The Harlem Macaroni Co., story was adapted from an article in Slate titled Searching for Giorgio Cataudella, Macaroni Laborer by writer Paul Lukas.
It all started when Lukas found discarded report cards from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls in Lower Manhattan while attending a party in New York City.
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He found a card (above) for a student named Caroline Cataudella, who’d attended the Trade School in the late 1920’s. The occupation for her father, George, was listed as “macaroni laborer.”
As it turns out, Caroline Cataudella’s father was not named George. His name was Giorgio, but it was apparently Americanized on Caroline’s report card. He and his wife, Angelina, married in Sicily and had two daughters there before coming to America in 1906. They settled at 239 East 108th Street in East Harlem—the same address shown on Caroline’s report card—where they had a son and six more daughters, including Caroline, who was born in 1912.
The large family provided a convenient source of free labor for the operation that Giorgio had set up on the premises: the Harlem Macaroni Co.
“It was retail and wholesale,” explained Caroline’s niece (and Giorgio’s granddaughter) Gina Marchese, who I recently interviewed at her home in northern New Jersey. “The retail shop was on the ground floor, the factory was on the second and third floors, and the family lived above the factory.”
So Giorgio wasn’t some random factory laborer—he ran his own company! And according to Gina, it was quite an operation:
In those days, macaroni was sold by the pound from large bins, not boxed. I lived in the building until I was 8 years old [Gina’s mother was Giorgio’s eldest daughter], so I was down at the store every day. And I loved watching the pasta come down from the machinery with all the different shapes. It was fascinating.
When people came to shop, it was also a social visit for many of them. A lot of the people on the block came from the same area of Sicily, so people were very close. And everyone knew my grandfather—he was very well respected in the neighborhood. When they found out whose granddaughter I was, it was a big deal.
But the building housed more than just a business. At one point there were 17 people living in the two railroad flats upstairs: Giorgio and Angelina; all nine of their children (including Caroline); and their eldest daughter’s husband and five children, including Gina. Most of the family was involved in the macaroni operation in some capacity, making 239 East 108th Street an intense integration of family, work, and pasta.
The store had an the interior of the retail shop (see above), another shows Giorgio and some of his workers at the factory; and another shows Giorgio’s handsome delivery truck, with the retail shop in the background.
Somebody went down there and found that my grandfather’s right arm was caught in the machine, and he couldn’t get it out,” Gina said. “His arm was partially paralyzed after that.
Giorgio persevered for a few more years, but working with only one functional arm eventually became too much for him, so he sold the factory and moved to the Bronx.
Gina and her family had already relocated to the Bronx in 1936 to be closer to her father’s barber shop. But she still had strong feelings for the old East Harlem neighborhood—and still does today, as she made clear while sobbing her way through an emotional, tear-filled story:
My older sister and I used to go back to the neighborhood to visit another pair of sisters who we were still close to. One time, when I was about 13, I went to visit these friends and the building—our building—was gone. I’m sorry, I’m crying now, but you don’t know what it did to me! I was literally born in that house, and now it was just an empty lot.
So I walked on the lot and picked up a pebble, because that was the only remembrance I could have of that solid building where I spent those years. I saved it until I got married, and then I cleaned out my little treasure box that had my diary and other things in it, including the pebble. Which was silly—I wish I had saved it all!
He still wanted to know what had been built on the vacant lot at 239 East 108th Street. So one afternoon he took the subway to East Harlem to take a look. He knew the area was no longer an Italian stronghold, so it was a safe bet that I wouldn’t find another macaroni operation.
But there was one possibility I hadn’t considered 239 East 108th Street no longer exists.
In fact, the entire block of 108th Street between Third and Second avenues no longer exists. It’s now part of a large playground adjacent to Benjamin Franklin public housing complex. On the playground’s Web page, it says that the city had acquired the land for the housing complex in 1956, and the Poor Richard’s playground had opened in 1960. In other words, 239 East 108th Street hasn’t existed in over half a century.
Photo credit 1)The Harlem Macaroni Co.’s delivery truck around 1934. Company owner Giorgio Cataudella is seen third from left. 2) a card (above) for a student named Caroline Cataudella. 3) Giorgio Cataudella in his Harlem Macaroni Co. retail shop with his daughters Vera, center, and Antoinette. 4) Giorgio Cataudella, right, and some of his employees at the Harlem Macaroni Co. factory in the early 1930s.