Some things seem to just get better and better over the years.
If you ask Ann Romano about one of those things, she’s likely to mention The Taste of Italy. After all, she has been planning the event for the Italian Community Center (ICC) for 19 of its 20 years.
"It’s always a packed house," Romano tells me. "People know that they should get here early and get in line because so many people look forward to the event from year to year."
This year’s Taste of Italy will take place on Sunday, April 19 – a date chosen carefully and calculatedly.
"I always make sure it’s after Easter and that the Brewers aren’t in town," Romano tells me. "And I also have to plan around all the other activities of the societies that operate out of the ICC."
The fundraiser, which is the ICC's second largest – after Festa Italiana – has been going strong since 1995, when Romano proposed the idea to her colleagues at the center.
"We took a trip down to Chicago to see one of the Italian feasts," she says. "Bill Jennaro suggested that we check out the ‘Taste of Melrose Park’. All the food and beverage stands were run by local restaurateurs and everything sold for $1. We were very impressed, and on the way home, I suggested we start something like that at the ICC as a fundraiser."
Her colleagues agreed to let her take on the planning.
"Now I do this without even calling a meeting." Romano says. "I get on the phone and call all of my captains. I tell them when it is, where there stand is. And then I call and get all the food donations."
When I ask her what will be served, Romano starts in with a list: "Pizza, pasta, sfingi, arancini, manicotti, Italian sausage, eggplant lasagna, antipasto, calamari, meatball sandwiches, panini … cannoli, gelato, Italian cookies, pizzelles, spumoni…"
And Romano knows a little bit about Italian food. After all, she grew up in an Italian family, the oldest of twelve children. She was baptized (also confirmed and married) in the "little pink church," Our Lady of Pompeii, an Italian Catholic church which was located at 419 N. Jackson St. and torn down for the construction of a freeway ramp. And she grew up immersed in Milwaukee’s Italian community.
Romano’s father came to the U.S. from Palermo when he was 16 years old.
"He came over to make a better life for his family," she says. "He was one of the lucky ones because his brother was already in Milwaukee. So, he knew someone here."
He was also fortunate to have trained as a barber in Palermo.
"He got a job right away when he got here," Romano goes on. "But, he worked for an Italian barber in town, who often took his tips. Finally, my dad got disgusted, and he quit to work at a macaroni factory in the Third Ward. His customers liked him so much they asked him to come to their homes to cut their hair. One of the people was my grandfather; so that’s how he met my mother."
Although Romano’s mother died at a young age, leaving Romano to raise her 11 brothers and sisters, Romano’s memories are fond.
"My mother would send me to this Italian store down the street," she tells me. "She’d give me 50 cents to buy lunch meat, and she’d tell me to talk to the woman because the more you talked, the more she’d slice. And, I did my job. I’d usually come home with a large pile of meat."
Her family owned a restaurant called Frantone’s, on 27th and North, until it was torn down in preparation for the freeway that was never built there.
"That’s where I got a lot of my cooking experience," she says. "Those were the days. Our fish fry was 50 cents. Pasta was 75 cents, and chicken was a dollar. But, you know chickens at the time were going for 19 cents a pound. Not like today where you can buy a cooked chicken cheaper than a fresh chicken."
Romano is right. But, Taste of Italy is one place that remains where the food is delicious – and it’s affordable too. Food and beverage tickets are sold for $1.50 each or seven for $10, and each item sells for one ticket.
"All except the calamari," says Romano. "We had to raise the price on that to be two tickets.
The 20th Annual Taste of Italy will take place at the ICC on Sunday, April 19 from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The event includes food, as well as entertainment from a variety of Italian groups, including the Tradizione Vivente, and the Sicilian Serenaders. Admission is free; food and beverage tickets will be available for purchase. All proceeds from the Taste of Italy will go to support the operation and cultural programming provided by the ICC. For more information, visit iccmilwaukee.com.
Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.
Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.