Salvatore Merante, affectionately known as Sal, is a proud staple of the Oakland neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA. His incredible mustache precedes him and his elegant dress code sets him apart from the area’s regular crowd of college students and neighborhood locals. Sal deservedly garners attention wherever he goes, and he welcomes pictures and new social interactions at every turn.
We were invited to interview him by his friends at the American Mustache Institute and Side Project, Inc., and we were all too happy to interview in his home. There, we were given the opportunity to see his great collection of suits and his accommodating house decorated with statues, mustached self-portraits, interesting keepsakes and family photos.
We proudly present to you Salvatore Merante.
Salvatore Merante was born in Pentone, Italy to Pasquale and Maria Merante on June 19, 1931, the youngest of three with two older brothers, Antonio and Italo. His father, Pasquale, had immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s and moved to the urban and diverse neighborhood of Oakland.
He started a fruit stand with “two horses, a cart, and a dog,” and would obtain the goods from a produce yard in the Strip District, the wholesale market district of Pittsburgh. Pasquale returned to Italy frequently, including one occasion when he married Maria in 1922, and subsequently they created their family during future visits. As the Great Depression took its toll on all Americans, Pasquale had difficulty finding work in Pittsburgh, and in 1933, he returned to Italy where he would remain permanently for the rest of his life.
Even if Pasquale had intentions of returning to the United States, the outbreak of WWII impeded any such motivation.
Salvatore fondly recalls Pentone as a small farming town in the hilltops of Southern Italy, in Calabria, the province of Catanzaro. His father owned a farm, and the family worked on the farm to provide sustenance for their own personal use. They tended a large vegetable garden and had chestnut trees, fruit orchards, and olive trees. They would produce their own olive oil and sausage, the latter providing great inspiration for Salvatore in years to come.
Most people were farmers, and Salvatore explained that not many people had money. Instead, many goods and services were bartered among the people; for instance, the doctor or pharmacist would accept eggs or a chicken for their services rendered.
Salvatore notes that many of the people in Italy at that time were illiterate. The vast majority of the people could not read or write, nor could they read a clock. In fact, the church bell rang twice a day to signal the hour, one being at 6:00pm when the citizens were called to church for the Ave Maria.
“Nobody had a car, “ explains Salvatore.
There were only two cars in Pentone, one belonged to the mayor who was also the head teacher at the school.
The other acted as a taxi, driving the citizens infrequently to the larger cities nearby.
The car started with a hand crank, and the driver would have some of the boys in town, including Sal, push it initially to provide momentum for the car to start. Otherwise, people had to walk everywhere.
During the period of WWII, many people struggled and were poverty stricken. The Italian citizens were fearful of the German army as they travelled northward through Calabria, passing Pentone. Salvatore explains that conversely, they were all very excited by the arrival of the Americans who smiled and treated them with kindness, throwing candy to the children as they passed.
Salvatore recalls specifically Hershey Kisses and gum!
The American army set up a base in Catanzaro, and his father, Pasquale, having lived for many years in America, volunteered to be a translator for the American army. Pasquale could read and write both in Italian and English, and he never accepted compensation for his translating work; “he was proud, “ states Salvatore.
It was never in the cards to stay in Italy. Salvatore’s father had it planned since their birth that two of his sons, Italo and Salvatore, would go to find opportunity in America. Given Pasquale’s prior immigration and residence in the United States, all of the children were born as naturalized American citizens, and America was open and waiting their arrival with their new American passports.
Salvatore came to the United States of America when he was not quite nineteen years old in May of 1950 on the boat Vulcania, one year following his older brother Italo.
Despite having few dollars to his name and no language skills, Salvatore realized opportunity upon seeing the large buildings of New York City. From there, he made his way to Pittsburgh, PA to meet up with his brother. He settled in Oakland and lived in boarding houses, as many young immigrant men did at that time.
Sal describes Oakland at that time as a thriving community, packed with stores, shoe shine shops, and theaters. Immigrants from many nations settled and found their pocket within the streets of Oakland, sitting on porches and strolling down its streets.
In 1953, Italo and Sal realized their American Dream by buying a storefront on Frasier Street in Oakland, and naming it “Merante Bros. Italian American Market.”
Here, they sold lunchmeats, bread, milk, canned goods and other grocery items, of which Sal still remembers the product pricing to this day; “nothing sold for over a dollar!”
The brother duo moved their grocery operation to Marion Street in 1960. Sal loved his job, claiming, “I never had a bad day; I love what I did for a living.” The aspect that brought him the most satisfaction was the relationship and rapport that he built with all of his clients over the years.
One of the most famous products that have been sold since the conception of the store has been Sal’s spicy Italian sausage. Sal still makes the sausage weekly, but after the closing of his store on Marion Street in 2009, the goods from his weekly signature sausage-making endeavor go to supply his nieces’ store, Merante Groceria, on Bates Street in Oakland.
To this day, Sal remains one of the best dressed and most recognized people in Oakland. He is one of the few true immigrants that have remained in his beloved neighborhood as it has changed drastically over the years due to the ever-growing University of Pittsburgh that is a dominant presence in Oakland, along with the many stores, hospitals, museums, and other schools.
Sal has gracefully accepted the metamorphosis of his neighborhood, recognizing the progress and adjusting to the changes. He loves Oakland, he promotes it, and he also truly enjoys his interactions with all people, including the many students that live in the vicinity.
Sal has always cultivated a strong interest and insistence upon dressing well, consistently outfitted to the nines in a suit, tie, dress shoes, and a snazzy Italian-made hat that matches all seasons and occasions.
He repudiates jeans and T-shirts and attributes the change in American style to the hippie movement in the 60s. He is truly one of a kind, not to mention his most distinguishing feature—his mustache that he has grown proudly since he was fifteen years old.
From the time when Sal arrived in the United States as a naturalized American citizen, from the first time he ran to the polls to vote for Eisenhower, from the time that two boys from Pentone with scarce language skills decided to start their independent business in Pittsburgh, Sal has never taken for granted the opportunities that he and his brother were afforded in this country.
They worked for everything they achieved, and he is proud to be an American.
Sal connects strongly to his roots, always carrying the Italian flag at most Italian festivals in which he can participate, and he has “never missed an Italian Day at Kennywood [Amusement Park.]” He loves to reconnect with his many friends at these festivals. Sal religiously goes to church every Sunday, a devout Catholic and parishioner at San Paolo.
Sal came close, but he never married. It is safe to say that his true loves include his late brother and business partner, Italo, his many nieces and nephews who take care of him, his dog, Dino, and his sausage-making operation and grocery store.
No one can miss him walking down the street, his kind demeanor and distinguished look preceding him with his shoes shined, his Borsalino hat tipped on his head, and a big smile on his face.
He will probably never know how many people have been influenced by him, his grocery store, and his friendship over the years.