Mulberry Street, Circa 1900
My first experience of Little Italy was not a good one. I had a terrible meal and dismissed the whole thing as a tourist attraction. The tour I however, changed my mind. Ahoy New York, are a fantastic walking tour company who have been operating since 2008. Our guide told us some brilliant stories of the mob, shootings, mobsters, molls etc. At the time of mass Italian immigration Little Italy was a grim, diseased and crime infested neighborhood. The ‘black hand’ or the mob weighed heavy on everyone. It was a tough place to live – one where people were keen to escape.
Our first stop was for cannoli at America’s first espresso bar Ferrara’s bakery. Cannoli are a traditional Sicilian treat consisting of a coarse flaky pastry and a light ricotta filling. The American version is twice the size smothered in cream cheese, chocolate chips and is still delicious. This was my must try and HUBBA HUBBA it was amazing. Also worth trying are the lobster tails –these are enormous versions of the original Sanatrosa from Naples basically a much bigger cannoli.
Ferrara’s famous lobster tails
Next was Di Palo’s Fine Foods. Di Palo’s is known as the twenty first state of Italy as they stock specialties from every one of Italy’s twenty one regions. We sampled some cheeses (one from a sheep and one from a cow) and then moved two doors down to Alleva Dairy, the oldest Italian cheese shop in America. We had mozzarella which had been freshly made on site that morning. It was incredible, moist, creamy, delicous (oh dear, sounds worng) and went well with salty prosciutto, left you with a lovely after taste, (ha, even worse). As we ate our tour guide explained how it had been made in the same way it has been since the dairy’s doors opened 150 years ago. Despite the amazing produce at these outlets our guide warned us about coming for a meal in the area. Her list of restaurant recommendations was hilariously short (only four) which when you consider every other building is a restaurant is a sign of how the area has unfortunately lost some of its original reputation.
Apart from these amazing food institutions the area also has some very unique museums which are popular among New Yorkers. The Tenement Museum includes tours with live actors around tenement rooms reconstructed to reflect those used in times of peak immigration. The Italian American Museum is also fascinating for its stories of gangster mobs.
Little Italy is very touristy there is a Christmas shop there all year round and every restaurant blares out ‘just one cornetto’. Going on the tour though bought my attention to the places which have retained their authenticity. The area is still worth a visit, if only for a cannolli.