Arrivederci, Little Italy

On Mulberry Street, most of what remains of Little Italy is kitsch. Photo: Katie Murray

I have seen the future of Little Italy, and its name is Mort Berkowitz.

Now this might not seem obvious if you come upon Berkowitz in his natural habitat, a comically hypercluttered three-room office near Times Square that houses his political-campaign-button company. (His crowning achievement thus far: the button depicting Hillary Rodham Clinton sporting a Dennis Rodman hairdo, with the line AS BAD AS SHE WANTS TO BE.) But before he got into buttons, he spent years as a community organizer, helping groups throughout the city raise money by holding street fairs.

That’s how Berkowitz first came to embody the future of Little Italy. It was right after Rudolph Giuliani’s San Gennaro massacre of 1995—when, after revelations of mob involvement and financial improprieties in the annual religious festival, the mayor threatened to close it down if it didn’t clean house. A new community group was formed to take over the feast, and its board obeyed City Hall’s instruction to hire a professional manager. (Just as the festival got under way last week, the oversight was expanded, after further mob ties to the board were alleged in court.) Since he came onboard, Berkowitz has taken a central role in Little Italy’s Christmas, summer, Carnevale, and Columbus Day events, too.

“I find it fascinating,” Berkowitz says of his rise as an Italian-American cultural figure. “I have developed a lot of close relationships. And we’ve done a lot of events that help Italian-American culture. We’re doing dance. We’re doing opera. The cheese carver we’re bringing in for Columbus Day—he’s going to carve all three ships out of cheese! We brought in Frankie Avalon. And the Mario Lanza competition. And the tribute to Frank Sinatra. We do a cannoli-eating contest. It’s important that we do as much as we can—not to restore it but to preserve what’s left, to show people what was. You don’t want it to be forgotten that for one glorious moment, this represented Italian culture in America. The merchants want people to know: This was Little Italy.”

The past tense is telling. Certainly, the neighborhood as we have understood it over the century-plus of its existence never required the services of a single public-relations executive, let alone the two it now deploys. Nor has the enclave—a lingering satellite of the Five Points neighborhood of Gangs of New York infamy—ever employed a grants consultant or a bus-tour coordinator before now. And Little Italy used to scrape by without corporate sponsorship. Today the neighborhood’s events are being thoroughly funded by Sorrento Cheese, a Buffalo company started in 1947 by an Italian immigrant but owned since 1992 by Lactalis, a French firm.

Sorrento sponsors Italian street festivals in eleven U.S. cities, and “the events are now all named for Sorrento,” says director of marketing Fred Hermann, “like the Sorrento Cheese Fisherman’s Feast in Boston, and the Sorrento Cheese Ninth Street Italian Market Festival in Philadelphia.” Robert O’Brien, the firm’s consultant who oversees the events, says they’ve “become sort of a mission of Sorrento’s—to promote the product, but to do it in a way that tries to preserve customs and traditions.”

So let’s ask him: What kind of cheese would a sculptor be likely to use in rendering the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María?

What if a Chineserestaurant tried to open on Mulberry Street? “We would have a problem with that,” says Robert Ianniello Jr., co-owner of Umberto’s. “Of course, what I really fear is Starbucks.”

“Sometimes they use parmigiano,” O’Brien says. “I would imagine that for the three ships, the sculptor will construct a framework and then use mascarpone, which you put on like putty. But it might even be mixed media.”

I still like to go to DiPalo’s Food Shop on Mott Street,” says Martin Scorsese, Little Italy’s most famous native (born and raised on Elizabeth Street between Houston and Prince). “Mr. DiPalo was good friends with my parents. Last time I was there, he told me some student who had just moved to the area came in and asked him, ‘What made you open an Italian cheese shop in a Chinese neighborhood?’ That sums up for me what happened to Little Italy. Even when I lived there, the restaurant row on Mulberry Street was always a little bit showy, more for tourists, and so we always shunned it. Now that’s all Little Italy is, a façade.

“People always say, Oh, you need a good Italian restaurant down there? Ask Marty. But when I lived there, if you ate Italian food in a restaurant you were insulting your mother. Little Italy was a place that existed for maybe 50, 60 years, and now it’s all over. It was a stopping point for people. What’s amazing to me is that the neighborhood is now a chic place. It gives it new life. Some of it is artificial now,” Scorsese allows, “and there’s a lack of the old character—though some of that character is what I moved to get away from.”

The area around Mulberry Street will always, of course, be the city’s oldest and most picturesque Italian ghetto. Little Italy traces its roots to the end of the nineteenth century, when it was Mulberry Bend, part of a neighborhood described by Jacob Riis as “the foul core of New York’s slums.” It was perhaps the city’s poorest Italian neighborhood, too, though not its biggest—East Harlem’s Italian population was larger, and there were early andsizable colonies of immigrants in the West Village, Hell’s Kitchen, and the outer boroughs. Little Italy’s Italian population peaked around 1910, at nearly 10,000, meaning that residents began moving out to more spacious digs almost as soon as they arrived.

Once, Little Italy was like an insular Neapolitan village re-created on these shores, with its own language, customs, and financial and cultural institutions. Today, Little Italy is a veneer—50 or so restaurants and cafés catering to tourists, covering a dense neighborhood of tenements shared by recent Chinese immigrants, young Americans who can’t afford Soho, and a few remaining real live Italians. At the turn of the twentieth century, more than 90 percent of the Fourteenth Ward’s inhabitants were Italian by birth or blood. In 2000, the three U.S. Census tracts that constitute Little Italy were home to 1,211 residents claiming Italian ancestry—8.25 percent of the total, roughly the same as the proportion of Italians in the entire city. (By contrast, 81 percent of Chinatown below Grand Street is Chinese.)

Most Precious Blood Church, home parish of the 78-year-old San Gennaro Feast, is down to about 400 members, according to its pastor, Father Fabian Grifone. The church is said to subsist mainly on revenue generated by the feast and the sale of religious statues, jewelry, and other items from a stand on Mulberry Street. (Though the gaudy feast has always drawn more visitors than any other street fair—about 1 million over eleven days, by last year’s count—it’s not the oldest or even most spectacular Italian religious festival in New York. The Giglio, in which a highly ornate 70-foot tower is borne through the streets of Williamsburg on the shoulders of 120 stouthearted men, began in 1903, and is far more dramatic.)

Of course, none of this is exactly news—the tide began to turn with the post–World War II migration of Lower East Side dwellers to Brooklyn, Staten Island, Long Island, and New Jersey. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished national-origin quotas for emigration, made possible a Chinese immigration boom, which began dominating an area that had hosted an Italian immigration boom a century before. You can go back 30 years and find newspaper clips chronicling the expansion of Chinatown and mourning the loss of Little Italy.

More recently, chic struck: A few years ago the northern part of the area, between Kenmare and Houston, was suddenly overrun by boutiques, fancy little restaurants, and other manifestations of hip. Real-estate prices zoomed, making it even tougher for the old-timers—residents and businesspeople alike—to hang on. Then came genuine catastrophe, which, strangely enough, ended up motivating all these newfangled efforts to save what’s left of the old neighborhood.

The 2001 San Gennaro feast would have begun on September 13. The terrorist attacks had the immediate effect of making everything below Houston Street off-limits for most of the fall. Bridge-and-tunnel traffic came to a halt. Tourism-related businesses all over the city were hurt after the attacks, but restaurants in Little Italy and Chinatown were clobbered. Not only were visitors absent, but offices in the financial district, which had once provided dependable trade, were out of commission.

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

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!”

Arrivederci, Little Italy