Best Restaurants in New York's Little Italy (Surprise! They're Not All Italian)
By Lisa Kahn
If you're a newcomer to New York and want to experience a time-honored tourist destination before it dissolves forever into history, Little Italy is the place to go. A hundred years ago, this vibrant downtown neighborhood spread from Canal Street north to Houston Street, and was home to much of New York's Italian immigrant population. But time, tastes and money have drastically changed the area's topography.
Today, few Italian immigrants remain in Little Italy, and the neighborhood's borders are now limited to about four city blocks. Tenement buildings once packed with large extended families have been replaced by well-to-do young professionals, multi-million dollar lofts and upscale boutiques. Even Brooks Brothers, the epitome of conservative American style, is considering a store here.
Still, Little Italy is worth a trip for a meal served up with a dose of nostalgia. You can gorge on vongole oreganate (baked clams) at Angelo's, a restaurant made famous by members of the Rat Pack, or sample classic veal parm in a charming backyard garden at Puglia. And, while thousands of celebrants clog the streets during the famous San Gennaro Festival in September, you might want to venture down to this historic neighborhood in a quieter season. True, you may not be able to win that stuffed animal, but you can still stuff yourself! A coal brick oven pizza, a hearty glass of Chianti, a zeppole, a cannoli...you'll still find them all here. This district delivers several possibilities, from Il Cortile, where you'll likely run into lots of eager patrons, to Da Nico Risorante, a spot folks talk up frequently to friends and colleagues.
10 Puglia Restaurant
This third-generation family restaurant may just be the oldest in Little Italy. Opened in 1919 by Southern Italian immigrant Gregorio Garofalo, who served up such delicacies capuzzello (sheepshead), tripe (the stomach lining of a young ox), and pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans), but what they loved the most was the way he treated everyone like his own family. and now run by grandson Joey, Puglia specializes in the rustic cuisine of Grandpa's homeland. You'll find classic scampis, parmigianas and zitis, which you can enjoy in a festive atmosphere enhanced by live entertainers, including singer Jorge Buccio, who sports an Elvis pompadour and a playlist of Frank Sinatra tunes. (212-966-6006)
Tucked in among the 100-year-old culinary landmarks on Mulberry Street, Pellegrino's is a relative newcomer to Little Italy. This neighborhood eatery opened in the mid-90's is beloved by regulars and newcomers alike for its amiable waitstaff, low lighting and intimate, well-spaced tables that give off a romantic vibe. Pellegrino's menu offers classic dishes like linguine with arugula, sun-dried tomato, porcini and cremini mushrooms or veal scaloppini with prosciutto and spinach. For dessert, you'll never forgive yourself if you don't save room for the homemade tiramisu or Italian cheesecake. In the warmer months, dine al fresco. TRAIN: 6 to Spring St (212-226-3177)
8 Da Nico Risorante
Located on Little Italy's "restaurant row," Da Nico is THE place to go if you want to be part of the neighborhood's hip scene. Everybody -- from money-hungry Wall Streeters to movie stars -- stops in here to enjoy the fine Italian menu and contemporary, if overdone, décor. Try the fried calamari for an appetizer, and make sure you save room for the monk fish with mushrooms and capers, Osso Buco alla Milanese with gnocchi, or Veal Verona with shiitake mushrooms. Call ahead for reservations, especially if you want to dine al fresco in the courtyard area. TRAIN: B, D, Q to Grand St; 6 to Spring St (212-343-1212)
When NoLita's Peasant opened its doors, it did so to the applause of area hipsters, who were craving a stylish alternative to the traditional Mulberry Street eateries. Boasting an open kitchen design and wood-burning oven, the dining area is warm and inviting -- though it has been known to get quite clamorous at times. Appetizers come to your table on rustic earthenware and smelling as good as they taste. Indeed, the kitchen staff does not spare garlic, olive oil, and Italian herbs and spices! Something to keep in mind: regulars often opt for the pizzas rather than the pasta dishes. TRAIN: B, D, F, Q to Broadway-Lafayette; N, R to Prince St (212-965-9511)
