Manhattan’s Little Italy is home to overpriced, wildly mediocre restaurants packed with nostalgic tourists twirling bites from heaping plates of spaghetti.
Let’s face it: New Yorkers don’t really eat in today’s Little Italy, the stretch of Mulberry Street north of Canal and a smattering of Mott Street, dotted with restaurants where the red sauce tastes like it came from a jar.
But Little Italy does have some dolce vita left in it, even for locals. To find the diamonds amid the dross, keep these rules in mind.
Observe the Old Boundaries
In 1890, when over half of all Italians in New York City lived in Little Italy, the neighborhood extended from East Houston to Chambers Street, and from Broadway to the Bowery. Do yourself a favor: Pretend it’s 1890, and venture to the outer limits. There you will find two Little Italy gems, Emilio’s Ballato and Forlini’s.
It takes guts to walk into Emilio’s Ballato, where there’s no phone and no way to call for a reservation, where regular diners sit among VIPs like Lenny Kravitz or Barack Obama. Owner Emilio Vitolo is an imposing presence, positioned right inside when it rains, and outside like a doorman on nice evenings, sizing up would-be diners.
In the tall box of a room lit warmly by crystal chandeliers, the faded walls are lined with framed photos of celebrity diners. The waiters are deadpan. The food? Superb.
The stuffed peppers on the antipasto platter are tuna-filled, ruby-hued gems. The vongole oreganata exemplifies the baked-clam genre. The plump bivalves are loaded with herb-laced bread crumbs, roasted just this side of golden brown, and sauced with a balance of lemon and garlic. Dig into the homemade noodles in the tagliatelle Bolognese, and a cloud of meat-scented steam releases. While Little Italy restaurants aren’t known for the wine lists, the otherwise aloof waiters tend to diners on this front, with something like a mineral-driven 2013 Barbera d’Alba “Bricco Ravera” Piero Benevelli, a fine pairing for pasta.
Forlini’s, tucked amid the Chinese restaurants on Baxter Street, isn’t as elevated, but it’s a beaut. From a pink banquette, there’s a lot to look at on the wood-panelled walls: still lifes, folkloric scenes, and family portraits in gilt frames; Italian countryside murals on faux stonework; a copy of a 2010 Congressional Record honoring Frank Forlini for his part in liberating a Philippines-based POW camp back in WWII. Since 1943, the family has run the place with loads of old-school class: The tablecloths are white, crooner Angelo Ruggiero sings Rat Pack classics once a month on Fridays, and the garrulous waiters offer Sambuca, Amaretto, or limoncello at the finish.
As for the food: The egg batter on the veal scaloppini Francese is as puffy and springy as egg foo yung. The lasagna is not so much layered as it is a cheesy knoll of pasta, with ricotta and sausage buried beneath a field of mozzarella and meat sauce.
Best of all is the app spiedini alla Romana. In Italian, spiedini means “skewer,” and often this dish takes the form of deep-fried mozzarella and bread on a stick. A decidedly Americanized version, Forlini’s “spedini Romana” [sic] comes as a sandwich, like a Monte Cristo without ham but with a bagna cauda on the side for dipping. The warm anchovy-laced oil soaks into the egg-battered bread and wicks off the melted Muenster-cheese center. It’s messy, monstrous, and addictive, with the fish punching up a balanced diet of Little Italy’s four food groups: garlic, oil, carbs, and cheese.
Believe in the Newcomers
Given the couldn’t-care-less attitude of all the ailing, old eateries on tourist-subsidized life support, it’s no surprise that some of the best food in Little Italy can be had at the fresh-faced newcomers. No one needs to be told to eat at Parm. The veal-beef-and-sausage, pressure-cooker meatballs really are melt-in-your mouth, and the eggplant parmesan really does offer bottomless depths of flavor at Major Food Group’s sub shop–plus on Mulberry Street.
Ditto for its neighbor Rubirosa. From the loaded steamed artichoke to the sweet, creamy vodka pizza, there are as many reasons as there are items on Rubirosa’s menu to suffer the long wait for a table there. This a New Yorker knows.
But the newest of the newbies, Zia Esterina Sorbillo (no website), still seems to be suffering from anti–Little Italy provincialism. The sample dishes turning rubbery in its window — a standard enticement in Italy — could be a turnoff to American passersby, and despite his Neapolitan accent, the barker outside one afternoon made the place seem no better than the tourist traps around it.
“Oh, yeah, right: ‘The most famous pizzeria in the world,’ my ass,” says my friend, who knows nothing about famous pizzaioli but thinks she senses a shill when she hears one. In this case, she was wrong. The first New York venture by ace Naples pizza maker Gino Sorbillo, who became a superstar when he stood up to the Camorra there, this tiny spot off Canal Street does not yet have the line out the door it deserves.
The crust on these pies is edible cloud nine. Made with Caputo organic flour and baked in a gas-fired Neapolitan-style oven, it’s pillowy, slightly sweet, salty, and yeasty. There’s not a trace of heaviness or gumminess to it. Just a smattering of mozzarella and a lashing of olive oil is all it needs. Just as ethereal is the pizza fritti, stuffed like panzarotti and twisted at the end like an elf’s slipper.
