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In the Kitchen at 520 Mickle Street

Below: Nunziata DiRenzo in the kitchen of 520 Mickle Street. The Valente family lived in this house from 1940 until 1959.

Nunziata DiRenzo in the kitchen at 520 Mickle Street, 26 KB

Unlike their old house at 337 Berkley Street, the house at 520 Mickle Street was outside the Italian colony (slum) in Camden, although only by a few streets. It was a large house with two staircases. The back staircase which went right into the kitchen was for the use of servants, which of course the Valente family did not have. The house cost $1,800. The kitchen was large; it was on the first or ground floor of the house. There was also a finished basement where Nunziata DiRenzo made homemade spaghetti. (Berkley Street's basement had a floor of bare earth; the family had lived in that house from about 1916.)

The house at 520 Mickle Street was bought by Giovanni Valente and Nunziata DiRenzo's oldest son Nicholas Valente who was then about twenty-three years old. It required a down-payment of $500, which Nicholas borrowed from his father's older brother Donato Valente; Donato would not have lent the money to his brother Giovanni because he thought Giovanni was irresponsible. Nicholas paid a $25 a month mortgage. When the United States declared war Nicholas was accepted by the Coast Guard (1942). He paid off the mortgage and repaid his uncle (with 6% simple interest, I think he said) before leaving; Donato gave him $10 back because he was going into the service. Nicholas gave the house to his father in 1947, when Nicholas married and moved away.

The Italians the Valente family had as neighbors lived on Berkley Street; there were no other Italian families on Mickle Street. "People thought the house on Mickle Street was a mansion, because it had double front doors and both a front staircase and a back staircase" (which led from the second floor to the kitchen). Besides the ground (or first floor) there were second and third floors and a basement. There were four bedrooms on the second floor.

The house at 337 Berkley Street

Berkley Street had a ground and a second floor and a basement for storage of the coal that was burned in the small stove in the living room that heated the house, and during Prohibition for a large cask for home-made wine. (When she was a young girl Vittoria Donata Valente once went downstairs and accidentally made herself drunk by drinking the wine there.) The living room was "as large as a ball room", but the kitchen was very small, although they had an "ice box", during the winter that is. This was a box outside their house, attached to their dining room; you lifted up a dining room window and pulled the door of the box open -- the door had side hinges -- and there inside you could keep things refrigerated.

On Mickle Street Vittoria Donata had her own room for the first time (She was fifteen). She took the smallest room; maybe it was originally a sewing room. Her room did not have room for a wardrobe closest, so her younger sisters borrowed her clothes without telling her. The room did have a window. On Berkley Street they had slept three or four to a room. Whenever I ask her about those days, Vittoria always says, "On Berkley Street we had nothing." But they did have food to eat, a roof over their heads, "and we had family".

The photograph above is hardly the nicest photograph I have of Nunziata DiRenzo (She had by this time had 17 children, 11 living, and was often ill), but it is the only photograph I have of her in the kitchen on Mickle Street. It shows that she did not have big restaurant pots and cooking utensils in her kitchen. The Valente family were poor people -- poor people in reality: they did not have the romantic things that poor people have in the movies. Like all poor people they made do with what they had or they went without. But this did not stop Nunziata and other women like her from being wonderful cooks.

"We always had food on the table. Our mom" -- (Because there were so many people who had the same name, it was always "our Nick", "our Joe", "our Millie", "our Esther", and from following this pattern of speech came the silly expressions "our mom" and "our pop") -- "made meals out of nothing." This was on Berkley Street during the Great Depression. Giovanni Valente, who was an Italian-bread baker and therefore always found work, used to give all his money to his wife Nunziata. And whether it was enough or not, he did not want to know; that was the end of it as far as he was concerned.

Lydia Valente said that her mother used to keep the kitchen pots and pans shinning clean. They had to be really cleaned well, and if Lydia did not do a good enough job cleaning a pot, her mother would take the pot from her and clean itself herself. The same thing happened when Nunziata made biscotti ("grandmom's biscotts"). Lydia was not strong enough to mix the dough, which was made from 5 pounds of flour, 2 and 1/2 pounds of sugar and two dozen eggs in a spaghetti pot, and so her mother, even when Nunziata was an old woman, would take the pot from her daughter and using only a wooden spoon would mix the dough herself.

During the Great Depression strangers would sometimes knock on the door at Berkley Street to ask for food; Nunziata would make sandwiches and have the person sit on the steps to eat. People did things like this in those days.

The last time I saw my grandmother she did not recognize me, but when I entered the room she asked, "Did he eat?" Then she gestured for me to sit down. "I'm gonna make something soon," she told me.

[Walt Whitman lived in Camden in the mid-1870s until his death, first at 431 Stevens Street, which was just around the corner from the Valente house on Berkley Street, and then at 328 Mickle Street. But the Mickle Street house was near 2nd Street, which is where the docks were, "and we never went there," and so Vittoria never visited the Whitman house. In the 1940s when some tourists were asking people on the street for directions, Vittoria was the only one they asked who knew where it was.]

Related Pages: Christmas Eve on Berkley and Mickle Streets | Map of the City of Camden in 1935 | Encyclopedia article for the City of Camden in 1940.

