From the outside, the Church of the Madonna della Difesa – a handsome redbrick building on the corner of Henri-Julien Avenue and Dante Street – is unassuming, but inside is the most unusual piece of ecclesiastical art I’ve ever encountered.
Benito Mussolini makes his cameo in the fresco above the main altar, perched on horseback, towering over an assembly of religious figures – priests, angels and the like. The explanation, I discover, is that the mural was painted in 1930 to commemorate the signing of the treaty that established Vatican City as a sovereign state. Among those who signed was the dictator.
Since it first opened its doors in 1919, this Catholic church – named after the Italian town of Difesa, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared – has been at the heart of Little Italy, hosting countless baptisms, first communions, weddings and funerals.
Montreal’s Italian community dates back to the 18th century, and is just one of a patchwork of cultures that sprang up along Saint Laurent Boulevard. Historically, new arrivals made their way down this seven-mile road after landing at the port, with Jewish, Chinese, Portuguese, Arabic, Greek and countless other communities establishing themselves. And with them they brought the taste of home, from bagels and baozi to meatballs and mezze.
While some of these groups have since migrated to other parts of the city, others, like Little Italy, still cling to Saint Laurent – with shop names like Milano, Pomodoro and Caffe Italia hammering home the identity of the area.
My day here began at Jean-Talon Market, a local landmark and foodie haven that’s been in operation for 80 years. According to Lise, it’s the largest fresh produce market in North America – and looking at its countless stalls laden with fruit, veg and herbs, it’s not hard to believe.
We made our way through piles of pumpkins of all shapes and sizes, from huge Halloween-style affairs to small, stripy, green gourds. “The Italians eat these like spaghetti,” Lise explained, gesturing at a pile of thin, yellow squash. “You cook it and scrape the inside, and it comes out in long, thin pieces.”
There was no cooked spaghetti squash (the official name, apparently) to try, so we headed to the small shops around the edge of the market for a taste of something more Quebecoise. I tried slivers of local cheese, rich chocolate and even a sprinkling of maple salt, but it was the ice cider – a thick, gloopy liquid made with the juice of frozen apples – that really hit the spot. Sweet, sticky and boozy, it was the perfect protection against the chill in the air.
After our stop at Madonna della Difesa we stroll alongside Dante Park – named after poet Dante Alighieri, whose bust has stood here for 50 years. Just opposite the church, this tiny park is the best place to come for a game of bocce (Italian-style bowls), and Italian film screenings in summer, but today there’s no one in sight – just us and, keeping watch, an intimidating-looking Dante. Better than Mussolini, I suppose.