6 Angelo of Mulberry Street
If you are looking for an old-school NYC Italian joint, then this is it. This Little Italy storefront eatery has been a neighborhood staple since 1902, offering a cozy mix of homemade dishes and traditional décor. Start your meal off with an order of fried zucchini or sautéed eggplant, and then move on to a filling entrée -- the rigatoni with vodka and tomato or grilled lamb chops with mushrooms or peppers come to mind. Be sure to ask about the daily specials, and keep your fingers crossed that calamari is among them. TRAIN: J, M, Z; N, R, 6 to Canal St (212-966-1277)
5 Il Palazzo
Smack in the heart of Little Italy, this romantic, two-level eatery offers an enchanting escape from modern life. Indeed, things here are done the old-fashioned way -- landscapes of the Old Country adorn the walls of the main dining room, the service is courteous and professional, and the fare is cooked-to-order. Regulars are torn over what the kitchen does best: Is it the pollo alla Palazzo or the gnocchi? The spaghetti or the tre paladini? One thing's for certain, dinner at Il Palazzo is an experience you won't soon forget. TRAIN: 6 to Spring St; 6, J, M, N, Q, R, W, Z to Canal St (212-343-7000)
4 Il Cortile
This outstanding Mulberry Street dining destination features one of the neighborhood's most charming dining areas: a garden room with a roof that is actually an expansive skylight. The decor elsewhere in Il Cortile is distinctly Roman -- lush greenery, statues and, of course, plenty of white marble columns. The kitchen, meanwhile, takes a creative approach to Italian cuisine with dishes like veal scaloppine rolled with currants, stuffed grilled lobster and a variety of barbecue dishes. Il Cortile is a favorite stop for holiday visitors. TRAIN: 6 to Spring St; 6, J, M, N, Q, R, W, Z to Canal St (212-226-6060)
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. Starters include the likes of smoked coconut laksa with grilled Maya prawn; mains run from Thai pumpkin curry with pickled cucumber relish to snail and oxtail ravioli with pickled shiitake mushrooms. Corkage: $25 per bottle. TRAIN: 6 to Spring St; N, R to Prince St; F, V to Broadway-Lafayette; J, M to Bowery (212-343-7011)
2 La Esquina Taqueria and Cafe
The blinking neon "Corner" sign above what was once a diner beckons to weary and hungry passersby, promising wallet-friendly and yummy snacks. The taqueria does not disappoint, with tasty chorizo tacos and plates of enchiladas. However, La Esquina does more. This late-night pit stop has three separate dining and drinking areas: A brightly lit, street-level taqueria serving up a short-order menu; a 30-seat café with aged wood paneling and recessed bookshelves; and a dim, reservation-only cocktail lounge and restaurant behind the taqueria. Here, you can sip top-shelf tequila and enjoy more refined fare like huitlacoche quesadillas, pulled chicken stew and blue-crab tostadas. (646-613-7100, 646-613-1333)
Although it's officially located in Nolita, Lombardi's is just a few steps from Mulberry Street and well worth the slight 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. 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. TRAIN: 6 to Spring St (212-941-7994)
About Lisa Kahn
No matter where she's lived, Lisa Kahn has always called New York "home." Raised in Queens, Lisa studied journalism and consumed lots of premium ice cream in Boston. However, the manic energy of Manhattan eventually beckoned her back. Lisa has promoted New York travel for NYC & Company, The New York Times and Fodor's Travel Guides. An avid home cook, she has also penned food features for The Star-Ledger and is the editor of two grilling cookbooks. Lisa currently spends lots of time in Brooklyn scouring vintage stores and sampling the new restaurants springing up seemingly overnight on every street.
Read more about Lisa Kahn here.