The din of voices humming on the fourth floor of Astorias Quinn building Monday night sounded like an Italian family feast, and in many respects it was.
There was the venerable Italian clan, more than a dozen relatives attached by various shoots on a family tree that traces its roots to a tiny hamlet in northern Italy from which their ancestors emigrated more than a century ago.
And, of course, there was the pasta, the modern-day descendant of a recipe that originated when pasta was the staple dish for the hamlets seafaring people.
But for this feast the pasta never left the box, an iconic red, white and blue rectangle with a clear plastic window and the family name Ronzoni emblazoned across the front.
Instead of food, the Greater Astoria Historical Society offered a feast of memories Monday night when Alfred Ronzoni Jr., the great grandson of the founder of the Ronzoni Macaroni Co., told the story of the family business based for most of its history in Long Island City. A box of Ziti-2 sat conspicuously on a table behind the podium.
Their recipe could hardly be described as secret, and the pasta boasts a following that extends well beyond the wide boughs of the growing Ronzoni family tree.
When an American thinks about pasta, they will quite probably be thinking, Ronzoni, Alfred Ronzoni Jr. told a standing-room-only crowd of relatives, neighbors and history buffs during the latest installment of an ongoing lecture series sponsored by the historical group.
Ronzoni, 37, who lives on Crescent Street in Long Island City, had met Debbie Van Cura, the secretary of the Greater Astoria Historical Society, by chance during the East River Festival more than a year ago.
But it was only after he wrote down his name for her that she learned he was a member of the Ronzoni clan, a realization that ultimately led to Monday nights lecture.
Van Cura already had a sentimental attachment to the Ronzonis. Having grown up in Long Island City across the street from the companys plant on Northern Boulevard and 50th Street, she had retrieved the metal letters that graced the front of the Ronzoni building as it was being torn down in the late 1990s.
I said, Boy, I would love to get those letters, Van Cura recalled for the crowd.
Those same letters, hollow metal shapes with a silver sheen, leaned against the wall in a neat line as Alfred Ronzoni Jr. spoke. The only piece missing was Ronzonis second O, which had been unsalvageable because the wall was crumbling behind it during the demolition.
The Ronzoni story is closely allied with the history of Long Island City.
The companys founder, Emanuele Ronzoni, immigrated with his family to New York from Italy in 1881, soon getting a job as an underage worker in a macaroni factory on Manhattans Lower East Side.
He eventually founded the Atlantic Macaroni Co. with two partners and moved the company to Vernon Boulevard in 1895, the first step in the Ronzoni familys century-long affiliation with Long Island City.
But Ronzoni struck out on his own in 1915 with a small factory on 35th Street and Northern Boulevard, when the wartime disruption of imports was increasing the demand for American-made pasta, and the Ronzoni Macaroni Co. was incorporated in 1918.
Ronzonis children rapidly joined him in the business, which expanded with the construction of two more plants on Northern Boulevard: one built in 1925 at 36th Street, which today houses the Lighthouse organization for the blind, and the 50th Street facility that opened in 1950.
The Ronzoni family eventually sold the company to the General Foods Corp. in 1984.
Along the way the family saw pasta transformed in public perception from an ethnic food only eaten by Italian-Americans into a mainstream product embraced as an American staple.
As the lecture drew to a close, the historical society gave something back to the family that had given so much to Long Island City.
Alongside the enormous letters reading Ronzoni on the front of the demolished plant, spaghetti and pasta were spelled out in much smaller print.
Although Van Cura was not able to save those words, the h from spaghetti was salvaged by the owner of a diner across the street from the plant, who mounted it above the hamburger grill.
But the diner owner donated the h to the historical society just last week, and Monday night the group returned the letter to its rightful owners the family.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.
©2002 Community News Group
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