The bridge bearing the neon sign "Trenton Makes the World Takes" is a reminder of the time when New Jersey's capital city manufactured everything from toilets to pottery to wire cable.
Trenton no longer makes a lot of what the world takes, and in no place is this more evident than the Chambersburg district. The primarily Italian neighborhood was the place to go for tomato pies or special-occasion meals.
A bridge to the past
Herb Spiegel and Jack Lichstein grew up in Trenton. Friends for 60 years, they spent much of their youth hanging out in Chambersburg. Driving through the old neighborhood they see how it has changed.
Jack points out the boundaries along Greenwood Avenue and says, "Everything from this side is the 'Burg or, was the 'Burg."
A few turns brings them past the old Roebling factory, now converted into apartments and shops.
Jack recalls, "This was where they built cable. John A. Roebling developed braided cable, which the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate, the Henry Hudson, the Verazzano Narrows all used. This was all Roebling, and this was the center of The Burg."
Another big loss to the community was DeLorenzo's Tomato Pie, which pulled out and moved to Robbinsville. In its heyday, DeLorenzo's was a small place with a big reputation for Trenton's version of tomato pie, a zesty pizza where the cheese is put on before the tomatoes. And, because everybody went there, both Herb and Jack said, you couldn't bring a date there without everyone knowing.
"We made the mistake," said Jack, "of bringing these two girls here, and who is walking out but my friend's parents. Needless to say we heard about that for many, many years!"
Much changed, but still the 'Burg
Most of the buildings are boarded up, shuttered and decaying but the memories of the department store, Pete's Steak House and other haunts of their youth remain.
One by one the dinner restaurants either closed or moved out to suburbs along with their clientele — including Marsilios.
"You couldn't count as many times as Jack and our families ate there," says Jack.
Herb interrupts: "My wife had her Sweet Sixteen party in this building, and the owner of this building worked for my father in a sewing factory in the 1930 and '40s."
The neighborhood was once a mecca for fine Italian dining, but we see only one restaurant open for business — Amici Milano. While some restaurants have simply closed, others have changed hands but retained some history. We stop in front of one large elaborate building with tall white columns and a perimeter flanked by Roman statues.
"Being an Italian area, this was called the Italian-American club, Roman Hall," says Herb, "and all the Italians had their occasions here. And people came all the time. It was one of the hot places."
Herb points out, "Now the sign says 'abierto.'"
And this is the major change. Over the years as the factories closed, long-time residents began to move out as well. The demographics shifted from Italian residents to Latino, many from Costa Rica and Guatemala.
Despite the changes, it's still the 'Burg — so food reigns supreme. And it's lunchtime!
New neighbors, expanded menu
There are tacquerias, and even Pollo Campero, a chicken and empanada chain, but Rossi's Bar and Grill is part of the 'Burg that Jack and Herb remember. It was established 80 years ago and is the kind of place where the beer is cold, the burgers are over-sized, and the roast-pork sandwiches come with a side of the juices they cooked in. And, yes, pretty much everyone knows your name.
Joanna Rossi's grandparents were the original owners. "It's where I grew up. I was here all the time," Rossi says. "I'd be running around from the kitchen to the bar all the time."
While we waited for our sandwiches, Rossi shares some family lore on the wall. "That's Joe DiMaggio's jersey," she says. "We also have a pic of Joe DiMaggio sitting where I am now with my aunt Pearl and one of the waitresses, Sandy."
Back then and now, the lure was lentil soup, served every Tuesday. Customers still return for that sense of the familiar and a community. Says Rossi: "People think of Rossi's as home, so they come back. People came after 9/11. They came here, everyone gravitated here, to make sure everyone was all right."
If you want bread or sweets to take home, The Italian People's Bakery is the place to go. But, you can also find Latino specialties there such as Guatemalan cookies, made at a different local bakery. This, more than anything, represents the new Chambersburg — a blending of the old and new immigrant cultures.
"They are doing what my family did 80 years ago," Rossi observes. "They've taken over the businesses — just like my great grandparents did, and it was all Italian."
Rossi sees the two groups helping each other to keep the community going during the economic downturn. They provide each other with customers and a workforce. So, where does she see Rossi's in the future?
"As long as the customers keep coming, we will still be here," she says emphatically.
Lari Robling — no relation to the Trenton Roeblings — is an independent radio producer and the author of "Endangered Recipes: Too Good to Be Forgotten."