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Shame, shame, shame: shame on Little Italy


Fat Guy
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I was walking around Little Italy yesterday -- what's left of it -- and I became annoyed. Why did it have to come to this?

On a single block of Mulberry there were three restaurants closed, with their space for rent. There wasn't a single thing I could have eaten with a straight face: the pastries were uniformly awful, and the restaurants all had the same food and the same annoying guy out front wearing a fedora and hawking tables.

Sure, there are a couple of non-awful things in Little Italy, like DiPalo's, but most of Little Italy is a joke.

The thing is, it's not even a successful joke. I suppose it would be understandable if the restaurants were bad but still attracting hordes of tourists. But they're not. They're empty most of the time, while Carmine's, Sambuca and Tony's -- all much farther uptown -- are always packed.

Manhattan's Little Italy has committed suicide. There's hardly any of it left, as Chinatown has encroached more and more. And what a contrast. Chinatown is full of great restaurants and shops. It's what an ethnic neighborhood should be.

But, you say, the Italians all moved out of Little Italy so it's not like Chinatown. Fine, so maybe the more appropriate comparison is the old Jewish Lower East Side. That area too has been shrinking. But at least it doesn't suck. There's Katz's, Russ & Daughter's -- places that are the best of their kind. There's nothing on the Lower East Side that makes me ashamed to be a Jew; there's plenty in Little Italy that makes me want to forget I'm part Italian.

Moreover, at least the shrinkage of the Lower East Side is understandable: nobody wants to eat Jewish food anymore. Deli and appetizing are mostly passe, just like Russian and German food. But Italian food? It's the single most popular type of "ethnic" food in the USA (followed closely by Mexican and Chinese). And tourists (not to mention plenty of New Yorkers) love the idea of eating in Little Italy. If Carmine's had a place in Little Italy -- and we're not talking about a high level of Italian cuisine there, we're not asking for Babbo or L'Impero -- it would be off-the-hook busy.

What a shame. At least there's still Arthur Avenue.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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well...yeah (although it's still filled with tourists in the summer).

I've never experienced it as it once was...but I lived in NoLIta until I moved to the WV last fall and part of the problem is that there is no support for Little Italy in the neighborhood. There are a few elderly Italian-Americans left...and that's it.

And no one in the neighborhood wants the San Gennaro festival anymore, etc. (well, the festival is an embarrassment).

as for Arthur Avenue, it remains successful despite there being few Italians left there anymore either. The difference is that it's been bought out by recently arrived Albanians...who after all speak better Italian (and are more familiar with Italy) then the third and fourth generation Italian Americans that they've replaced.

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Sounds similar to the North End here in Bean Town. Out of 200+ restaurants, maybe 5 are worth the trip, the rest are all tourist traps. And the pastries? Modern is the best? Gentrification of neighborhoods seems to be the death of the restaurants.

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Gentrification of neighborhoods seems to be the death of the restaurants.

Yep, the gentrification of NYC's Union Square sure killed all the great restaurants that area used to have.

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!

- Sydney Smith, English clergyman & essayist, 1771-1845

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speakig of the lower eastside is there a thread on Sammy's romanian?

By the way I couldn't agree more about "little italy" The fact that I go for asian cuisine in little italy says it all. When my non culinary enthused friends mention the place or say how great the food is , I have to really bite down on my bottom lip and change the subject, before I become justifiably enraged.

On a lighter not cha's cha's has some damn good gelato.

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Whenever I've been in Little Italy, it's usually overrun with tourists. If the tourists weren't out yesterday, I suspect it was an anomaly. I have to tell you I've taken visitors there a few times, and most are at least intrigued, if not enthralled. Who am I to tell them they shouldn't like it?

It may be hard for us to accept, but there are a lot of people for whom the style and quality of Italian food offered in Little Italy is considered good. A lot of these folks haven't even heard of Babbo or L'Impero, much less dined there.

I also think that most of Little Italy's restaurants are comparable to the average Italian restaurant in America — in other words, not objectively bad; just average. We object because we want a neighborhood like Little Italy to have great Italian cuisine, and it does not.

In this sense it's different from Chinatown, which also has many dozens of merely average restaurants, but also has a few excellent ones — if you only know where to find them.

Of course, there's also the tendency on eGullet to decry restaurants that appeal to tourists. Don't forget that Tavern on the Green, One if By Land, and Cafe des Artistes are still thriving.

