Little Italy, Montreal: a slice of ‘il bel paese’ close to home

little italy montreal

What do you do when you wake up on Saturday, have no plans, live an hour from the Canadian border and can’t stand to read one more of @RealDonaldTrump’s tweet storms? Go to Montreal, of course, a European escape close to home–and check out Little Italy, Montreal while you’re at it. Read on to learn more about our day trip to The City of Saints. Lit tle Italy Montreal

little italy montreal
Obligatory Border Crossing Selfie ft. Aly, Elisabetta, and Me cheesin for no reason

First Stop: Old Montreal

Montreal, my favorite city in the Northeast, was founded in the mid-1600’s by two Catholic missionaries from France. “Ville-Marie,” as it was called, is still very much French and majority Catholic, but also a city of many faiths and backgrounds. On our way to Notre-Dame, we had to stop –obviously– at the giant kiddie slide left over from Igloofest.

Notre-Dame Basilica

After all the excitement, we grabbed a coffee and hit up the Basilica.

notre dame notre dame

Simply one of the most beautiful cathedrals in North America, it’s easy to lose yourself after stepping inside. While most stained-glass windows depict scenes from the bible, the ones in Notre-Dame show the history of the Ville-Marie colony before it became Montreal. The ceiling is painted blue with gold stars and the floor is tiled with a blue mosaic. Really spectacular; my photo doesn’t do it justice.

Next Stop: Madonna Della Difesa  

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This church is as interesting as Notre-Dame. Why? Mussolini. You read that right. “Il Duce” is painted on the ceiling of the Madonna Della Difesa in Little Italy.

Just below all of the saints, and near some notable Italian figures and clergy of the day, “il Duce” is depicted on his horse, proud and very unaware that he would be executed 11 years later while fleeing the country.

So, were Montreal’s early Italians fascists? Completed in 1933, well before the second World War, Mussolini was already bullying his way around Italy. One can assume his propaganda reached North American Italians as well as his own patria, but why is he there? He is sometimes credited with organizing the country, bringing Italy to the modern era, and promoting patriotism. Not to mention, the Vatican (Pius IX) worked with him to become a sovereign state in 1929. TL;DR: Still a terrible person.

Fun Awful Fact: The church’s artist, Guido Nincheri wasn’t originally going to include the fascist dictator in his mural, but the clergy asked him to. Later, when the war started, he was jailed for three months with over 500 other Italian-Canadians at a detention camp in Ontario, for being “pro-fascist”. 

Moral of the story? Don’t celebrate fascists, even if you’re being contracted to do so. It was fitting, in a way, to stop and visit “il Duce,” given all of the hysteria about fascism in the U.S. right now.

Other than that, I quite liked the interior of the church. Unlike Notre-Dame, it was bright and quiet. There were a few parishioners (no doubt of Italian origin) here and there, but for the most part it was just us. They also offer mass in Italian every day.

Little Italy: Boul St-Laurent & Rue Dante

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We spent the next half hour wandering around the cold streets of Little Italy, scoping out a nice place to grab a bite and taking in the scene. There were Italian restaurants, grocers, bookstores and clothing stores, but few people out on the street. The best time to visit, we later heard, is in the summer months for the festivals and Formula 1 weekend.

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Vorremo…due….tiramisu? Little Italy Montreal

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That was the first thing I said after finally having the balls to speak Italian to the barman at Conca D’Ora, an Italian cafe on Rue Dante. It was dusk and we were the only customers there. (Not counting  the ten or so vecchi Italian men playing cards in the back room–I sneakily tried to take a picture of them above.)

Decorated with a ton of soccer memorabilia and black and white photos on the walls, it had a simple menu of coffee and small snacks, and reminded me of the bar I used to go to just outside of Perugia.

As usual, it took a lot of encouragement from my friends to get me to speak one phrase in Italian. After fumbling around with the words for a moment, it all came flooding back.

Elisabetta, who’s father is from Italy, is a fluent speaker, but it still took her a while to finally speak. When she did, she asked the men what kind of card game they were playing! She was thrilled just to understand and be understood in Italian–even more so when she discovered they were playing her favorite game, Scala quaranta.

A couple of hours in Little Italy was all I needed to get my Italian fix while living in America. The short conversation I had with the barman (about avalanches and puppies in Abruzzo) filled the Italy-shaped hole in my life for the time being. I grabbed a copy of the Italian-Canadian newspaper on our way out. Translating it should keep me occupied for a couple of weeks. 🙂

I can’t recommend a trip to La Petite-Italie enough!

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Where’s your favorite “Little Italy” in North America? Tell me about it in the comments below! Little Italy Montreal

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