For centuries, immigrants have been seeking a home in the Berkshires. Though the landscape of immigration has changed considerably over the last century, the Berkshires continues to welcome people from many parts of the world. The Italian family of Sonsinis look back to an earlier wave of European immigrants.
Joe and Theresa (nee Troiano) Sonsini own Main Street Cafe in Stockbridge and 528 Cafe in Great Barrington. Joe’s parents came with an earlier generation of Italian immigrants to settle in Stockbridge. Three of his grandparents immigrated from Italy, and one grandparent came from the Ukraine. Theresa’s parents were also first generation, descending from Italian immigrants who arrived in New York City around 1928.
Joe and Theresa met on a job in the early 1990s, and they have been married for 19 years.
They show pictures of their children around the Main Street Cafe. They had four children but lost the second one to cancer about 10 years ago. The photographs show the family active and relaxing. Joe said he loves being outside and makes it a point to bring the outdoors into their family routines.
Food has also always been a part of his history, he said. His maternal grandmother worked as a cook in a restaurant, and she worked her way up to own her own restaurant.
In Joe’s family, meals were served at specific times and everyone gathered to eat together. Today, his nuclear family gathers at Theresa’s parents’ home every Sunday after church.
He laughed as he said the stereotype of Italians loving to eat, being loud and passionate and sometimes prone to outbursts, is partly based in truth.
“They are a passionate people,” he said. They eat well, work hard and play hard.
Being passionate sometimes means disagreements, he said, but generally they deal with them in the moment and move on, with no hard feelings.
Sonsini and his wife have always been hard workers, an ethic he credits to their fathers.
“They worked almost round the clock to put food on the table and yet rarely missed a football game or recital,” he said.
He and his wife together have about 50 years of the cooking and restaurant business under their belts. Their penchant for good food and community led them to purchase Alice’s Restaurant. Two years later they took over the Main Street Cafe and Market. Almost 20 years later, they purchased the old Friendly’s in Great Barrington and renamed it the 528 Cafe.
“Theresa is the mastermind behind everything,” Joe said.
He blends construction and management of the properties, and he plans to renovate the Stockbridge facility in the next year.
“It needs a make-over. It’s not been renovated since it opened about 17 years ago,” he said.
The Berkshires and its diversity play an important role in the cafe menus, he said. The Sonsinis try to incorporate foods from around the region and from different ethnic groups in their planning: Gyros, chicken Masala and shrimp carbonara. They also try to follow the seasons: butternut bisque soup, New England clam chowder. pumpkin French toast with syrup, walnuts and cranberries, or a French toast sandwich dripping with cheese and a choice of bacon, ham or sausage. They make “American fare” like hamburgers and ribs with locally grown produce and meats from Berkshire and Columbia counties.
The Sonsinis treat many customers as family, often greeting people by name as they stroll in and asking about their lives.
“How is Jaime?”
“How was Joey’s game last night?”
These questions roll off the tongues of the baristas and wait staff as they busy themselves fixing those “usuals” and put in orders with specifications for “vegetarian,” “gluten-free” or “no nuts, please.”
Sonsini welcomes guests as his father did. He remembers his father as open in his outlook in approaching diverse people and incorporating ideas and values from different cultures, he said. He does the same today, following in his father’s footsteps.
Thinking over immigrantion and assimilation, Sonsini said he laments not having had the chance to learn Italian. Early waves of immigrants shed their native language and culture intentionally to fit in and become “American.” This is different from the approach some have to assimilation now, when preserving language is key.
The Sonsinis are keeping the Italian traditions of good food, gregariousness and welcoming, open arms as a daily part of their work and their lives. Both cafes have cheerful staff, and the Sonsinis mingle and chat with customers even when the cafe is bustling.
“All are welcome here,” Joe said. “Come give us a try.”