The Godfathers

The crowded tenements of Boston's old West End were long ago torn down, of course, victims of the famously misguided urban renewal project that made way for Government Center and Charles River Park. But before they were, the sociologist Herbert Gans spent months in the neighborhood with the second-generation Italian Americans who lived there.

It didn't take long for Gans to notice something that made these people very different from the city's outspoken Irish across town in South Boston. Except for a handful of Italian intellectuals and artists, Gans wrote in his classic 1962 book, The Urban Villagers, “I encountered no identification with Italian culture or Italian symbols.”

A few blocks away and four decades later, in a sight unthinkable to the West Enders Gans knew, Bobby Travaglini of East Boston was sworn in as the first Italian-American leader of either legislative branch in the 223 years since the first General Court of Massachusetts convened. The significance of which was hardly lost on Travaglini's Senate colleagues.

“He's been called by many names — Bob, Bobby, Trav, Senator, Senatore — but henceforth he will be known and answered to as Mr. President,” said Greek-American Senator Steve Panagiotakos. Gushed Irish-American Senator Therese Murray of Plymouth: This is truly a great country “when a kid from the neighborhood can be elected the first [Senate] president of Italian descent.” Travaglini's own mother, Josephine, wept in the gallery when his nomination for the Senate presidency was moved and seconded.

It was a touching scene — with one thing missing. Travaglini himself made no mention whatsoever of the ceremony's ethnic significance. Even when he acknowledged the presence of Boston's first Italian-American mayor, Tom Menino, it was only to note their long friendship. It's an omission that has since been quietly noted both inside and outside the chamber. “Italians in general are very proud of their ethnicity, but they are somewhat private about it,” observes Franco Veneziano of the New England Italian-American Chamber of Commerce. “There should have been a little bit more made of it.”

That would have been out of character for Travaglini, who has alluded exactly once to his ethnicity on the floor of the Senate during his decade serving there — in brief comments supporting the ceremonial 1999 designation of October as Italian-American Heritage Month.

What gives? “It's a tenuous thing in that Italians are just starting to get to positions they've never held before,” says Boston City Councilor Paul Scapicchio of the North End. “I think you tread lightly when you first get there.”

But hold on a minute: Even in this most Irish of political cultures, describing Boston's Italian-American power brokers as arrivistes is like referring to the city's 35-year-old Government Center eyesore as “new” City Hall. When Paul Cellucci was governor, Italian Americans held three of the most important political offices in the state. (The other two: Menino and Auditor-for-Life Joe DeNucci.) Three-term Attorney General Frank Bellotti remains a major figure in private-sector legal circles. Politicians count themselves lucky to have the likes of businessman Peter Berlandi raising funds for them or to snag the consulting services of strategists like John Sasso.

If the roll call of A-list Italian Americans in other highly visible professions sounds familiar, it's because their clout is so pervasive. Consider this partial roster: Boston Symphony Orchestra managing director Mark Volpe; building trade union leader Joe Nigro; Modern Continental contracting king Les Marino; Board of Higher Education chairman Steve Tocco; Globe op-ed columnist Joan Vennochi; WCVB-TV, Channel 5, general manager Paul LaCamera; bigfoot trial lawyer Bob Popeo; EMC CEO Joe Tucci; State Street chairman David Spina; John Hancock chairman Dave D'Alessandro; Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau chief Pat Moscaritolo; Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce fixture and former Secretary of State Paul Guzzi; longtime Menino alter ego David Passafaro, now a key player in the upcoming Democratic National Convention at the FleetCenter.

With all that well-established firepower as backdrop, why on earth would a guy like Travaglini keep his ethnic powder dry at a moment of supreme accomplishment? Because of the low-key gestalt of Boston's Italian Americans, that's why — a phenomenon with roots in local history and Italian culture. Oh, yeah, and because of a certain television show you might have heard about.

Local Italian Americans are no less aware and proud of their heritage than other groups. But beyond the traditional North End festivals and modest Columbus Day parades, they tend to shun high-profile public opportunities like Travaglini's inauguration to celebrate their clout. And by their own accounts, that curious reticence seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

Veteran public relations executive Jan Saragoni recalls a 1997 meeting of prominent Italian Americans to plan an event comparable to the long-running American Ireland Fund Dinner, an annual must-attend celebration of Boston Irish pride. As one participant in the meeting noted: “Why don't we have this? Who the [bleep] are they?” The result was a gala evening at the Museum of Science linked to an exhibit on the work of Leonardo da Vinci. But after that one event, “it all went away,” says Saragoni. “We haven't been very good at organizing.”

