Brass City Italians thrive even after mills close

WATERBURY, Conn. (WTNH) – The brass mills and factories drew Italian immigrants to Waterbury by the thousands. Even though those industries have left the city, many of those Italian have families continue to thrive in other occupations.

For example, there’s Nardelli’s Grinder Shoppe. Everybody in the Waterbury area knows, if you leave a tip in the jar at the register, the cashier will ring a bell and everyone in the store will shout “Grazie.” That’s Italian for “Thank you.”

What everybody doesn’t know is that the business traces its roots to three Nardelli brothers coming to Waterbury in 1914. They started working in sweatshops and factories.

“One of the brothers cut his finger,” explains Rina Nardelli, the niece of those original brothers. “They decided they didn’t like the idea of working in a factory, so they opened a business.”

They bought a grocery store on South Main Street in 1920. The three brothers ran it for more than 40 years until Rina and her husband took over the family business.

“They took over in ’64,” remembers Anthony Nardelli, Rina’s son. “My father had come in ’55, right after the flood, and he worked for our great uncles then.”

The Nardellis are still building on that success, because that’s what Waterbury’s Italian Americans do – build. Whether it’s John Greco building his Holy Land theme park, with its bright cross gleaming atop a hill, or the many Italian bricklayers and masons building, well, everything else.

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At the Ponte club in Waterbury’s North End, club president Antonio Rubbo started out as a mason’s apprentice. Mario D’Occhio remembers building the Howard Johnson motel on South Main Street.

“The company I work for built the courthouse in Waterbury, the courthouse in Middletown,” said Mario Patrnostro, listing job after job.

The three of them also helped build the Ponte Club itself, a social club named for Pontelandolfo, the town from which many of Waterbury’s Italians came. Patrnostro made that trip on a now-infamous ship.

“Straight from there to New York harbor,” Patrnostro remembered. “I came on the Andrea Doria.”

Yes, that Andrea Doria. Fortunately, it didn’t sink until a year later. Mario D’Occhio hd a rougher trip. He came on a Norwegian cargo ship.

“Took 32 days to get here,” said D’Occhio. “And I didn’t like the food.”

He arrived in New York on his 17th birthday, hungry, alone and scared.

“When I got off the ship, I didn’t know where I was,” D’Occhio said. “I had $3 in my pocket and I couldn’t say yes in English. Not even one word.”

So why would they leave Italy in the first place?

“Modern house, car, television,” said D’Occhio, “We never had anything like that in Italy.”

“Waterbury was the very famous town where you want to be,” explained Patrnostro. “It was very, very popular. Everybody wants to come to Waterbury.” The reason everybody wanted to come to Waterbuy? “Because a lot of opportunity,” Patrnostro said.

Back at Nardelli’s, the family has turned its opportunity into 95 years of success.

“Even today we have old timers – I call them old timers – that come in and reminisce about the old days,” according to Marco Nardelli, another great-nephew of the original three brothers. “It’s easy to do when you connect food with that.”

Nardelli’s food is now available in 9 different towns, and and that number is growing, as the little grinder shop is now franchising. For Rina Nardellli, there’s one word that sums up how that makes her feel: “Very proud, very proud,” she said.

Nardelli’s now has ten shoppes with more on the way.

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