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Category: Old Times on the Northside

The Back Yard Cookout: Northside Style

Written by Joe Russo  • September 24, 2015

Editor’s Note:  Joe Russo is a “Nortsider,” a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside.”


Family gatherings create my strongest memories. Among the earliest of my recollections were the backyard cookouts. Grandpa Emmi’s house on Grumbach Ave was adjacent to Schiller Park. It was a large back yard by city standards. Every trip to Grandpa’s house was an adventure. The garden was cultivated to grow not only tomatoes but also a diverse variety of vegetables. Fruit trees and a grape arbor complimented garden. It seemed like every plant in Grandpa’s backyard produced something to eat.

Cousins, laughter and adventure attracted me to the backyard on Grumbach Ave. I remember that whenever we walked into the garden to marvel at the vegetables we could hear Grandpa raising his voice, warning us about the perils of stepping on one of his hand nurtured plants. He would distract us with something that smelled and tasted delightful, finocchio(fennel). The “finnocch” grew like a weed at the edge of the garden. It was irresistibly attractive. It smelled and tasted like licorice. The herb seemed to have a calming effect on the cousins and myself. The large man with the booming voice became the grandfather with the big smile and the nurturing laugh.

The family is not as tightly knit as it once was. Cousins have moved to California, Connecticut, Colorado, the Netherlands and Virginia. Regular and frequent gatherings just have not been possible. Over the years a cousin or an aunt will organize a get together and we all come with a smile and a plate of food. We all say this happens too infrequently and we should do it more often. But busy lives and growing children often take us in a different direction.

Just a “couple two tree”(a northside expression) weeks ago my brother came home from California for a visit. It has been a while and I felt something special was necessary to welcome Armand home. I decided to host a backyard barbeque just as my cousin Theresa did last year. I received a Bocce ball set for Christmas and this would be the perfect time to try it out. We never did play Bocce. Conversation and laughter seemed more important. My backyard doesn’t stand up to Grandpa’s. I have too many trees and lots of shade, not ideal for growing tomatoes. I tried to grow finocchio but the neighborhood deer got to it first. I wonder if it had the same calming effect.

Almost everyone showed up to celebrate. My brother enjoyed being the guest of honor. My cousins and aunts brought laughter and food. Somehow I forgot to take even one picture. But I wondered to myself, had we managed to create that same old fashioned feeling of family that I remembered from Grumbach Ave. The family has changed significantly over the years. Marriage has brought in new members. Not only are most of my family members not Italian but most have not grown up on the northside. As I stood in the kitchen between platters of barbecued chicken and pans of eggplant parmigiana my Aunt Jenny shouted out over the merriment, “Joey, where do you keep the muppeens?” “Over here by the refrigerator”, I replied. At this moment I knew the family still had a connection to the old northside. Without even thinking about it Aunt Jen brought the spirit of the old northside to our gathering. Everyone was pitching in to make this memory a lasting one.

My Sister the Artist

Written by Joe Russo  • August 27, 2015

Editor’s Note:  Joe Russo is a “Nortsider,” a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside.”

My sister, Maria, is an artist. She is not a painter or a sculptor. However, like so many members of my family, she creates art in her everyday life. My father made wood carvings. My grandfather made wine. PJ my Cousin Annie’s son works in pen and ink. His sensitive portrait of his grandfather, my Uncle Sam, will bring a tear to the eye of anyone who knew Uncle Sam.

PJ's drawing of Uncle Sam and my cousin Annie.

PJ’s drawing of Uncle Sam and my cousin Annie.

My cousin Rhea lives in Cazenovia and she goes for walks with her camera. She comes back with beautiful colorful works of art.

An example of cousin Rhea's work.

An example of cousin Rhea’s work.


Maria expresses her art in a different way. She lives in the Netherlands and I remember a visit from a number of years ago. She wanted to make a special Thai chicken recipe with peanut sauce. As Maria went through a list of ingredients she needed to make this special food it became clear that a trip to the grocery store would be necessary. I impatiently said, “They have that peanut sauce in the Asian food aisle.” My sister replied, “No way! I’m not using some prepared sauce, it won’t even come close to the flavor I need.” So, we picked up all the ingredients mostly at the Real Food Co-op. And then I watched her make the sauce.

