Actually, Los Angeles did have a Little Italy for over a century. It started in the 1800's on Olvera Street and North Main, when Los Angeles was a Mexican puebla. By the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles's Little Italy had expanded into present-day Chinatown and eventually to Lincoln Heights and the foothills of Elysian Park. Johnny Angiuli, owner of Eastside Market Italian Deli, can wax nostalgic for hours about the hillside neighborhood, just above Chinatown where his deli is located, that was still a thriving Italian enclave when he immigrated here in 1956 from Adelphia, Italy, at the age of twelve.
The market portion of Eastside Market is long gone. As upwardly mobile Italians moved out of Little Italy, the demand for Italian and Mediterranean produce waned. By the time Johnny Angiuli purchased the market in 1974 from Sam Pontrelli and George Laricchia, after having worked there for fifteen years, he knew times were changing. He converted the market section of the store into a dining room and introduced hot foods to the deli.
Angiuli has seen the neighborhood turnover many times from good to bad to good again. The 1970s, in particular, was a lean decade, when the neighborhood was at a crossroads with an ever-diminishing and aging Italian population and influxes of decidedly non-Mediterranean residents. In 1975, during one of many sleepless nights worrying about business, he invented the #7: a hot roast beef and pastrami sandwich.
Back in the day when news spread at the speed of hand-delivered print and not at the speed of a Blackberry connected to a Twitter account, catchy word of mouth was of paramount importance. Angiuli declared, “Get the #7” and people did. It became their all-time most popular sandwich.
Business is brisk these days, especially during lunch. A long line of customers is served with rapid fire precision and a steady stream of new patrons maintains the queue at about fifteen to twenty during the lunch rush. Angiuli loves to talk about how success didn't come easy for him in the food business. He's spent decades doing repetitive grunt work and has the arthritis to prove it. While he's grateful to have his three sons working by his side daily, he says he wants a better life for his grandchildren.
Los Angeles may never have another Little Italy, but vestiges of a bygone era still exist. The Italian American Museum of Los Angeles is housed in historic Italian Hall; the Pelanconi House on Olvera Street is now a popular restaurant; and of course there is Eastside Market Italian Deli. Stop by to say hi to the Angiuli family. Patriarch Johnny will be more than happy to tell you all about Los Angeles's Little Italy and how he's worked his entire life. Don't forget to order a #7.