Food and History in New York’s Little Italy

I’ve been to Little Italy and Chinatown many times to eat and to shop but never thought of doing a food tour. That is, until this past Saturday when I joined six other women for Ahoy New York’s Chinatown and Little Italy Food Tasting and Cultural Walking Tour.

It was the perfect day to be outside. The temperature that had stayed stuck in the 20s during the early part of the week had moved a full 20 degrees more – almost a heat wave. My friend, Joan, and I met Liz, our guide at the address Ahoy gave us. Liz was all smiles and greeted us as if we were old friends. We chatted for a while and as soon as the others arrived, we were off to Little Italy, the first leg of our tour.

Food and History in Little Italy
Welcome to Little Italy

Little Italy, which once spread from Canal Street north to Houston Street, is the area where early immigrants from Italy made their first homes after coming through Ellis Island. At its peak, in the early 1900s, New York’s Italian population numbered about 390,000. Approximately 10,000 lived in Little Italy.

As newcomers in a strange land, they found comfort with others from the regions they’d left, others to who they were bound by dialect, culture and food. So you’d find former residents of Calabria on Mott Street, Silicians on Elizabeth Street and Neapolitans on Mulberry Street.

Food and History in Little Italy
Our group in the courtyard of the Church of the Most Precious Blood

Life in the US wasn’t easy. They crowded into tenements and cold-water flats, did menial jobs to support their families here and back home. And as their economic situation improved, they spread out to Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, New Jersey and Long Island.

Through gentrification, the movement outward of Italians, and the growing population of nearby Chinatown, Little Italy has shrunk. Today, the community takes up only four blocks on Mulberry between Broome and Canal Streets. But what it’s lost in geographic size, it’s more than made up for in heart and soul and good food in over 40 restaurants, cafes and bakeries, that draw thousands of New Yorkers and visitors each year.

In 2010, the National Park Service designated Little Italy and Chinatown a Historic District.

Little Italy Food Tasting and Cultural Walking Tour

Leaving our meeting place on Canal Street, we walked northeast on Mulberry Street, stopping briefly at the historic Most Precious Blood Church, a Roman Catholic Church that has served the community since its founding in 1891.  

Continuing on Mulberry, we made our first stop Alleva Dairy at 188 Grand Street. Alleva was established in 1892, by Pina Alleva, the matriarch of the family, who came to the US from Benevento. Alleva, the oldest Italian cheese store in America and is still run by the family.

Food and History in Little Italy
Alleva

Alleva does not use artificial flavors. They sell cheese as well as pasta, salami, sausages and imported olive oil, among other items.

Food and History in Little Italy
Prosciutto and Mozzarella

At Alleva, we sampled prosciutto and homemade mozzarella. I’ve had mozzarella on pizza but never by itself – its blandness doesn’t make it very appetizing to me. But I was curious to see how the homemade tasted — not that I expected one tasting to change my mind — but I’ve always preferred to start with the best.

Food and History in Little Italy
Di Palo’s

Continuing on Grand, our next stop was at Di Palo’s Fine Foods. Another family-run establishment, Di Palo’s has been serving Little Italy since 1910, when Savino Di Palo, a cheese maker, opened his latteria or dairy store.

Now run by the fourth generation, Di Palo’s sells select traditional products that are imported directly from Italy. They carry foods from every region. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable, the counters were designed low enough to give customers the feeling they’re in someone’s kitchen. Di Palo’s believes in educating their customers and has a chef in house and an enoteca (wine shop) next door. (More about this later.)

There were only a few people when we arrived but Liz, our tour guide, said it’s quite different later in the day and on Sundays. (Joan and I saw that when we returned around 5 p.m. to buy cheese. The store was crowded but it took about 20 minutes for us to fill our order.)

At Di Palo’s, we sampled two different cheeses – a piave and a moliterno (pecorino). Piave is made from cow’s milk while the moliterno is made from sheep’s milk with a small percentage of goat’s milk. To keep its moisture and flavor, olive oil is rubbed into the moliterno during the aging process.

