Tours offer inside look at city's Hill neighborhood

Tours offer inside look at city's Hill neighborhood

THE HILL – For 25 years, Joe DeGregorio’s father delivered mail on streets with names such as Marconi, Daggett, Bischoff and Shaw. Being that those streets were on The Hill, and he was a true-blue Sicilian-American, Roland DeGregorio became well acquainted with the ways of locals with names that ended with a, e, i and o.

When the elder DeGregorio retired as a mailman in 1979, people started asking him questions about The Hill. He decided that the best way to answer those questions was to start doing bus tours.

In the second generation of the tour business, Joe DeGregorio and his DuBourg High School classmate Salvatore Martorelli do about 80 Hill tours a year. They also do about 20 of the Irish Dogtown and Bosnian Bevo Mill neighborhoods.

Having spent their first years in the area, Joey and Sal know everything about the place.

They know all about how childhood buddies Joe Garagiola and Yogi Berra grew up across the street from each other. And they’re ready to tell what they say is the incontrovertibly true story of who accidentally fried up the first toasted ravioli on The Hill.

“I learned from my father how to tell stories,” DeGregorio said.

DeGregorio, 72, grew up on The Hill and spent his career working in counterespionage for the Defense Security Service. He retired in 2004 and found himself asking the question, “What do I do with the rest of my life?” DeGregorio said.

The answer came the next year when his father retired, and Joey took over the business. 

“It’s been a blast ever since,” DeGregorio said. His father died in 2009, and DeGregorio took Martorelli on as a partner in 2016.

DeGregorio especially enjoys doing tours with people from south St. Louis, because they can tell him stories.

Today, their two- to six-hour tours of The Hill often include demonstrations of the old way of ravioli making at Mama Toscano’s. Tour stops also may include St. Ambrose Church, DiGregorio’s Market, Urzi’s, the Italia-America Bocce Club and anywhere else The Hill shows its Italian heritage.

In one upcoming event, they’ll offer a Culinary Taste of The Hill on Oct. 3, featuring stops at Mama Toscano’s, Oldani Brothers Salami Factory, the Marconi Bakery, the Missouri Baking Co. and lunch at Guido’s. For details about this or any tour, call 314-602-3359 or email joe.dehillboy@gmail.com.

Many tours feature Hall of Fame Place, otherwise known as the 5400 block of Elizabeth Avenue, where Garagiola and Berra grew up. Yogi got into the Hall of Fame for catching, and Garagiola, for broadcasting. KMOX sports broadcaster Jack Buck, who later lived a few doors down the street, also got into the Hall of Fame. Another neighbor was Ben Pucci, who played for the All-American Football Conference 1948 champion Cleveland Browns. That block is the only one in America where three Hall of Famers lived, DeGregorio said. 

After Yogi got famous, Martorelli said, a Hill resident said to Yogi, “You’re in the paper. You didn’t kill anybody.”

Yogi the Yankee was a much better catcher than Garagiola the Cardinals catcher. That caused Garagiola to exclaim, “I wasn’t the best catcher in the major leagues. I wasn’t even the best player on my block.”

Fortunately, Garagiola had one thing Yogi didn’t have: his brother Mickey Garagiola, who was for years a waiter at Ruggeri’s Restaurant. Mickey always claimed that he was present during the invention of a St. Louis delicacy, toasted ravioli.

Mickey said that some time in the late 1940s, he had gone to Oldani’s Tavern, now Mama’s on The Hill, after getting off work at Ruggeri’s. There he watched as an inebriated bartender took an order of ravioli and dropped it in boiling oil instead of boiling water. Rather than waste it, the bar’s owner had it served to customers with cheese and red sauce.

Most people take that version as gospel; others claim the invention – accidental or otherwise – came elsewhere. DeGregorio claims with certititude that he’s looked into the matter and that Mickey Garagiola was right.

DeGregorio has looked into other matters that put The Hill neighborhood in a different light. The Italians who came included the Lombards from the north and the Sicilians from the south. The Lombards looked down on the Sicilians.

“A hundred years ago in the neighborhood, a Sicilian man was not allowed to date a northern Italian girl,” DeGregorio said. Once, a Lombard girl married a Sicilian man. When they returned from their honeymoon, the girl’s family kidnapped her.

That resolved one particular problem, but not the whole issue of division within the community, DeGregorio said. World War II did that, when the Italians realized they were all Americans.

Since then, the neighborhood has remained strong.

“They’re determined to keep this place one of the gems of the city,” DeGregario said. 

“It became a destination spot for people to live,” DeGregorio said. “You can see a lot of young people walking their dogs or their children around.”

To Martorelli, 72, what’s really important is the fact that his grandparents on both sides of his family came here. And the restaurants.

“There’s so many roots in mind. That’s what makes The Hill,” said Martorelli, a retired teacher and principal.

Christen Martin, who is a bus tour manager and DeGregorio’s girlfriend, looks at what’s happening on The Hill from the viewpoint of someone who grew up in south St. Louis County. 

Martin speaks of the manicured lawns throughout the neighborhood and how families like to walk around and talk to each other.

“There’s a feeling here that I’ve never felt anywhere else.”

And if you give Joe DeGregorio and Sal Martorelli a chance, they’ll show you all about it.

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