Photo by Jill Greenberg
Photo by Jill Greenberg

Bread, Onions, and the Buffer Zone

by / Dec. 24, 2014 12am EST

The Italian Colonies and the Buffer Zone

This past summer, after I’d met Joe Giambra for the first time, my cousin Tom said, “You’ve heard Bread and Onions, right?” After I told him that I hadn’t and he was done giving me that look people in the know give to an amateur, Giambra personally gave me a copy of the CD. Based on Tom’s adamant nudge, I gave it a listen.

Bread and Onions has taken on a number of different incarnations over time: Giambra performed it at the Calumet in 1999, every Sunday for 19 weeks in front of a sold-out crowd. He explained his process: “I would get up early every single Sunday to make fresh bread, salad, and sauce, enough for every single person in the audience.” He rekindled it for the 2009 Rendezblue Anniversary Celebration at the Burchfield Penney Art Center and he put the show on at the Kavinoky Theatre with actor Dominic Chianese in 2012, to much acclaim. It was in conjunction with the Kavinoky dates that he released the CD version given to me last June.

If you were like me and missed out on the performances, you’d probably wonder what exactly Bread and Onions is. It’s a poetic narrative about Sicilian immigrants and their families, read by Giambra, emulating the same presentation he performed live. The poems are set to jazz that Giambra told me can be categorized as “the West Side sound”—a cool, effective ballad led by trumpet and supported by piano, bass, and drums. The music was written by Giambra along with Richard Mecca and Don Menza. The end product is like a radio show you’d sit down in the living room with a beer or some vino and take in with the wife. Giambra was born in 1933, and the story starts when he was a kid, and moves “from the ’30s to the ’60s. Before urban renewal took over. In tenement buildings, railroad flats. Places with eight families on one toilet” in the section of Buffalo that was derogatorily called “the Italian Colony” in a 1901 New York Times article, an area that ranged from “the Hooks” to the lower West Side. The Hooks was the area along the waterfront, where the Liberty Hound and Marine Drive Apartments currently sit. Giambra grew up on the lower West Side, frequenting places on Niagara Street like Balistreri’s Bakery, Vezo’s (which is now Caruso’s on Hertel), and Cassaro’s for olives. But he knew the Hooks well, as well as the area he jokingly referred to as “the buffer zone” that separated the two neighborhoods.

Joe Di Leo, like Giambra, is a walking history book with information and stories galore. The two Joes worked on the 2007 documentary La Terra Promessa together (Giambra as writer/director, Di Leo as producer), and they edit and publish the Per Niente magazine four times every year. I met Di Leo because I wanted to speak to a historian about the area, and all of the people I asked pointed me in his direction. Di Leo invited me to his home on a Thursday afternoon, where I met his wife and young grandson. Upstairs he has an office, filled with photos and maps, where he does his research. His computer is filled with perfectly organized folders that are filled with photos, videos, documents, and newspaper articles. After I told him my family names, he showed me a photo of my great uncle Bud and him on Lafayette High School’s basketball team in the mid-1950s.

Bread and Onions is really a story about time and place, a vibrant portrait of a bygone location and era, so I thought it would be a good idea to meet Giambra near the old haunts. We met first at Hoffman Automotive on Elm Street downtown, where Joe was having his car serviced. Joe is a guy that everyone knows; the folks at Hoffman gave us use of the manager’s back office, and we sat chatting and listening to music. The music was a disc of Jackie Jocko playing piano and singing a dozen or so songs that Giambra has written over his lifetime. The tunes were recorded in the late 1970s or early 1980s and never released, and he’s thinking about rekindling a few for an upcoming movie he is working on. After a brief talk in the backroom at Hoffman, we hopped in my car and I took Joe for a drive around the area covered in Bread and Onions. We started down Chippewa and headed towards Court Street near the entrance to the Skyway and parked for a moment. This was the part of the city between the Lower West Side and the Hooks: behind City Hall, on Court Street near Adam’s Mark and the WKBW studio. School #2 was where WKBW now stands. Giambra went to elementary school there and said that back then he wasn’t threatened with Father Baker like I was. Instead his teachers just pointed out the window and threatened they’d be sent right across the way to the Erie County Holding Center. This was the buffer zone.

