What: Little Italy, the result of a massive influx of Italian immigrants to the city between the 1840s and 1920s, has not aged well. Once home to hundreds of thousands of Italians who divided up the nearly-50-square-block area by region—northern Italians here, Sicilians there—the district is now just two square blocks of a few hundred Italian-Americans in a sea of Asians, as Chinatown has famously encroached northward and SoHo westward. Significantly, a 2010 census revealed that not even one resident there was born in Italy, according to the New York Times (who calls the area “Littler Italy”). Tourists flock there nonetheless, happily shelling out for $20 veal marsala and $6 cappuccinos along crowded sidewalks festooned with red, green, and white.
On the surface, it’s a sad story, an ever-shrinking piece of history that, to many New Yorkers, has become a Disney World caricature of its former authentic-Italian self. But nostalgia aside, there’s still plenty of historic New York—and Old World Italian—asserting itself in those two square blocks, plus a newer wave of excellent restaurants paying delicious tribute to the homegrown Italian-American fare of the chefs’ (and many of their customers’) youth.
Where: On the most famous of Little Italy thoroughfares, Parm (248 Mulberry St., nr Prince St., map) has the feel of a cozy vintage lunch counter, and chefs Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone apply fancy cooking techniques to the humble Italian-American classics they plate in plastic baskets. They also take pains to consider the newer demographics of the Little Italy district: Among the nightly specials they offer is a Chinese dish of spare ribs over pork-fried rice…made with Italian sausage (Sundays only).
When: Sun-Wed, 11am-11pm; Thurs-Sat, 11am-midnight. Between 4pm-6pm, there’s a limited bar menu only.
Order: Start with the remarkable Long Island-sourced calamari ($14), which are dunked in seltzer and rice flour before getting crispy-fried to light-as-air perfection alongside (battered and fried) long hot peppers, and then served with marinara and a housemade Tabasco-spiked mayo. Next, order a sandwich—we loved both the perfectly cooked chicken parm, pictured (on a roll, $9; heros and platters also available), and the meatball parm. Formed into a patty and slow-cooked at a low temperature, the meatball is incredibly supple on the soft, subtly sweet seeded roll, where it shares space with marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese, and slivers of basil, all in perfect proportions. (Don’t be alarmed by the pink color of the meatball; it’s just a side effect of the braising technique.) Here is the Parmesan sandwich elevated but still completely recognizable, with a down-to-earth price tag to boot.
Alternatively: On the same block is the straightforward but winning Italian-American food at Rubirosa (235 Mulberry St., map), with excellent pizzas, pastas, and red-sauce favorites like lasagna and beef braciole.
Don’t leave the area without some edible souvenirs! The best part of the “old” Little Italy is the plethora of historic mom-and-pop shops, who have been selling imported and homemade Italian goodies long before Eataly came to town. For fresh Italian cheeses and more—it’s particularly famous for its mozzarella and ricotta—you can’t beat Alleva Dairy (188 Grand St., map), opened during the area’s heyday in 1892. Then there’s DiPalo Selects (200 Grand St., map), established in 1925 and celebrated for its salami and porchetta (plus more fresh mozzarella), and Piemonte Ravioli (190 Grand St., map), selling fresh pasta (made daily in their Queens warehouse) since 1920—all the fixin’s you need for your own Little Italy feast at home.