With so many great neighborhoods in New York City to explore, it’s always sad when one disappoints. For me, that neighborhood is Manhattan’s Little Italy.
Considering this city’s historic Italian roots, one would think Little Italy would be filled with the very best authentic Italian shops. I’ve read that the neighborhood was once a bastion of all things Italian—that once, the purveyors of shops there were dedicated to introducing Old World Italian recipes to the New. But this no longer seems to be the case.
Whenever my parents regale me with stories from the 80’s of neighborhood icon Ferrara’s, the glimmer in their eyes inspires me to check out Little Italy’s streets in hopes of discovering a trace of the place they so fondly remember. But with each visit I make these days, I am more and more convinced that the Little Italy of the 80’s no longer exists.
As much as I love Chinatown, I find myself a bit resentful that Asian businesses have continued to encroach upon the blocks that used to be dominated by traditional Italian spots. Of the Italian shops that remain, many seem less dedicated to the motherland than they are to targeting tourists. And now that the underlying familial sense has been supplanted by a cater-to-tourists mantra, nearly every restaurant seems to offer their version of the same thing: A specialty red sauce and slightly stale, flavorless bread. Instead of hearing only Italian pouring out from restaurant kitchens, Spanish and Chinese can be heard, too. Many of the “original” businesses are not in their original locations, nor are they operated by their original owners.
Above all, it was the character that imbued the streets, shops and restaurants that once made this neighborhood one of the greats. Businesses passed down from generation to generation were established to cater to the local community, which seemed to be comprised of one sprawling, extended family. Now, waiters stand outside beckoning anyone and everyone to enter so they can order from extensive, overpriced menus. Opportunistic entrepreneurs have taken over the spaces and names of businesses that once meant something.
I attribute Little Italy’s transformation—or, rather, its disintegration—to three main factors: gentrification (this was once one of New York City’s poorest immigrant hoods), diversification, and the neglect of tradition and homegrown pride in favor of the pursuit of success.
I suspect it’s hard to find any actual Italians living in the neighborhood. The only one’s I’ve encountered were visiting from Italy on holiday, not those who call New York their new home. The few small streets that make up Little Italy have become something of an Italy Disney—a carnival of establishments designed to draw visitors rather than permanent residents. Sample something here, buy something there, take the obligatory picture in front of the Italian flag colored streamers, and you should be ready to go.
It’s sad to see a neighborhood that once represented Italian culture—and, by extension, part of the backbone of our city’s culture—crumble to commercialized despair.
But I do not mean to suggest that Little Italy is devoid of anything authentic, nor that it isn’t worth a visit. At the end of every summer, the Feast of San Gennaro takes over and the neighborhood streets come alive with Italian pride. Di Palo’s is still perhaps the best specialty Italian importer in the city, and the grilled panini at Alleva Dairy should not be missed. And at Ferrara’s, you can still get the kind of cannoli my folks recall devouring a few decades past.
Ferrara Bakery & Café, 195 Grand Street, (212) 226-6150, Sun-Fri 8-12am, Sat 8-1am
Di Palo’s Fine Foods, 200 Grand Street, (212) 226-1033, Mon-Sat 9am-6:30pm, Sun 9am-4pm
Alleva Dairy, 188 Grand Street, (212) 226-7990, Mon-Sat 8:30am-6pm, Sun 8:30am-3pm
Featured image courtesy of Sarita Dan