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February 27, 2012 / Katie

If These Streets Could Talk

photo courtesy of Archi-tessica

A jaunt through Little Italy on a brisk winter Saturday, down Mulberry Street and past all the suave Italian restaurant-hawkers, is nothing out of the ordinary for this Chinatown sweetheart. Many a time have I sailed down the street, navigating between tourists, rarely stopping to hear a wistful “Ciao, bella!” shouted at my heels. Last weekend, though, was different. A friend and I decided to make a purposeful excursion through Chinatown and Little Italy on one of Ahoy New York’s food tours. Walking tours are always a great way to get to know the city and this particular tour helped me to see my everyday surroundings in a new light. Sure, I know all about Chinatown, but I never realized how little I knew about our Italian sister just down the block.

We started the tour in the heart of Chinatown outside the New Kam Man grocery store and then made our way down Mulberry. Although this single street is all that remains of the once overcrowded Italian American neighborhood, there is still a thriving community of families who have lived in the neighborhood for generations.

The history of New York is a history of immigrants. The areas we know now as Chinatown and the Lower East Side have long been the first ports of call for “the huddled masses.” Despite gentrification, tenement buildings still dominate the landscape here. Imagine sharing a three-room apartment with 14 other people then times that by 20–tenements typically housed up to 300 people spread across 20 cramped units. Southern Italians began immigrating to the U.S. in the 1880s. They were the next wave in what had been a steady flow of Dutch, British, German, and Irish (think Gangs of New York) immigrants coming to the U.S. since the 1600s.

  

Ethnic enclaves have played an important role in establishing new groups of immigrants in America. The same is true of Little Italy, but one has to remember that city living (especially in The Five Points district) was no cake walk. Hot, crowded, and dirty–once residents had the means to move to the outer boroughs, they often did. As more Italians moved up into the middle class around the 1920s, many began moving their families out of the city and into the kid-friendly suburbs of New York and New Jersey. By the time Chinese immigrants began arriving in New York en masse in the 1960s and 70s, the neighborhood was ripe for the taking.

Alana, our informative guide and owner of Ahoy NY Tours & Tasting, told us some of the more lurid stories that had taken place on the street; for example, the brutal murder of mafia heavy Joe Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House. The man, who’s life had been immortalized by Jerry Orbach in the 1971 film The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, was simply trying to enjoy a nice seafood dinner with his family on his 43rd birthday when four gangsters bust in the back door. The night ended in a pool of blood.

I loved soaking up all the history, but most of all, I loved the “tasting” part of the tour. Our guide knew the local business owners well and, for our first stop, took us to Alleva where we ate homemade mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto. This dairy shop boasts a variety of fresh cheeses, cured meats, olives, and a curious-looking round thing behind the counter–fried Italian rice balls.

Next we stopped at the famous Italian bakery Ferrara’s. I’ve had some bad experiences with cannoli in the past, that Italian dessert with a crispy cookie shell filled with sweet ricotta cheese, so I was skeptical that this time around would be any different. I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how good cannoli can taste. An FDNY officer with a thick New York accent (they don’t make those like they used to anymore) followed us from Alleva to Ferrara’s where he picked up a box of cannoli. I took it as a sign of authenticity; we were definitely in the right place. By the time the tour came to a close several hours later, my tummy was happy and my head was ready for a nice long nap. I can’t think of a better way to spend a lazy Saturday. And to think I saw it all on Mulberry Street.

For more information, visit Ahoy New York City Food Tours.

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One Comment

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  1. Unique / Mar 17 2012 11:18 am

    I go there all the time! Well, when I’m in the Little Italy area. Love that place. You’re right their cannoli rocks. Ferrara’s down the setert is good, too, but for struffala I send them as gifts during the holidays.

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