Philly celebrates Italian culture — with more in store


The only Italian museum in the tristate area had its grand opening a couple weeks ago in South Philadelphia.

At the same time, another group of Italians in Philadelphia is planning for another, much larger museum. 

In a small storefront building on East Passyunk Avenue, the History of Italian Immigration Museum winds visitors through a tightly turning path of early Italian explorers; displays cases of households artifacts; and a fully realized barber shop that had been in Southwest Philadelphia in the 1950s. It’s complete with original formica cabinetry, enameled swivel chairs, and a life-size cutout of the proprietor, Sal Rosati.

“He had the Cadillac of barber shops,” said Michael Bonasera, the chair of the new museum. Rosati, now 50 years on, is a board member.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Part of a vibrant Italian community in Philadelphia, Rosati’s barber shop was undone by an invasion by the British.

“The barber shop closed in 1968, as a result of several factors, one of which was the Beatles,” said Bonasera. “The invasion really killed the barber industry. And that is the truth.”

This is the only Italian museum for hundreds of miles – there is one in New York’s Little Italy, and another in Albany, another in Chicago. This modest museum is made up of hand-painted maps, historic photos borrowed from a collector in New Jersey, and lots of artifacts donated by locals, including Bonasera himself. He contributed a street peddler’s yoke used to hitch a horse to a cart that was once owned by his grandfather.

Bonasera was able to put the museum together in just nine months because he has very little overhead: this storefront is owned by the local chapter of Filitalia, a global Italian organization that primarily teaches language classes.

“Filitalia International is planning a large campaign to expand to additional chapters. So I am quite confident that as we grow our organization, other areas of the country would be interested in having a museum as well,” said Bonasera.

Someone is interested in having another Italian museum, right in Philadelphia.

Computer engineer Michael DiPilla does not have an international organization to back him up. He has little more than an idea and a website, His vision is to make not just a museum of how Italy influenced America, but how America influenced Italy.

“Philadelphia had reached a worldwide level of importance. It was a symbol of freedom and independence,” said DiPilla. “There was an Italian town that was destroyed by an earthquake. And the people were, like, we have to rename the town, and they named the town Filadelfia.”

The proposed National Italian Museum does not have a collection, and no place to house one. DiPilla is talking with local and federal officials to get the idea off the ground, including U. S. Rep. Bob Brady who sits on the House Administration Committee, overseeing the Smithsonian Institution.

DiPilla is eyeing the old First Bank of the United States – with its Parthenon-like architecture — as a possible location. And he is about to launch a regular walking tour of Italian architecture in Center City.

“We’ve only raised thousands of dollars, and to do this you need a much larger operating budget of millions of dollars,” said DiPilla.

Many of Philadelphia’s historic museum overlap content, with Italians appearing at the National Constitution Center, at the Museum of American Jewish History, at the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, and at the forthcoming museum of the American Revolution.

Some of the museums in and around Independence Mall are struggling to survive. Nevertheless, Bonasera believes the market can handle more.

“There is always room for more museums,” he said. “Heritage — to lose the heritage is a sin, certainly. The time to capture information is now.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal