Arkansas’ Little Italy

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on January 7, 2001

As entwined in the areas cultural identity as one of its early settlers grapevines, the small Italian community of Tontitown (pop. 563) haslike an old family recipeprovided its northwest Arkansas neighbors with a special flavor for generations.

Nearby residents, in fact, are most likely to equate the towns name (inspired by Italian explorer Henri de Tonti) with such northern Italian dishes as capellini al pomodoro, toasted ravioli, and chicken cacciatore or piccata, introduced to them over the years by the proprietors of such local culinary luminaries as Mary Maestris, The Venesian Inn, Mama Zs Cafe, Guidos Pizza, and Pianaltos.

That food should be the central metaphor defining Americas oldest Italian settlement seems only fitting, because a lack of foodcombined with political unrestmotivated two small groups of Italians to set sail from Genoa in 1895 and 1896 in search of a better life in America.

Those early immigrants first settled in southeast Arkansas, but both the terrain and the climate proved difficult to overcome. Illness struck, and their numbers began to dwindle.

Father Pietro Bandini, a priest dedicated to helping Italian immigrants adapt to their new country, soon entered the picture. In 1898, he led 40 families northwest to what is now Tontitown, an area reminding them of the high, dry countryside of their native Italy. It was a place where they could cultivate the grape, apple, and tomato crops with which they were familiar. A place where they could teach their children old country values around the kitchen table.

At Tontitowns Historical Museum, curator Charlotte Piazza keeps the lessons alive. Im an out-of-Italianer, she quips, having moved to Tontitown from neighboring Springdale in 1957 after marrying her high school sweetheart, Henry. Raised to speak Italian in his home, Henry is one of a dozen or so townsmen who might, says Piazza, be as likely to greet his friends with a Sta Bene? as with a How are you?

Im blessed in being bilingual, she adds, noting that she has remained contento throughout her 40-plus years of marriage. Despite her honorary native status, the relative newcomer knows as much about her village as many old-timers.

On a tour of the museum, she points out finely embroidered vestments presented to Father Bandini on his 1911 tour of Rome; a stained glass window that miraculously survived the 1934 tornado which destroyed Tontitowns first church; and pictures of Tontitowns three fallen war heroes who served in World War I, World War II, and Vietnam.

Above the pictures are crowns of previous Grape Festival Queens. Held each August since the towns first successful harvest in 1898, the festival has grown into a three-day event featuring carnival rides, arts and crafts, and spaghetti dinners prepared by members of St. Josephs diocese. It culminates in the crowning of Queen Concordia.

Both of Chris Ranallis daughters were Queen Concordia candidates. Ranalli, a third generation farmer, and two of his brothers grow blueberries, tomatoes, and grapes on the 60 acres their grandfather, Nazzareno, settled when he first came to this country. The youngest of seven siblings, Ranalli forms the hub of the family farm and roadside market. His housethe house his father builtis the only home Ranalli has ever known. It stands at the far north end of the small vineyard hes filled with a variety of grapes: concords, catawbas, and golden muscats.

Today, only a handful of growers like Ranalli remain in an area once covered with acres of grape vineyards.

But the spirit of Tontitown lives on through its people, notes Charlotte Piazza, adding that Saturdays are the best days to catch lawn bowlers with names like Pianalto and Sabatini swapping stories under the roofed Bocci court behind city hall.

In front of that building, Our Antonioa bronze statue of a suitcase-bearing immigrant commemorating Tontitowns 1998 centennialtells the towns story: immigrants pursuing, and fulfilling, their American dream.