The men who powered the tea and coffee and candy and garment factories, the plants and shipyards and industry that made Hoboken great live on in its Italian social clubs. These friendly, old-world gathering places can usually be found tucked onto leafy side streets on the West Side.
Take the Juventus Club, on Sixth Street between Bloomfield and Garden.
It was founded in 1966 and occupied three nearby rentals before it found its permanent home, a building the group now owns. “In the earlier places we made a lot of noise and annoyed the landlords,” says member Rino Sciancalepore.
They were younger then. Now, most of the men are in their 50s and 60s, though some are in their 80s.
I visited on a drowsy summer afternoon. I was expecting an empty club, but there were about a dozen men there, playing cards. The Olympics seemed to be watching them rather than the other way around, as athletes competed silently on a huge flat-screen TV.
The club is big. It has two large rooms filled with card tables, a bar, a kitchen, and a spiral staircase leading up to President Bruno DiMatteo’s office.
DiMatteo offers me an espresso and apologizes that there are so few members on hand. It’s vacation time and usually there would be 20 or 30 men enjoying an afternoon at Juventus.
Games include foosball, gin rummy, canasta, poker, and Italian specialties, such as briscola.
The club is named for an Italian soccer team. The members are big fans and played locally themselves back in the day.
And times have changed in Hoboken. “It wasn’t so friendly as it is now,” DiMatteo says. “Each corner used to have gangs that marked their territories.”
On the wall across from me is a painting of Molfetta, the town on the Adriatic coast, where many of the members come from. DiMatteo arrived in Hoboken when he was 11 in a seven-day voyage on the Michelangelo, which embarked from Naples.
Members pay $500 to join and are given a key. Those 62 or older can join for $200. Though women are not members, they often use the club for their own gatherings or join the men for parties and celebrations.
Charity work is a major mission of the organization. It’s raised funds to feed homeless people and to pay for medical treatment and college tuition for kids of Italian heritage.
A few blocks away, at 531 Adams St., is the Monte San Giacomo Club. It has the no-frills, friendly atmosphere of a VFW hall. There’s a bar, a large cooler, game tables, and some religious images.
Seventy-eight-year-old Frank Castella, who joined in 1953, is the club’s oldest active member.
At first, he couldn’t talk to me because he’d temporarily lost his voice while enjoying the festivities of the St. Ann’s festival, a not-to-be-missed annual event, especially for Italian Americans.
The club’s name comes from the town in southwestern Italy where most of the members are from. “There wasn’t much to do in the south of Italy,” Castella says. “People came here for a different life and to look for work.”
Castella was 18 when he arrived in the U.S. He got called up for service in the Korean War because his father was a U.S. citizen, but the war was over before he had to ship out, so he went to work in a textile factory in Hoboken while attending night school.
Members of the club play foosball, watch TV, and drink at the bar. “Quite a few guys know how to cook,” Castella says. “They make anything—chicken, barbecue, steaks, hamburgers—whatever they want to eat.”
The group hosts dinners and parties, and marches in the Columbus Day parade. The Ladies Auxiliary uses the club once a month.
The club provides a place for its 110 members to “hang out,” Castella says. “This morning, I bought a paper, stopped at the club, and saw a couple of members. We discussed and said a few words.”
I stopped in early on a Friday evening, when the club was being photographed for this story. There were about 15 guys there. Some were playing the Italian card games—scopa and cinquecento. Others were watching Italian game shows, sprawled out on a huge leather couch.
Castella gives me a tour of the place, including the beautiful clean kitchen, with a row of aprons neatly hanging on hooks as you walk in.
Pictures on the wall in the main club room include beautiful ones of Monte San Giacomo, Saint Ann, and the 2006 Italian soccer team, which won the World Cup that year.
A “memorial tree” honors members of the club who have died, including the original founding fathers.
I say hello to members Frank Spina, Giacomo Aluotto, and Luigi Percontino, who is the current president. He’s a court administrator during the day. All the men say that they come for the “friends and friendship.”
They take turns on “bar duty.” On this night Castella goes behind the bar to get me an ice cold Budweiser.
There’s no way I could join this club: I’m not male. I’m not Italian. I’m not married to any club members, and I’m not from Monte San Giacomo.
But if I could join for the friends and the friendship, I would.—Kate Rounds