My last blog post about taking an unplanned walk through an urban environment (a dérive) in New York City took place in Chinatown. Just north of Chinatown, but in practicality blending with it for many blocks, is a section of lower Manhattan referred to as Little Italy (in fact, Chinatown and Little Italy have been grouped together and made one historic district within the National Register of Historic Places). The boundaries of Little Italy have always been fluid, but Mulberry Street is its epicenter. While at one point it might have encompassed the entire area between Houston and Worth to the north and south, and Lafayette to Bowery to the west and east, today it is really only the three blocks of Mulberry north of Canal Street that consistently retain an Italian flavor. In many senses, Little Italy is a bit of a theme park – very few people of Italian descent still live in the area (there are much larger Italian-American populations in the Bronx and Staten Island, for instance), unlike Chinatown, which still holds a large group of Chinese-speaking residents. Theme parks can be enjoyable, however, and I set off to walk around the area to experience it.
Crossing Canal on Mulberry Street, you are welcomed to Little Italy with banners and decorations in the colors of the Italian flag. These few blocks are the location of the Feast of San Gennaro, an eleven day street fair held around the feast day (September 19) of the patron saint of Naples. Featured in its original form in The Godfather (parts II and III), the San Gennaro celebration today attracts many visitors and locals to the area as more of a food and drink festival. Speaking of The Godfather, far from shying away from the neighborhood’s past association with organized crime, I noted that the stores in the area seem to celebrate it as a way to sell t-shirts.
Most people come to Little Italy to eat, and if you walk north of Mulberry Street, you will likely be spoken to by the employees of multiple restaurants as you progress. Few New Yorkers head to Little Italy for authentic Italian food, however – there are plenty of good Italian restaurants all over the five boroughs of the city (the Bronx around Arthur Avenue, for instance). On the day I was wandering the area, however, my thoughts turned to pizza. True New York pizza., while quite different from what you would find if you ordered pizza in Naples or Chicago, is one of those quintessential elements of living in the city, like bagels. An average New York “slice” bought on the fly is better than most pizza bought at a more upscale restaurant outside the city, in my opinion. More importantly, New York City brought pizza to America, and walking out of today’s Little Italy and into Nolita (north of Little Italy) leads me north on Mulberry to Spring Street, stopping at the corner of Spring and Mott to gaze at the birthplace of New York pizza: Lombardi’s. Opened by Italian immigrant Gennaro Lombardi in 1905, it took the concept of the Neopolitan pizza pie, but adapted to fit the location (a coal-fired oven – still used – rather than wood burning; fior de latte cheese rather than mozzarella di bufala). Although his employees left to found Totonno’s, John’s and Patsy’s – all competitors in the heated race for most authentic NYC pizza – Lombardi’s was the first. When I am asked by visitors where to go for real NYC pizza, I always recommend Lombardi’s. However, unless you go at an odd time, prepare to wait for a table.
As I mentioned before, Little Italy seems more like a theme park and less of a real neighborhood these days. As New York City continues to evolve, however, I find that the ghosts of former neighborhoods leave some trace behind, a flavor or imprint despite the new buildings or souvenir shops. For me and for this place, that moment is in tasting authentic New York pizza, created by Italian immigrants and uniquely adapted to this city – part of the endless cycle of immigration and assimilation that has made the city the vibrant entity it is and will continue to be.