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The Italians that inhabit the Northside of Iron Mountain come mostly from the same three pockets of Italy: Piedmont, Marche and Abruzzi. Their parents were skilled marble miners, and many were poor, with children who overflowed the house and slept under the olive trees. All came for work when iron was found in the Menominee range here in 1879. By 1910, there were 1,457 Italians living in Dickenson County, most working in Iron Mountain’s mines, the Chapin, the Hamilton and the Millie. Neighborhoods sprung up around the mineshafts—the Italians settled the Northside, casting wine presses into the cement basements of their trim homes, planting giant vegetable gardens and two or three fruit trees in every backyard. Many families never left, and you’ll see their Italian influence all over town: in the park’s bocce courts, Izzo’s Shoe Hospital, Simone Insurance, Rocconi Ace Hardware, Crispigna’s Market and restaurants like Fontana’s and Romagnoli’s.
By the time we leave Fontana’s, the rain has stopped. A tiny brown bat out for a mosquito supper swoops down and dances between us for a moment, a renegade member of one of the Midwest’s largest congregations of bats, which winters in the deserted Millie mine near the Northside. The abandoned Chapin mineshaft is less hospitable: it collapsed in 1940, taking U.S. 2, cars and all, down with it. An oblong lake the locals call The Pit marks the spot, and most Northside Italians believe it marks an invisible boundary between the Northside and rest of town. “It was as though the other side of town was afraid to cross over here,” says Buzzy Olivanti, a first generation Italian who bartends at Bimbo’s on the Northside. And so, self sustained and sequestered, the Italian Northside was ripe for customs and family secrets to be handed down exactly as they were in the old country.
Enter through the bright red door of Bimbo’s Wine Press (L’Vino Torchio), at the early hour of 10 a.m., and you can’t miss the table of men—first- and second-generation Italians—holding an unofficial meeting of the Paisano Club.
Buzzy Olivanti is the president.
Buzzy’s grandfather worked in the mines, and his dad August (known as Chocolate) worked for the nearby Ford plant making wood paneling for station wagons before opening his own tavern on Merritt Street. Chocolate and his wife Julia served fish fry there with gnocchi and meat and cheese ravioli on Fridays. Now it is a hair salon where Buzzy’s wife works. Blacky Lombardini, who cuts hair at the Italian barbershop next door, is here, as is Freddy Constantini, who wears blue suspenders and a gold cross at his neck. Family legend has it Freddy and his twin brother, Jay, were so tiny when they were born, their mother laid them in a cigar box on the wood stove to keep them warm. He’s 87.
The Paisanos’ table is under the ornate tin ceiling painted in reds, greens and white. The bar’s owner, the late Bimbo Constantini, cherished in Iron Mountain for his kindness and cuisine, was a civics teacher at nearby Kingsford High School. He commissioned a student to raise scaffolding in the tavern and paint the ceiling like his own Sistine Chapel. But even before he bought the bar in 1978, this was the neighborhood tavern, a meeting place for both political parties, the Kingsford labor union and various other unions. There were always big cigars and big talk about the Ford plant and the mines; all among men with names like Torpedo Alessandrini, Fluff Santini, Butterballs “Butts” Alessandrini. But mostly they came for the food.