Annie-the-Coffee-Lady and Grace Fanelli in the kitchen at 520 Mickle Street, 20 KB

Above: from the viewer's left to right: "Annie-the-coffee-lady" (Anna MOZZO) and Grace FANELLI in the kitchen of the Valente house at 520 Mickle Street, Camden, New Jersey.

The cake may be, as it usually was, an Angel Food Cake, a sponge-type cake make with 12 eggs (from the bakery; Nunziata did not make cakes at home). "Because before television, that's what people used to do; they used to go visiting at night. And something was always put on the table for them, coffee, cake, a glass of wine. There was someone visiting my parents almost every night on Mickle Street."

Grace Fanelli was Esther Valente's (1930-1994) godmother. Esther took her name at confirmation, and that is why she sometimes used the name Esther G. Valente. Grace (1899-1996) was the wife of Giuseppe (fu  Giovanni) IACOVELLI (1891-1940). Grace Fanelli was born in Riccia, while her husband Giuseppe Iacovelli was born in Sant'Elia a Pianisi; both villages are in the Region of Molise.

Hold your breath. Giuseppe Iacovelli's father's brother was the Domenico Iacovelli who was the husband of the Zi' Nigol who had the boarding house at 210 Mickle Street where Giovanni Valente, Nunziata DiRenzo and her father stayed when they first came from Italy to America. Both Giuseppe Iacovelli and Nunziata DiRenzo called Domenico Iacovelli "uncle", and the families believed that there was a "blood relation" there. The one who would have known what all these family relationships were, however, was Nunziata DiRenzo (1897-1983).

Annie-the-coffee-lady's husband was Bartolomeo d'ALESSANDRO (1886-1953); the children called him Zi' Miucc', which is dialect derived from a diminutive of Bartolomeo (Bartolomeucci), just as they called Annie Zi'Anni' ("Aunt Annie"). Their coffee store was at 4th and Royden Streets, Camden, which was of course where Annie's nick-name came from. "We saw Annie a lot because she lived just off Broadway, on Federal Street, near us. They used to walk the two blocks to visit us every night."

Annie-the-coffee-lady had two nieces, though she had no children, both of whom she outlived. These nieces for a wedding present in 1953 gave Vittoria Valente a statue of the Infant of Prague. The statue has stood on the chest of drawers in Vittoria's bedroom ever since. Zi'Anni', who was not Vittoria's "aunt" in the English language sense of that word, wanted to make a velvet gown for the Infant, but Vittoria never let her. Nunziata DiRenzo had one of these statues, too. Why the Christ Child is here called "the Infant of Prague" or what relation this has to Italy, Vittoria was not told.

Zi'Anni' was always good to me when I was a boy. I remember visiting her at her apartment on Westfield Avenue in Camden one evening. (This was near Nunziata's sister Maria Rosaria DiRenzo's house, in Camden. "I think they were called the Westfield Apartments.") She gave me wine mixed with ginger ale to drink, just the way children in southern Italian villages are given wine to drink, and cake to eat. Before we left she wrapped the cake for me to take home. She wrapped it slowly and carefully, the way the old Italian woman used to do, which sent a warmth along my spine that brought tears to my eyes.

The last time I saw her was in the cemetery during a funeral; as we walked to the grave, she gave me five dollars and kissed my forearm. I was twenty-five years old.

Anna MOZZO (1894-1985) is buried beside her husband Bartolomeo in Calvary Cemetery, Cherry Hill, New Jersey (Section E, Block TT, Lot 18).

The Infant of Prague

The Infant of Prague is a statue of the Christ Child King that since 1628 has stood in the church of Our Lady of Victory in Prague. It is carved of wood and covered in wax, 18 inches tall, with a broad base; the Child's left hand holds the globe surmounted by a Cross, and His right hand gives a blessing. (New Catholic Encyclopedia, McGraw, 1967).

The Infant of Prague, 12 KB

The statues the Italians in Camden had were of the same description, but made of plaster. Unlike the statue of Our Lady of Victory in Gambatesa, the Infant of Prague stands alone and upright. (Above is a photograph of the statue that Zi'Anni's two nieces gave to Vittoria Valente almost fifty years ago. It is 18 inches tall, 7 inches across, and 5 inches front to back.)"

World War One Draft Registration Card of Bartolomeo d'Alessandro

Serial Number: 1384 | Order Number: 3883

Stamp of Local Board:
Local Board for Division No. 1
City of Camden, New Jersey

Note: the handwriting of this document, except for the registrant's signature, belongs to the registrar.

Source: National Archives Microfilm Publication M1509, Roll NJ18

Birth Record of Bartolomeo d'Alessandro from the Civil Register of Gambatesa, Campobasso

d'ALESSANDRO Bartolomeo
  b. 14 APR 1886 at 10:15 AM at Via Supportuo Piccolo #8, to Michele, age 32, calzolaio, and to Maria Vittoria RIVELLINI, donna di casa

Signed by Michele d'ALESSANDRO

Source: Gambatesa Nati 1886 #48


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Last revised: 27 March 2004 : 2004-03-27 by Robert [Wesley] Angelo.

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