Pining for La Pigna: Providence's Pre-Little Italy
Despite the popular misconception, the figure that hangs under the arch as you ascend Atwells Avenue onto Federal Hill is not a pineapple, but a pinecone. A symbol for abundance and quality, the pinecone, or, La Pigna, is a nod to the rich Italian culture that has dominated “The Hill” since immigrants began to arrive there in the late 19th century.
Atwells Avenue is perhaps the best neighborhood to go to for a meal in the Renaissance City and it boasts 15 different Italian restaurants from which to choose. Reinforcing the Italian connection, running through the center of the neighborhood are green, white, and red traffic lines that follow Atwells Avenue, a thoroughfare named for the man who once owned the land now known as Federal Hill. That man, Amos Maine Atwell, was not Italian, but he was a prominent figure in the town during his time.
Atwell was born in 1765 to Amos and Betty (Searle) Atwell. His father, a Providence blacksmith, merchant, and ship-owner, was known for building the first brick house in the town. In 1788, when the town existed almost completely on the east side of Providence River, Atwell began to parcel out his land on the west side and sell it for agricultural and residential use. The younger Atwell was known for his service as colonel in the American Revolution and his membership in the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1790-91. In 1789, Atwell was one of over 75 charter members of the Providence Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers, a group created for “the purpose of promoting industry, and giving a just encouragement to ingenuity – that our own manufactures may be improved to the general advantage, not only of the manufacturers themselves, but of the state at large.”
According to the Providence Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers, Atwell was regarded as one of the “brightest [stars] in the galaxy of Rhode Island Masonry” for his service to the Mt. Vernon Lodge No. 4. Because of his status as the first Master of the Lodge (1799) as well as Deputy Grand Master (1813-1814) he was buried with full Masonic honors after he passed away in 1815. At that time there were virtually no Italian immigrants in Providence, and in fact, it was the Irish community that occupied most of Federal Hill and Atwells Avenue. However, as the 19th century progressed, Italian immigrants made their way onto The Hill, and by the 1920s, the area was predominantly Italian.