At least, not when the goal is public expression of ethnic solidarity. A late 1990s attempt to pump up an annual Columbus Day breakfast into the type of tribal celebration that the Boston Irish enjoy each year in South Boston on St. Patrick's Day generated little interest. Taking a cue from the grass-roots marketing success among Greek Americans of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Boston-based filmmaker Frank Ciota tried and failed to organize local Italian-American groups to attend and promote screenings of his latest movie, Ciao America, the story of an Italian American rediscovering his roots on a trip back to the old country. “People were excited about the film, but it was difficult to bring groups together,” he says. Ditto for William Marchione, a Brighton historian who recently completed a book about the modern-day Italian-American experience in Boston. One of his key findings — that “a lot of Italian parents, while they wanted to hold on to the traditions in the household, were telling their children they should not emphasize their ethnicity outside” — was validated for Marchione when he tried to market his book. “Italian organizations,” he reports, “were not that interested in having me come and speak.”

In contrast with these failed attempts at ethnic-identity celebration, there are persistent signs of political cohesion among local Italian Americans. Cellucci's strong showing in cities with large Italian-American populations was a key to his 1998 victory in the governor's race. Mitt Romney didn't fare quite so well last year, but carried the North End and did well among Italian-American voters in Everett and Revere after 1980 Olympic hockey hero Mike Eruzione and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani stumped for him. “Italian Americans tend to vote as a bloc more than other groups,” says a top Romney campaign strategist. “They had leaders we could tap into.”

But votes for the decidedly non-Italian Romney, a Mormon from Michigan, likely reflected the conservative political leanings of many local Italian Americans more than any ethnic solidarity. Boston's Italian immigration of the early 20th century came almost exclusively from southern Italy, a region splintered into often-hostile tribes by geography, a history of foreign conquest, and a feudal system tied to family and ownership of land. This traditional fragmentation continued in the New World, where the North End and New York's Little Italy were among the tiny handful of exclusively Italian neighborhoods. And even in Italian wards like these, the political bosses were usually Irish. The West End itself — home turf of legendary Irish ward boss Martin Lomasney — didn't start voting Italian-American candidates into office until after World War II. Barely 15 years later, the neighborhood was torn down and its residents dispersed to other sections of the city and the suburbs.

“Italians are a tough group to organize,” says former State Treasurer Joe Malone. “Italians will look to a charity and get involved and be proud of who they are, but being in the same room, that's another thing. It's like trying to herd cats.”

What does a guy named Malone know about it? His original family name — Mulone — was abandoned on the advice of a quick-thinking lawyer helping Malone's father beat a rap in front of a notoriously anti-Italian South Boston judge. To this day, even successful local Italian Americans often find themselves deferring to the omnipresent Irish culture. It's sometimes said of Menino, a proud Italian American who vacations in Ireland and leans on a predominantly Irish-American inner circle, that he “thinks he's Irish.” Convention guru Pat Moscaritolo reflects a common insecurity among local Italian Americans when he half-jokingly suggests that “maybe the Irish feel it's their city and state, and they're just renting [public] office to the Italians for a while.” One Italian political figure thinks a lot of Italian Americans agree that “this is an Irish town — don't wave any ethnic flag too high, and don't open yourself to any stereotyping.”

Oh, yeah, and Tony Soprano may have something to do with it, too.

Don't laugh. “As soon as you put the word 'Italian' out there, you're immediately stereotyped as a Mafia person,” says Rina Crugnale, regional vice president of the Italian-American cultural and educational organization Fieri International. “I am very guarded about who I associate with and who I'm seen with in public,” says Boston City Councilor Scapicchio. “In one fell swoop someone can totally cast your career in a negative light.”

All the social, historical, and political elements of the Italian-American experience notwithstanding, this persistent cultural stereotyping may be the single biggest reason why Travaglini didn't wave the ethnic flag at his inauguration. Friends say he's so sensitive about it he eschews white ties and other gaudy attire associated with Italian stereotypes, and conspicuously stocks his office with a diverse — but non-Italian — staff.

No wonder. When the news broke in the first place that Travaglini had secured enough votes to assure him the Senate presidency, the Boston Herald's Howie Carr unleashed a torrent of Mafia jokes. It was like “handing the keys to the State House to Tony Soprano,” Carr opined. The reference prompted an outraged response from Italian-American Superior Court Judge Peter Agnes, who termed it “far outside the ken of political discourse. It is a slur that should be offensive to every right-thinking person.”

Someday maybe it will be. For the time being, the tradition of Boston's successful Italian Americans seems destined to remain decidedly low profile. Broad public acceptance of an ethnic group's legitimacy only seems to come when its icons — the Kennedys and O'Neills for the Irish, for example, or Mike Dukakis for Greeks — stand up and unabashedly proclaim its virtues.

Perhaps, in time, even Travaglini will feel comfortable enough to do this. But for now, he won't even entertain a conversation on the topic. After all, he's several generations down the road from the first American-born Italians of the West End, the ones Gans found had (once again, unlike the Irish) left the old country well behind them. “Their overall culture,” noted Gans, “is that of Americans.”