She didn’t use a recipe. The ingredients and method came right from her heart. It involved much tasting and mixing. She explained each step in a way that made me feel that this was not just a meal, but a life experience. I believe that anyone who tasted that sauce would have agreed, it was a work of art.

Maria at one time lived on the Canary Islands. She lived on Tenerife the largest island of this volcanic archipelago. And she had a job, growing orchids. Orchids for export are a significant industry for the Canary Islands.  In the morning she would tend to the plants watering, nurturing, and trimming, whatever an orchid needs to flourish. In this Latin country the hours of 12 to 4 are reserved for siesta time. And what better way to enjoy this time of rest than a couple of hours of beach time at one of Tenerife’s beautiful beaches. It must have been during this time that Maria made some of the most beautiful postcards I have ever seen. Hand painted in water colors the volcanic mountains, the black beach sand and the blue green water, an unusual place for anyone but a great place for an artist.

Maria and my father in front of the Everson Museum.

Maria and my father in front of the Everson Museum.

Maria was a seamstress as well. She designed and made clothes for herself. Some of her creations were sold in Rotterdam boutiques. When she was young and traveled a lot sometimes money would just run out. In Europe open air markets flourish. She came up with a design for a shoulder bag that had universal appeal. Maria was able to haggle for a good price on the fabric she needed, then stitch together a practical and useful item that was easily sold in almost any market, especially in southern Europe.

I remember a photo of my sister holding a basket of grapes just picked from a vineyard in Sicily. I don’t have a copy of that photo but it struck a chord. I remember holding it and looking at it for several minutes just to marvel at my sister’s lifestyle. It was simple and close to the earth without bragging or flaunting. It was the life of an artist. Maria gave back more than she took. I have always admired her for her lifestyle but more so for the creative way she does everything.

A Two Family House on Mary Street

Written by Joe Russo  • July 23, 2015

Editor’s Note:  Joe Russo is a “Nortsider,” a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside.”

Joe image

I remember moving to a two family house on Mary Street as though it were an adventure. It was the summer before I started Kindergarten at Our Lady of Pompei School. My Mom and Dad and I lived in a small rented apartment on Highland Street. The apartment was mid-way between both Grandparents. My mother’s parents lived on Grumbach Ave and my father’s parents lived on Butternut Street. So everybody was happy. However, moving to our own house was exciting.

My Aunt Jenny and Uncle Harold Seib were buying the house together with my parents. I think it was a time when families were closer together and pooling their resources was a way to move up the economic ladder. It was a two family house but everyone was going to live on the first floor. They rented out the second floor to another family. It helped pay the mortgage. They had a plan and it worked.

As we were packing up and getting ready to move I was full of questions. Was the school close to our new house? Were there other kids in the neighborhood my age? I’m sure I drove my mom to distraction. I was not disappointed. It was a “dream come true location”. North High School was directly across the street. This was without question the coolest high school in the city. If you are not from the Northside but are familiar with the movie Grease, you’ll catch my drift it was coolsville. I was amazed just to see the guys wearing their white t-shirts backwards with the rolled up sleeves and the greased back hair. I was just an ankle biter but couldn’t wait to be a Greaser.

My mom of course wanted me to be an Ivy Leaguer. I guess college guys didn’t grease back their hair. I really wished those college types would just chillout. The greasers had to work in the car repair shops and factories whereas the Ivy Leaguers had it made in the shade. They got the downtown office gig and the white collar jobs.

All of my dreams came true on Mary Street. There were lots of kids my age and we all walked to school together, in the rain the sun or the snow. We played 3 on 3 baseball games on the lawn at North High. Of course there was always an imaginary man on one of the bases. My mom became the official pitcher. She was a good sport.

I believed Mary Street was the epicenter of the Northside. An entire world existed within walking distance from my house. The Cozy Retreat sold double dip ice cream cones for 12 cents. A loaf of bread cost 24 cents at DiLauro’s Bakery. I didn’t have a key to our house because we never locked the door. At Fisher’s Five and Dime things actually sold for 5 or 10 cents. We had less money but it seemed like we had more choices.

Our lives in that two family house can never be replicated. It was a different era. It was also a foundation. I remember the wonderful supper time chaos with everyone talking at once, loudly. I remember the humor, the stories, and how it all came together to shape an outlook on life. It nurtured a can do spirit. A spirit I believe still lives on the Northside.

Working from the Bottom Up

Written by Joe Russo  • June 18, 2015

Editor’s Note:  Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.

