NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — The biggest advertisement for New Haven, other than Yale University, is undoubtedly Wooster Street, renowned for its world-famous pizzerias.

Green, white and red banners and an iron arch create a blocks-long billboard for what is known as Little Italy. The reputation for pizza spans nearly a century, symbolized by Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, opened in 1925, and, nearby, Zeneli Pizzeria e Cucina Napoletana, opened Aug. 1.

Wooster Street is less Italian now, and Wooster Square is one of the city's most desirable residential neighborhoods. Founded as the New Township by the 19th century's industrial magnates, its stately homes, many designed by architect Henry Austin, are mostly condos filled with young professionals.

In between, Italians who worked for Sargent & Co., the New Haven Clock Co., Strouse-Adler and the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad created a tight-knit, self-contained community with stores providing groceries, ice, shoes, meat, cheese and fish, in addition to the pizza and pastry. Many came when Joseph B. Sargent sent people to Italy to recruit workers for his huge hardware factory on nearby Water Street.

There have been changes recently among the storefronts along Wooster Street, in addition to Zeneli opening in the closed Cavaliere's Grocery Store. Tony & Lucille's, run by the Saccos in two locations over 53 years, closed in June. Americana Memories, a sporting-goods store that occupied the tiny space where Anastasio's restaurant had been, also closed.

A few years earlier, Joker's Wild Comedy Club closed when its owners died, and Flo Consiglio and family sold Sally's Apizza, which she and her husband, Sal, opened in 1938.

"We're in a period of rebuilding and appreciating what we already had and what's being added to it," said Jane Scarpellino, 73, who grew up on Warren Street and has lived in the neighborhood her entire life. "Redevelopment tried to ruin our neighborhood, and they didn't, they just demolished a good part of it, and now it's being rebuilt."

Anyone who is from the Wooster Square neighborhood will mention redevelopment, the grand plan of Mayor Richard C. Lee to replace tenement housing and create a "Model City." Wooster Street, which at one time extended from State to East streets, was foreshortened at the east end by Interstate 91, which took out a number of homes and businesses. There's still an orphaned section of Wooster Street on the other side of the highway.

Many residents returned, moving to the Columbus Mall, a co-op between Warren and Brown streets built in 1962 for those who were displaced. And many, following the American dream, got better-paying jobs, bought cars and moved to the East Shore of New Haven or the suburbs.

"I think we climbed back from the devastation of redevelopment, which was a long process, but everything going on now is optimistic and exciting," said Scarpellino.

"I think there's an excitement in the neighborhood, first with Zeneli's opening up — that's fun and exciting — and the apartment building going up and there will be commercial spaces on the first floor," she said. "And then there's another apartment building already approved next to it on Chapel Street."

The 299 apartments between Union and Olive streets near the end of Wooster Street will have a pool and rooftop space. Also on the horizon is the conversion of two unused school buildings and a former convent on the St. Michael Roman Catholic Church campus on Greene Street, just off the square.

"I don't think anybody who lives in the neighborhood would have an uncomfortable or negative view about things that are happening," Scarpellino said. While there are empty storefronts, Consiglio's, Abate, Tre Scalini and Libby's Italian Pastry Shop have kept the Italian food tradition alive.

Scarpellino said Zeneli has "been welcomed by most of the businesses. There's enough business to go around and I think there's a welcoming atmosphere."

Aleko Zeneli, one of three Albanian-born brothers who grew up in Naples and immigrated first to Brooklyn, said an owner of Pepe's stopped by and complimented their calzone and their Neapolitan-style pizza, which has a thicker crust than classic New Haven-style pies.

"We're having some good reviews and they've been very friendly," Zeneli said of the neighbors. He said they chose Wooster Street to open yet another pizza spot because "we used to come and see our brother here and the places were always packed." They use buffalo mozzarella made by Liuzzi Cheese in Hamden, where Jeshar Zeneli also works.

The third brother, Gazmir Zeneli, was "head of pizza and pasta at Eataly" in New York's Flatiron District, and took first place for best Neapolitan pizza at the 2015 Caputo Cup contest, Naples' largest pizza competition, which was held in New York that year.

Scarpellino lives in the Columbus Mall, as does her aunt, Teresa Vitolo Scarpellino, 95, who was born on Brown Street and has lived nowhere but there and on Warren and Wooster streets, all in the neighborhood.

"There's still a lot of people I'm acquainted with, people I went to school with . . . and we're all friends," she said. "There's very few people in the 72 units that I don't know." She is vice president of the co-op association board.

But even though she still drives, she does miss the old days, when everything you could need to buy was within walking distance. A pharmacy and auto repair shop were knocked down during redevelopment and, once Cavaliere's closed, the nearest grocery store is on Grand Avenue, at least five blocks away.

Many of the Italian Americans who didn't leave after redevelopment "got old and they retired," Teresa Scarpellino said. Gone are the dry goods store, the tailor and the Wooster Spa, a pool hall and "gambling place," she said.

"The neighborhood is not like it was," she said. "We had a lot of Italian people here that went to St. Michael's Church and St. Michael's Church is hurting." Some Catholics still come from East Haven to St. Michael's, she said. "It really is a beautiful church and it used to be packed."

"The only things that are still there (on Wooster Square) are Iovanne's and Maresca's," both funeral homes.

