New York City, like most large metropolitan areas, has its Little Italy. In fact, New York has several Italian neighborhoods. We’ll explore them all in this series of articles.
The first and most famous area is the portion of lower Manhattan centered on Mulberry Street, north of Canal Street. At the turn of the last century, the neighborhood ran from Bowery and Broadway on the east and west and Canal and Houston on the north and south. The ancestors of many Italian-Americans first lived here after they immigrated to the United States. Research into my husband’s family tree discovered that his mother’s and father’s families lived less than two blocks from each other!
Nowadays there’s very little left of the old neighborhood, as adjoining Chinatown has virtually taken over. A New York urban legend says that the Orientals would have completely engulfed Little Italy, except for a sit-down between some major wise guys and Chinese tong leaders who all agreed to preserve a small section of Italian heritage. True? As they say in New York, go know.
Stroll by the Transfiguration Church at 29 Mott St. Originally an Episcopalian church, it was sold to the Roman Catholics in the mid-1800s. Mother Cabrini, among others, ministered here. The Irish dominated the church in the late 1800s and forced Italian members to worship in its basement. These days, services are offered in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Take a break at Ferrara’s, the landmark pastry shop, for some cannoli and espresso.
Visit Umberto’s Clam House at 129 Mulberry St. for seafood and mob memories – Joey Gallo got whacked here on April 7, 1972. (Look at the rear kitchen door, about three feet up. A lone bullet hole remains.) The hitmen fired a total of 20 shots, and a bloodied and bullet-riddled Gallo staggered to the sidewalk before falling outside the restaurant. The gunmen left, leaving a mortally wounded Gallo on the ground for authorities to find.
My favorite stop is Di Palo’s at 206 Grand St. — officially a latticini (dairy product store), but they also carry imported meats, pasta, etc. Their aged provolone is sharp enough to make your tongue hurt (the true test of fine provolone, according to my husband). They have American-made fresh mozzarella every day, and once a week they get in genuine buffalo-milk mozzarella from the old country.
San Gennaro Festival
And if you can possibly swing it, attend the San Gennaro festival in the fall. Streets are blocked off for the three-million-plus pedestrians who visit each year. There are carnival games, t-shirts and souvenirs, and tons of food. Everyone enjoys the festival, regardless of their ethnic background, and you’ll hear lots of Italian (and bad Italian) spoken. Official festivities include the procession of the money-bedecked saint statue through the streets, and the Blessing of the Stalls when traditionally-clad monks accompany a priest as he douses each seller with holy water. Last year, a woman standing behind me exclaimed, “But I’ve already eaten my sausage sandwich — and the stall wasn’t blessed yet. Do you think it’s OK?”
Besides the area of lower Manhattan called Little Italy, New York has other pockets of Italian culture. From the cobblestone streets to the red, white, and green flags that hang from windowsills, it’s easy to spot remnants of Italy all throughout Greenwich Village. The area has long been home to both immigrants and their descendants who brought distinct flavors from their homeland. Authentic restaurants are found on nearly every corner along with specialty shops offering pasta, olive oil, wine, and other imported goods from Italy.
Remnants of the Italian community in Greenwich Village (in New York, it’s just called The Village) can still be found, at Our Lady of Pompeii Church, 25 Carmine St., Faicco Pork Stores, 260 Bleecker St., and Zito & Sons’ bakery at 259 Bleecker. For unbelievable pastries and coffee, don’t miss Veniero’s in the East Village at 342 E. 11th St.
East Harlem was once an all-Italian neighborhood east of Lexington Avenue. Today, you can still find the Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at 449 E. 115th St (my husband took his first communion here!). Many Southern Italians emigrated to Harlem in the 1900s and settled there. Prior to the 1950s, there were approximately 100,000 Italians living in tenement buildings.
In the old days, Italians from Bleeker Street would make a barefooted pilgrimage all the way from the Village to the shrine. Hungry? There’s Andy’s Tavern at 2257 1st Ave. and Patsy’s Pizza at 2297 1st Ave. Patsy’s consistently wins Best Pizza awards all the time.
Each section of the neighborhood was divided into the Italian regions from whence the immigrants came. Bari residents lived on East 112th Street; Sicilians lived on East 100th Street between First and Second Avenue; and Sarno residents lived on East 107th Street between First Avenue and the East River. Little of that survives today.
