Bitten Out of The Big Apple: Where has Little Italy gone?

by Giovanni Morreale | Feb 16, 2014

EmpireI have never missed participating in the “American Dream” but, as I happen to travel to the USA for my job quite often, I have planned a stop-over in New York in order to experience the Big Apple for a weekend. I have little time and the weather is miserable, but I decided that at least I have to go and see Ground Zero where the Twin Towers were, Little Italy, and the Empire State building. My little boy had wished me luck climbing all the stairs to the last floor of the Empire State Building, so I knew he would check that I had really climbed them when I got home!

It looks as if I’ve come late as always… and not only too late to see the Twin Towers. It happened when I first arrived in Paris, too, in 2007. People who had lived there for decades would say: “This is not Paris it used to be”. “Globalization and foreigners have ruined this city”. But this time was more personal: Little Italy is also part of Italian and Sicilian history.

20140215_090156When I ask the hotel receptionist how to get to Little Italy, he took a map and marked the short walk needed to get there, and also marked the area where little Italy was. I went at a hurried pace, partly because of the cold and partly because of my excitement at seeing Little Italy not on the big screen but in real life.

When I crossed the boundary of what was marked on the map as little Italy, I started looking around for “Italian signs”… It looked like China Town, but on the map it was definitely indicated as Little Italy. My excitement started to fade away as the feeling that “I was again late” started to take place. I suddenly saw a Christian sign: the Church of San Salvatore. It didn’t take a second more to prove my feeling was right: this was one of the few “monuments” remaining from the original Little Italy in a street full of Chinese adverts. A few meters on, another sign said: Italian American Museum.
“Well”, I thought, “it’s just history.. Little Italy is just history.”

I was imagining narrow streets teeming with children and Italian melodies… but I hardly even managed to find a cappuccino. Mulberry Street, what is actually left of Little Italy, is on its way to China too. An Italian face was actually there shoveling the snow that was whitening New York these days. I tried to be “Italian” and shouted from the other side of the street, like I would do in Palermo, “Are you Italian”? “Parli Italiano”? The man’s answer with a shy “un poco” – actually not much really.

20140215_091243I asked the man, called John, where is the “center” of little Italy? He replied with a mix of sadness and resignation it was right there.
“This is my family shop, we have run it for three generations”, said John pointing at his yet undefeated tower, “and I will not sell up, but I reckon within twenty years from now it will all be over”. He said, it’s like the Roman Empire… it is all coming to an end.

He sadly showed me all the signs of “to rent” or “for sale”. He pointed to the old restaurant Giovanna’s – he said they just closed because Chinese has bought the property and they raised the rent to 30.000 dollars per month.

Before leaving him, I wanted to make sure to ask for the “treasure map”: where I could find a cappuccino and a brioche. Apart from everything else, I was hungry. Breakfast would be more like lunch for me since I was still in the UK time zone!20140215_091740

Brioche? Well, perhaps you wouldn’t even have found that back in the 1950’s, I was told. Most of the Italians in this area were from the South whereas in fact brioches are from the North. He told me that Mulberry St. was the Neapolitan Street; Sicilians were more on Elisabeth Street. So I took a walk to Elisabeth Street and nothing was left there… so following my failing broken plan I went back to Mulberry Street and stepped into Caffé Napoli as suggested by John.

Pedro, Caffe’ Napoli

My cappuccuno was very good, and instead of my missing brioche I took a piece of cake “ai frutti di bosco”. Here I met Pedro, from ….San Domingo. All the staff were Hispanic. They do speak some Italian mixed with Spanish. I asked out of curiosity if the place belonged to them. He said that the owner is from Napoli and he showed me the picture of Signora Anna, now an octogenarian, with Diego Armando Maradona. Apparently Diego is an “habitué ” .. well, that’s what Pedro said.

My little Italy experience was coming to an end. After my cappuccino, I sadly made my way to SoHo, where I wanted to do some shopping to alleviate my disappointment. On the map it looked like I should have passed a certain “NoLIta”, which I found out means (North of Little Italy) – even the name is disappearing piece by piece! Confused, I tried to stop some people and ask for SoHo. Whether it was my Italian-London accent, or weather the Chinese people that populated the streets did not understand “SoHo” I do not know! I had to go a block back and ask Pedro, out for his cigarette, for directions to SoHo. I managed to feel home with a person from San Domingo; that’s the closest I could get to Italy in that corner of New York at 10 AM on an ordinary day.

20140215_092141Sad, closed windows accompanied me out of what is left of Little Italy. A poster of Italian immigrants here, a picture of the wrestler Bruno Sanmartino there… “The American Dream for many Italian Americans who believed in his ideals of hand work, sacrifice, family, respect, and all natural training…

A shop called “Little Italy No1 Gift shop” run by a Chinese family was the last straw for me that day.

I rushed off to visit the other places on my list before the rest of the Big Apple vanished too!


Giovanni Morreale
Giovanni Morreale
I would define myself an "eclectic" mind, trying, with all my hearth and soul to realize my dreams, which often gravitate around my family and my land, Sicily. Professionally, I am a Civili Engineer, seconded to the IT world of Cyber Security, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence.

