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.) 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. 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!). 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.
In the Bronx, you can see a still-thriving Italian section centered around Arthur Avenue. 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!
Bensonhurst & Carroll Gardens
In Brooklyn, look to Bensonhurst and Carroll Gardens for Italian flavor. 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.)
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 Uncle Orlando (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.” Uncle Orlando 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.