Italian Neighborhoods in the Bronx
In the Bronx, you can see a still-thriving Italian section centered around Arthur Avenue. Arthur Avenue is known as one of the best Italian neighborhoods in NYC. This bustling area is home to a variety of stores and restaurants that showcase the classic Italian culture. From the smell of homemade pasta sauce wafting through the air to an array of fresh produce from local vendors, Arthur Avenue truly feels like you’ve been transported to Italy.
The majority of Arthur Avenue’s specialty shops have been family-owned for generations and offer a unique shopping experience with their expert advice on ingredients and cooking techniques. Here you can find freshly baked bread from traditional recipes, top-grade meats, handmade cheeses, and more. If you want to take a break while browsing all there is to offer, there are plenty of cafes serving up delicious espresso beverages alongside typical Italian pastries like cannoli and sfogliatelle.
There’s another Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church at 627 E. 187th St. and the Enrico Fermi Cultural Center 610 E. 186th St. And there are food stores, restaurants, cafes and bakeries galore. Mangia bene!
A historic railroad station in the style of an Italian villa was built in 1912 on the corner of East 180th St. & Morris Park Ave. It lasted until 1937 as a station for the New York, Westchester, and Boston Railroad. It was then sold to the city and renamed the Dyre Avenue Line. Today, its flaking paint and eye-catching architecture will take you back in time. Look for the Italian national flag colors painted in lines on the roadway to identify the Columbus Day procession route.
Queens also retains an Italian section in Corona Heights, although the neighborhood once extended into nearby, larger Corona proper. You’ll find fresh ravioli and sausages as you stroll the streets. The Lemon Ice King at 52-02 108th St. has been selling fresh fruit-flavored Italian ices (like sorbets, but without the trendiness) for more than 50 years. Just across the way, the Parkside Restaurant serves Italian and continental fare. The tiny vest-pocket park in between them has a still-active bocce court, and you can watch the men display their various skill levels.
Many years ago, when I was a new bride, I asked a Corona neighborhood “regular” when the WOMEN got to play bocce. He pretended to consider the question seriously, then said, “ I ‘tinka in da year two ‘tousand.” He has gone on to his final reward. And the year 2000 has come and gone. But I still don’t see any female bocce players. Maybe in the next millennium.
Brooklyn Italian Neighborhoods
In Brooklyn, look to Bensonhurst and Carroll Gardens for an Italian flavor. The history of the Italian Americans in Carroll Gardens began with the arrival of immigrants from Sicily at the turn of the 20th century. They were drawn to this area due to its affordability and proximity to Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood. The majority of these immigrants were Sicilians who spoke only their native language, bringing their unique cultural customs with them. Over time, many other Italians followed suit and established themselves in Carroll Gardens too – creating a real melting pot of different regional cultures within one small community.
The history of Bensonhurst’s Italian population dates back to the early 20th century when large numbers of immigrants from Italy began arriving in New York City. These immigrants settled into this largely rural area of Brooklyn and created their own vibrant community filled with shops, restaurants, and churches that reflected their cultural traditions. Throughout this period, they maintained tight-knit ties within their families as well as with other local cultures including Jewish and Irish Americans who also called Bensonhurst home.
The area is home to many Italian-American families that have been living there for generations and the neighborhood still has a distinctly Italian feel. From the unique dialect to the delicious cuisine, Bensonhurst’s Italian culture continues to thrive despite all of the changes the area has seen over time.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Brooklyn this summer, check out the annual Giglio Festival honoring Saint Paulinus. You’ll find Italian food, fun and grand processions on July 8th and July 15th, when 200 men parade a 65-foot tower – on a platform filled with musicians – through northern Williamsburg. (For more information, contact Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, 718-384-0223.)
Italian neighborhoods in NYC are some of the most vibrant and diverse areas of the city. From Little Italy to Arthur Avenue, each area has its own unique culture, cuisine, and atmosphere that contribute to the city’s rich diversity. Whether you’re looking for some delicious Italian food or a unique historical experience, Italian neighborhoods are an excellent option. Plus, you can explore a variety of different cuisines in one area thanks to the many Italian-American immigrants who have made New York City their home.