Generations of Italian-Americans have made their homes in this neighborhood for more than a century; the influx of Italian immigrants began in the late 1800s when unemployment and poverty in Italy forced many to emigrate and start a new life in America. Between 1860 and 1880, 68,500 Italians moved to New York and by 1920, 391,000 Italians lived in the city. The immigrants brought their hometown loyalties with them, which divided Little Italy into regionally specific neighborhoods. Northern Italians settled along Bleecker Street. The Genovese chose Baxter Street, while those from Sicily grouped themselves together along Elizabeth Street.
Although a fair number of Italian-Americans remain, much of the area has been press repopulated in recent years due to expanding SoHo
, as immigrants from China and other East Asian countries moved into the area. The northern reaches of Little Italy, near Houston Street, have ceased to be recognizably Italian, and have been transformed into the fashion boutique-laden neighborhood known today as Nolita
, an abbreviation for North of Little Italy. Today only the section of Mulberry Street between Broome and Canal Streets, lined with Italian restaurants popular with tourists, remains distinctly recognizable as Little Italy. Walking beside the narrow, cobblestone streets beneath the fire escapes of turn-of-the-last-century tenements, it's fun to be enveloped by the sights, sounds and smells of Italian cuisine and culture emanating from the restaurants, bakery shops, and stores. However, you'll find many of today's waiters are Latino, and not Italian.
Mulberry Street’s many Italian restaurants and Grand Street’s Italian food stores and fresh dairy products still draw crowds of tourists and locals alike. Family friendly Pellegrino's
prides itself as one of Little Italy's finer restaurants offering both Northern and Southern Italian cuisine. Casa Bella
boasts that its pasta and baking are all done in house, and serves reasonably priced pre-fixe dinners for parties of 15 or more. But for a real taste of Italian-American history the mandatory stop is Lombardi's
, established as the first pizzeria in America in 1905 with New York's issuance of the mercantile license.
Shopping on Grand Street can be a whole lot of fun as well. For fresh mozzarella head to Di Palo Selects
or Alleva Dairy
, and find imported delicacies at the Italian Food Center
. Have an espresso, cappuccino, and a wide variety of pastries after a fine meal at one of the Italian caffés. There are also numerous festivals throughout the year, with the Feast of San Gennaro
(the best-known) taking place annually in late September.
Fortunately, gone are the days of drive-by shootings and questionable activities in "social clubs." The history of Little Italy is intertwined with the history of the America mafia—but don't expect to walk onto the set of The Godfather
on your visit here. While the neighborhood still has vestiges of Italian-American culture, one wonders just how long it will be before the overheated real estate market, and ever expanding Chinatown, will take even bigger bites on the area’s remaining slices of Europe.
Finally, do note that Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was apparently living in New York City when he wrote And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
, his first book published in 1937. The scenes in Godfather 2 of younger Vito’s Little Italy neighborhood of 1917 were actually shot on Sixth Street in the East Village between Avenues A and B, tricked out in period costumes.