Montreal’s Italian community is changing, but its traditions endure

At the end of the 1970s, Montreal’s older and more affluent Italians gradually abandoned Little Italy for other residential neighbourhoods, like Saint-Léonard, Ville-Émard, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce and LaSalle.

The next generation spread out even further afield, to the Montérégie region and the North Shore, especially Laval. But Little Italy has nevertheless not lost its identity. Some 200 Italian families still live there, and you’ll still find a plethora of cafés, grocery stores, restaurants and boutiques dotted throughout the neighbourhood. Stroll around there during the soccer World Cup or the Formula 1 Canadian Grand Prix, and you’ll hear the heart of Italy beating loudly.

While recent generations of immigrants gave up many aspects of life from their homeland, they didn’t renounce their culinary traditions. Dino Castelli is one such example. The 56-year-old grew up in Montreal and, while his parents preferred to stay on the island, he opted to raise a family in the Montérégie region.

Like many other Italians, Dino was marked by his family’s culinary traditions. He recalls the pleasure his grandparents Rosa and Giovanni, and later his parents, Pauline and Pietro, had preparing delicious Italian food for everyone. He remembers big family get-togethers where everyone feasted on dishes that were concocted months in advance.

Dino has since taken over the family’s culinary duties. For this regional manager of ASSA ABLOY Entrance Systems, this means harvest time is a busy time of year. Especially when the tomatoes are ripe, because they are the basic ingredient in so many dishes, such as his famed 25-layer lasagna. Yup, you read it right: 25 layers! “Our pasta is very thin,” explained Dino. Still...

In the Castelli family, tomato season is almost an event in itself. Dino buys 25 crates at the Jean-Talon Market— “from Lino’s,” he’s quick to point out—and thus begins a day making tomato juice. A dozen of them—sisters, cousins, children and friends—gather in the garage to wash, chop, strain, press, boil and can the red nectar. They’ll start at 8 a.m. and finish at 5 p.m., their hands slightly stained, but pleased with their effort, because this batch of juice will form the base of many delectable sauces to come.

And, of course, Dino is a spaghetti sauce expert. “As a child, I ate spaghetti on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, after mass,” he offered as proof. “Each region in Italy has its own traditional tomato sauce recipe. We come from Ascoli Piceno, a region to the north of Rome, and our method is very simple. You put a beef blade roast in a pot along with some celery stalks and a whole onion, then add some tomato sauce and herbs. Let that slow cook in the oven on low heat for four hours. The juice reduces, and the sauce is done. Place your cooked pasta in a large bowl and sprinkle some Romano Lupa cheese over it. Stir, then add the sauce and stir it again. We serve the spaghetti with a piece of the blade roast on the side.”

There’s also polenta. “That’s a really traditional dish. Easy to make and inexpensive. Life was hard in Italy at one time. My father was a shepherd when he was 10. The animals—a cow, donkey and some sheep—lived in the basement of their home. He had to travel for four hours by donkey to sell or barter his goods. Polenta was a dietary staple for many Italians. Its corn flour mixed with hot water that forms into a paste. They would serve a small piece of meat on the side. Today, we put as much meat on the plate as polenta.”