NEW YORK — No trip to New York City is complete until you visit Little Italy. Known as home to some of the best restaurants in the city, the area boasts everything from casual dining and pizzerias to more upscale eateries just right for a romantic dinner for two. A trip here can be the perfect ending to a busy day of shopping or a delicious interlude before seeing a show or athletic event.
Many people know that Manhattan is the home of Times Square, bright lights, and Broadway. However, there’s a calmer yet festive part of the borough that begins with the appearance of cobblestone streets, the sounds of Italian music, and the aromas of garlic and oregano that can be detected while strolling down Mulberry Street.
Famous for its bakeries and Italian eateries, Little Italy is a section of the city that was settled by Italian immigrants. Over the years, some Italians have moved out, while Chinatown has begun expanding into the area.
Visitors can see Chinese shops occupying brick buildings painted in red, green and white — the colors of the Italian flag. Although modern Little Italy may be smaller than it was in the early 1900s, those who live and work in the area are continuing the traditons of previous generations.
“The times change everything,” said Francesco Trioio, one of the owners of Sal’s Pizzeria.
He admits that some Italians have moved out, but said the spirit of those who are still around is strong.
“Whether it counts [to some or not],” Trioio said, “we’re still here.”
The majority of the businesses in the area are mom-and-pop stores. The person who greets you is usually the owner of the business.
Walking into Sal’s, the first thing you hear is Trioio’s thick Italian accent greeting customers with a smile and a hearty “buon giorno.”
Seated at a table with a red-and-white table cloth, one can see shelves lined with canisters of rotelli, lasagna and rigatoni noodles. Samples of the daily specials are featured on a shelf for those who aren’t up on their Italian cuisine.
Through the open kitchen doorway one can see the chefs preparing dishes. Strands of garlic and red peppers hang from the ceiling, while fresh garlic can be smelled from the kitchen. And yes, that’s an autographed picture of Al Pacino hanging next to one of Johnny Depp on the “wall of fame.” The two ate at Sal’s while filming “Donnie Brasco.”
Trioio came to America from his native Naples 20 years ago when a family friend, who owned Sal’s, wanted to retire. Trioio, then 18, and his family moved to Little Italy and have been running the business ever since.
“We had friends in the neighborhood [when moving to America],” Trioio said. “We had future investments here with the business.”
Many consider pizza and pasta the only food Italians have to offer, but don’t discount the cheese or salami. Alleva, a company located on the corner of Mulberry and Grand streets, produces fresh salami and a variety of cheeses such as mozzarella and provolone.
Salami hangs from the ceiling, and one can smell fresh mozzarella and provolone while walking past the open door that invites customers.
The company, which has been perfecting its craft since 1892, sells and packages its cheese for traveling. The cost is a lot less than what one would pay in uptown Manhattan. The company also can pack goods for travel.
If you’re going to bring home cheese and salami, you had better pick up some bread and cookies for dessert. D&G Bakery, on Spring Street, has been baking breads, cookies and pastries for more than 30 years. The prices are reasonable, and visitors are able to see bakers prepare the treats.
San Diego native Kelly Lynn was shopping downtown recently with friends who are New York natives when they suggested eating in Little Italy.
“I came for the food,” Lynn said. She said the area is quaint and a break from the hustle and bustle one encounters downtown. She was carrying a box of cookies from D&G.
Part of Little Italy’s charm is the fact there are no big stores a la the mall or the outlets at Freeport. The majority of the businesses in the area are intimate and service-oriented.
There’s the occasional street vendor selling the typical “I Love NY” sweat shirts and the like, but there are also authentic Little Italy shops selling Italian memorabilia. Italian flags, CDs and records are sold alongside posters of the Italian soccer teams and postcards to send back home.
For those interested in celebrities, stores invariably sell pictures of famous Italians. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Al Pacino, and Dean Martin are staples.
Trioio said stores and eateries hang pictures of famous people to help dismiss the myth that all Italians are infamous gangsters.
Speaking of gangsters, a historical landmark is the former police headquarters, on Centre and Broome streets. Despite the fact that the detailed building with the dome on top is used now for condominiums rather than for interrogating mobsters, it’s still considered a landmark full of character and history.
Although the area is packed with long-established restaurants and shops, there are also new cafes targeting the younger generation. Some feature computers and the Internet. Others, such as Rose Rudux, play hip-hop music.
Rose Rudux, although geared toward Generation X, features a good cup of cafe mocha and biscotti. (They taste nothing like the kind you buy at Christie’s.)
The cafe mocha is rich in chocolate taste, with a touch of steamed milk. The froth is nice and thick with just a dash of powdered chocolate to garnish. Add almond biscotti to dip into the delightful drink and it melts in your mouth — the Italian version of cookies and milk.
Area resident Karen Karch, whose shop Karch is next to D&G Bakery, said another reason the area is changing is that younger people are taking a liking to what it has to offer.
At night the area is busier, as hosts dressed in suits display menus and tell the evening specials to those walking by. Don’t assume, however, just because hosts are enticing visitors with flavorful cuisine that they’re hurting for business.
Some establishments may be reserved for private parties, while others may have a waiting line.
After we encountered several places booked for holiday parties, one host suggested De Gennaro as the choice for the evening’s eating pleasure.
When we walked into the brightly lit, crowded room, a man dressed in a burgundy suit seated us. The welcoming menu offered a variety of pasta dishes, with or without meat, and appetizers — from fried calamari, or squid, to fried mozzarella for the less daring.
The calamari was scrumptious, seasoned in a breadcrumb mixture of oregano and other herbs. It was cooked just right. Many restaurants overcook it, so one has the unfortunate experience of tasting rubber bands. De Gennaro’s chefs, however, cooked it perfectly so it was moist, its flavor accented by a rich marinara sauce. The garlic and oregano in the sauce complemented the fried mozzarella. The thick, luscious strips of cheese could be seen through the coating.
The Italian bread was lightly toasted on the outside, soft on the inside and so good it stood up well without butter.
The main entree of choice was one of the evening specials — spaghetti with clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp and calamari, garnished with a light red sauce.
The pasta was perfect, al dente. The seafood was fresh. The scallops were tender, the mussels nice and moist, the clams were whole and tender, the shrimp peeled and crisp. The sauce, full of zest from the garlic, basil, oregano and tomatoes, was not overpowering, just the right combination of flavors to enhance the seafood.
De Gennaro’s is suitable for casual or evening attire. One will find the majority of the area’s eateries require similar attire, although some stipulate evening attire only.
Featured in the background, of course, is Italian music, and if you listen closely you can overhear the staff speaking in their native tongue. Everyone is friendly and pleasant. (There are nice New Yorkers, just as there are some random rude Mainers.)
Some establishments are known for their wonderful dinner menus, and Little Italy is fortunate because in addition there are delightful places for concluding one’s meal.
Save room for dessert, because Ferrara’s is down the street. Featuring cookies, cannoli and tiramisu, the bakery offers a large variety of sweets. There’s a full menu of desserts and drinks, ranging from Italian sodas to a variety of coffee-based beverages. The tiramisu was rich and creamy, yet not so rich that you couldn’t finish it.
New York City and Little Italy are good places to visit all year round, but one of the most popular times to visit Little Italy is during the Festa di San Gennaro in September. Games and street vendors line Mulberry Street, as Italians from all over the city and other areas celebrate the saint’s day. Food, games and dancing are all part of the celebration.