While she wishes the Zenelis well, she said, "I was hoping that a convenience store went in there or a drug store or something that would accommodate us."

Rich Biondi of North Haven is a teacher at Branford High School but he's "fully embedded" in Wooster Square and is a self-described historian of the neighborhood. He's written two books: "Piccola Italia di Wooster Square: A Pictorial History" and "Gli Italiani di Wooster Square: A Pictorial History" ("Little Italy of Wooster Square" and "The Italians of Wooster Square" — only the titles are in Italian.) His great-grandparents immigrated from Italy and his grandparents and parents live in the neighborhood.

"The street is doing very well," he said. "It's not the Italian colony it was 100 years ago. That all changed with assimilation into the mainstream by Italian Americans over the years, redevelopment, etc., etc. . . . There are some vacant storefronts but that is going to happen to any block in the city."

While the neighborhood has become gentrified to a large extent, Wooster Street "has the traditions that are still there and the . . . Italians that are still there are still proud. It's very important to all of us to retain the Little Italy flavor of the neighborhood," Biondi said.

He believes the area is thriving and will continue to flourish. "In the 1950s, the restaurants were only frequented by the people who lived there," he said. "Change doesn't have to be scary; it doesn't have to be bad, and it's still the epicenter of Italian Americans in Connecticut."

As the neighborhood has improved, real estate prices have risen too. "It's not cheap to live here," Biondi said. "It's a desirable place in the city to reside."

Cheryl Szczarba, a real estate agent with Seabury Hill Realtors on Wooster Street, said that while some homes near the square are expensive, "it really is a huge range for prices in Wooster Square."

A two-bedroom condo in the old St. Casimir's Church on Greene Street sold for $575,000 in 2017, but Szczarba has listed a four-bedroom unit in the Columbus Mall co-op, 190 Wooster St., for $320,000 and she said two-bedroom units may sell for less than $200,000.

Those prices are low compared to apartments at the new building at Orange and Audubon streets, which rent for $2,924 for a two-bedroom unit and about $1,800 for a studio. At 360 State St., two-bedrooms start at more than $3,300 a month.

Steve Hamm, who lives on Academy Street on the square, filmed a documentary in 2018, "The Village: Life in New Haven's Little Italy," which recorded the history of the neighborhood and was shown at the New Haven Documentary Film Festival. "I think Wooster Street is an important thing for New Haven because it brings outside money to New Haven and, because the pizzerias are famous and the street is famous, it adds to the street's luster in New Haven," he said.

But that is only part of the story, according to Hamm. "Wooster Street is a collection of businesses, but Wooster Street and Wooster Square are a community and for real vitality in a city what you need is community. You need all those elements . . . pulling together. I think Wooster Square is extremely successful right now. . . . You'll see all kinds of people there and you'll see a lot of children . . . and a few years ago that was not true."

Hamm said that while once Wooster Square "was trending pretty old," now young people can be seen playing soccer and walking their babies around the Green. "That's what people want in their lives. They want their lives to be delightful," he said.

But he said "it's not the Wooster Street businesses that are making or breaking the neighborhood right now. . . . Important addresses on the street are vacant, so I would say that is not thriving. It has some wonderful strengths."

"The other element of Wooster Square that we conveniently forget is Grand Avenue," Hamm said. "Grand Avenue was a thriving retail area and now it's a mess. . . . We should bring the creative talents and energies of New Haven" to Grand Avenue, which runs through the northern part of Wooster Square into Fair Haven. "It should be the next order of business."

At the eastern end of Wooster Street, a group of older men sit and talk about baseball and reminisce in front of a statue of St. Mary Magdalene. They're members of the Santa Maria Maddalena Society, founded by immigrants from Atrani on Italy's Amalfi coast in 1898. Their annual festa filled Wooster Street for years. "We used to do the whole street, from one end to the other," said Anthony Vitolo, 81, of East Haven.

After 1994, though, they were told they couldn't block the street in case of emergencies, and that businesses complained. The festa moved to Conte-West Hills School on Chapel Street, but died after the 100th anniversary in 1998. "That weekend it was estimated we had 40,000 people," Vitolo said. Now, a Mass and procession are all that's left.

The St. Andrew the Apostle Society still holds a festa on its Chapel Street property. That society was founded by immigrants from Amalfi in 1900. Now, some of those from the neighborhood are members of both.

"It's good to be here every day," said Vic DeLieto, who was born on St. John Street but now lives in Morris Cove. "It seemed like when the redevelopment came through, everybody from the neighborhood moved to Morris Cove or East Haven," he said. The joke was that "everybody took the money out from under the mattresses."

"It's still the safest neighborhood in New Haven," said Anthony Ruggiero of North Haven. "It's a quiet street. This is one of the best clubs in the state of Connecticut," he said of the Santa Maria Maddalena Society.

Police Officer Ralph Consiglio has been the beat cop on Wooster Street for 25 years and wears the same number on his badge that his father, retired Capt. Anthony Consiglio, did. "The night of my graduation he pinned the badge on me and he said, 'This was my badge,'" Ralph Consiglio said with pride.

As he was speaking, his father drove up. "He got on the Police Department just before my wife passed away, a year before, so she was able to see that too," said Anthony Consiglio, who is now president of the Santa Maria Maddalena Society.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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