New York is full of historic, wonderful and eclectic neighborhoods, each with their own unique characters. The city’s rich immigration history and constant influx of new people gives it a culture that’s totally unique. Part of the fun of visiting New York, especially Manhattan, is exploring its neighborhoods in depth. And it doesn’t hurt that one of Manhattan’s most notorious neighborhoods is known for its incredible authentic Italian food.
Of course, in order to properly explore all those neighborhoods, you’ll want to look into getting a rental car. Making a car rental Manhattan reservation ahead of time ensures you’ll get the best deal on your vehicle of choice. Look up plenty of New York car rental company reviews to see which companies have the best reputations. That way you can enjoy a nice, hassle-free experience—and once you’ve picked up your car, you’ll be free to see New York City at its finest.
We recommend spending as much time in Little Italy as possible. Located in Lower Manhattan occupying a three block stretch of Mulberry Street, it’s a mecca for delicious food and local shops. Little Italy is the living reminder of the great wave of Italian immigration that came through New York City beginning in the late 1870s. The neighborhood once extended as far south as Worth Street and as far north as Houston Street, but now it’s condensed into just a few blocks.
Little Italy originated as Mulberry Bend. Strangely enough, this wasn’t even the biggest Italian neighborhood in the city—East Harlem had a larger Italian population. Mulberry Bend was a poorer Italian neighborhood, with about 10,000 residents just trying to get by. In fact, Jacob Riis once described Mulberry Bend as “the foul core of New York’s slums.”
At the turn of the 20th century, over 90% of the neighborhood residents were of Italian origins. After World War II, many residents of the Lower East Side started moving to Brooklyn, Staten Island or New Jersey. Around the same time, Chinese immigrants became an increased presence in the city after the U.S. Immigration Act of 1965 removed immigration restrictions. Little Italy slowly started losing square footage to Chinatown. Around 2004, real estate prices skyrocketed and forced even more people out.
What remains are some of the neighborhood’s oldest businesses, a charming atmosphere, and a group of residents committed to preserving the neighborhood. You can find apartments in the area for below market value, and the crime rate in Little Italy is actually 70% below the national average. It is one of Manhattan’s safest neighborhoods. And some Italians that are direct descendants of Little Italy’s first residents still call it home.
Explore Little Italy
Want to explore Little Italy? Head to Mulberry Street and make sure you arrive hungry. You’ll find the blocks lined with authentic and charming restaurants, and sometimes there are penny hawkers who are paid to get you to come in. For lunch, visit Parm, a sandwich shop with the best parm sandwiches and turkey clubs you’ll find in the city. The wait time can get a bit long at dinner time, so going for lunch is your best bet.
After lunch, take a stroll through Di Palo’s for an authentic Italian market experience. Since 1925, this family-owned store has sold incredible cheeses, cured meats and olive oil to locals and tourists. Get some provisions to take back to your hotel room if you have a mini fridge—the mozzarella is like no other.
One place that’s definitely worth visiting is Ferrara Bakery & Cafe, which dates back to 1892. Originally opened by Enrico Scoppa and Antonio Ferrara, the bakery is still family-run (fifth generation!) and uses the same recipes. Sip a glass of Prosecco and treat yourself to a little gelato or something from the bakery.
Little Italy and the neighborhood to the north, which is known as “Nolita,” have a few great shops worth checking out. Condor is a boutique decorated with plants and greenery that’s full of clothing from local and international designers. Creatures of Comfort is a Los Angeles-based boutique, and Scotch & Soda is a must for preppy-with-an-edge male apparel. For souvenirs, head to Il Coccio on on Hester Street for Italian ceramics and NYC Gift Shop on Mulberry Street for all the classics.
Where to Have Dinner?
Deciding where to have dinner in Little Italy can seem like an impossible choice. And to be honest, it is—you’ll have your pick of perfectly prepared Italian food. A few of the best of the best, reputation-wise: Rubirosa (especially if you’re craving pizza), Pellegrino’s, Casa Bella Italian Ristorante, and Lunella. Many of the restaurants will have their menus prominently displayed or would be happy to let you take a look. Expect the restaurant staff to turn on the charm to try and entice you—they all know the competition is stiff.
Another impossible but necessary dream: Saving room for dessert. Caffe Palermo serves cannolis so incredible that celebrities like Ryan Seacrest have taken notice of them. If you can’t enjoy them in the bakery with a glass of vino, box them up and take them back to your hotel room. You won’t want to pass them up.
Little Italy has certainly grown much smaller over the years. But what remains of its vibrant city blocks are just as inviting as ever. Be sure to see our article for a romantic night out in New York City to impress your special someone.