Culture and Assimilation

“Some of the lard was for old traditions and they were put in the bladder, just not to forget how we did things in the old country.” –Mary Nicolovo Juliana, born in Italy

“You have to look at food as a manifestation of ethnicity.” –Phil Notarriani, PhD, b. 1948 in Salt Lake City

Italian immigrants commonly made their own food—including bread, sausage, and cheese—both as a way to stretch their incomes and as a celebration of Italian culture. Mary Lupo recounts how she made bread for people out of work. Remo Spigarelli says, “I never bought a loaf of bread, as long as I remember. My mother always made bread once a week.” When they didn’t make their own Italian foods, immigrants in Utah found Italian goods from merchants. During Prohibition, making wine and whiskey was a way for Italian-Americans to make extra money. Joseph Dalpaiz tells how one year his father had nineteen train cars full of grapes shipped to him for the purpose of making wine. Phil Notarriani’s father, a shoemaker, had a wine press made from parts that workers in the copper mines at Magna had machined for him. The sheriff would even stop by from time to time, saying, “I don’t want to know where you get it, but I could sure use a glass of wine!”

Music served as another meaningful cultural tie for Italian immigrants. The narrators of the oral histories mentioned mandolin music and dancing la tarantella. Cultural influence also flowed back from the United States to Italy. Immigrants wrote letters to relatives and returned for visits. Phil Notarriani tells of meeting a man in Italy wearing a Utah Woolen Mills suit given to him by his cousins, tailors in Salt Lake City.


Thomas Angotti, Alfonso Cairo, and Filippo Notarriani in the 1920s, Magna, Utah. Utah State Historical Society.

“The only trouble is that we got a little different way of living to some extent, and we don’t speak the language and they think we are dumb for sure.” –Tony Frugni, born 1898 in northern Italy

Italians in Utah faced prejudice from Anglo-Americans and northern European immigrants who were unfamiliar with their customs. Even within the Italian community, Northern Italians looked down on Southern Italians. In trying to assimilate, Italians faced obstacles. Phil Notarriani tells of a childhood friend in the 1960s whose classmates teased him because he ate spaghetti. Ralph Fossat’s family name used to be Fossati; Anglicizing surnames was a common practice for immigrants who wanted to appear less foreign.

Anti-immigrant sentiment could be very serious. The Ku Klux Klan had a presence in Utah during its resurgence in the 1920s, and they lynched a black man in Helper in 1922. The Klan gained support from nativists distrustful of the Catholicism of Southern and Eastern Europeans and from those opposed to labor unions full of immigrant miners. Joseph Dalpaiz says, “Every nationality suffered certain prejudices.” Despite ethnic differences, Italians and other nationalities got along in the mining camps. Phil Notarriani recounts how people of all ethnicities depended on each other while working in the mines, even if ethnic divisions arose again once back in town.


An Italian wedding in Carbon County. Marriott Library.

“My folks mingled with the public so many years, and we were in a Mormon community and we chased with the Mormon children and everything, and I married a Mormon woman.” –Ralph Fossat, b. 1918, Helper, Utah

Religion was of varying importance to individuals within the Italian community. Not every community in Utah had a Catholic church. Some attended Catholic mass more often upon migrating to the United States as a way of keeping in touch with Italian culture, according to Phil Notarriani, but some only attended on holidays. Mary Juliana says, “I don’t think there is any Italian that will eat meat on Friday if he has any sense left,” referring to the custom of abstaining from meat on Fridays. But Pasquale Tunno laughs about how a woman in the US told him, “Honey, you’d better eat some meat because in this country, nobody watches.”

Civic engagement was a way for Italian-Americans to stay connected with one another while also boosting the image of Italians in Utah communities. With few other ceremonies that called for public gatherings, Columbus Day was an important holiday to Italian-Americans, and St. John’s Day held significance for devout Catholics. Notarriani tells how Italians in Magna put their own spin on Utah’s Pioneer Day holiday with a Christopher Columbus float. Fraternal organizations such as the Societa’ Di Beneficenza in Bingham Canyon and the Italian-American Civic League in Salt Lake City helped Italians to represent their culture to Utahns. The fraternal organizations and mutual aid societies also assisted union organizers, who gained access to tight-knit ethnic communities through them.


Italian Pioneer Day float celebrating Christopher Columbus, 1924, Magna, Utah. From The Peoples of Utah by Helen Z. Papanikolas.