatly diminished) in Framingham? Not surprisingly, given the emphasis Italians put on what they eat, they're mostly food-centric.

La Cantina at 911 Waverly Street is still going strong after over sixty years as one of Framingham's favorite and most beloved Italian restaurants. They also have a product line of salad dressings and pasta sauces marketed under the Fanny label (named after Fanny Mencoboni, who started the restaurant with her husband Leo) that is sold in supermarkets all over New England. Within the past few years they completed a major renovation and expansion so clearly their offerings of traditional fare like chicken or eggplant parmigiana, fettucine alfredo, and sausage and peppers has a loyal following.

The Waverly Market, at 684 Waverly Street, is a family owned and operated Italian food store that opened in 1929. They are renowned for their homemade porchetta, sausages, meatballs, sauce, and pasta, as well as the many food items they stock that are imported from Italy. They also have takeout sandwiches, soups, and salads as well as cappuccino.  The store has been featured on Boston area television shows like Chronicle and The Phantom Gourmet and has been run by three consecutive generations of the Stefanini family.

The Framingham Baking Company at 840 Waverly Street has been producing baked goods for the community since 1917. While you can certainly get the expected items like Italian bread, biscotti, and pizzelle, they offer a veritable global array of items ranging from croissants to challah to Portuguese sweet bread. What many people flock there for are their famous sheet pizzas, which have fueled many a family gathering in town.

The Columbus Club at 11 Fountain Street is a social-fraternal organization that has been a cornerstone of the Framingham Italian-American community since it was founded in 1908. But you don't have to be a member to experience this century-plus marvel. One of the best-kept secrets in town is the fact that they serve lunch to the public Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. This fact is not even included on their web site, curiously, though they do some print advertising once in a while.

Just walk in the side door to the lower level of the building and you'll find yourself in a lively room full of postal workers, trades people, and assorted townies in the know, chatting away as they dig into hearty plates of pasta with meatballs and sausages, soups, sandwiches, as well as daily specials like chicken parmigiana (Saturday is tripe day), all at very low prices. They also have an all-you-can-eat dinner Tuesday nights from 5 to 7 p.m. - soup, salad, garlic bread, two types of pasta, meatballs, and dessert and coffee, incredibly, for only $7.00.

The genesis for this blog post was a recent discussion on the Framingham Downtown Renaissance Facebook page when someone said downtown Framingham needed some places where you could buy homemade, old family recipe items like sausages and bread. As I pointed out, in Tripoli you still can, and have been able to, for about a century, thanks to Framingham's Italian American community.

Buon appetito!