Op-Ed: Little Italy Keeping it Real, Preserving the Old New York City

Posted on: December 14th, 2011 at 6:09 am by

The following piece about Little Italy was written by Boogie reader Tanner Jordan. Photos courtesy of Tanner Jordan.

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Vinny's Nut House, on Mulberry Since 1973

You have to wonder how some of the 100-year-old shops in Little Italy have been able to stick around after all this time especially with the mass gentrification of Manhattan. And the real estate creation of Nolita. Could it be that their families own the building and froze their rent? A couple of the best shops-Alleva Cheese and Piemonte Pasta on Grand Street close at 6PM and the more upscale Di Palo’s stays open till a very late 7PM. I guess no one let them know that most NYC office workers barely get out of the office by 6PM. Despite the less-than-convenient hours of these shops they are still worth the effort for their outstanding products and authentic mom-and-pop ambience.

Little Italy has seen its share of bad press this year with the battle to shorten the Feast of San Gennaro, the longest running street festival in the country. This struggle between tradition and gentrification really was a symptom of the larger issue of Manhattan losing its soul to glass and money. Luckily there’s a hard-working group called Little Italy Merchants Association (LIMA for Short) in Little Italy that is working hard not only to preserve the character of the area, but proactively trying turn back the clock. Led by President Ralph Tramontana, this past year has seen the installation of ornamental tinsel-covered street lights that arch over Mulberry Street and change with the seasons. There is also full block crossing welcome lighted banners that say “Welcome to Historic Little Italy” that mark the northern border at Mulberry and Houston and the southern border on Mulberry & Canal Street. The long-term plan is return Mulberry Street back to its historical look as much as possible with the installation of vintage street lights. Other new initiatives included imploring the restaurants along Mulberry Street to rid the aggressive male hawkers and replace them more friendly subtle guys and girls. On another note, LIMA was also successful in forcing the souvenir shops to cut down on the mafia related t-shirts and merchandise.

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There are some exciting new places and partnerships upcoming for 2012 in Little Italy. Giovanna’s Restaurant is opening a a new “Grandma Cooking School” in the second floor area of the restaurant that will feature cooking classes hosted by the restaurant chefs and owner’s Grandmothers as teachers. There is quite a bit of neighborhood buzz about the new restaurant that the the folks behind Da Gennaro will open in a grand first-floor space in a painstakingly restored tenement building on the corner of Grand & Mulberry Street that will open in the spring. Another massive restoration is going on with the St. Patrick’s Church that will be completed late 2012. ” Little Italy is going through renaissance and reclaiming all of Mulberry Street back ” said Ralph Tramontana.

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LIMA is introducing a new visitors website in January 2012 (www.littleitalyguide.org) and also forging some unique partnership that includes a 2012 Holiday partnership with other Little Italy’s in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angels & San Francisco.  And there is even talk of an East Meets West Holiday Parade West in San Francisco. The neighborhood is also flirting with some big Italian-related brands like Santa Margherita Wines, Fiat, Sorrento Cheese, Perillo Tours and Vespa Scooters about becoming new sponsors and having a presence in the new Little Italy. These brands would be added to an already high-profile list that includes Pepsi and Bertolli Olive Oil.

One thing that all the Little Italy’s across the USA have in common is pulling out all the stops and putting on big events for the Holiday Season. This upcoming holiday season Little Italy kicked off its Holiday Events with a Christmas Tree Lighting at Most Precious Blood Church on Saturday December 3. Last Saturday, LIMA was the presenting sponsor for an annual holiday party for underprivileged kids who have been victims of domestic violence. But the big event is East Meets West Holiday Parade this Saturday at 2PM, which is the ultimate mash-up of Little Italy and Chinatown holiday traditions. This year’s parade will feature VIPS being transported by Fiat 500′ Convertibles. This parade is should be great fun and starts by going up Mulberry and then turning at Spring Street and back down Mott Street, featuring features 2 Santa floats (Chinese and Italian).

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One of the best parts of Little Italy is how it’s great for people-watching and draws in a wide variety of characters. The other is how old-school places operate alongside new and trendy places. A few of the older Restaurants like SPQR still offer $8 complete meal deals, packing in the younger tourists on a budget crowd while hipper newcomers like crudo vineria con cucina attract a more clubby crowd of 30-something professional types. Crudo has amazing seafood and replaced the old Umbertos Clam House but cleverly preserved the old Umbertos Signage out front. Another hot spot is the always happening Mambo Italiano Restaurant and Piano Bar on Mulberry Street. For the classic Italian upscale dinner check out Il Cortile or Angelos who both have the best food and reviews on Mulberry Street.

The northern end of Mulberry Street between Prince and Houston reflect the younger Italian New Yorker. Now they call it Nolita. Look at the lines forming outside of Torrisi Italian Specialties (near Prince Street), or try to get a walk-in table at Rubirosa and you’ll feel a different sort of Little Italy vibe, where fashion is as important as cuisine. But this is also where you’ll find Lombardi’s, allegedly the country’s first pizzeria, and the Basilica at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, two sites firmly steeped in Little Italy history.

Never have dessert at your restaurant. Instead visit either Sambuca Cafe for the best tiramisu in NYC or Ferrara Cafe for the best Gelato in NYC. Sambuca features a large sidewalk cafe to enjoy people watching with your dessert.

Back on Grand Street off Mulberry is where you’ll find the food shops that keep this neighborhood an important shopping destination for locals. The oldest dairy in the U.S., Alleva Cheese Shop, is a fourth-generation market with mozzarella and bocconcini that will have you screaming bravissimo. Its friendly competitor, DiPalo’s Fine Foods — 100 years young — is the neighborhood grocery store with dairy, cheese, meat, olive oil and other Italian staples, most available for sampling. Also family-run and now in its fourth generation, DiPalo’s is known for giving advice on how to put together flawless recipes or even set the perfect Italian table. DiPalo’s new enoteca has just opened next door so you can pick up your favorite Orvieto Classico, Barolo or even a bracing grappa to complement your meal. If all you want is pasta, the folks at Piemonte Ravioli know it better than anyone else. Piemonte has been supplying homemakers, restaurants, and hotels since 1920. Heading a bit north on Mott Street, fourth-generation and family-run Parisi Bakery is a favorite for hearty and the BEST Chicken Parm Sandwiches and their prosciutto rolls have kept taxi drivers coming back for years.

Below is a list of my favorite spots in Little Italy and what I like best on their menu:

DiPalo’s Grand Street – Go for their life changing prepared Eggplant Parm (Grandma DiPalo’s Recipe) to go and a large home made marinara sauce for $5.99.
Avella Grand Street – The best calzones and home made Mozzarella
Piemonte Pasta Grand Street – Don’t miss trying the various flavors of gnocchi
Parissi Bakery Mott Street – Best Chicken Parm Sandwich in the world
Lombardi Pizza Mulberry Street – Best Pizza in NYC
Sambuca Cafe Mulberry Street – Best tiramisu in NY

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