Oral history interview with Benedict J. Di Salvo
Oral history interview with Benedict J. Di Salvo by Laura Damon-Moore for Madison Public Library's Living History project. Mr. Di Salvo grew up in the Greenbush neighborhood in the 1940s and 1950s, where his father, a Sicilian immigrant, and his mother, whose family is Albanian, owned and ran Di Salvo's Spaghetti House and Seafood on Regent Street. Mr. Di Salvo tells family stories, including his grandfather Benedetto "Ben" Di Salvo's Mafia ties, and reflects on neighborhood traditions.
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5:17 – SICILIAN MARRIAGE TRADITIONS
7:37 – DI SALVO’S SPAGHETTI HOUSE & SEAFOOD
11:00 – MAFIA IN MADISON
15:45 – GREENBUSH NEIGHBORHOOD
24:27 – CONVOYS ON PARK STREET
27:00 – FOOD TRADITIONS
[NOTE: TRANSCRIPT HAS BEEN EDITED BY NARRATOR FOR CLARITY. DIFFERS FROM AUDIO IN PLACES.]
start of interview
INTERVIEWER: This is Laura Damon-Moore. I am here at the Madison Public Library on Monday, November 13, in the afternoon. We’re talking today with Benedict Di Salvo about his family history in Madison and growing up in the Greenbush neighborhood.
BENEDICT J. DI SALVO [BJD]: Hello.
BJD: How are you today?
INTERVIEWER: I’m fine.
BJD: Did you grow up in the Greenbush neighborhood?
INTERVIEWER: I did not, no. That’s why we’re talking to you.
BJD: Oh, okay. (laughs) Okay, what do you want me to do?
INTERVIEWER: I would love [for] you to give us a rundown of your family’s history and how they and you ended up in Madison, Wisconsin.
BJD: Okay. I think the place to start would be, first of all—generally speaking—my father is from Sicily. So I’m first generation. My mother, born and raised in Madison—she is Albanian. Sicilians and Albanians are not supposed to get together, okay. It’s cause for talk in the neighborhood. Gossip.
My father was born in Bagheria, Sicily. His mother, Vincenza, and his dad, Benedetto—Mr. Ben, they later called him—they lived there. And then [Benedetto] decided to go to Milwaukee to be—to start a new life, you know? Everybody thought in Sicily that the streets were paved with gold, so he was going to go scrape up some of that. So he left when my dad was three.
[BJD’s father’s] mom, Vincenza, they moved not that far away to Santa Flavia, where her family was from. And they loved it. And she, my grandmother, called [my father] Cosimo. So it was C-o-s-i-m-o. And the first chapter of the book [ed. note: Sicilian Loves, 2017] talks about his life in Sicily. And it was wonderful. He had uncles that loved him, and he loved them. They taught him all kinds of things. It was great.
Well, what happened is one day, his mom got a cable or something from his dad, saying, "Okay, time for you to leave Sicily. Come to Milwaukee. I’m ready for you." Guess what? They didn’t want to go. In the book there begins some of the friction or the conflict. So the first chapter—every chapter by the way is one day—so the first chapter describes his life on that day in Sicily, and the next chapter is in Milwaukee.
So my dad is about sixteen or seventeen, maybe eighteen. My grandfather is mafioso. So my mother—excuse me, his mother said, “No, I want you to be the Cosimo that grew up in Santa Flavia, among love and relatives. A good soul.” And his dad, Mr. Ben, says, "No—he’s following in my footsteps. Cosmo is following." And she said, "Cosimo is going to be like I am." So, Cosmo/Cosimo—there’s another bit of friction. On purpose—she wanted to irritate the hell out of him.
Okay, so, I’m not going to tell you the book, but so what happened is Vincenza, his mother, died—I’m not going to tell you how, you’ll have to read the book, okay? So then they move to Madison because my grandfather became—well, he was a don. He came to Madison, he’s a don. People kissed his ring on the street and all that crap. Anyway.
So in Madison is where my mom and dad met. My dad and my grandfather had lots of different businesses. He had brothers, too, but at the time they had a bakery, and my dad would deliver bread to my mom’s dad—Maisano, is her [family] name, Angelo is his first name, so he would deliver bread to Angelo Maisano because Angelo had a grocery store. Same building, still standing, and that’s where I grew up—but I get ahead of the story.
