On a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon, what better way to pass the time than tour one of Ottawa’s most interesting neighbourhoods?

As I arrived on my bike after a long ride along the canal, I realized I didn’t have my key for my bike lock. No problem, I could follow the group walking my bike and someone kindly offered to watch my bike when I entered the establishments along the tour.

Having eaten at many of the restaurants in Little Italy over the years, I was familiar with the area, but knew little about its rich history.

Luciano Pradal, the host, opened my eyes to how the influx of Italian immigrants shaped the neighbourhood and enriched the city in many ways. Luciano is a character, full of interesting anecdotes and a friendly spirit, often waving to people he knows along the route. He emigrated from Italy in the late 1960s and his tour is sprinkled with his personal experiences.

Many of the Italian newcomers came after World War II.  Some initially settled in the Byward Market area, then moved to the Lebreton Flats which was completely razed in 1965, so they headed south towards Preston Street.

Along the route, Luciano stops to show the participants a series of sculptures by C.J. Fleury.  The 15 granite, bronze and stainless steel sculptures, commission by the City Of Ottawa in 2012 for Preston Street, span from Albert Street to Carling Avenue. According to the artist, these “human-sized sculptures express fragments of cultural history, geography and architecture, reflecting the eclecticism of today’s Italian-Canadians in Ottawa.”

As we pass one of the new condo buildings that have sprung up in Little Italy during recent years, Luciano greets a man watering flowers in larger planter. It’s Tony Lofaro, a retired Ottawa Citizen report, who chats for a minute about how Little Italy meant a lot to him growing up, so much so that he has returned to Preston Street. Later on we see him walking back home with a take-out meal from one of the local restaurants. A participant remarks on how it must be so nice to live walking distance to so many great eateries!

Two stops along the walk include some samples of delicious Italian treats and a respite from the heat. At Pasticceria Gelateria Italiana, participants munch on some melt-in-your-mouth cookies and hear about how Joe Calabro opened the family-run business in 1979. As we meander through the narrow aisles laden with olive oil, vinegar, pasta and cold cuts at Luciano Foods, we are delighted to find trays of cheese, pizza and cake ready for our consumption!

Luciano explained that many Italian newcomers worked in the trades, so he took us to visit A Complete Fabrication – Welding and Fabrication, located on one of the neighbourhood’s small side streets. Not only do they manage welding for construction projects, there is along a display of some of their funky, iron artwork!

We stop as we near the lovely murals that explain the Italian migration to Canada on the Queensway underpass and Luciano shows us St. Anthony’s Soccer Club which since 1952 has represented one of the community’s favourite sports.  Nearby there are statues of large bocci pins and balls – one other favourite past-time of Italian immigrants.

Another sight is Preston Hardware, which is Canada’s largest independent hardware retailer and an important landmark since 1945.

Luciano chuckles as we pass people sipping on cappuccinos in outdoor cafés and he says that patios were a place to “see and be seen” by Italian immigrants and were even invented by Italians.

The last stop on the tour is St. Anthony of Padua Church, which includes some of Ottawa’s finest examples of Renaissance art and is a cornerstone of the community.

I hop back on my bike for the ride home – knowing a lot more about Little Italy and wondering what our city would be like without the multi-faceted contribution of newcomers to this neighbourhood.  Viva Italia!  And, a big thank you OLIP and Heritage Ottawa for hosting the annual Immigrant Heritage Walking Tours!

By Suzanne Charest