Little Italy may seem too touristy these days, far removed from the lively, 25-plus block Lower Manhattan neighborhood it once was, but don't write it off. The area is still home to wonderful Italian eateries and shops, from modern to old world.
The finest dining is at Peasant on Elizabeth Street. The upscale, eight-year-old restaurant blends in with the new, gentrified part of Little Italy, sometimes called NoLita (north of Little Italy), a realtor-created term no native would ever use.
"This is still Little Italy!" declares Frankie De Carlo, Peasant's chef and owner, who moved into the neighborhood in 1979. In the open kitchen, De Carlo pours extra virgin olive oil into a skillet full of sizzling broccoli rabe and says that he is proud of Peasant's quality ingredients, explaining that he doesn't overpower their taste by mixing in too many flavors. "We make dishes the way they were made 200 years ago, very straightforward."
Peasant feels like a chic, urban barn with wooden tables, warm candlelight, and smells of roasting meats wafting from the open fire.
The waiters amiably explain the menu, which is in Italian. The signature dish, porchetta arrosto, for example, is roasted suckling pig served with fingerling potatoes cooked in a buttery cream sauce for $29. There is a crab risotto for $28, and the grilled orata, or sea bass, over fennel stalks for $26.
Peasant has more than100 artisanal wines, from $22 to $260 a bottle. Dulcinea Benson, who buys the wine, is constantly challenged to stay ahead of the savvy clientele. Downstairs is a raucous, grotto-esque wine bar where loud music plays, and candles illuminate the long, crowded communal tables. The menu here is nearly the same as upstairs, with 23 wines by the glass, at $7 to $20.
One block north, amid boutiques selling $200 jeans, is Albanese Meat Market, a butcher shop that looks much as it must have when proprietor Moe Albanese's father opened it in 1924. Martin Scorsese, who grew up on the block, filmed a scene here for his first movie, "Who's That Knocking at My Door."
Sal's, the nine-table, no-frills eatery on the corner of Mott and Broome streets, is frequented by lifelong residents. Here the Triolo brothers, all three born in Naples, serve an authentic Neapolitan menu at unbeatable prices. A traditional Neapolitan calzone - deep fried, not baked - is a specialty at $6. "I have people coming from all over to get the fried calzone," Francesco Triolo, the oldest, said recently as he ate lunch under a hanging plastic leg of prosciutto. If deep-fried calzone is too much for your arteries, Sal's serves a fresh arugula salad, homemade soups, and 21 pasta dishes, including the anchovy-free spaghetti puttanesca with plum tomatoes, capers, black olives, and garlic for $10.
Just north of Sal's is the third-generation Parisi Bakery, a crammed bread and sandwich shop with a lunch line of police officers, firefighters, and utility workers that runs out the door. The Italian combo, a dense concentration of freshly cut Italian meats, cheeses, and peppers on Parisi bread, is $8. Next door at Epistrophy, a mainly European ex-pat clientele sips coffee or wine while chatting, reading, or taking advantage of the WiFi. Luca Fadda and Georgia Zedda are Sardinians who opened Epistrophy two years ago, naming it after the Thelonious Monk song. Main courses such as the boneless lamb stewed with olives, potatoes, and fresh herbs and braised pork with vermentino, mushrooms, rosemary, and served with fregola pasta are made from Georgia's mother's recipes and priced at $13-$14.
On the very northern and southern edges of the neighborhood are Emilio's Ballato on Houston Street and Forlini's on Baxter. Ballato is run by Emilio Vitolo, the chef and owner born in the Campagna region of Naples. "I do this because it's in my blood," said Vitolo just before rolling up his sleeves to make fresh mozzarella, "and I like customers that understand great food." Ballato is a calm space with 10 four-person tables and a backroom for celebrities - including George Clooney that night - with an unmarked entrance around the corner. Meat entrees are $18-$35, pasta $16-$19.
Forlini's, just below Canal Street, now considered Chinatown, is a must for anyone who wants to experience old world Little Italy. The restaurant has a delightfully disorienting atmosphere - cushioned, pleather booths of muted pink, white tablecloths, dark wood walls adorned with oil paintings, and waiters in black suits - circa 1956, the year Forlini's moved here. The bustling lunch crowd is primarily from nearby courthouses, and some judges have booths reserved for them. Either Big Joe, Little Joe, or Derek Forlini, who are first cousins and third-generation owners, greet all diners.
If a trip to Little Italy isn't complete without eating on Mulberry Street, which is touristy but historic, the two best restaurants, each with entrees in the $20-$45 range, are Il Cortile and Angelo's. The 104-year-old Angelo's has a visible kitchen and waiters who sport white jackets, black bow ties, and drape white cloths over their forearms. The portions are huge, and the front room's ambience evokes thoughts of Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. Il Cortile is a sprawling "creative Italian" restaurant, decorated with Roman statues, artificial flowers, brass fixtures, and a mural depicting a rollicking Roman scene. One menu item that should not be missed is pepite di gnocchi, four large gnocchi stuffed with chicken, spinach, and mascarpone in a creamy tomato sauce for $22. A less expensive, family-style option on Mulberry Street is Caffé Sorrento, which serves braciola di maiale calabrese, not on the menu but prepared on request, a pork chop served with a fennel-infused sausage, covered in onions, red peppers, olives, and garlic for $14.50.
Italian pastries abound in the area, and one bakery with a loyal following is La Bella Ferrara. The smell of baking almond, anise, and hazelnut hits anyone walking in the door since all baking is done in the basement. The store is known for its sfogliatella, a flaky, crunchy pastry filled with orange ricotta. There are five types of cannoli, biscotti, and 24 kinds of cookies that sell for $7.50-$12.50 a pound. Caffé Roma next door also carries fresh pastries, made daily in the kitchen. The antiquated, dark green and wood cafe hasn't modernized. If it did, Buddy Zeccardi, proprietor and Little Italy native insists, "then it wouldn't be Caffé Roma anymore!"
Visible through Caffé Roma's windows is Umberto's Clam House, made famous by the 1972 hit on "Crazy" Joe Gallo. But before any Mafia enthusiast gets ridiculed by Umberto's staff for asking where the shooting occurred, they should know Umberto's is in a new location, having moved from the northwest corner of Mulberry and Hester streets. Another vestige of Little Italy's Mafia past can be found in a trendy shoe shop at 247 Mulberry St. The tile floor was that of former mob boss John Gotti's Ravenite Social Club.
Ferrara's on Grand Street, a relaxing cafe popular with tourists who stop in for a cappuccino and sweet treat, was established in 1892. The counters full of pastries and cakes are piled so high with torrone, Italian nougat, that Maria Coiro, 90, can barely be seen behind them. Coiro, who was born a block away "without a midwife" and works here part time, says simply of Ferrara's fare, "It's got the best." Selections include the divine but unfortunately named lobster tail, a flaky, crunchy pastry shell filled with rich Bavarian cream for $5.25. Waiters in black pants and white jackets serve pastries and coffee at tables.
The heart of the neighborhood holds a trio of treasures, all within 30 seconds of one another: Piemonte Ravioli Co., Alleva, and DiPalo's. Piemonte sells a creative variety of fresh and dried homemade pastas, such as black olive tortellone with cheese, lobster ravioli, and porcini mushroom fettuccine. Alleva opened in 1892, which makes it the oldest cheese store in the country, according to Bob Alleva, the fourth-generation owner. Besides the mozzarella made fresh every day, Alleva carries olives, meats, and prosciutto bread.
DiPalo's carries more than 300 cheeses, some of which hang in balls from the ceiling next to Italian sausages. The tiny store is crammed with olive oils, vinegars, grains, jams, pastas, and sauces. Regulars of all stripes are greeted by name when they walk in the door. Luigi DiPalo, one of three siblings who run the fourth-generation store, says, "I've been behind the counter for 57 years, but I'm only 56." His lifetime of work hasn't diminished his passion for Italian products. When he travels to Italy in search of new ones, not only does he insist on seeing the farm, the animals, and how the operation works, "I must break bread with the farmer," he said.
Across the street is E. Rossi & Co., which was started one door down by proprietor Ernie Rossi's grandfather, who published music from Naples. Today it's a general store that sells all things Italian: soccer jerseys, espresso and pasta machines, religious figurines, and, in keeping with the changing times, "Kiss Me I'm 1/2 Italian" baby bibs.
Nina Roberts, a freelance writer in New York, can be reached at ninaroberts.net.