YOUNGSTOWN — When Anthony Dion Mitzel visits his local market in Cesena, Italy, he is reminded of the Mahoning Valley's Italian festivals he grew up attending.
"It's the way that people interact with each other in a designated space," he said, "the way festivals in the Valley and markets in Italy still retain some of the communal activites of shared spaces and public interaction
"That's the way culture gets preserved," he added.
Mitzel is an adjunct professor at the University of Bologna. The Valley native shared his expertise Thursday as part of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society's monthly Bites and Bits of History program.
His lecture “Youngstalia: Italian Foodways in the Mahoning Valley,” explores the importance and trajectory of local Italian American food culture.
He traced the Italian diaspora's establishment of ethnic enclaves like Youngstown's Brier Hill neighborhood and the decoupling of ethnicity from specific areas after the closure of Youngstown's steel mills.
Throughout this trajectory, Italian-Americans in the Valley have engaged with Old World culture through new takes on Italian food.
Some Italian food imports from southern Italy remain popular in the Mahoning Valley even decades later, like: wedding soup, pizzelles and what we now call Brier Hill pizza.
"We grew up teething on pizzelles," Mitzel joked.
Brier Hill pizza "had its origin in communal creation," and you can still find it made fresh on Fridays at St. Anthony's Church on Youngstown's North Side, he said.
Many of these recipes — in addition to being shared within Valley families — are preserved in Easterseals Angels and Friends Favorite Recipes, which Mitzel noted, remains ubiquitous on bookshelves throughout the region.
"Every family in the Mahoning Valley has the Bible and the Angels and Friends," Mitzel half-joked.
More than 4,000 miles away from their native communities, Italian-Americans in the Valley and their families "[create] an idea of Italy" by interacting with Italian food and culture.
Because his first experiences of "Italianness" of "Italianita" were in the Valley, Mitzel said: "Often, when I think of Italy, I'm really thinking about Youngstown."