Manhattan's Little Italy has committed suicide.
I think that what happened to Little Italy was more-or-less an historical accident, and not the product of any willful decision to turn itself into what it has become.
Fine, so maybe the more appropriate comparison is the old Jewish Lower East Side. That area too has been shrinking. But at least it doesn't suck. There's Katz's, Russ & Daughter's

The survival of those places is also an historical accident. A happy accident, but an accident nevertheless. A big difference is that it's hard to find Jewish restaurants anywhere, but Italian restaurants are everywhere you turn. Edited by oakapple (log)
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Whenever I've been in Little Italy, it's usually overrun with tourists. If the tourists weren't out yesterday, I suspect it was an anomaly.

I walk on Mulberry street about once a week, on the way to and from Chinatown parking, and it's rarely overrun with tourists. Weekend nights, good weather, high tourist season, yes, sure, there are a lot of tourists there. But go on a Tuesday night during an average week and nothing is going on. That's one reason why so many restaurants have closed over the past few years. Meanwhile, go to Carmine's, Sambuca or Tony's di Napoli (the comparable restaurants) any night of the week an you're likely to see capacity crowds. And the food, while not great (nobody is asking for Babbo), is better than what you get in Little Italy -- and you don't have to endure predatory commercial practices like hiding the ball on the price of specials, hawkers with fedoras in the street competing for customers, etc.

I have to tell you I've taken visitors there a few times, and most are at least intrigued, if not enthralled. Who am I to tell them they shouldn't like it?

You're somebody who knows better, is who you are.

It may be hard for us to accept, but there are a lot of people for whom the style and quality of Italian food offered in Little Italy is considered good. A lot of these folks haven't even heard of Babbo or L'Impero, much less dined there. I also think that most of Little Italy's restaurants are comparable to the average Italian restaurant in America — in other words, not objectively bad; just average.

I don't think customer satisfaction in Little Italy is particularly high. I think a lot of folks go away scratching their heads and wondering why they just paid double for the same garbage they can get in their local strip-mall Italian.

We object because we want a neighborhood like Little Italy to have great Italian cuisine, and it does not.

I, as a member of we, object because the food is bad, not average. I'd certainly settle for average or Carmine's level.

Of course, there's also the tendency on eGullet to decry restaurants that appeal to tourists. Don't forget that Tavern on the Green, One if By Land, and Cafe des Artistes are still thriving.

Jean Georges appeals to tourists, Babbo appeals to tourists, etc. The tendency, I think, is to decry bad restaurants that appeal to tourists.

I think that what happened to Little Italy was more-or-less an historical accident, and not the product of any willful decision to turn itself into what it has become.

That's like saying a country that doesn't maintain a military, has hostile neighbors, has no allies to protect it, and then -- surprise! -- gets invaded and conquered, didn't make a willful decision to commit suicide. No, nobody decided "Let's all implement a collective death wish," but at the same time the decisions that led to that result were made by actual people. The restaurants in Little Italy have decided to pursue a short-sighted program where they serve bad food and hope the supply of ignorant customers will remain. Meanwhile, they're closing one after another.

A big difference is that it's hard to find Jewish restaurants anywhere, but Italian restaurants are everywhere you turn.

Right. At least there's an excuse for deli and appetizing store owners: the market is insignificant. That's not the case with Italian, which is the category leader. All you have to do is offer the bare minimum Olive Garden level of customer experience and you can do well.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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It has been at least twenty years since Manhattan's Little italy had any vibrancy to it. The problem is that it is not just Little Italy in Manhattan that is suffering. Even in Brooklyn, the stalwarts may be starting to waver. I think the problem is that Italian-American culture has become very diluted in NY as many of the potential customer base like myself left the city for other areas. I still enjoy going back to the old shops and restaurants in Brooklyn that I grew up with like Esposito's Pork store, Court Pastry and Ferdinando's all in Carroll Gardens when I can. While they have largely maintained their quality, the neighborhood character has changed mightily for better or worse.

As you mentioned Steven, fortunately DePalo's remains an oasis there. Ironically, the beginning of the end for Manhattan's Little Italy probably occurred on April 7, 1972 when Joey Gallo was shot at Umberto's Clam House.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Ironically, the beginning of the end for Manhattan's Little Italy probably occurred on April 7, 1972 when Joey Gallo was shot at Umberto's Clam House.

Yikes, it's been 16 1/2 years since I was last in Little Italy, at Umberto's. It was the night before I left to start college. Are they even still around?

"It's better to burn out than to fade away"-Neil Young

"I think I hear a dingo eating your baby"-Bart Simpson

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I had a friend visiting from St. Louis a couple of years ago. Although she was nearly 60, she had rarely if ever visited New York before. She wanted to go somewhere in Little Italy for pastries.