So, one day my dad delivers the bread and he [says], “Oh, hey, who’s that?” And [Mr. Maisano] says, “Nevermind who’s that. That’s my daughter. You leave her alone. No.” So the next day, somebody else had to deliver the bread. So my mom and dad—in the middle of the night they would exchange notes—not kisses—notes, back and forth. So, that’s how they met.
Then, of course, they get married, and the third chapter, therein is the seed, if you will, or the precursor to the restaurant, because—well, it’s [sarcastically] hilarious, the horrible things women had to go through, to endure. The trousseau display— “Oh yes, this is my white underpants, this is my pink underpants”—everything was on the table. But the women would come through, and they’re snooty as hell, you know, like they're looking at an art exhibit, back and forth. And they’d sip anise, and eat cookies, and stick some in their pocket. Anyway. But the eighth day, after their marriage—women had to stay indoors for eight days—
INTERVIEWER: So, this was all—I’m sorry to interrupt—this is all part of their wedding celebrations.
BJD: Sicilian wedding traditions.
BJD: They get married, they have a dinner, which we can talk about someday—Mafia influenced, by the way. Then, she goes home, closes the blinds, turns off the lights, cannot have visitors. A couple of her friends snuck in. My dad, the groom, is free to run around town, drink with his buddies, go out, go to strip—well, I don’t know if they had strip joints back then—he—it was horrible [for his wife Mary].
Then, on the eighth day, when the week was over, my mom and my dad dressed up, and they had to go through the neighborhood, and people who gave them gifts, they’d give a picture of their wedding to them. And that was pretty tedious. And embarrassing, you know. My mom’s, you know, like this [pretends to shield eyes] for the last week. Anyway.
So that’s how they met. They served their friends dinner after the seventh day was over. And it was like a precursor to the restaurant, because they both loved to cook. [They both had] different methods—well, not methods. Different seasonings and styles. They were not that far apart—but, again, Sicilian and Albanian.
So that’s how they met and the restaurant started, and my sister came along—no actually she was born before the restaurant. And I came along, and we both worked in the restaurant, she as a—cleaning shrimp. It was famous for French fried shrimp.
INTERVIEWER: What was the restaurant called?
BJD: Di Salvo’s [ed. note: Di Salvo's Spaghetti House and Seafood, 810 Regent Street].
BJD: It was—(pages rustle) Yeah, here’s an article: French-Fried Shrimp, new dish in the Di Salvo menu. I got the picture of it right here. So my grandfather actually decided to do the restaurant (pages turning) but it was—yeah, that’s the sign, okay.
So they did the restaurant, they started it, but then World War II came around and my four uncles went to service—went into the service, not outside of the country. So it was my dad, my grandfather, and then my uncle Ralph, who was too young to go in. He was only seventeen. He took over the bar and then my dad and my grandfather—well, my dad ran things, my grandfather [gestures, makes a noise reminiscent of Marlon Brando in The Godfather] agreed or disagreed.
So finally the war—oh, by the way, this is important. Truax Field airmen, they frequented the restaurant. My mom was a great hostess, they loved my dad too. So what they did is, they filled in. They would come in, they would serve guests, they would bus the dishes, they would wash the dishes. We had a couple of cooks so they didn’t do that. But Jerry Vail, I don’t know if you ever heard of him. (blows raspberry) I shouldn’t make noises. He’s a singer, pop singer, he was one of the guys from Truax Field. So without Truax Field, and those airmen, those dear friends, it would have folded. They just couldn’t run it without help.
And that’s the connection: my sister cleaned the shrimp and [was] really good at it. In fact they served hundreds of pounds of shrimp on weekends. Huge business. I went over there just to be a pain in the butt brother. [mimes getting in the way] I was just a little kid. You know, you give me a sharp knife, and you’re supposed to split them down the middle. Well, if I was lucky I’d split half of it down the middle, and the other half was—well, anyway.
So you see the relationship between my mom and dad and my sister and me, in the fourth chapter which is the restaurant. Chapter five is their 57th wedding anniversary and celebrated in the hospital, my dad’s hospital room. It was pretty exciting. We go from Sicily to Milwaukee, with my dad. We come to Madison, my mom is here. He marries into the Maisano family, or, the Maisano marries into the Di Salvo family. I gotta tell you a Mafia story.
BJD: At the head table [at my parents’ wedding] is, my mom and dad, my grandfather—he’s got a new wife, by the way. He’s sitting up there, and [asking], "Where’s Mrs. Maisano, and where’s the Maisano family?" Well, Angelo, her father, had died, but there are no Maisanos up there.
The Mafia dons, from Chicago, Milwaukee, Rockford, are all sitting at the head table.
Is my mother going to say something? No. But the reason is that, in the trousseau, they were tearing it down—my mom, my grandmother, and her two sisters were tearing things down. And Mrs. Maisano says, “What’s this?” And she sees an envelope (paper rustles) and she opens it up and there’s a hundred dollar bill in there. “Oh my god!”
And now they’re going through the underwear and the slips—and strategically placed, hidden, were these—I don’t know how many envelopes there were, but there were a lot. And each one had a hundred dollar bill, from the Mafia. Yeah, okay. That’s nice. You got a plus, and you got a minus.
My aunt Rose, this is [my mother’s] sister—she was born in Albania. They were living in Madison and went back to Albania to visit. So she is the oldest of the three daughters in the family: Rose, Anne, and Mary. My mom is the youngest and then there was a brother, Joe. Mr. Maisano ran the grocery store.
INTERVIEWER: What was the name of the grocery store?
BJD: Uh—damned if I know, I think was Maisano’s.
INTERVIEWER: Maisano’s? Okay.
BJD: In fact I found a coin, like a chip of some kind, and it said Maisano’s, good for two cents or something. I’m sure it was Maisano’s. Anyway, it was a grocery store.
A Mafia guy comes in from Chicago and says, “Hey, who’s that?”—sound familiar?
“Hey, that’s my daughter.”
He says, “I want to marry her.” She’s fourteen years old.
“I don’t care, I’m going to marry her and bring her back to Chicago.”
So he [Angelo Maisano] goes to my grandfather, Ben—again, mafioso—and [Angelo] says, “Hey, this family—” Told him the story. My grandfather goes, “I can’t do a thing. It’s too powerful a family.” And my grandfather, Angelo Maisano, says, “Okay.”
Well, guess what happened. [Angelo] goes to Joe (unintelligible) and says, “Joe. You like [Rose]?”
“Yeah, she’s all right.”
“Good. You think she’s cute, pretty?”
“Yeah, she’s a nice girl.” Joe’s in his twenties—she’s fourteen.
And then he goes to Rose, he says, “Hey, you know Joe, right? You like him?”
And she says “Yeah, he’s nice but he’s kinda old.”
“Nevermind. You’re going to get married. Now.”
“What do you mean—“
“If you don’t, it could result not only in the store being bombed, but in the death of some of us.”
So, she married him, within two weeks. The guy came in after, from Chicago, he says, “Okay, I’m here to claim my bride” or something, whatever the hell he said.
And [Angelo] said, “I’m sorry.”
“What do you mean, you’re sorry?”
“She’s already married.”
So when he went back to tell his family [in Chicago], they were not upset. They applauded Mr. Maisano for his ingenuity, for his thinking, you know. He resolved the situation without violence. Okay? Want to hear more, you gotta read the book. (laughs) No, there isn’t that much more.
Okay, have I answered your question—did I give you enough background, as to how they came together, where they came from and how they came about?
INTERVIEWER: I think so. Okay, so let’s dig into some neighborhood-specific things, if you can do that. So our first question for you—you’ve answered this a little bit, but I’d love to hear your response is: What is your association with the Greenbush neighborhood?
BJD: I grew up in the house that my grandfather Maisano, Angelo, built. My mom and dad, when they were married, moved into that. Now, there still was a storefront, but there was an apartment behind and an apartment above. So when my sister was born in ’32, they lived downstairs. And when I was born in (pause) ’84 (interviewer laughs) no, ’39, we lived there.
So I grew up there, as did my sister. I went to St. Joseph’s for grade school. I rang the bells at the church. And I was an altar boy. And I would get these Mars Bars—well, not Mars Bars, some kind of a candy bar, looked like a cow pie, from the priest. No, none of them ever made advances, okay? None. Never, okay. And then from grade school, then I went to high school at Edgewood, but always lived [at 912 Regent Street].
And that was my anchor. I mean, that was my safe house. I went to the university, graduated, blah-blah. I went out, I lived in eleven states but I could always come back home between jobs, between romances, between whatever. They were always there. So it has been “home” up until my mother—my dad died and my mother had to leave because the house was falling apart. And so she sold it and she goes into a nursing home.
