When most people think of Little Italy, the first thing that comes to mind is "tourist trap," but the old-timers who live and work there would defend Mulberry Street's authenticity with their last breath. They'll tell you that behind the omnipresent green-white-and-red flags lies the true heart of the neighborhood: centuries-old recipes, high-quality imported ingredients and an intense spirit of camaraderie.
When most people think of Little Italy, the first thing that comes to mind is "tourist trap," but the old-timers who live and work there would defend Mulberry Street's authenticity with their last breath. They'll tell you that behind the omnipresent green-white-and-red flags lies the true heart of the neighborhood: centuries-old recipes, high-quality imported ingredients and an intense spirit of camaraderie. Still, as you get farther away from the nabe's historic core—toward Lafayette Street on the west, Bowery on the east and Spring Street in the north—you feel the presence of a younger, modern crowd, those twenty- and thirtysomethings who've staked their claim with trendy Nolita boutiques and eateries. Still, the sense of fellowship prevails throughout and allows the area's two personas to coexist, rather than compete.
Joe Mattone, president, Figli di San Gennaro, Inc.
"I go to the various meetings and things at the Most Precious Blood Church, which is one of my favorite places in the neighborhood. It's been restored and looks beautiful. My impressions of it are that it has a really Roman look to it. It makes you feel like you're transported into an Italian movie. The Franciscans run it, and it's very well kept. It has strong ties with the neighborhood."
Most Precious Blood Church, 113 Baxter St between Canal and Hester Sts (212-226-6427, mostpreciousbloodchurch.net)
"Ferrara Bakery and Caf is known for its cannoli—their formula goes back to God knows when! But my favorite is the tiramisu."
Ferrara Bakery and Caf, 195 Grand St between Mulberry and Mott Sts (212-226-6150, ferraracafe.com)
"We also have the Italian-American Museum, [which has] artifacts from the 1900s and earlier. It's a nice place to visit and it gives a very good impression of what it was like to live in the neighborhood in the early days. They have special exhibitions, lectures and other events from time to time. If you sign up for their newsletter, they'll send you announcements."
Italian American Museum, 155 Mulberry St at Grand St (212-965-9000, italianamericanmuseum.org)
Robert Ianniello Jr., general manager, Umberto's Clam House
"I have an apartment and a business here. I've had my apartment in Little Italy for five years, but I grew up on the block. Most people from Mulberry Street were from Naples, which is where my family is from originally. Years ago—50, 60, 70 years ago—the whole neighborhood was divided by the town you grew up in. Mott Street was from some place, Elizabeth Street was from another. You knew your cousin lived on Mott Street, so he'd get you an apartment on Mott Street. It wasn't strict or anything. People just gravitated toward people from their own towns because their family was there."
"Umberto's has always been a family business. My father opened it in 1972, and I've been working here since I was 13. Joe Gallo was killed at the original location about three to four months after we opened and, well, we became notorious I guess, if you want to put it that way. But that kind of thing only keeps people coming back for a year or so. A restaurant can't stick around if the food isn't good. There are a lot of regulars. Just people who come in once a month, once every two months, every six months, once a year.... When tourist season is over, you know, in the months between January and April, the regulars are the ones who keep the place open. There are people I've gotten to know well. One couple came to my house for my daughter's first birthday party. And my waiter Joe—everybody knows Big Joe—he goes to people's weddings, birthday parties, dinners at people's houses."
"I love eating at Lunella Ristorante Italiano. Lunella herself goes around to every table and talks to everybody. I've known her for years, and the food is excellent. I always have their beef carpaccio—it's always fresh—and after that I have the spaghetti with puttanesca sauce and the chicken Valdostana. I get it every time. They laugh and tell me to have something different, but I tell them it's what I like. I love it. I never get tired of it."
Lunella Ristorante Italiano, 173 Mulberry St between Broome and Grand Sts (212-966-6639, lunellas.com)
"For sandwiches, I go to the [Grand] Italian Food Center on the corner of Mulberry and Grand. It's like a pizzeria/salumeria. I usually get prosciutto with roasted peppers and smoked mozzarella."
Grand Italian Food Center, 186 Grand St at Mulberry St (212-925-2954)
Paul, owner, Sofia's of Little Italy (143 Mulberry St between Grand and Hester Sts, 212-219-9799)
"I love that the neighborhood's consistent. As much as the crowd can be touristy, you still have the people you know and see everyday: waiters, restaurant owners, cooking staff. Walking up and down street, you might not remember their names, but you know them. One guy who really makes the neighborhood is Sal the barber, on Mulberry and Grand Streets. He's this really spirited, thick-accented old Sicilian guy. He's a gem—he's always getting people chatting."
Sal's Barbershop, 187 Grand St between Baxter and Mulberry Sts (no phone).
"The biggest misconception of the area is that everyone thinks that all the food is the same. Everyone thinks that you can't get a really good Italian meal here, that you have to go to Batali or something. It's not true. We pay a lot of attention to the ingredients we use, and we've been doing it forever."
Dorina Yuen, owner, Oro Bakery and Bar
"I've lived in Little Italy for about eight years. The area really has a great neighborhood feel, and I love living within walking distance to work. All the people you meet are all neighborhoody and locals, and you build a relationship. At Oro, we'll take people's keys if someone needs to drop them off for a friend. Packages, too. Around here a lot of people live in five-story walk-ups on little streets and UPS hates delivering, so if we're around, we'll sign for it."
Oro Bakery and Bar, 375 Broome St between Mott and Mulberry Sts (212-941-6368, orobakerybar.com)
"My friends and I like to eat at Emporio. It's good, authentic Italian food. My must-order item, if I had to choose one thing, is their [seasonal] orecchiette. The ambiance in there is really rustic—wood [tables and bar] and brick walls."
Emporio, 231 Mott St between Prince and Spring Sts (212-966-1234)
"I like sitting in that park [near] Lombardi's, too. It doesn't really look like anything special. It's like a concrete square block with some minor children's jungle-gym-type things and some benches, but there's a soul to the place. And for some reason if you walk in there to read or sit down with a bite to eat, it just feels peaceful even though there are no trees or real separation from the street."
DeSalvio Playground, Mulberry St at Spring Sts (nycgovparks.org/parks/M218) * Lombardi's, 32 Spring St between Mott and Mulberry Sts (212-941-7994, lombardisoriginalpizza.com)
"McNally Jackson Books is great. Everyone there's not overly friendly or fake cheery, but super helpful and really realistic in their comments. They'll give you their honest opinions about books, like 'Oh, I hated that one, but I really loved this!' Or they'll take the time to ask you what you're in the mood for or looking for, which is pretty cool. And I like supporting small businesses."
McNally Jackson Books, 52 Prince St between Lafayette and Mulberry Sts (212-274-1160, mcnallyjackson.com)