Joe Father's Day photo


I recall deciding in the spring of 1974 to approach my father about going into business together. After high school I attended LeMoyne College and then Oswego State. I traveled to California and back several times. In my heart I always longed to be a part of the family business. I admired my father’s skill. He was a toolmaker by trade. Injured in World War II, and unable to go back to his factory job at the conclusion of the war, he looked for a new livelihood. Armondo always had an interest in photography before the war. When the opportunity to train for the camera repair business arrived he made the leap. He married my mom, Sarah, as soon as he returned from war torn Europe. Training for a new career of course seemed risky. The G.I. Bill covered tuition and some expenses. After two years of training my father returned home and found his newly acquired skills did not open the door to employment. He was going to have to start his own business. Many of his friends and family members said he would be better off selling linoleum at the Busy Bee. He was making $9.00 a week, big money in post war Syracuse.

Armondo first tried to set up his camera repair shop downtown. It was a second floor location on the corner of Jefferson and Warren Streets. It didn’t work out. He relocated to the 900 block of North Salina Street right next store to Guerra’s Meat Market. Isaiah Guerra was a father-like figure to Armondo. He was kind and helpful and encouraged him to pursue his dream.

In 1974 I became restless and anxious. I had work experience with disappointing jobs in Journalism and Social Work and felt it was time to tell my father I wanted to pursue camera repair as a career. I grew up with the family business and felt I knew enough already. Early one morning in March I parked behind the camera shop and announced to Dad as I burst through the door that I wanted to go into business with him. He smiled then sipped his coffee. “That’s a nice idea but what exactly can you do to earn enough money to pay your salary?” He asked and I answered in generalities which served only to make his point. I really did not know nearly enough about the camera repair business to bring in sufficient cash flow. After about an hour of talking and speculating and reminiscing I came to the conclusion our working partnership was not going to happen. Dad folded both of his arms across his chest and looked at me with a serious expression that I knew all too well.

“The only way you can make it here is by working your way from the bottom up” he said. Surprised but jubilant I agreed immediately even though I didn’t really know what he meant by “…working from the bottom up.” The following Monday I found out. I was mopping the floor, washing the windows, answering the phone, ordering parts, making deliveries, everything but repairing cameras. When I completed my bottom up tasks he would have a camera waiting for me. Something I could learn on, take apart, and put together again. They were wonderful times, just my Dad and me. I wanted so much to make him proud and show him how much I had learned. I struggled, laughed, and learning so much about repair work and business in general. I wish I had taken more time to savor those moments. Because learning from the bottom up was one of the best experiences I have ever had.

Glazed Doughnut Memories

Written by Joe Russo  • February 19, 2015

Editor’s Note:  Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.

February Photo_Joe

I’m not sure why I thought becoming a Safety Patrol boy at Our Lady of Pompei School was a good idea. However, when the opportunity came along I jumped on it. My Mom’s influence, I’m sure, played a role. The main job for the Safety Patrol was to help the younger kids cross the street on the way to school in the morning. Helping out the younger kids met with Mom’s approval. Of course wearing the white belt that crossed your chest was a badge of honor and earned praise from the adults. From my friends and the neighborhood bully it became an opportunity for teasing. More than one snowball found me as a target because of my new found status.

In the 1950’s lots of kids went home for lunch. Not all Moms worked and it was a tradition to take a mid-day break from school. School lunch was not a part of Presidential nutrition program. A nice perk for the Safety Patrol boy was getting out of school early for lunch. I had to be on my corner before the younger kids started going home to eat lunch. My corner was Butternut and Townsend, the home of Best Bakery. Our Assemblymen, Bill Magnarelli, recently said, “I remember finding any reason I could to get from Our Lady of Pompei School to the bakery, just to find the biggest glazed doughnut they had.” I know how Bill felt. Standing on that corner every day, smelling the bakery smells, I could visualize a glazed doughnut. They also made a sheet pizza. It was rectangular in shape with a thick crust and a thick tomato sauce on top. We used to call it tomato pie.

