Bringing Nonna's Kitchen to Alberta: Italian-Albertan Stories
Chi si volta, e chi si gira, sempre a casa va finire – ‘no matter where you go or turn, you’ll always end up at home’ – it’s the soul of Alberta’s Italian culinary offerings and especially those enjoyed this side of the Atlantic.
Throughout the early to mid-20th century, thousands left rural areas of Southern Italy, and while farming put food on the table, it wasn’t fulfilling the dreams they had for themselves and their families. With Alberta boasting economic opportunity, they said goodbye to the comforts of home, and braved the jump. Along with their belongings, they brought artisanal, agricultural, and industrial skills that, along with grit and gumption, helped them achieve their dreams in cities like Calgary and Edmonton.
But one thing remained: family. Settled Italian Canadians welcomed newly landed loved ones with open arms, hot meals, and a place to stay until they could do the same. It’s what historians call “migratory chains” where, through this cycle of love and hospitality, entire families and Italian villages found a new home and a new beginning in the same area.
Despite having this circle of support, many still felt homesick. The comforts of home (language, food, and people) were, for many, still too far away. But this didn’t stop some Italians immigrants from opening restaurants and grocery stores with wood-fired pizza ovens and Italian imports where customers can close their eyes and feel transported. Many of these businesses still exist today as proof that through love and great food, Italy isn’t so far away after all.
In the 1950s, Frank Spinelli of the Italian Centre Shop left a farming life in San Pietro al Tangrao, in Campania, southwest Italy, to experience life outside Italian borders. While his plan was to travel, earn some cash, and head home, he suffered a major back injury at his job in a Yukon silver mine. Despite the setback, Spinelli was determined to continue his adventure – a Canadian adventure that would never end – and he was determined to make a go of his new life.
He wanted to create a piazza where friends could gather and enjoy lattes; today Edmontonians know this as their Little Italy, where all who visit feel transported to Italy. It’s something Frank’s daughter, Teresa Spinelli, sees in their Calgary and Edmonton locations. “We really are a gathering place… people feel connected to the memories at home,” she says. “It’s just a happy place to be.”
With food and gatherings at the core of Italian life, a trip to the Italian Centre Shop is like a pilgrimage – something Spinelli finds some Italian customers get emotional over. Her father listened to customers reminisce about home, the things they used to do and eat, and he worked hard to import those goods. Italian customers could find Italian newspapers and wine grapes that reminded them that home wasn’t so far away after all.
For those who aren’t Italian, the Italian Centre Shop remains a fixture in Alberta’s food scene. With the largest deli in Western Canada, you can indulge in mortadella and prosciutto, Parmesan and Italian burrata, and pickled vegetables. On the shelves, you’ll find not just one type of pesto, balsamic vinegar, or olive oil, but dozens. “With the exception of shaker Parmesan,” says Spinelli with a laugh, “the Italian Centre Shop has everything you need to bring Italy home.”
For Tony Nicastro of PZA Parlour and Villa Firenze, embracing his Italian roots is one of the most natural parts of his career. His grandparents, Joe and Teresa Tudda, moved to Alberta in 1959 after farming in southern Italy. In 1991, they opened Villa Firenze, an upscale restaurant with rustic flare committed to tradition; it hasn’t changed much since the Tudda’s opened it three decades ago.
For five years, Nicastro was removed from the industry and felt a void. “I couldn’t make a difference outside … there was no pride in anything,” he says. Re-encountering the passion and creativity of his relatives drove Nicastro to make his own mark – and he hasn’t looked back. He took the reins of Ville Firenze in 2013, opened PZA Parlour in Calgary in 2016, a “tradition meets modern” pizzeria, as well as a Cochrane location in 2019. The Cochrane location he’s found particularly fun as many of his relatives grew up in small Italian towns.
It’s part of Nicastro’s community-minded, hands-on philosophy that’s not only been part of his success, but another way to tap into his cultural identity. You’ll find him chatting with customers to ensure they get the full Italian experience – the same experience he grew up with. “When you connect with the food you become part of the family,” Nicastro says. It’s no accident that you’ll feel part of the hundreds of years of family tradition.
And isn’t that the essence of Italian cuisine?
Pasta exists at the intersection of creativity and history, comfort food and fine dining. It’s a dish prepared and beloved across the world, but at its heart, it’s a reminder of some of the most important things we share: great food and greater people to share it with.
Italian cuisine with forever be a reminder that at the table, we don’t get old. A tavola non si invecchia.