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  1. Hi, I loved your post. It’s too bad. In Toronto we still have a good part of Little Italy. Also, I was going to have to disagree about the Brioche thing. In 1983 when I was in Sicily for my summer holidays (3 months), I ate Brioche with my gelato inbetween every morning before I went to the beach! So it’s not just a northern Italian thing!

    • Hi Lucy,
      We are referring to different brioches! 🙂
      Actually in Palermo area (not sure in the rest of Sicily), we call that “cornetto”, French and English call it “croissant”. Now, I wanted to be “Italian” and asked for “Brioche”. So you are right, you can ate brioche with Gelato, but is something else of the “cornetto” that you have with the cappuccino…
      I really really doubt my grandfather in Sicily would have cappuccino e cornetto in the 30s or 40s etc 🙂

  2. Same HUGE disappointment for me Giovanni when I went some years ago. The new breed of Italians going to the States these days are all investment bankers, managers, hi-tech whizz kids and PhD. researchers which is not a bad thing either.

    Much better to visit Ellis Island Museum which gives you a real feel for the immigrants’ plight a century ago.

    • Exactly! We became a “service” society …. we don’t want to work anymore with hands.. If you open a restaurant it would be on a different location with different style of food using other nationalities waiters! No more mandolino! Time of Lasagna e Pizza is almost over… (that’s my opinion). Nonetheless, it’s a pity that New York is not doing anything to preserve this street. In a way, it’s a piece of history.

  3. Caru Giovanni,

    I cried before finishing the entire article. This is the exact sort of thing that has happened in my hometown area here in Louisiana. I have slowly watched our culture evaporate. The town in the 1920’s until the 1980’s was about 90% Sicilian. All of the stores down main street were own by Sicilians. There was a Sicilian festival every year celebrating the food, music, land and people of Sicily. The Sicilian language was heard all over town. Pride in our heritage stood strong and tall. Today, there are only shards of the the Sicilian culture that remain.

    The town was the number one producer of strawberries in the United States because of Sicilian Farming techniques brought from Sicily. Today, you might find someone with Sicilian roots there, but the new generation knows very little information about those roots. Few could tell you the difference between some sfinci and a strunzu. I go back often to stir an interest in our great Sicilian history before as you said, “it disappears too!”
    Ciau a prestu…

    • I feel sorry to read that Steve,
      well, that in a way it’s one of the main reason way I have founded Times of Sicily! I pay my small contribution to our history, community and traditions, opening up and not being afraid though of the new world.

  4. Ha, Giovanni!! It’s not just Little Italy. Times Square is now a theme park, the Yankees play in a shopping mall, and “my” Greenwich Village is just a memory. The NYC revival was built on moving all the interesting people to the boroughs and leaving Manhattan to supermodels and financiers—but no starving artists like in the new Coen Bros film!! No more left bank bohemia. Nulla!
    Your only hope might be to go to Astoria, Queens, there’s some interesting action there.
    What’s funny is here in Castellammare, I have heated arguments about life with my Moldavian cleaning lady, am friendly with the two Romanian accordion players, and have coffee with a Nigerian refugee. Castellammare del golfo is more Greenwich Village than Greenwich Village is now!

  5. Hi Giovanni, you have to cross the bridge to see some of your Italian heritage! In Brooklyn there are signs of Italy all over the place.

  6. Thank you for this article! I know it was bittersweet to write. Made me sad to think there is no more a Little Italy– I only visited there once, and it was before I married into an Italian family– now it would mean so much more. Twenty five years ago, to me a visit to Little Italy just meant amazing Italian food in very cozy little restaurants, with really friendly people… now since I’ve done tons of family history research, it would mean the world. I have the addresses where the family first lived when immigrating from Montemaggiore Belsito– and in my mind, I figured it may not have changed much– but that was 114 years ago. Glad for all the efforts to preserve the history!! Thank you.

  7. Tobias is correct – Brooklyn or Arthur Avenue is where you can find some good shops and restaurants. (although DiPalos is still in Little Italy, and it’s still a fabulous shop) In a couple of weeks, a new restaurant called Bella Gioia will be opening on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. They young chef, of Sicilian heritage, will serve only Sicilian food and wine and the space will have a cozy, rustic ambiance. It will be such a welcome addition and so good to see someone identifying his restaurant as Sicilian. The way to keep places like this open and available to us, is to frequent them. Rents are high, goods are expensive. I think it’s too late for Little Italy, where it was and as it was, but because the Italians have largely assimilated, does not mean that we have to lose our inherited culture. We just have to work a little harder to keep it alive.

  8. What an interesting but sad story. It has the inevitability of assimilation in such a melting pot culture. But I’m sure Italian Americans must carry the old country inside. It would be very interesting to read your thoughts on the Anglo-Italian experience; after all London has a Little Italy.

    • Hey Andy, I’m mindful that assimilation is fine. It’s natural. I think my surprise came from the fact that the area is becoming 100% Chinese. There is not a melting pot culture in that very specific area. People can’t speak English: they speak Mandarin. Again, nothing wrong with that either but is amazing. After all, I’m happy to see that “Italians” today often cover “executive” and C-Level positions. Bye bye Little Italy

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