But Let the Old-Timers Take Care of You
Some Little Italy spots prove that longevity can count for something. A bronze Pizza Hall of Fame plaque affixed to the brick exterior proclaims the 112-year-old Lombardi’s the “First Pizzeria in the United States.” At 3:00 p.m. on a weekday afternoon, the restaurant had a wait of 40 minutes for a deuce. Was it worth cooling jets on Mott Street that long? Though the pie here is no Zia Esterina, I would say yes.
There’s a full-tummy, big-smiles magnanimity to Lombardi’s that makes the touristy meal a lot of fun. They put benches outside so while waiting for a table, potential customers can sit and watch old-fella locals, their hair dyed improbable shades, shouting Italian into their cell phones.
The staff is so accommodating that, for those who hem and haw over the house chianti and the house zinfandel, they might bring both and charge for one. And, at the end of the meal, they’ll welcome diners back into the hubbub of the kitchen to assist with a selfie beside the coal-fired oven with “1905 Lombardi” tiled into its face.
As for the pizza, go no further than the loaded clam pie, a 16-incher blanketed in bellies, with a quartered lemon propped at its center like the stamen of a huge, funky flower. Coated in olive oil, the thin crust has crisped in the heat, a crunchy, blank canvas for the garlicky, mollusk-y, parsley-flecked topping.
Don't Always Trust Giant Fiberglass Food Sculptures
In this neighborhood, the hard sell precedes dinner. Hawkers waggle menus at passers-by, “best this” and “greatest that” signs hang hither and thither, and giant facsimiles of representative foodstuffs loom. Mulberry Street seems to imagine that tourists are easily coerced into dining. But here’s a truism: There are some giant facsimiles of foodstuffs you can trust, and others that you cannot.
One afternoon, I followed a waiter carrying a sculpture of a man-sized, three-scoop cone of gelato from the sidewalk into Ferrara. Sure enough, the housemade hazelnut gelato — one of a dozen varieties of the Italian ice cream served here — was creamy as could be, with a flavor as huge as its fiberglass likeness.
On the other hand, a gargantuan cannoli hovers above the awning at Cafe Palermo where a sign screams “The Best Cannoli on Planet Earth!” But it is not. It isn’t even the best cannoli in Little Italy.
Stick with Ferrara. As ornate and crowded as it may be, the bakery has been doing some things right for the past century-and-a-quarter. The cannoli has the snappy shell to put the neighbors’ soggy ones to shame. The sweet ricotta filling, not overly cinnamon-y, holds a plethora of mixed-in chocolate chips and candied citrus. Got room for more? Crackle your way through the flaky waves of pastry that wrap the Bavarian cream in the luxurious sfogliatelle.
Focus on Cheese-Forward Foods
Amid the sordid web of bad spaghetti here, cheesy slabs in all forms redeem the hunt for deliciousness. Take the chicken parmesan at Capri Ristorante. One night I showed up for a date at the restaurant’s basement “speakeasy,” called The Producer Table. It’s a weird place, with shifty banquettes that aren’t bolted to the floor, mediocre drinks, and a lineup of entertainment that, on this night, amounted to the Amy Winehouse documentary.
But, oh, that chicken parmesan! Blanketed in sauce and bubbling cheese, the thick cutlet has the tangy, marinated flavor that transcends the rest of Capri’s forgettable food. It’s like chicken parmesan meets chicken piccata. Who couldn’t love a mashup like that?
Down the street at Il Cortile, the environment is as strange. The atrium dining room feels lifted from a suburban Holiday Inn. The servers emphasize suggestions with an expressive, “Boom!” The Mexican busboy gets in on the act, begging you to “mangia, mangia!” And mangia you will if you stick to the cheesy program. The order here is the schiacciata. A garlicky mozzarella tart striated with hunks of sausage and artichoke, it’s like “The Best Italian-Style Quiche on Planet Earth!” If they made a giant fiberglass likeness of it, I’d follow that facsimile anywhere.
Don’t neglect the cheese rule once dessert comes around: Il Cortile’s best finale is the ricotta cheese pie. Not too dry and not too moist, not too sweet and not too sour, it’s a sendoff that could satisfy Goldilocks.
Indulge Those Soprano Fantasies
That twitchy guy in the suit jacket hustling pedestrians at 132 Mulberry Street with a “Ladies! Ladies! Lunch: Free wine and sangria. You hungry?”— he’s pushing a meal at Umberto’s Clam House. Back in 1972, Crazy Joe Gallo was offed here during a meal with his wife and kids, thereby making Umberto’s famous for generations before and after The Sopranos.
Umberto’s has moved locations since then, but it’s still on the map for Mafia-history rubberneckers. Here’s the thing: One could do worse than to make like midcentury wiseguy and sit down here hoping not to get whacked.
Just don’t order anything but raw bar and a cocktail. Cooked food at Umberto’s is unreliable, but the littlenecks on the half shell are fresh, clean, and ice-cold, and so are the ample martinis. Relax, enjoy an aperitif, and wait for the host stand at Rubirosa to text and say your table down the block is ready.
Then saunter out of there and enjoy the neighborhood you have deigned to visit: Where tough-looking guys in sunglasses sell “special bottled water” to raise funds for the Franciscan Fathers Church of the Most Precious Blood. Where the oldest gun shop in the country —John Jovino, founded in 1911 — still peddles pistols. Where the Italian-American Museum operates out of a corner storefront. Where people browse street stalls for t-shirts emblazoned with “Fuck you, you fucking fuck.” There’s a feast in Little Italy for the rest of the senses when your appetite is sated.