The Non-Touristy Guide to Eating in New York's Little Italy
By Andrea Duchon
New York Local Expert
When it comes to Manhattan’s tourist traps, Little Italy has sadly earned a spot at the top of the list. The area saw its heyday in the early 1900s, when tens of thousands of Italians called these cobbled roads home. Since then, Chinatown has all but swallowed up the neighborhood, and tenement dwelling families have long been replaced with deep-pocketed professionals.
It also doesn’t help that the few remaining restaurants annoyingly troll for diners in the streets, and find themselves landlocked by gift shops on both sides. Fortunately, if you know exactly where to look, you can still experience a vestige of the old world nestled between the soggy pasta and commercialized cannoli.
Take Lombardi’s, for example. Sure, it’s a well-known tourist destination but unlike much of Little Italy, it’s earned its status for good reason. Established in 1905, it holds the title for the first pizzeria in the United States and makes a solid pie that’s beloved by New Yorkers and visitors alike.
And who can forget about dessert? Ferrara – America’s first espresso bar – also calls Little Italy home and has been dishing up sweet treats in the same Grand Street location since 1892. So while there may not be unlimited options for good eats along Mulberry Street, don’t let that dissuade you from giving the ones that are there a more-than-deserving chance.
A New York institution, DiPalo's holds court on the corner of Mott and Grand Street in the heart of Little Italy. A number of smart New York restaurants source their cheese from this mom-and-pop grocery, but that's only one of the reasons why you should pay them a visit. In true Italian fashion, the store moves at a relaxed pace, so don't expect to get in and out with any type of efficiency. And even if you're lucky enough to find yourself there without half of the city queuing around the block, it's easy to spend the better part of an hour perusing the store or tasting at the counter while chatting it up with the staff. Unlike many places, these friendly characters welcome your questions and will happily point you in a delicious direction. (212-226-1033)
Torrisi Italian Specialties
If it's a high-end Italian experience you're after, get thee to Michelin-starred Torrisi Italian Specialties in a hurry. Matching old world Italian charm with a sophisticated tasting experience, the restaurant's menu changes daily, depending on what's in season. No matter that you won't know what you're getting until you sit down - it's all outstanding. Most impressive is the obsessive attention-to-detail evident in the food and throughout the tiny 18-seat space. Go for a special occasion or for a celebration, but not if you're vegetarian - while the restaurant can accommodate pork, shellfish and gluten allergies, it's heavily focused on meat. (212-254-3000)
The Butcher's Daughter
Despite the name, The Butcher's Daughter is a juice bar and espresso stand that caters to the non-dairy, non-carnivorous crowd. The LA-esque menu features items like avocado toast, coconut yogurt or the shop's popular elixir shots - pressed shots of wheatgrass or ginger, mixed with ingredients like yuzu, jalapeno and Echinacea. While technically located a few blocks east of Little Italy, The Butcher's Daughter is worthy of a pit stop for a dose of detox and freshness. But that's not to say that everything they serve is guilt-free: their "booze-y pops" give those tired of getting drunk by sucking on a straw a cool alternative - alcoholic popsicles on a stick. (212-219-3434)
Walking into The Mulberry Project, you can almost picture Frank Sinatra schmoozing with a beautiful lady in the corner booth. Hidden in plain view, this bespoke cocktail joint is easy to miss - keep an eye out for the unmarked red door and don't forget to bring your GPS as backup. The narrow space is one of the sexiest in the area, and has become a stomping ground of sorts for chic partygoers. Not sure what to order? Give the bartender a hint on what you're into and watch as he (or she) whips up a concoction that any member of the Rat Pack would be delighted to drink. (646-448-4536)
Ferrara Bakery and Café
Ferrara Bakery and Café opened its doors in 1892, the same year Ellis Island started welcoming new immigrants. Since then, nearly everything in New York has changed, except Ferrara's focus. From cannolis to cream puffs, gelato to Pignoli cookies, this mainstay continues to churn out the classics of yesteryear. And while it's true that Ferrara has hit high-alert tourist status, it's still a must if you're looking to experience one of the original remaining storefronts of Little Italy. Perhaps unfairly, the first espresso bar in America doesn't take the cake for the best espresso in the area, so skip the coffee and set your sights on sweets instead. If possible, you should also try to visit during a weekday afternoon, as weekend evenings can get impossibly crowded. (212-226-6150)
Helmed by alums of Italian resto, Aurora, Emporio is a Roman-inspired trattoria that serves up Neapolitan-style, thin crust pizzas and homemade pastas, made fresh on-site. Here's an insider tip: if you know what's good for you, you won't skip the burrata, imported daily from Italy and arguably the best this side of the Atlantic. Emporio's spacious back room invokes the feeling of dining in a vaulted greenhouse, which does wonders for the ambiance but (be warned!) not a whole lot for the acoustics. Regulars know to get here early or risk waiting at the claustrophobic front bar, which isn't the worst thing as it's stocked with an impressive smattering of high-end cocktails and Italian wines. (2129661234)
When Nolita's Peasant opened its doors, it did so to the applause of area residents, who craved a stylish alternative to the traditional Mulberry Street eateries. Everything is cooked in a wood-fired oven - the result a rustic, modern take on Italian cuisine. Appetizers come to your table on clay earthenware, smelling as good as they taste. Indeed, the kitchen staff does not spare garlic, olive oil, and Italian herbs and spices. And while the open kitchen design may be enticing to newcomers, don't miss sitting downstairs. There's nothing quite like a dark, cool cellar to transport your taste buds directly to the Tuscan hillside. (212-965-9511)
This hip eatery does all it can to defy definition. The space juxtaposes library items (book and card catalog shelves) with the cool, industrial aesthetics of a converted warehouse. Billed as free-spirited fusion, the fare incorporates influences from far and wide - that is to say, from Northern Africa to New Zealand, Europe to Southeast Asia. A fondness for wild game, including kangaroo, venison and wild boar is center stage, though starters run on the more refined side: opt for mushroom ceviche in a ginger ponzu or perhaps, marinated white anchovies on quinoa croquettes. Also open for weekend brunch; don't skip the Bloody. (212-343-7011)
Rubirosa is part of the new wave of Italian restaurants to hit the 'hood, but at first glance, you may think it's been here since the beginning. After finding the traditional red and white awning, step inside and come face-to-face with old-school photos of Italy and a vibe that can only be described as comfortably intimate. The artisan pies get high marks with locals, and the nod to gluten-free awareness in the form of pizzas, pastas and apps scores points with health-conscious foodies. Unlike many other Manhattan hotspots, Rubirosa can also accommodate large groups with advance notice, making it perfect for birthdays and parties. (212-965-0500)
Although it's officially located in Nolita, Lombardi's is just a few steps from Mulberry Street and definitely worth the detour, especially for first-time visitors. This Spring Street restaurant was licensed by the city in 1905, officially making it the first pizzeria in America. In fact, many of New York's top pizza makers learned their craft from Gennaro Lombardi and spun off to open some of the city's most famous pizzerias, including Totonno's, Patsy's and John's. Over 100 years after it opened, the sublime, slightly charred pies made with San Marzano tomatoes and fresh mozzarella top many a New Yorker's list of the absolute best. The restaurant also has a full bar. (212-941-7994)
About Andrea Duchon
Andrea Duchon was bitten by the travel bug from an early age, and has lived in New York, Seattle, Cleveland and Sydney, Australia since 2007. When she's not traveling or planning a trip, you'll likely find her eating tacos while throwing darts and watching the Cleveland Browns.
Read more about Andrea Duchon here.