ST. LOUIS — In my three years as an Uber driver in St. Louis, the question that was asked the most also produced the easiest answer.
"We're from out of town, so where should we go first in this town?"
"The Hill. Full stop."
Every time I was asked, the answer flew out of my mouth nearly as fast as the mostaccioli al forno from Zia's raced in. I told them to go to The Hill, which had personality to spare and options for everybody. If you wanted pizza, there was a spot. A pie or something sweet was available at three to four locations. A classic sandwich and Italian salad was basically off every corner. Yes, the Yogi baseball guy who said funny, ultra-ironic things (and won the most World Series titles for a player in Major League Baseball) grew up there. That other baseball player named Joe. A few other guys and gals. Famous and what not, if they were from The Hill, they owned the spot.
Director Joseph Puleo brought all of childhood wonder back in an instant with his wonderful documentary, "America's Last Little Italy: The Hill." Available to rent and purchase on Amazon Prime Video or seen next to the checkout at your local Schnucks, this documentary is a must-watch for any St. Louisan. If you grew up near or even semi-close to this country landmark, you were family. When you drove down those streets, it was like your own backyard expanded. Every second of this film resonates for locals.
Puleo captured all of that emotion and memory with his film, which transfers the viewer all the way back to the origin land of The Hill. The Italian immigration that helped launch the neighborhood, the cost that World War II took, the legendary actions of Pastor Salvatore Polizzi, and residents, both young and old. You get interviews with members of Mike and Rio Vitale (the latter credited as a producer here as well), Ben Gambaro, Niki Cusumano, and many others. Think of them as authenticators of any image that comes across your eyes in the 79-minute film.
Puleo's documentary thrives at being both a vivid history lesson as well as being a visual delight for any Midwest city native. You get a little clarity on certain topics, such as the title of this film. You may read it and quietly think to yourself, "Wait, I thought New York had Little Italy, am I wrong?" The clear answer is yes and no. Yes, you were wrong about the famous East Coast city still owning the distinction. You were right about them once owning it. Unlike New York, St. Louis' slice of Italy didn't sell out and move. As Mike Vitale succinctly puts it, "They moved. We stayed. That's it."
I appreciate documentaries that can grasp the heartstrings and tickle the brain. Move us emotionally while placing the mind on another level. Puleo doesn't waste a minute of your time here. When you pack a film with so many homegrown Hill residents with stories to spare and swagger to burn, the excess simply isn't allowed in the door. I was taken aback by the imagery, both historical and modern. How Saint Ambrose Church still acts as the beacon of the neighborhood, one drenched in resilience and attitude. You hear the love and despair of tough times, like when a four-star display in your front window meant the war had taken from your family. If you have STL ingrained in your DNA, "America's Last Little Italy" will easily move you.
But I think the reach of Puleo's film reaches all the way across the world, from The Arch to the Roman Cathedral. Any Italian will smile in a second and reminiscence endlessly about the past and how it shaped their present. You'll marvel at the stories of residents such as Joe Degregorio, who explains why Pastor Polizzi was so vital to the neighborhood. When Interstate 44 divided the neighborhood in half, it was the St. Ambrose pastor who stepped up to the Supreme Court to build a bridge off Edwards that would rescue The Hill in many ways. If there was a savior, he was it.
I had forgotten about those stories before I watched this film. When I finished, I was so proud to grow up five minutes from The Hill. It pumped me up during a year that has taken so much from people across the world and back. Movies like these, disguised during an award season binge, that can make you slow and appreciate your backyard. If I had to describe this film in a rush, I would say it's a story about St. Louis built their own Little Italy, one that is unbreakable and still going strong. A place where the American Dream was not only realized but built around with strength.
Thank you, Joseph Puleo, and everyone who helped him compose this film with all heart, for bringing The Hill's gorgeous history back to life. For 70 minutes, I didn't have to drive up the block to connect with a place that has become near and dear to my heart; all I did was press play and relaxed into nostalgia.
Bottom Line: "America's Last Little Italy: The Hill" is a love letter to St. Louis' lively red Italian heart, a place that has touched so many lives, for decades. If you need a break from the badlands or a small respite from the revenge tales, take a break with this film. It's short, sweet, and aims for the heart.