"Where do New Yorkers go when they feel like going to Little Italy?" she asked.

"They don't," I answered. "New Yorkers don't go to Little Italy."

She refused to believe me. She thought I was being my usual snobby self. I couldn't get her to get that, as far as people in this City are concerned, that neighborhood is a dead letter.

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I had my bachelor's party at a restaurant there in 1986. It was still decent then. I said that it hasn't been vibrant in twenty years. While it has been awhile since it had any real energy as a community, it probably still had some vibrancy more recently than 1987. In those days, Greenwich Village still had a pretty active and good Italian food community too.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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It has been at least twenty years since Manhattan's Little italy had any vibrancy to it. The problem is that it is not just Little Italy in Manhattan that is suffering. I think the problem is that Italian-American culture has become very diluted in NY as many of the potential customer base like myself left the city for other areas.

I believe it's not so much the customer base has left, but the Italians themselves. The immigrant Italians and their second generation children lived locally and had their restaurants and other businesses there. They got old, retired or passed away. The third and fourth generation children prospered in different ways and moved to the suburbs. While some remain, most have little interest in running "the family business." That's certainly true here in Philadelphia.

I have fond memories of going to the Feast of San Gennaro in NYC during the late 1960's. I passed through a few years ago and the local flavor was gone, both literally and figuratively. At the time my sister and her Italian fiance lived in Chinatown, two blocks from Little Italy. They'd buy cheeses, olive oil and some items from the Italian shops, but for eating out, they thought the food wasn't worth it. Until they moved way uptown I could always count on great Chinese take-out whenever I was there.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

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It has been at least twenty years since Manhattan's Little italy had any vibrancy to it. The problem is that it is not just Little Italy in Manhattan that is suffering. I think the problem is that Italian-American culture has become very diluted in NY as many of the potential customer base like myself left the city for other areas.

I believe it's not so much the customer base has left, but the Italians themselves.

Your point is well taken. I had equated the two when that was not necessarily the case.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I believe it's not so much the customer base has left, but the Italians themselves. 

Little Italy on the map, and Little Italy in reality, are two very different things. Most of historic Little Italy (and the neighborhood labeled thus on most maps) has now become an extension of Chinatown. The recognizably Italian section is just 5-6 blocks on Mulberry Street, and a handful of storefronts on side streets. Chinatown, of course, is just the opposite: the recognizably Chinese section is much larger than what any map shows.

I'll stand by the statement that, for the typical visiting tourist, and a good deal of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, the food in Little Italy is perceived to be better than average. That is why the neighborhood has survived in its current state.

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I'll stand by the statement that, for the typical visiting tourist, and a good deal of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, the food in Little Italy is perceived to be better than average. That is why the neighborhood has survived in its current state.

I'm not convinced that the tourists or B&T individuals who are eating in Little Italy think that the food is any better than (their beloved) Olive Garden. Not to mention all of the really great Italian food that can be found in a lot of different suburbs in this country. I think that tuxedoed waiters with exaggerated accents, serenading violinists/accordian players, wood paneling, etc are the reason that people eat in Little Italy. I don't see it as being any different than Jekyl and Hyde- it simply has an "Italian" theme. Little Italy may once have been an Italian neighborhood, but in recent years it has become more of an "Italian" sideshow. I'm sure there are a lot of non-NYers who don't know that the food is going to be as bad as it is, but I don't think great food is what is allowing the neighborhood to survive.

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I'll stand by the statement that, for the typical visiting tourist, and a good deal of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, the food in Little Italy is perceived to be better than average. That is why the neighborhood has survived in its current state.

I'm not convinced that the tourists or B&T individuals who are eating in Little Italy think that the food is any better than (their beloved) Olive Garden. Not to mention all of the really great Italian food that can be found in a lot of different suburbs in this country. I think that tuxedoed waiters with exaggerated accents, serenading violinists/accordian players, wood paneling, etc are the reason that people eat in Little Italy. I don't see it as being any different than Jekyl and Hyde- it simply has an "Italian" theme. Little Italy may once have been an Italian neighborhood, but in recent years it has become more of an "Italian" sideshow. I'm sure there are a lot of non-NYers who don't know that the food is going to be as bad as it is, but I don't think great food is what is allowing the neighborhood to survive.

Do those restaurants really exist in Little Italy now? If so it has changed even more than I thought.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Little Italy on the map, and Little Italy in reality, are two very different things. Most of historic Little Italy (and the neighborhood labeled thus on most maps) has now become an extension of Chinatown. The recognizably Italian section is just 5-6 blocks on Mulberry Street, and a handful of storefronts on side streets. Chinatown, of course, is just the opposite: the recognizably Chinese section is much larger than what any map shows.[...]

