Viva Italia!

by Judy Schultz

As the July/August deadline approached, so did the big FIFA World Cup game, the one that mattered: England vs. Italy, June 14.

On that sunny afternoon, Little Italy was running full tilt.

Hundreds of Italians, and those who only wish they were Italian, showed up for the big game, and for the celebration of another event, equally significant: the 55th anniversary of the Italian Centre Shop.

The party took over the street, the alley, the park across the road. Food sizzled, music blared. It was pandemonium. Traffic on the Via Italia (aka 95th St) was a shambles until one good man took over and cheerfully unsnarled pedestrian traffic from vehicular.

Frank Spinelli, the guy who started it all back in the early Fifties, would have loved it.

That’s when a young Frank Spinelli arrived in Edmonton from the small Neapolitan town of San Pietro al Tanagro.

Broke but eager, he worked hard, weathered the bad times, eventually prospered, and became the patriarch of Little Italy. Through it all, he never forgot how it felt to be the new kid in town, no money, no job, “And nobody will advance you a dime.”

Spinelli was a generous man, and his motto at the Italian Centre Shop, “Eat today, pay tomorrow,” became a godsend to newcomers, Italian and otherwise. Many had no jobs and spoke little English; many had children to feed.

That’s when Spinelli began stocking groceries some of us might have called exotic, the spices, the condiments, the beans, rice, oils from faraway places not necessarily Italian.

By the Sixties, when the local Italian soccer team began whupping their local opponents, it was Spinelli who bought the uniforms, fed the boys after the games and paid for the team to go on the road, to the provincials.

Food was always centre stage, and back in the Day, Spinelli liked to cook for his friends. No surprise then that on this special day – the 55th anniversary of his shop, the big FIFA soccer match, and the day before Father’s Day – his daughter, Teresa, celebrated his memory in typical Spinelli style.

“We love you, we’ll feed you — we’re Italian.”

Across the alley behind the store, in the walled courtyard where hot games of scoppa were once played, Teresa and friends barbecued sausages (‘you want hot or sweet?’) poured wine, visited with everybody.

A giant Parmesan cheese was cracked in the deli. There was a pizza-building demo. One of the highlights: a messy, slurpy, spaghetti-eating contest pitted a couple of shoo-ins against some rank amateurs, but it was a young woman, Krystal Trussert, who outslurped them all.

It couldn’t have been a sweeter day. In Giovanni Caboto Park, little kids kicked soccer balls, clutched their AMA teddy bears, ran over their parents, splashed in the fountains, curled up on blankets, fell asleep.

Some of them climbed on the life-sized statue of the Patriarch of Little Italy. Many pictures were taken by doting parents

Gradually the blue-shirted soccer fans drifted into the park, more blankets were spread, and by four o’clock all eyes were on the giant screen. At the end of the first half it was one-all, England vs. Italy.

Five minutes into the second half, Italian striker super Mario Balotelli bounced the ball off his head. No concussion worries there, it barely ruffled his fancy Mohawk-do. Balotelli’s goal pulled Italy into the lead, which they held through the next 40 tense moments while defeating England

The crowd went crazy. As in all the best soccer matches, there was a lot of hugging and jumping. Tears were shed, drinks were spilled, throats went raw from cheering.

The spirit of the big guy whose statue sits in the park, a winning hand of scoppa cards in his hand, was there for it all. The food, the soccer, the jubilation, the families, just the way he liked it. He would have had a great time.

Judy Schultz is a food and travel writer who divides her time between Canada and New Zealand.