The Safety Patrol job was a challenge. The school kids didn’t always listen. The public school kids didn’t always get along with the catholic school kids. And some of the little kids really needed help. Rainy days were always the toughest, drivers’ car windows would steam up and everyone was in a hurry to get out of the rain. I remember every once in a while a police officer would stop on my corner to see how things were going. He would talk to me about car traffic and give me tips on how to handle the variety of kids passing through my corner. On one occasion the police officer went into Best Bakery and came out with a couple of napkins. He said it would be better to wipe my nose with a napkin rather than the sleeve of my coat. It was a different relationship back then. People trusted and believed in each other to a larger degree. The neighborhood cop wasn’t someone to be feared but rather someone who helped out even if it was just a napkin for a runny nose.

Most of the good Sisters at Our Lady of Pompei understood that as a safety patrol boy I would get to class a little late and gave me a little slack. That was until I had Sister Mary Anastasia for a teacher, she had a tough, no nonsense, no excuses kind of personality. One rainy morning it seemed like all the kids were more interested in splashing through puddles of water than getting to school on time. I was running behind schedule but like Bill Magnarelli I was craving a glazed doughnut. As soon as the last student crossed the street I was at Best Bakery putting my nickel on the counter and pointing at a plump glazed doughnut. Eating a glazed doughnut as I walked in the rain was not easy. I stopped frequently on a porch or an alcove to take a bite or two of the doughnut. Sister Anastasia was not pleased. I was later than usual and pronounced guilty of one of the seven deadly sins, gluttony. With sticky fingers and glazed sugar stuck to the corner of my mouth I was sent to Mother Superior’s office. Mother Superior had me wash my hands, ask for forgiveness, and say a few Hail Mary’s. It was worth it, though, as that glazed doughnut was delicious.

The corner I worked on was the intersection of Butternut and Townsend Streets, the home of the new Kinney Drugs and formed location of the Best Bakery.

The corner I worked on was the intersection of Butternut and Townsend Streets, the home of the new Kinney Drugs and formed location of the Best Bakery.

Lentil Soup and Good Luck

Written by Joe Russo  • January 8, 2015

Editor’s Note:  Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.


It seems that every traditional food dish has a myth that goes along with the food. Lentil soup on New Year’s Eve is such a tradition. Some of us look forward to spending time with the family over a bowl of soup and trying to remember if Grandma made her soup the same way we do today. Others take it more seriously, almost superstitiously. A friend of my father’s, Margie Lovecchio, swears by the good luck generated for those who eat lentil soup. A big part of the tradition is the timing for serving the soup. According to the old timers, my father and Margie included, the soup must be served just a few minutes past midnight on New Year’s Eve. I remember saying to my Dad at one time, “at midnight I’m drinking Champagne and kissing everybody, I’m not going to sit down and eat a bowl of lentil soup.” “And that’s why you have bad luck”, replied my father.

Margie and my Dad always went to the Moose Club in Solvay for New Year’s Eve. Their favorite band Light and Easy played in the swing band style of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Duke Ellington. They both could Jitterbug like they were twenty-five years old when they were in their eighties. At the Moose Club, they knew how to cater to this crowd. At the stroke of midnight the less important traditions like the Champagne toast and the New Year’s kiss were quickly completed so the most important tradition could take place, the lentil soup. Just as important as the good luck bestowed upon you by the eating of the soup was the avoidance of bad luck by not having the soup.

Why does lentil soup represent good luck? Some say the lentils look like small coins. A pot full of money is good luck. As I have grown older the importance of avoiding bad luck has become a part of my New Year’s ritual. As soon as the Christmas feast is over I begin my quest for the best lentil soup ingredients. I usually start with a trip to Lombardi’s on Butternut Street. The two major ingredients sausage and lentils are always in stock. I don’t always use the same lentils. French lentils, green or brown lentils and red lentils each create a different broth. French lentils do a better job of holding their shape and not breaking down when cooked. Some cooks use a ham hock. I prefer sausage with the fennel seed and other spices used to make the sausage. That flavor carries over to the soup.  I combine celery, carrots, onion, garlic and fresh fennel or anise to make a roux before adding the chicken broth. I always use more Bay leaf than the recipe calls for because my Grandmother used to say the bay leaf helps with digestion. I add Sage and Parsley at the same time I add the lentils. It’s hard to find fresh aromatic Sage this time of year, but if you do it really makes a difference. The sausage is browned up separately in a cast iron skillet and incorporated onto the mix with the lentils.

We are spending New Year’s Eve at home with family and a few friends this year. The Asti Spumante is chilled; Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve will be on for the count down. Hugs and kisses will be just as important as the savory soup and I’m sure 2015 will be a year filled with good fortune. Buon Anno!

