Little Italy is a New York City neighborhood that needs no explanation, but here’s one anyway. Nestled away in Lower Manhattan-Chinatown’s sprawl is the famous (and shrinking) Italian-American enclave. The smell of wood-burning brick ovens and basil beckons from every bistro, with tourists and religious relics dotting street corners. If it seems timeless, that’s because in many ways it is: some of the neighborhood’s signs and edifices have been left unchanged for nearly a century.
Surrounded by bustling commercial areas like the fashion-obsessed SoHo and the ever-expanding Chinatown, Little Italy feels a bit more claustrophobic every year. The Italian-Americans who have populated this area for the last 150-plus years are robust and soulful, but it seems their home-away-from-home is putting on a vanishing act.
By the year 2000, only about 1,000 residents of the neighborhood claimed Italian ancestry— down from over 10,000 in 1950. People largely look to more open US immigration policies that led to increased Chinese residence in the area, as well as Italians’ spreading out in the five boroughs, when explaining the lack of actual Italians in the Italian enclave.
Italians may have by and large left, but their legacy--experienced most acutely by sampling the area's food--remains. Unlike Chinatown, commerce takes a backseat to more Mediterranean pursuits--a relaxing drink, a cigar on the steps next to the deli, a lunch break that goes on just a bit longer than it should. In Little Italy, time still passes a bit more slowly, and that's just fine--there's a lot to see.
For all its passion for food and conversation Little Italy (like much of New York City) has been home to some pretty violent characters. Unlike many of New York's criminals, however, these Italian mobsters received intense media coverage, most recently including John Gotti (whose former headquarters is pictured above).
The only definitive feature of any New York neighborhood is that it is always in the process of transformation. With that said, Little Italy will forever be marred by "the mob" and its Hollywood glamorization.
But what's important about Little Italy are not these few criminals, but rather the many hundreds of thousands of Italian-Americans throughout history who have continued to make New York City one of the best cities in the world.
Liked this tour of Little Italy? Then you'll love our other New York City tours. Head down to Chinatown, take a look at the graffiti explosion in Bushwick, or take a breather with the Russians of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.