An Italian heritage on Queen Anne

"Did you know that there was a Little Italy on Queen Anne?" asks Dan Zadra, a Queen Anne native of Italian extraction. "I bet you didn't."

He's right. It isn't common knowledge that years ago, on the south side of Lower Queen Anne, a few hundred Italian families lived, worked and formed a community.

"Why would so many Italians accumulate in one area?" he asks rhetorically. The answer comes as a surprise.

"His name was Galeno," explains Dan, a third-generation Italian who grew up on the Hill and knows his history. "Around the turn of the century he had the garbage contract for the surrounding area. If you came to this country skilled or unskilled, you knew you could get a job with Galeno."

Isn't this how "The Godfather" began?

"How long until the torta is ready?" interrupts a voice from the kitchen.

It is a sunny Sunday afternoon in late August, and Dan and the entire Zadra clan are gathered atop Queen Anne to celebrate the 100th year that their grandmother, Minka, known as Nona by the family, came to Queen Anne from Revo, Italy. The house smells of Parmesan cheese, simmering meat sauce and warm polenta.

"My grandfather, Fiore Zadra, came to America to make his way," continues Dan, who recently took a trip back to Revo. "Working in mines in Idaho, he wrote to his mother and said, 'I am so lonely.'"

Mother Zadra sent her son three pictures. One was of Domenica (Minka), his future wife. He had seen her only in church, but she was the one.

"My grandmother, having never left that village, came through on a boat through Ellis Island," continues Dan. "She stopped in Pennsylvania to get her bearings, then boarded a train to Wallace Falls, Idaho, to meet a guy she had never met. I have always wondered what she was thinking."

At 20 years of age, Minka, left the streets of Revo, a small village in the Austrian Tyrol of Northern Italy, to marry a man she didn't know.

"I think that times were different - tougher," offers Dan. "When you don't have a lot of options, you look at what you have in common."

Today, it is plain to see that family was, and still is, the common thread.

"The thing that everyone here is holding high is family," affirms Dan. "People have strife and difficulty, but they came together and formed a family."

The other unifier, of course, is food.

"Food is huge," agrees Dan. "But it is not just about the food; it is about the ritual and tradition."

Nowhere is that ritual and tradition more apparent than in the kitchen. Tonco, a veal gravy, bubbles on the stove; canederli, a soup with Matzo-like dough balls, simmers. And the famous and revered torta, a buckwheat-bacon, very dense casserole, bakes in the oven.

"I think that one of the things that I remember most while growing up," says Joan Barker, granddaughter of Minka, "is that if we ever had just enough of something, both my grandmother and mother were horrified." Someone might not get seconds.

"My grandparents came from such poverty," continues Joan. "The fact that we ate well when we got together was a celebration of our ability to be able to do that. Food was about being together and celebration."

While raising their five children, Fiore and Minka owned two houses and the Zadra Building, a four-unit apartment complex on Queen Anne - which, coincidentally, is scheduled to be torn down shortly. Now, 100 years after Minka came to America, her children and their children's children work to recreate the recipes that came from Revo.

"Unfortunately our grandmother didn't give us recipes," continues Joan. "She didn't write it down. She just did it until it felt right."

When Minka's children and grandchildren wanted to learn a recipe, they went to her house and cooked with her. The only handwritten recipe that exists is for sweet bread. It is dated November 1954 and is written on the back of a deposit slip.

"I wouldn't sell you that little scrap of paper for $20,000," says Dan. "I wouldn't sell it for $50,000. It is what holds us together."

A collection of Tyrolean recipes from the Zadra family was gathered, and the famous deposit slip is photocopied on the back.

"Food was 'I love you,'" explains Bruce Johnson, grandson of Minka, who recently took two of his daughters back to Revo. "These were not very demonstrative people - they didn't hug and kiss you. Northern Italians are much more subdued than Southern Italians. Food was probably one of the biggest demonstrations that we had. I am feeding you, I love you and I want you to stay around."

This afternoon, family members take turns stirring polenta using a glava, a paddle-like utensil, hand-carved from a baseball bat by August (Augi) Zadra, the 96-year-old son of Fiore and Minka, and father to Dan. A graduate of Queen Anne High School, Augi has lived on Queen Anne his entire life.

"Polenta is the basic peasant staple in Northern Italy, in the Dolomite Alps," explains Bruce. "It is cornmeal, and they literally ate it for three meals a day."

Today, there is question as to whether the polenta will ever be ready.

"It takes a lot of muscle to make this dish," says Colleen Nolan, a great-granddaughter of Minka. "It is 40 to 45 minutes of constant stirring."

The meal is getting close to completion, and the family gathers for prayer. A new stirrer is alternated to the polenta pot; she closes her eyes for prayer but keeps stirring.

"Four generations," says Colleen. "Families eat together, and we ask you to bless this food."

Whoever is not cooking clears from the kitchen, and the final preparations are made. The torta is pulled from the oven. Steaming food - colors of the Italian flag - fills the buffet table.

"You see this?" asks Pat Nolan, owner of Pat's on the Ave, brother of Colleen and great-grandson of Minka, as he gestures toward the torta. "This is food of the gods!"

Polenta, as thick as wet cement, sits regally on a plate and looks like cake. Dinner is served, and a line of hungry Italians weaves throughout the house.

One hundred years after leaving Italy, Minka and the flavors of Revo are alive and well in America.

"What does family mean to me?" concludes Jeff Nolan, Pat's brother and great-grandson of Minka. "Here is the deal: it is the only currency that we really have. It is the only thing truly worth anything."

[[In-content Ad]]