Andy’s Cafe and St. Anthony’s

A piano and trumpet set the tone—a melancholy ballad—then the prose of Bread and Onions begins with a sublime landscape: “The winter cold takes our hand for a stroll, on the lower West Side. A biting, willful wind brings sweeping layers of snow.” Giambra mentions a nameless barbershop, Joe Dimaggio, and a fellow called “Little Joe,” who is on the street eating bread and onions. (I know, I know, an article filled with Sicilians and we already have four guys named Joe.) The scene has been set, and it could be describing anyplace—any West Side of any city in the northeast—until Little Joe asks the narrator if he knows “Frank the Quaker who cooks at Andy’s Cafe?” There is no mistake that Giambra brings Andy’s in so soon; it plays an integral part in the narrative and in the lives of people in the area. The Quaker and company’s cuisine was something of local lore at the time. It was a popular neighborhood hangout and musicians who came to town would eat there late night after gigs, including a young Frank Sinatra, pre-Dorsey band.

When I asked Di Leo about this place, he said, “My uncle owned it, we lived in that structure. I lived right in that building above Andy’s until I was 16 years old.” He showed me a photo that he dug up at the Historical Society. “They had a big apartment on the second floor, there with my aunt and cousins. My grandmother and grandfather lived on the third floor. And we lived on the fourth floor. Andy who owned it, Andy Sciandra, he was married to my mother’s sister.” I asked what it was like there, was it a place where Italians and Sicilians would hang out? After a meditative moment, he replied “kind of,” and explained that there was more of a mixture of people in the area that would frequent the bar, reaffirming Giambra’s assertion about that area as a buffer zone. It was more multicultural than just the Sicilians or Italians who were known to populate the Hooks and the Lower West Side. According to Joe’s definition, the buffer zone is the small area around Court Street where City Hall and St. Anthony’s are, where Andy’s and School #2 once stood; to the south was the Hooks, to the north was the lower West Side. The residences in the immediate area were “tenement buildings, apartments above stores, above bars. My friends when I grew up were African-American, Native American, Italian. Everyone. We were friends with the Polish family that lived across the street.” We hadn’t even made it to his upstairs office yet and it was already clear among the sea of Italian names he was dropping, Bread and Onions was as much about a multicultural neighborhood as it was about a Mediterranean one. Irish teachers and priests, Native Americans are all within. Giambra speaks of a man called Willie T. Copeland from Oklahoma, an African-American boy who, with his family, lived above Andy’s Cafe. At school, many kids had “different colored faces.” On the disc, he continues, “with them we argued, with them we fought. There was Moppins, Johnson, Sims, Williams and Gaines: often they stated their cases, their rights they sought.”

The first thing Di Leo did when we got upstairs was pull out a huge rolled-up document from a pile on top of a bookshelf. He unfurled it and showed me a huge bird’s-eye view of downtown Buffalo in the 1940s. The photo is insane: It starts on the East Side, above the library, and continues down to the Waterfront. It’s easy to get your bearings on it from locating City Hall at the bottom left. What’s different is that there is no Thruway, no Skyway. There were buildings all along the canal and Waterfront, something that people born after 1960 have never seen in person.

Showing me Upper and Lower Terrace Street, and Court Street, Joe pointed to City Hall and St. Anthony’s nestled behind it. I followed his finger southwest and he showed me where Andy’s Cafe was and said, “What made Andy’s so important, you can see how downtown was, many people, they would come here for lunch—the lunches in the daytime, you couldn’t get in the place. All of the people from here [pointing to the area around City Hall], and the commercial areas [pointing to the Waterfront].” Andy’s was directly next to School #2 and, across the street, a huge park that is long gone. (The park is the scene of a parade and fireworks procession in Bread and Onions.). Di Leo said, “We used to play baseball here. It was our baseball park. The official name was, I think, Porter Playground, but we used to call it ‘number 2 park,’ because it was across the street from the number 2 school, right up the street from the church.” I asked what happened to Andy’s. He told me that there was a fire that forced Andy Sciandra out in the early 1960s and, anyhow, they ended up knocking everything down over the next few years, the school included.

