When a group of locals got together last year to organize the first Dickinson Little Italy Festival, I was intrigued.
I already knew Italians had greatly shaped the upper Texas coast and in many ways put Galveston on the map. We’ve all heard the stories of Salvatore “Sam” Maceo, the Italian-American businessman. He and his brother Rosario moved to Galveston in 1910. The Maceo brothers, of Sicilian origin, owned and managed numerous restaurants, casinos, brothels and speakeasys, including the vanished Hollywood Dinner Club and the Balinese Room, making the island nationally notorious for free-flowing liquor and other vices, earning the era the name “Free State of Galveston.”
Then, of course, there are the Fertittas, also of Sicilian origin. They’re linked by family and business to the Maceos, and their most famous descendant is Galveston-born billionaire Tilman Fertitta, who built an empire of restaurants, hotels and casinos and owns the Houston Rockets.
Those families and their ventures still are prominent in Galveston today. But many, many more Italian-Americans also traveled here to launch lasting businesses and forge relationships — the Gaido and Del Papa families, as you’ll read in this issue — that have stood through storms and trying times.
As we set out to focus on those Italian families, it quickly became obvious we would never be able to name or feature them all. We moved ahead, knowing we would leave many names out of this issue. But we understood the importance of telling some of the stories, which are a big part of history here and at risk of fading away.
Determination not to let that happened inspired organizers last year to launch the first Dickinson Little Italy Festival of Galveston County, planned for March 13 this year. The festival’s mission is to highlight the different families who built the area, particularly on the mainland.
On the island and mainland, the influence of Italians was so strong Valentine J. Belfiglio was inspired to research and write an extensive article titled “The Nature and Impact of Italian Culture upon Galveston Island,” published in 1989 by the East Texas Historical Association.
Many Italians prospered, mostly because many northern Italians were businessmen who came to Texas for the explicit purpose of establishing capitalistic enterprises, Belfiglio wrote. Belfiglio, who also authored the book “The Italian Experience in Texas,” noted the entrepreneurial spirit of the Italians-Americans who shaped the island and county, including Giuseppe Grasso, who in 1906 sailed to Galveston aboard a small steamer.
“He worked there as a fisherman and as a longshoreman,” Belfiglio wrote for the East Texas Historical Association. “After he had saved some money, Grasso returned to Sicily to marry Carmelina, his childhood sweetheart. The couple settled in Galveston and eventually they had two sons, Joseph and John. Grasso began a fishing business with a single small boat, but he later became the owner of one of the largest and most successful fish dealerships in the city.”
A recurring theme in this issue is how hard-working and devoted to families Italians who moved here were and still are today, and how that still is very much a point of pride.
We hope this issue helps keep that legacy and history alive.
The scooter has long been the transportation of Italy and perfect for our cover and general theme of this issue. We considered a Vespa for the cover until we learned of the availability of a vintage 1964 Sears Allstate Moped, which also happens to be for sale, complete with manuals. We extend a very special thanks to Debbie and Tim Keith for making it available to Coast Monthly. It was perfect for our purposes. If you’re interested, call Tim Keith at 832.221.7470.