Just the name, Little Italy conjures up images of mafia Godfathers, bottles of vino, great food and Italian flags and in many ways, all of these things are true, albeit stereotypical. But the Little Italy of today is a shadow of its formal self. Now more of a tourist attraction than a community, the real Italian enclaves are to be found in places like Howard Beach, Staten Island and Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.
Little Italy is now the incredible, shrinking Italy. Its boundaries have been encroached by an enclave of Australians to the north, taking up most of Mulberry Street, while the rest of it has been infiltrated by Chinatown. Now officially situated between Broome Street and Canal Street, original pizza restaurant, Lombardi’s lies two blocks away, showing just how much the area has shrunk.
At the turn of the 20th Century, the area was a dense slum of immigrant families. As new members arrived and paisano (people from their villages) bonded, the tenements overflowed. With this came organized crime, with the introduction of mafia “families”. Little Italy was home to members of the Genovese and Gambino crime families. The last of the folkloric godfathers of the era, John Gotti operated from the Ravenite Social Club until 1992, when a combination of FBI surveillance and his underling, Sammy the Bull Gravano turning spelled the end of the reign of the so-called “Teflon Don”.
Today, most of the Italian restaurants are run by Hispanic families. There’s still plenty of pizza places but none would threaten the top 10 of New York’s best slices. The area is worth visiting, but more for the chance to experience the diversity of this part of the city. Nolita (North of Little Italy) is a blend of funky boutiques, hip bars and flashy restaurants and art spaces.
If you’re looking for the best Italian food, head to Rubirosa or if you’re making some yourself, the 1910 delicatessen, Di Palo’s gives you a taste of what Little Italy once was like. Shopping in the area is lackluster, but then again, it borders SoHo and Nolita, both fashionable areas with better shopping. Most of the shops within the LI streets are tourist traps, but the quirk and range of Christmas and City is worthy of a stop by.
A visit to Little Italy isn’t complete without trying a cannoli. Our reco is Caffe Palermo on Mulberry Street, where these creamy delicacies literally melt in your mouth. Buon Appetito.
Little Italy is the original area where Italian migrants settled in NYC. It’s now a trendy area to live, with the original inhabitants priced out back in the late 90s.
Bordered by Soho to the west and the Lower East Side and Chinatown, the area has been going through extensive gentrification, yet still retains a level of grittiness.
Access it via the 6, J and Z trains.