To brush up on my knowledge of Little Italy before I embarked on my latest mission, I just thumbed through some travel articles and Youtube videos before writing this to get a good sense of what people’s initial impression of the neighborhood would be. It was a mix of visitors running excitedly for a cannoli at Ferrara’s and people in their 60’s and 70’s wistfully lamenting their former stomping grounds.
It was clear that Little Italy has become a place to simply pass through - sure you could sit at one of the streetside cafes, have and espresso, do as the Italians do, but the atmosphere is more comparable to the pedestrian plaza at Herald Square. A once expansive neighborhood has boiled down to, primarily, Mulberry St. between Spring and Canal, a mere 6 blocks in Lower Manhattan near the 6 train.
I joined these hordes of people late one Thursday afternoon to take some photos and sit down for some, ahem, “authentic Italian food”. Around Spring and Mulberry is where it all really begins, and where you routinely witness people narrowly escape death as they try to get the perfect shot of the “Welcome to Little Italy” sign spanning the width of the street.
In this tiny area, the competition to get people to eat at your restaurant is fierce, simply because there are dozens to choose from. Seriously. I was walking with a friend down Mulberry, not planning on sitting down anywhere quite yet, and were descended upon by at least five or six different hosts, all toting pretty much the same thing - happy hour, homemade pasta, fresh sauce, yadda yadda.
They were extremely deliberate in their pursuits, and while I’ve gotten used to shooing people away on the street, I can easily see how an out-of-towner could be roped into sitting down for a $28 plate of penne vodka (which is ludicrous).
I think that was the one thing that really ruined the atmosphere for me. I was happy to take in all that Little Italy had, to stroll through souvenir shops and look at the weird things for sale, to stop in for a pastry at one of their many bakeries, and just explore.
But often with looks of desperation in their eyes, the restaurant hosts and store owners started to resemble auctioneers, frantically screaming at anyone to come in the door and give them business not because they had something spectacular to offer, but because they just had something to offer.
Seeing as I’m doing the whole “tourist” thing, I decided to sit down and try the food at the place that gave me their best spiel. The lucky winner was Caffe Napoli - the guy outside was nice and didn’t curse at me in Italian when I hesitated. My friend and I decided to split a plate of gnocchi pomodoro that we were promised was fresh (it wasn’t). Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t terrible at all - in fact the sauce was homemade and pretty delicious. But it was exactly what I feared about the gimmicks and the facades of many of these “authentic” Italian eateries.
For anyone who says Little Italy has lost all its identity as an Italian cultural center, I can tell you from experience that is absolutely not true. A lot of the same establishments still exist, so do the same markets where you can buy fresh mozzarella and olive oil from the counter, and the same pastry shops that serve up incredible cannolis and Neapolitans.
What’s changed is the major transition from being a simple neighborhood, an alcove where Italian-Americans lived together and functioned as its own little center of commerce within itself, to a cut and dry tourist destination.
If you’re from New York City, or any of the surrounding suburbs like Long Island or New Jersey, Italian food is NOT a commodity. Most of us know where to get a great dish like linguine with clam sauce, and know exactly how to pronounce words like “gnocchi” and “calamari”.
Little Italy, however, is not for these people. It has it’s purpose, and kind of saddens me to say that it’s not the authentic, tradition filled experience you’ll often see in shows, in articles, and in the retellings of people that knew Little Italy in years past. I was met with the cultural dilution that I sort of expected, but was disappointed nonetheless. I can’t really say it wasn’t worth the trip, because it really is an interesting little microcosm just blocks away from SoHo - but my advice to anyone visiting is to adjust your expectations, and appreciate it for what it once was in spite of what it is today.