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On the Edge : The Slice of History

October 03, 1991|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the turn of the century, you could have found at least one moleta plying his trade in any big American city. Traditionally wearing a battered, floppy-brimmed hat, he'd stand on a downtown street corner sharpening knives for all comers on a pedal-operated grinding wheel mounted in a wheelbarrow.

The corner knife-grinder is long gone, but the moletas are still with us. The knives with which your restaurant dinner was prepared--or the equipment responsible for your fast-food hamburger--may have been sharpened or designed by a descendant of the men with the wheelbarrows.

The craft dies hard; it has a long tradition. The moletas all came from a single valley in Italy, the Val Rendena, where their forefathers had been knife-grinders from time immemorial. The reason was simple: The area--located in the picturesque Dolomite Alps (which have appropriately knife-sharp peaks)--was so bitterly poor that its only export was the labor of its moletas.

Every spring, men of the valley, accompanied by young apprentices to knock on doors for them, had traditionally fanned out through Italy, each with his grinding wheel (called argagn ' in their dialect). But in the 1860s the separate states of the Italian peninsula consolidated to form the modern country of Italy, and the Val Rendena had the bad luck to wind up on the Austrian side of the new Italian border. Now there were trade barriers that kept the knife grinders from their traditional working territories.

The resulting depression drove many people to emigrate. The first moleta to set up his argagn ' on an American street corner did so in 1886, and in the next three decades hundreds joined him.

The people of the Val Rendena were an anomalous bunch. They spoke Italian but considered themselves Austrians or Tyroleans, so they never settled in the Little Italies of American cities. The moletas among them were particularly clannish, with their trade secrets and an intentionally mystifying professional argot called el taron. They had their own knife-grinder's folksongs, celebrating or bewailing their life practicing "the art that consoles":

Pedal, pedal, pedal,

Sharpen the scissors and knives

At the corner of 30th Street

In the shadow of the

skyscrapers.

Just as in Italy, they had frequent quarrels over who was muscling in on whose knife grinding territory. A violent disagreement between men who sharpened knives for a living could be serious, but gradually the moletas got things in order. In 1930 they founded the Knife Grinders Assn. to settle territorial disputes. They also fended off a Mafia attempt to take over their territories and established Columbia Cutlery, now a major corporation, to manufacture knives and knife-grinders' supplies.

This country had been good to them. The once-penniless knife grinders were able to afford horse-drawn carts by 1910, and by 1930 they were carrying their sharpening wheels in trucks. But there were so many opportunities here that sons stopped automatically following in their fathers' footsteps. A Louisville moleta's son named Victor Maturi went to Hollywood and changed his name to Victor Mature.

One heir to the tradition who still follows the old craft is a sturdy, open-faced young man named Paul Cozzini. His father was one of four brothers who moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles in the '40s. Cozzini now has a restaurant knife service with a territory that runs from Oxnard to Pasadena and as older knife grinders retire, he expands by buying out their routes. There are three sharpening companies in Los Angeles with Val Rendena roots, one in San Diego and another in San Francisco.

Cozzini can grind knives for a restaurant on the spot in a truck fitted out with grinding wheels, but most of his customers hire him as a knife service, much as they hire a linen service. Every week he brings them a freshly sharpened set of knives and takes home the dull ones. As a linen service owns the linen it cleans, he owns the knives he sharpens, and his home shop is largely taken up with storage space for the many thousands of knives he has to keep in stock.

But the knife-grinding clan has not stuck to knife-grinding alone. "We ( moletas ) have had a big period of growth and expansion in the last five years," he says. "My cousin in Chicago went from 5,000 square feet to 18,700 square feet. I'm pretty small compared to some of my cousins who have 86 employees and six trucks a day going out with knives for 1,000 accounts.

"The businesses back east have also gone into making food equipment. They're engineering products for meat processing, sausage making, computerized grinding equipment for the blades that pre-portion food--anything having to do with edging and the food industry. They make equipment for McDonald's, Oscar Mayer, Farmer John."

Cozzini himself sticks to old-fashioned knife grinding, and you can sense a long heritage in the casual delicacy with which he zips a knife around on a grinding wheel. In fact, he seems to feel you can't be a real knife grinder if you don't have Val Rendena roots.

"Grinding knives is something you go through periods about," he says. "Sometimes I love it and sometimes it gets me down. There have been outsiders who married into moleta families and went into the business, but it never worked out. I don't think you can stick to it if you don't have the tradition."

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