To most New Canaanites, the municipal parking lot on Locust Avenue is no more than just that—a convenient, slightly off-the-beaten-path place to park when shopping or dining in downtown New Canaan. Its only notoriety in recent years has been as the subject of debate over plans for a tiered parking deck and also its proximity to the site of the planned new Post Office.
Even so, for generations of New Canaan residents, the parking lot was once the site of a bustling, tight-knit neighborhood. Small wood-shingled houses and ramshackle multi-family dwellings dotted the property that was affectionately coined “Guinea Alley” by its own residents due to the large contingent of Italian families who lived there.
The Locust Avenue neighborhood—wonderfully described by Mario “Ben” Benedetto in his book “The Old Neighborhood,” published by the New Canaan Historical Society—was a snapshot of multi-cultural America at its best. In addition to Italians, there were working-class families with ancestral heritages from all over the world. These residents helped form the texture of a vibrant, culturally diverse community.
“As for blacks and whites in the neighborhood, we got along just fine,” Benedetto writes. “After all, we were all in the same boat, so to speak.”
At the center of this neighborhood was Nicoletti’s Market. Founded by family patriarch Peter Nicoletti in the early 1900’s and run by his son Carmine through the mid-’70s, Nicoletti’s was a general store located in the front of the Nicoletti family home and an iconic New Canaan business, serving generation after generation of New Canaan families.
“I grew up in back of the store,” Carmine Nicoletti’s son Mark told NewCanaanite.com. “The front room was the grocery store. There was a back door and through it was our kitchen. It was just part of my childhood growing up. Get up in the morning run out in the store and grab an ice cream, and have my dad make me sandwiches.”
By all accounts, these sandwiches at Nicoletti’s were legendary. Although the kids in the neighborhood were not as financially well off as some of their peers, the sandwiches they brought from Nicoletti’s for school lunches were the envy of their classmates.
Neighbors would bring fruit and vegetables they grew in their gardens, along with cheese and other homemade goods. Sometimes in return the Nicoletti’s would allow the neighbors to use their phone in the general store, as many families did not have one of their own. Firemen from the nearby fire station would get lunch on a daily basis as would businessmen heading to and from New York City by way of the train station.
“I got to know a lot of people,” Nicoletti said. “A lot of my early memories are of people coming into the store, whether they were customers or vendors—the Boar’s Head guy or the bread guy—and they’d talk to me and I’d get to go on their truck. It was just real exciting.”
Despite the addition of supermarkets such as Gran Central on Main Street and the A&P on Elm, Nicoletti’s continued to survive into the mid-1970’s, years after the old neighborhood was bulldozed to make way for the municipal parking lot. In 1974 Carmine Nicoletti had a heart attack and decided it was time to retire. The family moved out of town, first to Port Chester and then to Florida. Carmine Nicoletti passed away a decade later in 1986.
Meanwhile the old general store became a leather goods store and eventually was taken over by a real estate business in the mid-80’s. It was around that time that Mark Nicoletti, then in his twenties, paid a visit to his old home.
“I was in Stamford on my way to New York but took a detour to go to New Canaan,” Nicoletti said. “I knocked and went in and explained who I was and asked if they minded if I just walked around. They let me and it was nice to walk around and look. I left and walked down the street, and you’re talking 15 years later from when I moved and I bumped into people I knew from my childhood who knew my dad. It was amazing to hear how people would tell me how wonderful he was. He must have had a heck of an impact on a lot of people who lived there for a long time.”
The Nicoletti’s building finally met its fate this past fall, when it was razed to make way for the proposed Post Office. And although the physical structure is no longer there, the memories of the store and the neighborhood remain.
“When I was a kid I used to go to Nicoletti’s and get a bologna sandwich,” life-long New Canaan resident Len Paglialunga said. “It would be a foot long loaf of bread and Carmine would just pile the meat on. And it would cost just fifty cents. Sometimes you’d walk in and no one would be there. You’d yell ‘Carm!’ and he’d come in from the house through the back door. It was just a cozy hometown place.”
[Editor’s Note: The headline on this article has been updated following concerns expressed by some that the term ‘Guinea Alley’ was offensive.]