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Monterey's Italian Heritage

By Edited Jul 15, 2015 1 0
Monterey Fisherman's Wharf
Credit: Wikimedia Commons image by smatprt

Monterey, California was once home to the Rumsen Ohlone tribe, which survived by hunting and by catching fish from the rich Pacific waters off the coast of this seaport.

Later, in the late 1700's, Spanish settlers arrived. They were led by Junipero Serra, a Franciscan with much missionary zeal. Father Serra is now credited with converting thousands of these Native Americans to the Catholic faith, and also in establishing a string of mission parishes still active today.

Many people are well aware of this chapter in the history of Monterey. Less known, however, is the great influence of the Italian immigrants, many of whom arrived around the turn of the century.

There, they quickly found employment in the city's fishing and sardine packing industries. Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf is still largely run by their descendants. If you spend any time along the wharf, you'll learn that the Italian-American community on the Peninsula (Monterey is surrounded by water) is very tightly knit.

These sons and daughters of Italy also opened a number of restaurants that serve traditional dishes from their homeland, as well as new creations, such as abalone, found in the waters off of California's Central Coast.

The first Italians who came to Monterey settled in a section that's come to be known as "Spaghetti Hill." This is a neighborhood of modest, low-lying homes that rises in a hill above the famous Cannery Row, with sweeping views of the ocean below.

The Italian Presence in Monterey

Many Monterey natives have surnames that originated in either Sicily or Southern Italy. Popular names among Peninsula residents include Alioto, Pennisi, Davi and Mercurio. Former Major League baseball player Pete Incaviglia was born and raised on the Monterey Peninsula.

The early Italian immigrants were Catholic, so they attended the San Carlos Cathedral/Royal Presidio Chapel, located in downtown Monterey. This parish, founded in 1770 by Father Serra, is the seat of the Diocese of Monterey.

The Italian-Catholic presence is especially apparent during the annual Santa Rosalia festival, which takes place just outside Fisherman's Wharf, in a location known as the Custom House Plaza. Now an historic site, this is the oldest government building in what's now the State of California. Built in 1827, it was where taxes were paid on all goods being shipped into the former Mexican colony.

The Santa Rosalia festival has been celebrated continuously for more than eight decades. Named after the patron saint of Palermo, Sicily, the event is designed to commemorate all the fisherman who've worked in the waters off of this Central California Coastal community.

Palermo has been holding its own Santa Rosalia festival for many years. The city has long had a devotion to this saint, ever since her intercession was credited with stopping a plague that struck the region in 1624.

Mission Top
Credit: Morguefile photo by matt_geyer

Monterey's Bocce Courts

There is now a bocce court adjacent to the Custom House Plaza, which sits near Fisherman's Wharf, and is also just a short distance from cannery row.

Bocce is a popular game in Italy, as well as in communities around the United States that have a strong Italian-American presence. The object of this game, which is a little similar to candle pin bowling, is to see how close your ball can get to a smaller ball known as a "pallino." (It's also referred to as a "jack ball.")

This is a lively friendly game that involves skill, as well as a lot of harmless verbal jousting with your opponents.

The Monterey bocce courts are located outdoors, as are most other venues where this game is played. If you visit Monterey, and go to the Custom House Plaza on a nice afternoon, there's a very good chance you'll see the descendants of the city's early Italian immigrants engaged in a game of bocce.

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Fishermans Wharf, Monterey, CA 93940, USA

Strolling Through Fisherman's Wharf

So, if you want to get a real sense of Monterey's Italian-American community, you can watch a game of bocce, and then walk a few hundred feet to the start of Fisherman's Wharf.

This is a working wharf where freshly caught White Sea Bass, Pacific Herring, Rock Cod and Dungeness Crab are displayed in open-air markets. But, if you're visiting as a tourist, you probably aren't going to bring fresh fish back to your hotel room.

A much better option would be to dine at one of Monterey's traditional Italian eateries, such as Cafe Fina restaurant, located along the wharf. The outside of the building resembles one of the old fish canneries that employed many immigrants.

On the restaurant website, owner Dominic Mercurio explains that he prepares Italian specialties, such as pizza, pasta, raviolis and seafood, similar to what he ate while growing up on the Peninsula.

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