The Ghost of Northsiders Past

Written by Joe Russo  • December 11, 2014

Editor’s Note:  Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.


I have often wondered, what makes a northsider a northsider? I left the Northside in 1960. I moved first to Taunton then to California and then Oswego. In fact I have lived in locations other than the old Northside longer than I did on the Northside. But still I consider the Northside to be my identity, my home. I have always been and always will be a northsider. I remember so many personalities and endeavors on the old Northside. Looking back I feel that I was always an observer taking notes on relationships and community activities.

Recently, at a business breakfast meeting I sat at a table full of strangers. As we talked and introduced ourselves I mentioned that my connection to this breakfast meeting was Northside UP. An organization dedicated to making positive changes on the northside. As the conversation continued I explained my life growing up on the northside and how we maintained a family business on the northside until 1992. One person at the table said, “Whenever anyone mentions the northside they smile.” Everyone at the table agreed. What quality is it that made everyone smile?

I remember how people cared about each other. A family down on its luck didn’t have to beg for institutional help. The neighborhood would help in a quiet way that did not embarrass the family. We didn’t have food pantries. I experienced the delight of making a surprise delivery of a food basket to a needy family just before Christmas. We didn’t have television advertising or a large organization between the families. It was personal, face-to-face quiet gestures to help someone, not a tax write off.

This past October I made a trip to Knoxville, Tenn. Wallace Casnelli, my wife’s uncle, had passed away and we attended the wake and funeral. I did not know “Uncle Cas”, as he was called, when he was alive. But in the 5 days we spent in Knoxville I found out enough about his life to make me wish I did know him.

He was a very successful businessman. Uncle Cas got his start servicing medical equipment for hospitals as he was recuperating from an injury while in the Air Force. Uncle Cas was a compulsive tinkerer. If something didn’t work he would take it apart to find out why. It was that attention to detail that helped him build a business of installing and servicing x-ray equipment in hospitals all across the southeastern states. From Tennessee to Florida to Alabama his company grew and prospered. This is where the story connects to the northside.

The northside I remember was a community that helped and supported each other. Father Hofstetter, a confidant, friend and family priest to Uncle Cas for more than 60 years told us how Cas reached out and supported not only members of his community but people he didn’t even know. One day at the peak of his success Uncle Cas visited Father Hofstetter and gave him a check book. He told the priest he trusted and respected him. Father Hofstetter told us that Cas wanted him to be able to help a family that didn’t have enough money to buy groceries or help a deserving student who didn’t have enough money for his or her college tuition. If the good Father ran out of money all he had to do was give Uncle Cas a call and a deposit would be made in the checking account.

Wallace Casnelli wasn’t a northsider but he lived in the spirit of the northside. The ghost of northsiders past is a friendly ghost. At that business breakfast memories of northsiders from the past put smiles on everyone’s face. Just as the many individuals at the wake for Uncle Cas smiled as they told stories about his generosity. Yes Cas had some quirky behavior and his own way of solving problems but his heart seemed to be in the right place. If Uncle Cas lived on the northside he would surely fit in with all the other ghosts who helped their neighbors, family, and friends create a community whose spirit lives beyond the old northside.

Joe Russo Post_December

Grandpa’s Special Wine

Written by Joe Russo  • November 6, 2014

Editor’s Note:  Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.


Long before the Finger Lakes wine trails ever existed wine making thrived on the Northside. Over the years I have taken many wine tours. Each time the tour guide walks us down to the room where the grapes are crushed I say to myself, “this smells just like grandpa’s cellar”. The grapes grandpa crushed were very aromatic. Even during the times of the year when grandpa wasn’t making wine the sweet Muscat grape aroma lingered. My grandfather took great pride in the making of his wine. Many grandfathers on the old Northside made wine. They all tried to recreate a tradition they remembered from the old country. Of course, different regions of Italy became famous for different regional grapes and wine. Tuscany became famous for Chianti. My Grandfather being from Sicily loved to make his Muscatel.