Light yellow in color, almost like butter, the piave is hard and has a mild taste. It would be perfect with grapes and other fruits, or on its own. In contrast, the moliterno was sharp and slightly salty. It definitely woke up my tastebuds. I would use it in salads or add it to a cheese platter.

Leaving Di Palo’s, we crossed the street to Grand Appetito for a slice of pizza. As you can imagine, this isn’t any old pizza. Angelo, Grand Appetito’s owner, believes in making pizza the old-fashioned way and uses only homemade mozzarella in his pies.

We made our final stop for cannoli next door at Ferrara Bakery & Café, another family run business. Ferrara has been a fixture in Little Italy since 1892 and is famous for its cannolis and Italian pastries. My cannolo was sweet and creamy. Thankfully, we were on a schedule as I could have easily gotten lost feeding my sweet tooth at Ferrara’s.

After we completed the Little Italy segment of the tour, we crossed Canal for the second half of our tour in Chinatown.

Thanks to Ahoy New York for hosting us on their Chinatown and Little Italy Food Tasting and Cultural Walking Tour, and to Liz, our very knowledgeable, very entertaining and very enthusiastic tour guide.

Liz’s Book Recommendations

[simpleazon-image align=”left” asin=”0547744943″ locale=”us” height=”110″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51iB21JPGzL._SL110_.jpg” width=”73″]Elizabeth Street, Laurie Fabiano

 

 

[simpleazon-image align=”left” asin=”0061288519″ locale=”us” height=”110″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51z6LYIXhSL._SL110_.jpg” width=”73″]97 Orchard Street: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, Jane Ziegelman

 

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45 comments on “Food and History in New York’s Little Italy

  1. Such a delicious post! I went to Little Italy few years ago and even had a pizza there! Fabulous one! It was so funny when I discovered that the waiter speaks Italian and we had a little chat about his heritage, where does he come from (Ferrara!), how is his life in the US. Precious afternoon. Thanks for reminding me Little Italy!
    Agata recently posted..Guest Post: New Zealand For The First TimeMy Profile

  2. You had me with that first photo my friend!! Such Deliciousness! It is so wonderful to read about the history of these establishments…you find multi-generational ownership all of the time in Europe but never really hear of it in the US. So happy you touched upon that! Having grown up just outside of New York, I visited Little Italy all of the time and relished every moment and bite! Sad to hear that it’s shrinking in size but happy to hear that it still thrives despite it’s smaller size — concentrated scrumptiousness around every corner! A great article my friend!
    Jeff Titelius recently posted..Top 5 Lake Destinations In EuropeMy Profile

  3. You are slayin’ me, Marcia….what a delcious post! Food related activities are #1 on my to-do list when I make it to NYC someday. I would love to go with someone who can take me through the neighborhoods and the old long established places. I went to your links for Alleva, Di Palo’s (I checked out their recipes!), Ferrera, Grand Apitito (yummy on that menu!) and the were all just were added to the list of potential places. Thank you! 🙂

  4. Thanks, Will, and thanks for the visit. It was a heatwave, especially when you look outside and see what we have now.
    Glad you liked Little Italy. It does have a cool vibe and fantastic food.

  5. Little Italy is a fantastic place both for its history and food. It was great to find out about these multi-generational establishments and how this generation is keeping them still relevant to the community. Oh, and you can order from them online so you don’t have to miss out on their deliciousness!

  6. Wow, that is so interesting that you also had Liz, what a neat coincidence!
    That pizza is so yummy, everything else tastes like cardboard now. Sorry the cannoli was too sweet for you.

  7. That must be a record – 2 NYC food tours in one day.
    You must come to NYC soon, Nancie. You’re missing some great eats.
    Thanks for linking up this week!

  8. I am starving and this delicious post isn’t helping right before I go to sleep. What a fun tour filled with such great food. I’d love to do this tour and will have to keep it in mind when I’m back in NYC. Or I can just visit each of these places and order all the food you tasted 🙂 I go weak with cannolis and Italian pastries.
    Mary recently posted..Favorite Food Souvenirs from Our TravelsMy Profile

  9. I would love to take this tour, discovering a city through its food is so exciting! I could definitely try the vegetarian dishes listed here, I love places that cook traditionally that is without using artificial flavors and other synthetic agents.

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