Tuesday, July 12, 2016


It used to extend north and south from Canal Street to Houston Street and east and west from Broadway to the Bowery.  Now the realtors have created “Nolita” (North of Little Italy, meaning north of Broome Street), and Chinatown has expanded north of Canal Street, so Little Italy is shaved down to just a few blocks near the intersection of Mulberry and Hester Streets.  But what blocks these are!

The old tenement architecture with exterior fire escapes has not been replaced, and there’s a reason for that – geology.  At the Wall Street district there’s bedrock under the soil that can sustain large, heavy skyscrapers.  Same with midtown where the Empire State Building is located.  That’s why Manhattan has such a strange skyline – tall buildings, lower buildings, tall buildings again.  So, even though realtors are tearing down tenements in the area between Wall Street and midtown, they can only build those glass and steel structures so high (about 6 stories)..

Anyway, for me, the sidewalk cafes along Mulberry Street are the only place to eat Italian food in Manhattan.  I used to love the old deli Manganero’s in Hell’s Kitchen with its original floors and equipment little booths, and tons of historic pictures on the walls – but it closed when the last generation (of  4) to own it just didn’t want to work there anymore.

I like my own cooking, so pretty much the only reason I eat out is for the service.  For the price of a meal in a chain diner, I could eat lunch at any of a number of sidewalk restaurants on Mulberry and the tables had a white tablecloth and impeccable, friendly service too.  The lunch food was good, not extraordinary, but the desserts always were and it was a great place to rest up and people watch.  Dinners were more pricey, but the food was better.  I recommend Angelo's.  And Umberto's Clam House - no tablecloths, but great clam dishes.

At the corner of Broome and Mulberry Streets is Café Roma.  This was my favorite place to get a cup of tea (not much of a coffee drinker) and have some quiet time in Little Italy.  I’ve only been there in the late afternoon or late evening when it wasn’t crowded.  It has a corner door and old windows that look onto the sidewalk and the old-style one-inch octagon tile and café tables, a high ceiling, lots of wood.  It feels as old as it is and I like it.  Apparently, in the 1970s the Genovese crime family ran a numbers game from this café.  The government took that over, calling it the New York Lottery.

Wimpy Boy's Social Club 247 Mulberry
There are a few interesting historic buildings in Little Italy.  At 247 Mulberry there used to be an Italian social club where John Gotti spent a lot of time.  Note the high windows in the photo - no drive-by shootings for the members of the Wimpy Boy's Social Club.  Since this photo was taken, the brick has been knocked out to make display windows for the new tenant - a high-end shoe store (opens at noon so don’t go there before lunch).   

Farther up Mulberry at Prince Street is the gothic Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral – the original.  Built in 1809, it now holds mass in English,
Spanish and Chinese.  That could be interesting.

Old Police HQ, 240 Center St.

The Old Police Headquarters is at 240 Centre Street (at Grand St.).  Just two blocks west of Mulberry, it’s worth seeing  – a massive beaux-arts building a block long made of solid limestone.  The first time I went there, I thought it was a real police station – it was turned into  lux condominiums – and the doorman directed me to the police station in Chinatown (fyi NYPD headquarters is now at 1 Police Plaza near the Brooklyn Bridge).

When you look at the Old Police Headquarters, you’ll notice that there are bars on the half-windows at street level.  These were for the 75 basement jail cells, and as New York realtors waste no space, these too are probably condos (I was never invited inside).  This gives cause to ponder what it’s like living in that building considering leftover vibes.  

 I once stayed in a Caritas hostel that was a former KGB interrogation building in Prague, Czech Republic.  The nuns hadn’t completely renovated the place, keeping the hard tile floor, and the echo of footsteps that must have put the fear of God into those waiting to be interrogated kept waking me in the night along with the slamming doors.  The basement of that hostel still had the thick, heavy prison doors and little square windows inside the rooms near the ceiling that barely gave a look out onto humanity.  So, I don’t think I’d want to own a condo in a former police station.  Too much to think about.
As you walk along Grand Street from Centre Street back toward Mulberry, you’ll pass the John Jovino Gun Shop which has been located at 183 Grand Street since 1911.  You can’t miss it because it has a big revolver hanging outside over the sidewalk.  It’s a tiny store and they sell mostly to NYPD.  They don’t like strangers browsing around - I know because I went inside to look at all the weapons.  It was weird..

On Grand St. just east of Mulberry is the famous Ferrara Bakery.  People line up to buy coffee and pastry here – long, long waits for a table at certain times and impossible waits during the San Gennaro Festival.  I had ice cream there once late at night before I even moved to Brooklyn.  It was nice, but not something I would wait in line for.    

And then there’s the San Gennaro Festival which is held every year during the week of September 19.  The Church of the Most Precious Blood on Mulberry just south of Grand Street hosts the shrine of San Gennaro and is open long hours during the festival. 

San Gennaro (St. Januaris) was a bishop in Naples, Italy who was beheaded by Diocletian in 305 a.d. and when the body was carried away, a woman mopped up his blood and saved it in two vials.   Not sure why this occurred to her, but the vials were reserved in a vault in Naples and in 1382 a.d. the dried blood liquefied on September 19.  That miracle generated the festival of San Gennaro. 

When a large number Neopolitans moved to Manhattan in the 19th century, they brought their festivals with them.  The fete days of San Gennaro spilled out from the church onto the sidewalks of Little Italy in 1928 when three men who owned café/bakeries put tables and chairs onto the sidewalk a few days before September 19.  A statue of San Gennaro was carried up and down Mulberry Street and people pinned money to the statue which was intended to be distributed to the poor (or poorer).  The festival has grown from there, and now several blocks of Mulberry Street are blocked off for the festival and filled with all kinds of vendors.  There’s music and strings of lights and loads of people.  It’s free to pass through.

Because it’s well attended and religious, the festival continues in the face of heavy complaints from the residents living in Little Italy and Nolita who are no longer Italian working-class immigrants.  And there has been some criminal activity – at one time members of the Genovese crime family stole the money off the statue.  Really? 

Post by Alana Cash

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