Grandpa’s wine was a special wine. I remember how everyone who ever tasted his wine would tell a story about a vintage from a previous year. Then they would hold the glass up to the window and marvel at its clarity and beautiful reddish brown color. And then they would sip the wine carefully because not only was it a pleasure to drink, it was powerful. The Muscat grape is high in sugar content and can have a higher than normal alcohol value. My father told this story many times over and over again. He was working at New Process Gear at the time and valued putting in more time turning out parts on his lathe than he did eating lunch. One day, on his way home from work he had to stop at Grandpa Emmi’s house to pick up something for my mother. My grandfather had just bottled his newest vintage. He implored my father to sit and taste his latest wine. My father was tired and anxious to get home. He did not sit down. Instead he stood and sampled the wine, thinking he could quickly down the beverage and head for home. He did not sip the Muscatel. He drank the entire contents of the glass in one swallow. The next thing Dad remembers is lying on the kitchen floor with grandpa shaking him and laughing at the same time. Thus, a family legend was born.

I remember asking my grandfather over the years why his wine was so good. He always responded that it was because he used special grapes. One could buy these grapes only from a produce distributor based in Utica. No one else in upstate New York had the special grapes. One day I was lucky enough to be at grandpa’s house when the truck from Utica arrived loaded with special grapes. I watched joyfully as the wooden boxes of grapes were stacked carefully in the driveway. At one point I recall shouting out, “I wanna make wine!” Grandpa laughed and pinched my cheeks with his rough hands as he always did. I never did get the opportunity to make wine with my grandfather. Nor did any of my uncles or cousins carry on the tradition of making homemade wine.

Many years later when I was transitioning from a business career to a career in education I was taking courses at Oswego State. I renewed some friendships from my first run at a Bachelor’s Degree in the early 1970’s. One of my friends had a girlfriend from Utica. Robin Inserra and I quickly became friends do to our common Sicilian ancestry. One Sunday afternoon while enjoying a glass of wine and pasta with a wonderful red sauce we began to talk about our grandparents. We talked about family traditions and the old world ways of our grandparents. The conversation drifted into the area of work. Innocently, Robin asserted that her grandfather had a very important job in the Italian/Sicilian community. He sold the “special grapes” to make wine. “He sold the special grapes”, I shouted back! “Yes” she replied somewhat surprised and amused at the same time. I explained that over the years whenever I engaged in the discussion of wine making with vintners and connoisseurs they never heard of the “special grapes”. And now here I am sharing glass of wine with the granddaughter of the man who delivered the special grapes to my grandfather. It wasn’t a myth or just a story. It was true. Special grapes, special wine and special memories, Salute!

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The Old Gray Flannel Trousers

Written by Joe Russo  • October 2, 2014

Editor’s Note:  Each month, Joe Russo writes a guest post for our blog. This month, Joe has asked to share a story about growing up on the “Nortside” written by his brother, Armand Russo.

Joe and Brother Armand

“Armand, here try these on”, I remember my mother’s voice as she held an old pair of gray flannel trousers menacingly in front of me. Reluctantly, I put them on, one leg at a time, just as anyone would try on a pair of pants. Placing my hands into the pockets I could feel little pieces of candy and gum stuck to the lint inside the pockets. I knew where these trousers came from. They at one time belonged to my older brother. They no longer fit Joey and I was the next in line. They felt scratchy and had the smell of old woolen clothing. They were also too large but times were tough and this was a way to save money. I wasn’t buying it. “Armand they are perfect! You can wear them to kindergarten”, my mother declared. “No!” I protested. “They’re ugly, scratchy and too big for me!” But my protests and complaints about the lack of choice didn’t reverse Mom’s decision. I had to wear them to my first day of school and many times afterward. Even though they had been washed and ironed it didn’t changed my feelings about wearing my brother’s hand me downs for the rest of my school career.

Each morning I put them on and walked to Our Lady of Pompeii Grammar School. Each day I wore those pants all the while wishing I had a new pair of pants. Pants that fit well, looked nice and didn’t have gum permanently fused to the inside of the pockets. Tell me, is that too much to ask for?

One day while walking home from school with my brother and sister a small dog came at me from the front yard of the house at the corner of Lodi and Mary Streets. The dog grabbed the pant leg of those gray trousers with his sharp teeth and tore several holes in the pant leg. I saw the damage but didn’t really care. They were ugly pants.

Once we arrived home Joey told my mother about the dog and how it damaged my pants. She took one look at the holes caused by the dog’s teeth and asked, “where did this happen?” My brother and I explained how we approached the corner house and how the dog charged right at us. Then grabbed the pant leg with his teeth and proceeded to tear holes in the trousers. Within a few minutes of our breathless explanation we were knocking on the front door of the corner house where the incident occurred.

