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Finding La Bella Vita Stateside: New York City’s Little Italy

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I remember the first time I tasted gelato. I was a study abroad student living in Rome, and it was a sweltering August day. I don’t recall what I tasted first—the dark chocolate, the rich hazelnut, or the overall creamy cold sweetness—but I’m pretty sure my knees buckled. Now this was how ice cream should be done: an explosion of sweet flavor teasing each taste bud; a lighter density than American ice cream (but still decadently creamy); and a perfect miniature spoon, all the better to savor each bite.


I think I knew that day, early in my semester abroad, it was going to be difficult to come home.


Luckily for me, Italian enclaves in U.S. metropolises have brought a little slice (or a whole pie) of the old country to American shores. If an Italy vacation (or relocation!) isn’t in the budget this year, consider seeking out an Italian stronghold right here at home …


Little Italy—New York City
Arguably the most famous Little Italy in America, New York’s neighborhood in lower Manhattan boasts restaurants galore, cobblestone streets, and the boisterous San Gennaro Feast in September, one of the city’s most popular festivals. While smaller than it used to be, the neighborhood still packs authentic trattorias, bakeries, and specialty shops—today mainly concentrated around Mulberry Street.


“I loved walking down Mulberry Street as a kid, watching through the glass storefronts, seeing that day’s fresh pasta and pastry being made,” Melissa Castello, a lifelong Long Island resident, recently told me. “My parents and grandparents never did that at home, so I never saw those traditions close up except in Little Italy. It was like watching a piece of my own heritage live and in living color.”


Beyond the food, many also visit this neighborhood to see some of New York’s most important Roman Catholic Italian-American churches, namely Most Precious Blood Church on Mulberry Street and Old Saint Patrick’s Church at Mott and Prince streets. Most Precious Blood Church is also the National Shrine Church of San Gennaro, and a main participant in the annual feast.


“It’s a tradition since the turn of the century, a little piece of how things were,” Castello says. “If you’ve never been to Italy, it gives you a great flavor of what it’s like, and also a sense of the New York Italian-American tradition.”


When I first visited the feast a few years back, I didn’t know what to sample first, and tried not to get overwhelmed by the seemingly endless vendors: Italian sausage, cannoli, pizza, pasta. As the feast is held for eleven days each September, I’d go back every day for a new dish, working my way through the various booths.


“My favorite booth is the homemade torrone,” recommends Castello. “I always get a few pieces to try—pistachio and different flavors—but always go with the regular. You buy it by the pound, and they use a chisel to cut it. I love watching that.”


Or, to really make a day of it, “arrive early and put your name in at a restaurant for dinner later on that night,” says Castello. “Then you can go to the feast for appetizers and snacks, shop and sightsee, and later on that day get a full Italian meal. It’s a great way to really experience the neighborhood.”


Mangia!


Dinner: Da Nico Ristorante


Dessert: Ferrara Bakery and Cafe


Find directions to New York’s Little Italy on the official Little Italy tourism Web site.


Related article: Searching for Dorothy Parker’s Swanky New York

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