Italians celebrate Columbus and his greatest achievement

Members of the Societa Gioventu Quagliettana show their Italian pride in Astoria's Columbus Day Parade. Photo by Joe Anuta
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In a neighborhood now known for its Greek population, Saturday’s Columbus Day Parade in Astoria served as a reminder of the area’s Italian roots.

“There were once more Italian-American social clubs here than anywhere else in the city,” said Jerry Iannece, chairman of Community Board 11 and son of Italian immigrants.

Iannece’s father came from Italy in the 1950s and settled in Astoria as part of a wave of immigrants from the European nation.

And with those immigrants came numerous contributions to the neighborhood, according to many participants in the parade.

“Italian Americans gave a lot to music, arts and theater all over the world,” said Vinicio Donato, who was honored as the parade’s grand marshall and rode atop a classic Italian car.

“My father said, ‘Don’t forget your heritage,’” said Donato, who is the chairman of Community Board 1 in Astoria.

Donato had not forgotten it, and neither had the other parade participants.

Michael Meoni dressed in the height of Florentine fashion, as he has for the last eight years, walked along the route portraying Christopher Columbus himself. The only anachronisms in his blue flowing costume were sunglasses and black sneakers.

Giovanni Auriemma has driven his cherry red Fiat 500, a quintessentially Italian car, in the parade for the last five years.

Auriemma, whose tiny automobile also carried his flag-waving children, is from Naples, but has lived in Astoria for 15 years.

“Columbus Day is for Italians,” he said. “It’s my holiday.”

Franca Picerno was driving a car topped with models of the ships that are thought to have brought the first European settlers to North America: the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.

“Christopher Columbus discovered America,” she said.

Several lawmakers came out to show their support as well.

“This is an annual tradition in Astoria that pays tribute to the great Italian heritage that is such an important part of this part of Queens,” said state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) as he marched beside other elected officials at the front of the parade.

The population of Italian Americans has largely shifted out of Astoria, according to Iannece.

Large pockets still exist in neighborhoods like Howard Beach and in northeast Queens, he said. And once a year, many of those residents return to the place in Queens where the older generations first settled.

But the first Italian to set foot on the shores of America was Columbus, a Genoese explorer who sailed under the Spanish monarchy in the late 1400s, although many of his fellow countrymen followed in the centuries after.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4566.

Posted 5:43 pm, October 12, 2011
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