Anyway, so the association was there. The house was closer to the ‘Bush—I don’t mean distance, I mean emotional connection, was greater than mine. Because when I left, I kind of left everything behind.
And I never really got back into the [Italian] culture, because I thought the culture as they were portraying it was second-rate. This may offend somebody, but the first Italian Fest that they had, they had some pizza, Domino’s or you know, some pizza—come on, guys. Be authentic or don’t do it at all. And they got better and better, and I had other things to attend to—I didn’t keep track of what was going on.
However, I was there when the city decided—ah, let’s back up. There was a vote: should we destroy the 'Bush, and relocate everybody and build it up, or should we keep it as it is? Neck and neck—in fact, retaining the 'Bush was probably a bit ahead. And then Eagle Heights came in. Where are these people from? Not from Madison. [mocking] Oh, we’re liberals, we think we should—
So, it lost. And then they decided to level everything. Everything was lost. And some of those houses—it wasn’t a ghetto. Some of those houses were old, but on the inside they were immaculate, nice floors—I mean, complete opposite of what it might have looked like on the outside.
So not only did they destroy peoples’ lives and connections with each other, they destroyed ethnic businesses. Now, Di Salvo’s was not part of that, but across the street they tore down grocery stores, gas stations, houses, a Jewish bakery, you know. Unfair.
What happens? They didn’t put up a parking lot. They tore down the hill—Park Street used to be a hill—go up, there was Meriter, er, Madison General [Hospital], there was Schwartz’s grocery store—or no, not grocery store—pharmacy, and then you went back down the hill. They leveled the hill, they leveled everything and now it’s not a parking lot—it’s student housing, it’s clinics, hospital enlargements, everything but a neighborhood. Some of the houses are still standing, on the 800 block, and a couple of buildings on the 900 block—the Italian Workmen’s Club. Never been there for dinner, but they say it’s terrific.
My association—I have memories, memorabilia, stories that I never let go of. So in a lot of ways I think I’ve held on to it closer because I wasn’t there. I’d left, I don’t want to lose this [indicates ephemera], as evidenced by—if you buy a book, there are different categories. The first one, (sound of handwriting) you get my signature. The second one, you get a thank you note on “surprise stationery”—remember I talked about authenticity? (paper rustles) You don’t have to describe what it is.
INTERVIEWER: [looking at stationary] Oh, wow.
BJD: Yeah, this is right from the forties and fifties.
BJD: Now I know why I hung on to it. And it depends on how much you want to pay—there are bibs that say “Di Salvo’s” on it, and they were used for pasta, for lobster, yeah. (paper rustling) Now lobster—how much do you think lobster tails would cost back then?
INTERVIEWER: Ooh, um—
BJD: Well, let me explain. Lobster tail broiled with drawn butter.
BJD: Or deep fried—it’s up to you. Or with oregano sauce. $3.75.
INTERVIEWER: Pretty good deal.
BJD: Pretty good. Walleye pike fillets, French fried, with French fries, bread? Excuse me, French or broiled and bread. Be $2.50. Anyway. This is authentic. And that saying, you can’t tell a book by its cover? It’s not true—[indicates cover of book] that’s in the story, that is, you just saw it—parents, relatives from Sicily. A 45-caliber bullet, which, if you pay a thousand bucks, you get the last one. Pretty funny.
If you go online, it’s kind of zany, you know. I say something about, “You get all the stuff above, plus you get the remaining 45 flat-nose bullet. And the pistol is probably in the bottom of Lake Mendota, floating with the fishes." Or living with the fishes. Anyway. Wow.
So, all of that I kept. Because I’m not a hoarder, but I don’t like to let go of things. The bibs, the surprise stationery, water glasses that say Di Salvo’s on them. So those—a friend of mine bought twenty-four, a guy that I know to give to his associates. I tell him, “I think about going to Amazon, to sell more.” He says, “Don’t do it. You are personalizing it, plus, you’re giving people a part of your history, your heritage. You can’t do that through Amazon. You could sell—what do you want, to sell five thousand books and make a buck and a half a book, or do you want to give part of your heritage and your life to other people?"
INTERVIEWER: Nice. Well, I would love to hear one of these stories you just referenced—about a person, or a place related to the Greenbush neighborhood history that we should know. Something that—something that we should know.
BJD: (sighs) You know, I thought a lot about that. And everybody has a story about their own family. And family—this family could care less about this family. So, what would be meaningful for a lot of people? I asked my sister, but she’s too far gone.
