HAMMONTON — Tom Ricca is a lot of things: a proud father, a hardworking business owner, an energetic former WWE wrestler, and now, a champion of his town’s Italian heritage.
For the past year, Ricca, 50, has been leading a crusade to create a Little Italy in the heart of one of the state’s most Italian towns.
More than a decade ago, Town Council designated a section of town bounded by Egg Harbor Road, Fairview Avenue, Third Street, Pratt Street, Mt. Carmel Lane, French Street and Orchard Street as “Little Italy,” but signage was never placed to identify it.
Ricca is hoping to change that with a concept that includes signs and banners, a website and an interactive map of the area. He said he hopes to get red, white and green crosswalks painted, but admitted that may be a long shot.
“You take the bull by the horns. Someone has to do something when you’re excited about something,” Ricca said.
Down a tree-lined corridor just west of the center of town is a collection of businesses, clubs and residences that trace their roots to the influx of Italian immigrants in the 19th century.
Hammonton, population 14,000, has long boasted about its Italian heritage. Census data place it at the top of national lists for highest percentages of residents with Italian ancestry. The latest figures from the American Community Survey put it at 44 percent.
“You have the Sons of Italy, located on Third Street. You have the Italian Sons and Daughters on Pratt Street, you have the Mount Carmel grounds, which encompasses a whole city block,” said Louis J. Pantalone.
Pantalone is president of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Society, which for the past century and a half has run an Italian festival in town that ends with a Catholic procession.
“Which makes us the longest-running Italian festival in the U.S.,” he added, before continuing to list notable Italian landmarks in town: Inferrera’s Market, St. Joseph’s Church and neighboring Convent.
“You can go on and on,” he said.
Ricca knows it well. His father, Cosimo, also a businessman and a baker, owned and operated Vet’s Sunrise Bakery at Fairview Avenue and Egg Harbor Road for many years. Now, Ricca, his wife and Ricca’s brother, Mike, operate two businesses at the former bakery — a pizzeria, which is closed for renovations, and Cannoli World.
Ricca said he thinks the designation will be a point of pride for the area, and it won’t hurt business either. Both he and Inferrera’s Market have placed signs at their stores to identify the area. Ricca said a website is in the works, and he has solicited help from area residents to gather old photos of the neighborhood.
Anne Marie DeCicco, president of the Hammonton Historical Society, agreed the section named Little Italy is probably one of the oldest Italian neighborhoods in town.
The longest running Italian-American parade is not found in Brooklyn or Staten Island, but r…
“It goes back to the mid to late 1800s. They were poor as church mice,” DeCicco said. “They had no ground, they couldn’t own ground. Most of them worked for other people.”
She said her own relatives, who immigrated from Gesso in Sicily, lived near Cottage Avenue in the neighborhood.
“They were all close, and it seems that a lot of Italians lived near their relatives,” she said.
DeCicco said she thought designating Little Italy in Hammonton was a great idea, but she hadn’t heard of it before being contacted for this story.
“Actually, I would call all of Hammonton Little Italy,” she said.
Contact: 609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com Twitter @clairelowe