Mulberry Street, along which New York City’s Little Italy is centered. Lower East Side, circa 1900.

In 1892 Ellis Island, located at the mouth of the Hudson River in New York Harbor, was established as the chief immigration center. Between 1892 and its closing in 1956, over 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island.

For centuries since the collapse of the Roman Empire, Italy had not existed as a single unified entity. Instead, it was a series of principalities each ruled by a different prince, duke or ruling family. The Italian Unification of 1861 changed all that, but it was not a smooth transition. The new government favored the areas in the north part of Italy, leaving the south with heavy taxes. This largely rural area had many tenant farmers who were no longer able to make a living, especially as the area was heavily populated.

Instead, millions of Italians decided to head to America. Most intended to make a new home for themselves there, while others intended to stay long enough to make their fortune and then return to Italy. Either way, life was not easy once they arrived in the “Land of Opportunity”. Not only did they not know the language, but they were usually without any education or training.

By 1910, there were 340,765 Italians living in New York.

Ellis Island and Harbor, New York. Statue of Liberty at far left.

To cope with this transition to a strange land with a different language, Italian immigrants, like many other immigrant groups, tended to live very close together in the cities to which they came. These pockets of Italian population were called “Little Italies.” Within these communities they helped each other, fed each other, practiced their religion and kept up many of the familiar customs of their homeland.

These “Little Italies” became important cultural areas of the cities. Often the Italians would establish restaurants, thus introducing Italian cuisine to America. Pope Leo XIII even sent missionaries to the “Little Italies” in the U.S. to serve the people there. As immigrants were able to establish themselves, the next generation was able to stay in school and learn trades. Thus, they were able to raise themselves to the level of skilled workman and eventually to professional jobs. In fact, an Italian entrepreneur, Amadeo Giannini, established a bank in San Francisco for the Italian population there, which eventually became Bank of America, one of the largest banks in the country today.

Most of the Italian immigrants who made their home in America first landed in New York City. Many then traveled to other parts of the country; but by the early 1900’s, hundreds of thousands had settled in lower Manhattan, living in row houses and tenements in an area of about one square mile. For the unskilled, it was a hard life of cleaning city streets and ash barrels and, for the skilled, it was a hard life of working their trade in constructing buildings and roads. Others became fruit peddlers, bread bakers, shoemakers and tailors. Some opened grocery stores and restaurants or worked in factories; all giving their children the option to stay with the family trade or enter a professional field.

Even within Little Italy, still more insular enclaves formed. Most of the people who lived on Mulberry came from Naples; those from Elizabeth Street were from Sicily; Mott Street, from Calabria; and most of the people north of Mott, came from Bari. Back then if a boy from Mulberry Street married a girl from Elizabeth Street it was considered a mixed marriage.

Mulberry Street today, St. Gennaro Festival

Today, just several thousand Italian Americans live in New York City’s Little Italy in an area six by three blocks: Mulberry Street and Mott Streets between Canal and Spring Streets, then spreading to the northwest along Bleecker Street from 6th to 7th Avenues. Still, it’s the location of the largest Italian festival in the United States — The Feast of San Gennaro — an 11-day event that attracts over one million people. Held since 1927, the Festival has live music, games and rides, more than 300 vendors selling food and merchandise, indoor and outdoor restaurant and café dining, live radio broadcasts and a street procession of the San Gennaro statue.

Other events include Summer in Little Italy and Christmas in Little Italy, both held over several consecutive weekends. A recent addition located in the heart of Little Italy, The Italian American Museum, opened in the renovated Banca Stabile building.

To Experience Manhattan’s Little Italy

Start off the day at the Italian American Museum (155 Mulberry St.) located at the site of the former Banca Stabile, a bank established in 1885, to serve as a link back to Italy for the new Italian immigrants.

Follow Mulberry north to the oldest espresso bar in the country, Ferrara (195 Grand St. between Mott and Mulberry) established in 1892, for a coffee and dessert.

Continue on through the remaining area of Little Italy, mostly crowded restaurants and souvenir shops, and turn right onto Spring St. to try a slice of pie from Lombardi’s (32 Spring St.), the first pizzeria in America, dating back to 1905 when Sicilian, Gennaro Lombardi, peddled his first slice. Then head northwest to Ottomanelli & Sons Meat Market (285 Bleecker St.), one of the oldest butchers in New York City.

For a sweet finish, head next door to Pasticceria Rocco (243 Bleecker St.) for cannoli. It’s an old neighborhood favorite: the former Joe Zema’s Pastry, turned over to Rocco ( Joe’s southern Italian apprentice) in 1974.

Manhattan Italian American Cuisine

Neapolitan baker, Lombardi, opened the nation’s first pizzeria in New York City in 1905 and, to this day, Lombardi’s pies stand up as stellar examples of Italian-America’s take on the Neapolitan original: Larger in size, they’re topped with fresh tomato sauce, milky mozzarella, grated Romano cheese, olive oil and basil leaves and cooked in a coal oven. 

Soon enough, red sauce became the standard for Italian food in the United States and was embraced by Americans from every ethnic group. The epitome of this style of dining was Mamma Leone’s on 48th. Street in Manhattan, where blocks of mozzarella and provolone cheese were on every table. The restaurant opened in 1906 and was operated by the same family until it was sold to a restaurant group in 1959, eventually closing in 1994. 