A young woman answered the door. The dog in question followed her. My brother and I identified the dog as the one that damaged my pants. We spoke in unison, “these pants are ruined! They can’t be worn in this condition! You are going to have to pay to replace them.” We were eloquent. I was the innocent victim. My brother was the key witness and our Mother was the judge, jury and executioner. This was real justice, Northside style.

The woman reached into her purse and gave my mother a few dollars to replace the ruined pair of trousers. Suddenly, I became excited. My heart began to soar. My dream was about to come true. A new pair of pants would soon be mine! Justice was swift and sweet.

Later that evening I was puzzled. My mother was sewing the holes in the old flannel trousers. The next morning the old gray pants with holes mended and neatly folded were placed in my room. I wore the pants that day and the next, then asked my mother when we could go shopping for a new pair of pants. She looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “Forget about the new pants for now. I fixed the holes and you’ll get by for a while.”

Can anyone imagine the vexation of this disappointed five year old or the utter humiliation every time I walked by that corner house. What did I do to deserve this turn of events?

Of course I would never use a word like double-crosser to describe my mother. Times were tough and money was scarce. Making ends meet was a necessity. This time it was at the expense of my dream. At another time it was at the expense of someone else’s dream. My mother loved me and I will never forget that. Even though I didn’t get the new pants I did get enough material for a growing up on the Northside story.


A Culinary Legend: The Penizotto Pastry Shop

Written by Joe Russo4 Comments • September 4, 2014

Editor’s Note:  Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.


Pietro (Peter) Penizotto opened his pastry shop during a time when neighborhood crime was nonexistent. A family never had to lock the door of their house or car. However, challenge and economic struggle were everywhere. One can only imagine how someone speaking only his native language and skilled only in the art of baking pastries could be a success in America. The pastry shop was open from 1906-1967. The primary location was in the 800 block of North State Street. It was behind the present day location of the Northside CYO. It was my father’s favorite. The actual memory of the Penizotto Pastry Shop belongs to our parents and grandparents. The legend belongs to us.

In particular, I remember on hot summer days my father saying, “We gotta go to Penizotto’s for some lemon ice”. Nothing was more refreshing on a summer day and no one did it better than Pietro’s family. He learned the craft while living in Messina, Sicily where the only ice available was on the top of Mount Etna. This skill served him well when he made spumoni and lemon ice without the benefit of commercial refrigeration. But his pastry shop was so much more.

My Dad always ordered lemon ice by the quart so there was enough for the whole family. While waiting I remember the wonderful aroma of fresh baked goods and all the little cookies and pastries. The northside had many pastry shops but none had the charm of Penizotto’s. Parents had to exert control over their children who instantly craved more pastries than they could possibly consume. I remember one particular pastry I lusted after. I do not remember its name but it was a small yellow cake about the size of a baseball cut in half, then dipped in rum with a cherry on top. I would stare at it but never asked for it. My father would catch me looking and say, “…you don’t need that.”

The Penizotto family took great pride in their pastry shop. It was a true family effort. The grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all took part in making the pastries and maintaining the store. The grandfather Peter (Pietro) was a truly beloved individual. I recently had a conversation with Peter’s grandson, Johnny Penizotto. He was talking about his personal memories of the pastry shop. One thing he wanted to emphasize was something his Aunt Josie told him. “Your grandfather always said, give the people a little extra and you will be rewarded upstairs” a statement that became a Penizotto family mantra.

Johnny remembers working at the pastry shop especially during the summer months. “I would slather lemon ice with the big wooden spoon in a waxed paper Dixie cup”, he said. He was always running to the freezer whether it was for lemon ice or spumoni. Another fond memory is “working around the huge marble table at Christmas time” stuffing cannoli shells and helping make almond paste cookies. One of the jobs Johnny enjoyed was putting the toppings on the cookies. The whole family was involved and the conversations reinforced the need for families to pull together in hard times. If the pastry shop was a success they all were a success.

My Dad remembers going to Penizotto’s Pastry Shop back in the Depression Era when Route 81 was the Oswego Canal. He and his friends would find a rock or a tree stump to sit on while they ate their pasticciotties (a pudding filled pastry) and watch the barges float down to the Erie Canal. The pastry shop is now gone but the stories and the legend endure.

Collage_Penizotto Pastry