At this point in the conversation in Di Leo’s office, Giambra came in, decked out from braving the cold. We exchanged pleasantries as Di Leo showed me a picture on his computer of St. Anthony’s church and said, “I want to tell you how popular, and how that church was the center of the community.” St. Anthony’s, like Andy’s, was (and, unlike Andy’s, still is) in the buffer zone and is also a central setting of Bread and Onions. On the drive through the area, it’s one of the first places that Giambra took me to and when I asked him about it. He said, “I was a boy scout there. We were so broke, we had to steal our uniforms, so when we had our meetings, each kid had a different troop number on his sleeve.”

The poverty of the area is a major theme on Bread and Onions. Giambra muses about an “assembly in a room they said was a gym: lead paint droppings, tin ceilings, faded colors reaching downwards to a beveled wooden floor that did so squeak. We sat on folding chairs. It seemed like once a week, sitting watching a film: Drums Along the Mohawk.” When I asked him about that scene, he told me that the school was falling apart. They had little money and only that one John Ford picture, so they’d watch it weekly, monthly, year in and year out, over and over. This is why the church was so important to the community: It was a gathering place, a place he and his friends could go to near the park, close to school, a place they would go to stay out of trouble.

Adjoining St. Anthony’s church was a small school that Di Leo told me was closed during the depression, and reopened “just in time for me to start kindergarten in 1945.” Then he told me to hold on a second, he went to their Per Niente website, and pulled up a YouTube clip and we watched the short film that came courtesy of the Saia family. They are home videos of St. Anthony’s communions and confirmations taken on multiple days between the 1940s and 1950s. It was straight out of Bread and Onions, where Giambra reads, “Hundreds of people watched the parade. The final hours, the feast of St. Anthony,” that started in the Lower West Side and made its way to “St. Anthony’s church, where unified people were kneeling in prayer, devotion was the rule, the highest example,” finally ending in a fireworks display at the Terrace Playground.

As I sat and watched this YouTube clip with the Joes, they called out name after name of kids, of adults, priests, nuns that they recognized. They talked about each person in detail—this same super-specific memory is at the forefront of Bread and Onions. The Joes didn’t know each other back then—Giambra was almost seven years older—but they were both there; they both knew the same people, each from their perspective.

The Purple Dust of Twilight Time

It started with Andy’s Cafe. And the final scene of Bread and Onions is painted in front of the same place, this time with a young boy shining shoes out front, solidifying the importance of places in our lives, as backdrops and as common ground. I spoke with Joe and Joe so much that Giambra told me, “When you’re done with this thing, you’re going to have a tome.” He’s right. I do. And I’ve barely gotten through my legal pad of notes. As I listened back to our conversation on my phone, I found myself back in the car with Joe before the snow hit and crushed the areas south of the city. Joe and I were leaving downtown on our tour and finishing listening to the Jackie Jocko disc and he said, “Go down Niagara, Anthony.”

Then he stopped talking and picked up singing along with Jocko “still love me as I love you…” As he sang the ‘you’ he let the vowels loose before coming down and saying, “I was with the city as a garbage man when I wrote this. I wrote the lyrics on the truck, on lunch breaks. That was 65 years ago.” When did this guy find time to be a garbage man? Did I mention he was a detective with the Buffalo Police for many years and also owned a barbecue joint on Washington and Chippewa? He’s a walking history book, a reminder that any person you see has stories that spiral in every direction and all you have to do is ask them about it.

Bread and Onions is available now for the first time online at: