Legends of Little Italy: Must-Try Italian Restaurants in NYC

On narrow, ancient streets downtown you’ll find one of the most vibrant places in Manhattan: Little Italy. Childhood home of director Martin Scorsese and inspiration for The Godfather, Little Italy remains a vital destination for visitors to NYC. It’s also a fantastic place to get a meal at a classic restaurant. For decades now, bold-face names and hungry New Yorkers have come to Little Italy for pizza, pasta, and the best cannoli in the city. Check out any one of these Little Italy legends for a New York meal to remember.

Since 1985, La Mela (apple in Italian) has served locals a reasonably priced Italian menu, while offering an elevated dining experience, and continues to do so today.  The walls are adorned with a who's who of celeb diners, from Bill Murray to Frank Sinatra. The Garden Room (pictured above) seats 80; a private party room is also available. A lunch special is offered for $19, with classic choices including Chicken Parmigiana, Rigatoni Bolognese, Gnocchi Sorrentino, and others. 

Piacere (pleasure in Italian) specializes in a universally loved food-pizza. Wood fired pizza is their specialty, prepared with fresh ingredients creating a light, crisp crust,  served in a rustic setting. Top your dining experience off with a nice glass of red wine, or a beer, many available on tap, or bottled. While pizza is the hot ticket item, meat lovers can also dine on grass-fed steak, red snapper, or hearty homemade pasta. 

Benito One, established in 1968, began with a modest five tables. It hasn't lost its intimacy. Brothers Nick and James Bari have continued to run this red sauce gem for families and lovers on Mulberry Street for more than 40 years (and their chef, a Mulberry Street native, has been there for nearly three decades.) 

Da Gennaro, a Little Italy staple, specializes in authentic Italian kitchen cuisine, presented in a rustic Italian setting, perfect for celebrating a special family occasion, or enjoying a romantic dinner.  Da Gennaro is open for breakfast 7 days a week at 10am too, as well as serving lunch and dinner, year round. A special brunch menu is also available. Their sister restaurant next door.

Founded in 1908, Grotta Azzurra has counted Enrico Caruso and Frank Sinatra among its fans. Today it’s a perfect destination for traditional Italian in the heart of Little Italy. White tablecloths and a warm atmosphere make for a great ambiance. Don’t miss house signatures like lobster Fra Diavolo, homemade pastas, pizzas, and prime steaks and chops. If you’re coming for lunch or an early weeknight dinner, you’ll find great prix fixe specials as well.

il cortile legends little italy nyc

Il Cortile is a family-owned restaurant that’s been a Little Italy institution since 1975. Exposed brick and ample greenery make for a special meal in the stunning atrium garden. Charming additional rooms are ready to host everything from intimate gatherings to large celebrations. This neighborhood staple delivers the highest quality ingredients across a broad menu available for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Look for classics like homemade fettuccini with wild mushrooms and sweet sausage, flavor-packed puttanesca, veal scaloppini, and stuffed filet mignon in a rich tomato sauce.

lobster lunella ristorante little italy

Owned and operated by a charming Italian immigrant family that has helmed various restaurants in Little Italy for generations, Lunella Ristorante is one of the best finds in the neighborhood. An extensive menu features favorites like stuffed clams, grilled polenta, baked ziti, grilled lamb chops, and specialties like lobster for two, served with clams, mussels, and calamari in a spicy marinara. On a nice day, the mahogany storefront slides away to open Lunella to the street.

One of the most famous names in Little Italy is Umberto’s Clam House, a classic since 1972. Actors, sports figures, politicians, musicians, and other celebs flock here for linguine with white clam sauce, seafood Marechiaro, and sauces simmered to perfection for hours. Try their famous cocktails, sangria, or wine by the glass. And don’t miss the raw bar!

cannoli caffe palermo nyc

When you’re ready for a sweet ending to your Little Italy adventures, Caffé Palermo is your destination. Here since 1973, this must-stop is hosted by Baby John, The Cannoli King. The cannolis at Caffé Palermo keep to that perfect balance between sweet cream and satisfying crunch, making these the best in the city. On top of that you’ll find the finest Italian pastries: cheesecake, tiramisu, rainbow and other Italian cookies, chocolate mousse cake, and “lobster tails” that are off the hook. Enjoy unbeatable cappuccino and espresso as well—one visit and you’ll know why big names like Danny DeVito, Ray Romano, and Ryan Seacrest are fans.

little italy sign night legends

By Jameschecker (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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