Category Archives: History

Washington’s Walla Walla Sweet Onion and How Its Discriminatory History Relates to Columbus Day

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book. Please DO NOT repost this.  

Washington’s Walla Walla Sweet Onion and How Its Discriminatory History Relates to Columbus Day

by Dina Di Maio

Since Colonial times, Columbus Day was celebrated in the United States.  In 1892, President Harrison celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage.  Due to the efforts of a Coloradan Italian originally from Genoa, Angelo Noce, Colorado became the first state to recognize Columbus Day in 1907. Because of the Ku Klux Klan, the parade stopped in the 1920s.   (By the way, it was an Italian judge, Alfred Paonessa, who outlawed the KKK in California in 1946.)  Noce worked to make the holiday a national one.  He died in 1922, and then the holiday was recognized in 35 states.  In 1934, due to the efforts of Generoso Pope, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed it a federal holiday.  But today, Columbus Day is threatened.  Seattle has changed it to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and more municipalities are following suit like Los Angeles.  According to Randy Aliment in We The Italians, president of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Seattle, the Italian Americans weren’t even allowed to meet with city officials regarding their proposal for an alternate holiday. 

This is especially interesting when one looks at the history of Italians in Washington State.  Immigrants from Northern and Southern Italy settled near Walla Walla, Washington, and went into the produce business.  In 1900, French soldier Pete Pieri brought “French onion” seeds from his native Corsica, and by the 1920s, Italian immigrants John Arbini and Tony Locati were growing what would later be known as the “Walla Walla Sweet” onion. 

Those farmers who settled in the Walla Walla valley often Anglicized their names to fit into the local society.  They weren’t considered white and were often referred to as “foreign” or “Dagos” in the local newspapers.  One such paper reported, “In the vegetable industry, John Chinaman and the sons of Italy cut considerable figure.  As gardeners, these two classes have few superiors . . . .  Of late years, however, attracted by the profits of the business, many white men and those representing the best citizenship have become holders of valuable vegetable lands.”  “John Chinaman” refers to the Chinese.  So the Chinese and the Italians, although better farmers, were inferior to the “white” farmers who were the “best citizenship.” 

This history of prejudice should not be forgotten, and in fact, should be used as a reason to strengthen the celebration of Columbus Day for Italians in Washington State and elsewhere because the same historical prejudice existed in most municipalities in the United States at that time.  Columbus Day was a source of pride for the early immigrants to Walla Walla.  Like in every Italian community in this country, they worked hard to create their livelihood and community on their own. They commissioned, i.e., raised their own money to pay for, a statue of Columbus and created a Columbus Day parade despite the negative feelings of the local “white” community.  This enterprising generation did not complain, but instead were proactive in their desire to become American, and their example should be emulated, and certainly not forgotten, an unintended (or not) consequence of the actions of our local governments when they abolish Columbus Day.

–Dina Di Maio

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book. Please DO NOT repost this.  


New Jersey Pizza Tour, Eighth Stop: Sam’s Pizza Palace, Wildwood

Sam‘s Pizza Palace in Wildwood, New Jersey, was the only place on the boardwalk where I saw a line.  The left line is for dining in, but if you just want a slice, the line on the right side is much shorter.  While it looks chaotic in the photo, it’s actually not that bad.  I opted for a slice, which I don’t normally like to do if I’m testing pizza because slices often sit around.  Sam’s is so busy that I don’t think any pies sit for very long.  This time, I got lucky, as they just took a fresh pie out of the oven and gave me the very first slice.

Sicilian native Salvatore “Sam” Spera moved to Trenton, New Jersey, in 1951.  He started out with a shop called Sam’s Steak House selling steak sandwiches but later transitioned to pizza.  Now, his children and grandchildren run the pizzeria.

The menu at Sam’s is simply pizza and sandwiches (including steak) and the toppings are your basics like mushrooms, peppers, pepperoni and sausage.

I got a slice, fresh out of the oven.


I think Sam’s typifies the classic slice of pizza, as you can see from this photo.

New Jersey Pizza Tour, Seventh Stop: Maruca’s Tomato Pies

Maruca’s Tomato Pies in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, serves up Trenton-style tomato pies in a full restaurant right on the boardwalk.  Originating in Trenton, the pizzeria opened on the boardwalk in 1950.  It was devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and then destroyed in the Seaside Heights fire of 2013.  Ever resilient, owners Domenic and Joseph Maruca, twin brothers, reopened a month later.

The menu is limited to pizza, some appetizers and what you would expect near the beach, seafood.  We were happy to find broccoli rabe on the menu, so we got an order of that as an appetizer.  They also have bar-style pizza, which is what we ordered, with Maruca’s signature tomato sauce swirl.


Here, they use a pizza screen, so the bottom crust is not blackened.  The tomato sauce was mild with a fresh flavor.  The cheese tasted like it was a blend with cheddar.  I’d like to come back and try the tomato pie, but as many times as I went to Seaside Heights as a kid, I am sure I’ve had it before.

New Jersey Pizza Tour, Sixth Stop: Star Tavern, Orange

Star Tavern wins all the accolades for best pizza in New Jersey.  I first heard of it on Viceland’s Pizza Show hosted by Frank Pinello, pizzaiolo of Best Pizza in Brooklyn, one of my favorites in New York City.