The only thing I could come up with, is, when Park Street was flat—no, excuse me it had the hill, so you’d get convoys coming up Park Street and down Park Street, turning onto Regent right past our house. And that’s where they would put it into second gear. So, convoy after convoy would come by and you know, World War II was going on.
And I remember as a little kid, staring at them and they scared the bejesus out of me. And what we used to do—and I looked it up and found the spelling of it— but we would [eat] semenzies and gigidis.
Semenzies are pumpkin seeds, and you can get recipes—oh, yeah, you’d sprinkle salt—no, these were encrusted with salt. The pumpkin seed was about this thick [indicates with fingers], these were about that thick with the salt [widens fingers]. And if you’re really good, if you had beaver teeth like I do, or did, you could stick one in your mouth, break it in half, use your tongue to maneuver the seed out of it and then you’d spit it.
Gigidis are just chickpeas that are roasted, you know, give it flavor. So we would sit there, and eat gigidis and semenzies and spit the pumpkin seeds out as far as we could at the convoys going by. Other than that, yeah, personal things—I got hit in the eye by a rake, or right below the eye—but who cares? Everybody, every kid—I’m sorry Laura, that’s the only thing I could come up with. Because a lot of people lived in that part of Park Street, and saw those convoys going right through the ‘Bush.
INTERVIEWER: No, thank you. Yeah, that’s—
BJD: I’m sorry, I wish I could do more than that.
INTERVIEWER: No, that’s great. So I guess, why don’t we take a look at number four: share a story about a Greenbush neighborhood community tradition, and if you know of any and if they are still observed by the community or by your family.
BJD: Yeah, there is—and I have not been to it, literally, in years—Italian Fest, Festa Italia. That’s improved since its beginning. And some of the families used to practice Feast of St. Joseph and then there was the feast of Saint—what the hell’s the name—oh, referring to a saint as “hell," sorry! Santa Lucia. You couldn’t eat bread, but you could eat gigidis and honey.
Well, my parents used to do that. And we did make the cuccidati, and the pignolati, and all these wonderful desserts during the holidays and not eat bread for one day. My wife says, "You look at life, or this refrigerator, this kitchen—if you’re out of bread, you’re out of food." (unintelligible) But when I moved away, I lost some of these traditions. My parents got old, and I was gone for twenty-something, twenty-five years, maybe.
And so I lost—but I still use strained tomatoes. Everybody uses these hotshot pulverizers or whatever—it mixes it up and strains it and gets all the seeds out. Yeah, well, it tastes better if you do it by hand. So it’s a big pan. It’s like you’re sifting for gold, you know, gold nuggets. It’s got lots and lots of teeny holes, big enough for liquid, obviously, but not for seeds. Sit there, and you do it. [grinds palm on table]
If you have serviceable peasant’s hands—[shows palm] look at that palm compared to my finger—and you keep doing it, mushing it together, until it’s dry. When it’s dry and you can’t squeeze another drop out of it, then you start with another scoop.
The last batch I made last year—the best I’ve ever made. We had organic—we always have organic these days. You’ve gotta have really good tomatoes. You know, they’re plum tomatoes, they’re very very good, and the garlic, and it was terrific. It’s five-star. I really believe that it tastes better if you use your hands whenever possible.
When I make cookies (noises of grinding with a handle), the nuts (taps, chops on tabletop) just—There’s a line in here [indicates book] about tradition, and I call my dad a “purist." But a purist is not set in its ways—he or she is not set in their way, but they understand the value, the internal satisfaction you get from doing it yourself. And chopping, straining, I mean there are all kinds of things you can refer to. I do not make my own pasta—spaghetti. I mean spaghetti. You can buy better stuff.
The only traditions are food, which would be butterflying and french-frying the shrimp, making pignolati, little balls of dough—they’re piled up and then you pour, they’re deep fat fried, you know, French fried—and then you pour honey on top of them, and little jimmies and thingies, and then you get to eat them. Anyway. So food remains, but holiday celebrations, ah [indicates casting aside]. But I give food away for Christmas. I don’t give presents. I give food.
So does that help?
INTERVIEWER: It does, yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. Well, thank you so much for sharing your stories.
BJD: [old Sicilian man's voice] What, you don’t think I got anything else to say?
INTERVIEWER: (laughs) I think we’re out of time!
end of interview