Yep. I'd go further than you, though: Mott St. between Canal and Grand is no longer merely an extension of Chinatown, but part of CENTRAL Chinatown now, one of the most important shopping streets in the neighborhood (along with Grand St. between Bowery and Chrystie and East Broadway between Chatham Square and Pike St.).

Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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IMOP, people who are still on the "bridge and tunnel" kick haven't been to dinner outside Manhattan.

New Jersey, Westchester and LI (not to speak of the boroughs) are loaded with some pretty fine ethnic dining of their own.

Which brings me to the point made earlier here that the problem at hand is due to the Italians leaving the "neighborhood." For the suburbs--=possibly?!

I lived in Little Italy in the Bronx for many years and I can say that the heyday for that neighborhood has long passed. It is declining a considerable bit more slowly than Manhattan but it is not what it was. (is any place?)

Same for good Jewish deli food in the city. At one time not too long ago there were good deli's all over New York (and a few very good to great ones).

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IMOP, people who are still on the "bridge and tunnel" kick haven't been to dinner outside Manhattan.

I used the B&T phrase in my post, though I deplore it nonetheless. There are unsophisticated diners living in Manhattan, and there are sophisticated ones living elsewhere.

I do tend to think that the people for whom Little Italy is a treat live outside Manhattan, and indeed, outside the five boroughs. Whether sophisticated or not, most New Yorkers tend to avoid tourist-heavy venues.

In the 1980s, I had a friend (who just happened to live in NJ), for whom an annual outing to Angelo's of Mulberry Street was a special occasion. This was someone who, although his fine dining horizons might not have been ambitious, was in other respects educated and sophisticated. Angelo's might have been better in the '80s than it is today, but I doubt it was that much better.

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In the 1980s, I had a friend (who just happened to live in NJ), for whom an annual outing to Angelo's of Mulberry Street was a special occasion. This was someone who, although his fine dining horizons might not have been ambitious, was in other respects educated and sophisticated. Angelo's might have been better in the '80s than it is today, but I doubt it was that much better.

If the discussion on this topic is any indication as to how low the area has fallen as regards Italian food, I daresay that it was that much better in the 80's.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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In the 1980s, I had a friend (who just happened to live in NJ), for whom an annual outing to Angelo's of Mulberry Street was a special occasion. This was someone who, although his fine dining horizons might not have been ambitious, was in other respects educated and sophisticated. Angelo's might have been better in the '80s than it is today, but I doubt it was that much better.

If the discussion on this topic is any indication as to how low the area has fallen as regards Italian food, I daresay that it was that much better in the 80's.

I have a hard time believing it was as bad then as it is now.

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I think the problem is that these neighborhoods were just that "neighborhoods" that drew people from outside the neighborhood because of more than just food.

(food is a very important part of it).

When thriving these neighborhoods had markets and restaurants that the people in the neighborhood frequented. Yes some places in competition for the business played up things to attract "tourists" but still the real draw was the neighborhood as a larger entity. Little Italy represents a kind of foreign place within a domestic setting. Same for Chinatowns all over America.

It is cultural, historical, architectural, aspects that are the draw. Movies were made in these neighborhoods (more draw). The people living in them are still holding on to their ethnicity and this can be attractive to people as a different experience than they have in their daily lives.

Contrast these ethnic neighborhoods with their inherent authenticity with Disney or Epcot where these experiences are created out of whole cloth.

Unfortunately, as neighborhoods change and evolve, we may eventually be left with Disney or Epcot.

Fortunately, as these neighborhoods change and evolve, new neighborhoods are created and the cycle goes on.

I believe this issue was ands is always about much more than food. The most authentic Thai food (at least as far as I can ascertain with my limited experience) I ever had was in a tiny storefront place in a strip mall in Mechanicsberg PA.

Good authentic cusines from all over the world are out there but the experiences of enclaves or neighborhoods are another thing all together.

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I beg to differ--the feasts are well attended by the locals!

When I lived in Arthur Avenue neighborhood--we all made a point to go to the feast!

I recall my friend Fat Tommy and I hitting every sausage and pepper stand one fateful friday nite!!!

My point is that the ethnic populations of the neighborhoods are declining or are changing. I would venture that tourist visits are down as well. There has been an influx of Albanians and Hispanics into the Arthur Avenue area and a lot of the Italians have moved out to the suburbs. When the sons and daughters go to college and grow up they tend to move out of the "neighborhood."

so life in the city goes......

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