Star Tavern is known for its bar pizza.  I was fascinated to learn on The Pizza Show that they cut the lip off of the pizza pan and also that they put cheese all the way to the end of the crust.  Extra-cheesy pizza?  I’m in!

The tavern is owned by Gary Vayianos, who took over from his father, Aristotelis, who had bought the tavern in 1980 from its original owners, who had opened it in 1945.

The menu is bar food, but with an Italian edge to it like peppers and egg sandwiches, Italian-style hot dogs, mussels marinara, cavatelli, eggplant parmesan, etc.

First, we ordered the tricolore salad with arugula, endive and radicchio in the balsamic vinaigrette.  The dressing was delicious, so we had high expectations for the pizza.

We ordered a regular pizza.


The crust was crispy, but pliable.

Every component was good: the crust had a nice taste, the cheese was flavorful, and the sauce was seasoned well. We particularly liked the crispy cheese on the ends.  Both of us felt that this was an excellent pizza.  My friend declared it the best that we had.  For me, it was a tie between this and Brooklyn’s Coal-Burning Brick-Oven Pizza.  They are two different styles and both great examples of their respective style.

It may be the cooking method that sets Star Tavern’s pizza apart.  First, they cook it for a few minutes in the pan and then they remove it from the pan (easily done since the lip is removed) and finish cooking it in the oven.  The heat is 650 degrees, not exceptionally high, like in a coal- or wood-fired oven, and that’s why it is cooked longer than it would be in one of those ovens.

The tavern is a nice place to visit too, as it has a parking lot and a full dining room.


New Jersey Pizza Tour, Fifth Stop: Brooklyn’s Coal-Burning Brick-Oven Pizza, Hackensack

Brooklyn’s Coal-Burning Brick-Oven Pizza is a mouthful to say, but I think they want you to know how their pizza is cooked.  The owner, John Grimaldi, is in the Grimaldi family related to Patsy Lancieri, New York City pizza royalty. Patsy had also taught his nephew Patsy Grimaldi who opened Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn, and Patsy Grimaldi taught John.

Full disclosure: Coal-fired pizza is my favorite. I love the whole milk mozzarella and the char on the crust.  I was always a big fan of Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn and Hoboken.  So I thought that I would like this pizza best in all of New Jersey.

We ordered a plain cheese and tomato pie.  Here, they serve you your first slice, so that is why the pie is already eaten in the pic.


I loved the flavor of the fresh mozzarella and basil. There was a hint of oregano. The sauce was mild, not overpowering, which I like. The crust had a nice char to it and wasn’t thin like the other Jersey pies we had tried.

The menu also has some other Italian items like antipasto and pasta dishes and dessert. We opted for the yummy tortoni.

Brooklyn’s Coal-Burning Brick-Oven Pizza is a nice experience. They have a parking lot and good-size dining room. I admit I found it by chance en route to B&W Bakery for crumb cake.  When I saw “coal-burning,” I had to stop, so the name, while long, works.

New Jersey Pizza Tour, Fourth Stop: Reservoir Tavern, Boonton

Reservoir Tavern was opened in Boonton, New Jersey, in 1936 by Italian immigrant Nicola Bevacqua, named so because it sits near the Boonton Reservoir.  Today, it is run by his grandson, Nicola III.

We tried a bar pizza, which was thin but less crispy than the other bar pizzas we had tried. The sauce was not overpowering either, not too salty or too sweet.


The Margherita pie was more doughy and cheesy but also more wet because of the tomato.


Both were tasty pies. What’s great about Reservoir Tavern is that in addition to pizza, they have a full menu with other Italian specialties you don’t often see in restaurants like zucchini flowers, broccoli rabe, escarole and beans and cavatelli. We got the broccoli rabe salad. Yum!

broccoli rabe

A visit to Reservoir Tavern is pleasant, as there is a large parking lot and dining room.

New Jersey Pizza Tour, Third Stop: DeLucia’s Brick Oven Pizza, Raritan

Italian immigrant Costantino DeLucia opened a bread bakery in Raritan, NJ, in 1917 and added pizza to the menu in 1935.  By the 1950s, he exclusively sold pizza. DeLucia’s Brick Oven Pizza is still operated by his descendants today. In fact, it’s a sight to see just for New Jersey nostalgia and history.  If you go, there is no parking right near it, but there’s plenty of parking in the residential neighborhood around it and on the street in front of nearby shops.

The building is characteristic of old New Jersey buildings. Very quaint. The dining area is no-frills. There is waitress service though. But there is no restroom because it predates restroom requirements. (Plan accordingly. There’s no restroom at the nearby ice cream shop either, which I went to in hopes there would be. I had ice cream anyway. So me.)

The highlight is the awesome old oven. (I always feel the word “awesome” is overused in America. It should truly be reserved for awesome things, and this oven is one of them.)

This baby is 100 years old and can definitely cook a pie. Look, there’s one in there now.

We ordered a plain cheese pizza. The pizza here is more of a New York-style. It has the typical thin New Jersey crust that is crunchier than New York-style. Also, the sauce has a salty taste, not sweet like the Trenton tomato pies, which is a welcome taste for those who prefer a saltier sauce to a sweet one.