Vol. LXI, No. 21
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Photo by Linda Arntzenius
The view from the new Town Topics building on Witherspoon Street includes the backyard of the Italian-born tailor Frank Porcaro, who has created a little bit of Italy right here in Princeton. Since he is well acquainted with the neighborhood, it was only natural that we stopped by for lunch at his home on Carnahan Place.
Frank Porcaro was 27 when he came to the United States from his home-town of Benevento, near Naples, to join his older brother Luigi in 1971. Nineteen years his senior, Luigi was a second father to his little brother Frank, the youngest of Vito and Erminia Porcaro's seven children. It was Luigi who had persuaded their father, Vito, to allow the 13-year old Frank to give up farm work in order to become an apprentice tailor.
"When I was growing up in Italy, no one in my family had a trade. My father worked on a farm, as did my six sisters and brothers. My older brother, Luigi persuaded my father to let me learn a trade. Luigi was a policeman in Italy and when he would come home to see the family every two or three months, I would glow. He was my hero. Luigi did all the paperwork for me to become an apprentice and later for me to come to the United States. I am eternally grateful to him for all that he did for me."
After his six-year apprenticeship working six days a week, plus a half-day on Sunday cleaning shop Mr. Porcaro went into the army in Italy for some 15 months and then worked as a professional tailor on the island of Ischia before setting his sights on America.
While he still has a large family back in Italy, with three sisters, nephews and nieces there, he has put down so many roots here that he is rarely drawn back to the old country, visiting just three times since he moved to Princeton 36 years ago.
Princeton is where he met his wife Palma, who also came to the United States from Italy to join relatives her uncle was the original owner of Conte's on Witherspoon Street, now run by her siblings Tony, Ciro, and Angela. The couple met in the seventies at St. Paul's Church and have three daughters Christina, 32, a beautician; Maria, 27, who works in New York City; and Rita, 20, who works for Hulit's Shoes. Their son Gerry, 22, works at Conte's and studies music at Westminster Conservatory.
Theirs is a home where Italian and English intermingle with ease.
English with an Accent
Mr. Porcaro, who became a United States citizen in 1983, at age 40, retains the flavor of Napoli in his speech. He likes to tell a story that connects his prowess as a tailor to his self-described lack of mastery of English: Once a client of his bought a new suit from a store. The suit needed alterations that the store clerk offered to make in-house at no cost to the customer. When the customer refused, saying that he preferred to take the suit to his own tailor, the best in his estimation, the clerk asked: "How do you know your tailor is the best?" The customer replied: "Because he speaks broken English with a heavy Italian accent, that's how I know he's a very good tailor. If a tailor speaks good English then he hasn't been trained in Italy and Italian-trained tailors are the best."
Mr. Porcaro is very proud of having learned tailoring in his native land. His clients have become used to his broken English.
As he works, relatives and friends drop by and clients pick up and drop off work. "What's cooking?" they invariably ask. Something tasty is always cooking in the Porcaro's kitchen, but especially on Fridays, when the tailor keeps an eye on the pasta e fazuli (macaroni and beans) he's cooking for lunch. For the past two decades, Mr. Porcaro has prepared lunch for his friends, or cumpar, who have a standing invitation to his midday table.
On most days, he starts work at around 8 a.m. after enjoying a morning cup of American coffee Espresso-style Italian coffee is reserved for after lunch. Although he generally finishes sewing around 5 p.m., clients can drop off and pick up garments until around 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. For special clients in need of rush jobs, he will work over the weekend.
Sharp Needles and Flying Fingers
Although he claims not to really like tailoring, Mr. Porcaro is pragmatic about having a trade that, combined with a strong work ethic, has allowed him to make enough money to buy his own home and to support his family in a comfortable life. It is a profession that has also allowed him to meet a lot of people and make friends of top clients the likes of Nick Hilton and Joseph A. Bank, whose patronage he appreciates.
"The carpenter has his hammer, the mason has his chisel, Frank Porcaro has a tiny needle," he laughed. "My first job was with the English Shoppe in 1971 and then with the Princeton Clothing Co. in 1972." He was with the latter for 18 years.
Trained by a tough taskmaster, he was taught to work fast if he wanted to make a living. In any one day, he will do between 20 and 25 alterations, anything from the loose stitches required of delicate silk work sewn by hand in Italian-style invisible hemming to stronger materials blind stitched by machine. He works for both Princeton police departments and jokes that it was he who gave the police chief his promotion, having stitched the star designating the office on the chief's uniform.
Although he's had offers to become an in-house tailor, he prefers the independence of operating his own business from home. His clientele, which includes individuals and clothing stores, has grown by word of mouth. He specializes in re-cutting, which is sometimes requested by clients who have lost weight but wish to retain their favorite suits or dresses. While he is privy to measurements that only a tailor knows, discretion is part of the tailor-client relationship. He won't divulge who in town is having their clothes let out or who is maintaining their waist size.
Figs and Cherries
Frank Porcaro rarely strays from his Princeton idyll, preferring instead to relax in his garden, where he grows lettuce, cucumber, fava beans, peas, peppers, onions, zucchini, basil, oregano, mint, and 140 tomato plants grown from seed, set early in the cold frame in his yard. His cottage garden boasts a peach, a cherry, a persimmon, a walnut, and a sweet chestnut tree, as well as several fig trees that he protects from New Jersey winters by covering them with carpeting and plastic sheeting. One fig tree came with the house and is about 45 year's old, he thinks. He brought another with him from Ischia. A mini-replica of an Italian country farm right here in Princeton, the garden is his passion. Besides his own home-made wine, he enjoys Italian coffee for lunch, and the popular Italian card game Tre Sette.
"I appreciate all that my brother Luigi did for me every day of my life and I appreciate the United States for giving me the opportunity to make a good living. I have two mother countries, America and Italy."
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