LITTLE ITALY: A WALK THROUGH HISTORY
While the Little Italy of yesteryear has come and gone and the borders of Chinatown grow increasingly more blurred, there’s plenty of rich nostalgia in a neighborhood once dominated by Italian immigrants. The origins formerly spanned a 30-block slice of the Lower East Side and a small corner of Canal, East Houston, Bowery and Lafayette Streets. Just close your eyes and imagine arriving in the 1920s, when the streets were teeming with tenement buildings and fruit stands. While most of the residents have since left for the suburbs, small immigrant pockets still remain, especially the brick-and-mortar shops along Grand Street, Mulberry and Mott Streets.
For a taste of how things used to look, start at the venerable, family-owned Ferrara Bakery (est. 1892) known for its creamy gelatos, fresh cannolis, airy tiramisus and towering wedding cakes. Nearby, Grand Street still houses the century-old Di Palo Fine Foods with freshly baked bread along a bevy of fragrant salami, olive oils, and Italian cheese—think buffalo mozzarella and Tuscan pecorino. Meanwhile, the creaky, subway-tiled Mulberry Street Bar (also 100 years old) is perfect for a cold Peroni. It has barely changed, save a few big screen TVs. A little further along, you’ll find Angelo’s Restaurant, a New York institution known for its authentic Southern Italian cuisine.
Next, take a trip back to the ’70s, a colorful era of organized crime and storied mob history, with a visit to the former headquarters of the Gambino crime family, the Ravenite Social Club on Mulberry Street. Then venture down to Umberto’s Clam House where, in 1972, mob boss Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo was gunned down while celebrating his birthday and enjoying shrimp and scungilli with clam sauce. The restaurant has since moved locations but its gangster lore lives on
Come mid-September, the neighborhood celebrates its roots with booths of funnel cakes and Italian sausages alongside carnival games and the much-hyped cannoli-eating competition for the Feast of San Gennaro, an 11-day festival in celebration of Saint Januarius, the Patron Saint of Naples. The tradition began in 1926 when immigrants from Naples continued the custom they had followed in Italy by erecting a street chapel to house their patron saint and collect money for the poor.
Like all good New York stories, Little Italy’s narrative features plenty of nods to cinema history—both real-life and fictitious. The aforementioned Mulberry Street Bar, for instance, appeared in cult classics Donnie Brasco and The Sopranos. The area has also proven fertile ground for legends of the big screen such as actor Robert De Niro who grew up on Elizabeth Street and famed director Martin Scorsese whose formative years spent on and around Mott Street served as inspiration for his 1973 film Mean Streets. It turns out, Scorsese was also an altar boy at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, also known as the location of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather baptismal finale.
If you ask us, the larger metaphor for walking around the neighborhood could be best summed up in one famous quote from the Godfather: “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
Words Kate Donnelly