What to Do in Little Italy

On Mulberry Street between Canal and Broome, friendly fellows in smart suits call from the doorways of competing Italian eateries. They beckon you inside some of the area's oldest restaurants for a whirlwind culinary tour of New York's Little Italy. You'll be enticed by zeppoles, tiramisu, gelato, fried Oreos, pork braciole, and sausage & peppers. (Is your mouth watering yet?) If you're hungry, these guys are pretty hard to resist! 

Little Italy once constituted a much wider expanse of the downtown area, as Italian immigrants poured in from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Now, with neighboring areas like Chinatown and Soho encroaching, Little Italy has been reduced to three or so blocks, but they're impossible to miss.

Italian Catholics have flocked to St. Patrick's Old Cathedral since it was established in 1809. The cathedral ceased to be the seat of the Archdiocese after the majestic Saint Patrick's Cathedral was built decades later in 1879 in what is now Midtown East. The landmark of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral features an Erben 3-41 organ built in 1852 and a large marble altar with gold-leaf decoration. The church's underground labyrinth is the resting place of many notable Catholics, including some of the city's first bishops and Pierre Toussaint. Toussaint, a Caribbean slave to a New York family, was freed in 1807, built his own business, and cared for the needy in New York. The Catholic Church is now considering him for canonization. 

When touring the streets of Little Italy, you may very well notice a verdigris dome pointing towards the sky. What you may not know is that this current apartment co-op complex on Centre Street from Grand to Broome was New York's Police Headquarters Building for over 60 years. Featuring Corinthian columns on the outside, the former headquarters (1909) exemplifies America's take on the 19th century Parisian Beaux-arts style. Interesting for both the architecturally and historically minded, the building utilized such media as limestone, copper and terra-cotta "to impress both the officer and the prisoner with the majesty of the law." Now, in classic New York fashion, the building has gone residential, with the penthouse apartment at the dome going for millions. 

Feast of San Gennaro, Little Italy, NYCCheeseheads will adore DiPalo's Fine Foods, a Little Italy fixture since 1910 that offers the best in imported Italian olive oil, pasta, and, of course, an impressive selection of cheeses.

A trip to Little Italy is incomplete without a fine meal at one of its great Italian restaurants. You can't go wrong at The Original Vincent'sIl Cortile, or Umberto's Clam House. Mulberry Street also is home to Grotta Azzurra and Lunella Ristorante. Don't leave the area without a world-famous cannoli and cappucino at Caffe Palermo!

The annual Feast of San Gennaro, Little Italy's world-famous salute to the Patron Saint of Naples, draws hungry crowds downtown for about 10 days every September. And what a feast it is! The street festivities include parades, entertainment, food stands, and a cannoli-eating contest. 

Highlights of the Feast include indoor and outdoor dining at Little Italy's most famous Italian restaurants and more than 300 licensed street vendors. Free entertainment is featured every night from at the bandstand located at Grand and Baxter Streets, ranging from Italian folk songs to rock to old standards. The Feast of San Gennaro concludes with a celebratory Mass and candlelit procession as the Statue of the Saint is carried from its permanent home in Most Precious Blood Church on Mulberry Street.

Walk west of Little Italy to Soho for shopping and south to Chinatown and the Lower East Side for additional immigrant enclaves. 

Dining in Little Italy: For our list of the best restaurants in Little Italy, click here.

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Contributors: Alan Binenstock, Melissa Caminneci, and Merrill Lee Girardeau

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