It wasn’t until the arrival of first-rate Italian ingredients—many of which had been kept out of the U.S. by trade laws—in the 1970’s and ’80’s that Italian-American cooks were able to reproduce the regional flavors that travelers to Italy complained they could never find in the States. Such foods included: prosciutto di Parma, extra-virgin olive oil, parmigiano-reggiano cheese, arborio rice, porcini, balsamic vinegar and outstanding Italian wines from producers, like Angelo Gaja and Giovanni di Piero Antinori.

By that time, many Italian-American restaurants had become tired of traditional entrees and turned to northern Italy for inspiration. In New York there were Romeo Salta (opened in 1953), Nanni (1968), and Il Nido (1979). They downplayed the red sauce and substituted butter and cream sauces in pasta, risotto and polenta dishes. Instead of lasagna with meatballs and meat sauce, lasagne alla Bolognese with besciamella and spinach pasta became the favorite. Italian-American cheesecake and cannoli were replaced by tiramisù and panna cotta. The old Chianti bottles in straw  baskets were abandoned in favor of expensive barolos, barbarescos and “super-Tuscans.”  Now, the new restaurants in the U.S., proclaimed they were Tuscan-style trattorias or grills. Among the first to promote their Tuscan origins were Da Silvano, opened in 1975, and Il Cantinori (1983). Before long, their menus were copied across the country and extra-virgin olive oil became the new red sauce.

Manhattan”s Little Italy Inspired Recipes:

Mozzarella in Carrozza

Ingredients:

  • 12 slices firm white sandwich bread
  • 1/4 cup drained bottled capers, chopped
  • 6 oz fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Directions:

Divide capers among 12 bread slices and spread evenly. Divide mozzarella among 6 slices and sprinkle with pepper to taste. Make into 6 sandwiches, then cut off and discard crusts to form 3-inch squares.

Coat sandwiches with flour, knocking off excess. Beat together eggs, milk and a pinch each of salt and pepper in another small shallow bowl.

Heat 1/2 tablespoon butter with 1 tablespoon oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat until foam subsides. Meanwhile, coat 3 sandwiches, 1 at a time, with egg mixture. Cook, turning over once, until golden brown, about 5 minutes, then drain on paper towels. Coat and cook remaining 3 sandwiches in same manner.

Cut sandwiches into halves.

Classic Shrimp Scampi

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound large shrimp (about 20), shelled and deveined
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 baguette, sliced
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 425°F.  In a large bowl, toss the shrimp with the wine. In a small bowl, mash the butter with the garlic, cheese, parsley, lemon juice and crushed red pepper. Season the butter with the salt and pepper.

Arrange the shrimp side by side in a single layer in a ceramic baking dish and drizzle any accumulated juices on top. Spread a scant teaspoon of the seasoned butter over each shrimp.

Bake the shrimp for about 7 minutes, until almost cooked through.

Remove the shrimp from the oven and turn on the broiler. Broil the shrimp about 6 inches from the heat for 2 minutes, or until browned and bubbling.

Serve immediately with the baguette slices and lemon wedges.

MAKE AHEAD The shrimp can be prepared through Step 2 and refrigerated overnight. Add another minute or so to the cooking time.

Baked Penne with Sausage and Ricotta

Serves 8

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1 pound hot or sweet Italian fennel sausage, casings removed
  • One 28-ounce can tomato puree
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground fennel
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 pound penne
  • 3 cups ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400°F.  In a large saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the garlic and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Add the sausage and cook, breaking up the meat, until browned, about 8 minutes. Add the tomato puree, water, sugar, bay leaf and fennel. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat until thickened, about 30 minutes. Remove the garlic, mash it to a paste and stir it back into the sauce; discard the bay leaf.

Meanwhile, cook the penne in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Using a slotted spoon, add the cooked sausage to the pasta, then add 1 cup of the tomato sauce and toss to coat the penne.

Spoon the pasta into a greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Pour the remaining tomato sauce over the pasta and dollop large spoonfuls of the ricotta on top. Gently fold some of the ricotta into the pasta; don’t overmix—you should have pockets of ricotta. Scatter the mozzarella on top and sprinkle with the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bake the pasta for about 45 minutes, or until bubbling and golden on top. Let rest for 15 minutes before serving.

MAKE AHEAD The baked penne can be refrigerated, covered, overnight.

Reheat before serving.

 

Zabaglione with Strawberries

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 8 large egg yolks, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup dry Marsala wine
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 pint strawberries, sliced

Directions:

Put the egg yolks, the marsala and the sugar into a large stainless steel bowl. Set the bowl over a large saucepan filled with 1 inch of barely simmering water. Using a whisk or hand-held electric mixer on low speed beat the egg-yolk mixture until it is hot and the mixture forms a ribbon when the beaters are lifted, 5 to 8 minutes. Don’t cook the zabaglione for too long or it will curdle.

Beat the heavy cream just until it holds firm peaks.

When the zabaglione is done, remove the bowl from the heat and continue beating until it cools down. Fold the cooled zabaglione into the whipped cream. Put the strawberries in serving bowls, top with the zabaglione, and refrigerate.

Substitute blueberries, raspberries or sliced peaches for the strawberries.

 

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