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Arrivederci, Little Italy

Luigi and Ernie Rossi, father-and-son owners of E. Rossi & Co., at Grand and Mulberry Streets.  

Tim Zagat was then chairman of NYC & Co., the city’s official tourism agency. The group started a post-9/11 citywide campaign to encourage locals and visitors to spend money in restaurants. When an appeal was made from Little Italy for extra help, his agency responded with funding and marketing assistance. Without that, Zagat says today, “Little Italy would have been history—over the winter we would have lost a lot of the restaurants.”

That’s when Mort Berkowitz went from managing San Gennaro to engineering the fate of Little Italy itself. Hence the heavy calendar of sponsored celebrations and newly minted traditions to bring in tourists. (The same team promoting Little Italy now also works for Chinatown, which explains the dumpling-eating contest held there.) Most of the efforts are coordinated through the Little Italy Merchants Association, whose president is Robert Ianniello Jr. He and his father run Umberto’s Clam House, which is itself an embodiment of local history—in 1972, at the restaurant’s old location on Hester Street, mobster Joey Gallo was famously gunned down as he ate. The group hopes to raise enough money to start a Little Italy museum and do some beautification, like paving the streets in stone instead of asphalt and installing old-fashioned streetlights. (There’s a request for $11.6 million pending before the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.)

Informally, Ianniello and his group also do their best to keep the ambiente as Italianate as possible. “We try to find Italian stores or restaurants to go into vacant places,” he says, sitting at an outdoor table at Umberto’s one summer afternoon. “I don’t care who owns the building, as long as the chef cooks Italian.” When a storefront is up for grabs, he’s been known to approach owners of Italian businesses in the area, asking if anyone has expansion plans.

What if a Chinese restaurant tried to open on Mulberry Street? “We would have a problem with that,” he says. “We would sit down with the owner and say, ‘You can’t do this to us.’ Now, of course, you can’t really do anything to stop it. An owner is free to do whatever he wants with his building. But it would hurt us. A Chinese restaurant on Mulberry Street would turn it into a hodgepodge. It would confuse people. Of course, what I really fear is Starbucks. If they tried to open here, we would do everything we could to stop them. Even pickets.”

As he speaks, Ianniello eyes a well-scrubbed family strolling past, wearing shorts and clean sneakers. “I’m tired of Iowa,” he admits.

There’s no spot in all of Little Italy that betrays the neighborhood’s transformation more than E. Rossi & Co., on the corner of Mulberry and Grand. Nearly a century ago it was a mainstay of immigrant culture, back when the business was started by Ernesto Rossi, a music publisher, to sell sheet music, piano rolls, and 78-rpm recordings. From the outside it still looks much as it did in photos taken in the thirties, although the posters in the windows have been bleached by the sun, and the ancient green paint is chipping away. Inside, most of the sheet music has been moved into storage in the basement, along with the books in Italian. The old-fashioned kitchen equipment and statues of saints are still upstairs. “But we don’t get many people who buy sausage makers these days,” says the founder’s 93-year-old son, Luigi, who runs the business with his son, 54-year-old Ernest.

Today, the store is awash in Italian-American kitsch—baby bibs that read HUG ME, I’M HALF ITALIAN, tricolor-flag bumper stickers, Mussolini T-shirts. You can easily amuse yourself for several minutes at a time poking through this stuff. But how many signs reading PARKING FOR ITALIANS ONLY, ALL OTHERS WILL BE TOWED or aprons that say PER FAVORE, NON MI ROMPERE I COGLIONI (“Please don’t break my balls”) will you actually buy in one lifetime? Even in its current state, says Dr. Joseph Sciorra, a folklorist and director of the Calandra Italian American Institute, the store is “a living treasure.” By the end of the year, though, this and another old shop farther down Mulberry will likely get the boot owing to skyrocketing rents.

Little Italy may always endure as an open-air theme park of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European immigration to the Lower East Side. It’s the city’s last vestige of noble Caucasian poverty, a touchstone of the American rags-to-riches tale. But you’ll spend a long time in the neighborhood before you hear anyone speak Italian, and then the speaker will be a tourist from Milan. Once, Crazy Joe Gallo earned his nickname by parading these streets with a lion on a leash, and John Gotti brazenly held court outside the Ravenite Social Club. Today, the only paraders have cameras around their necks, and the old Ravenite building on Mulberry holds a boutique called Amy Chan.

All that, however, is beside the point, says sociologist and SUNY–Albany professor Richard Alba. “The fascinating part here is the way in which ethnic tourism—not only by Italian-Americans but by people who want to see an authentic urban village—keeps these neighborhoods going,” he says. You have to slow your gaze to find the neighbors in this neighborhood, because they’re so overwhelmed and outnumbered by the tourists. But once you focus, you can see them, standing (or sitting) in the interstices, taking in the scene, like the group of men, mostly senior citizens, loitering contentedly under an awning on Mulberry Street.

So how’s life in Little Italy?

“Getting better,” says an old guy in a lawn chair. “The only thing they found dead in the street lately was a cat.” William Capparelli is 70 and has lived here since birth. He likes having the tourists around.

“They like to stop and ask us questions—like where’s this or that, or who has the best pizza. We want to put a boot out and charge them a quarter! They come here from everywhere—you hardly see anybody, neighborhood-wise.”

Farther down the block, three old ladies chatting in a tenement doorway agree to talk—“as long as you don’t use our names!” the redhead says, cracking up her friends. How much of the area do they guess is non-Italian now? I ask.

“You can see with your own eyes who the Chinese are,” the brunette fires back.

“We’re all mixed in,” says the blonde.

“America the beautiful!” says the redhead.

“The Italians moved out, and the Chinese moved in.”

“But this neighborhood is still the best—put that in your article.”

“Safest in the whole city!”

So why didn’t your children stay?

“Forget it!” says the brunette. “We wanted them to have things a little nicer than we had. Not climbing six flights of stairs and the bathroom out in the hallway.”

“This is like a transition neighborhood,” the blonde explains. “First it was the Irish. Then the Irish got better and moved out. Then the Italians moved in. Then we started to move out. Now the Chinese are here—but even they’re moving out now. To Forest Hills!”

And who will come next?

“Who the hell knows?” the redhead cackles. “We won’t be here!”