In my previous post on the Lower East Side, I called Little Italy’s current status as an independent area questionable (I had earlier entered “laughable” but thought twice about it, and now I’m thinking of it a third time). That sentiment isn’t original to me. If you saw one of the very last episodes of “The Sopranos”, there was a little in-joke where two of the characters are walking through Little Italy plotting evil deeds and all of a sudden…they’re in Chinatown. They do a bit of a double-take and the scene cuts away.
It’s sad, but Little Italy is almost gone. Yeah, it’s there, but only in spirit. For the couple of years I’ve been wandering through Little Italy, it’s been relegated to Mulberry Street only with parts of a couple of side streets. Famous Little Italy streets such as Elizabeth and Mott…all are parts of Chinatown now. Even Mulberry Street’s claim to Little Italy status is truncated. Below Canal, pure Chinatown. Above Broome, mostly non-Little Italy. There’s just a couple of blocks left, but even they are no longer “pure” Little Italy. I haven’t seen a Chinese restaurant open yet, but it’ll come.
But is it bad? Nah. The neighborhood is evolving and the Italians have moved on to greener pastures. Little Italy will continue for a while simply because it’s a pure tourist attraction. But I don’t think the Italian heart remains…except perhaps within the church near Canal.
Saturday on Mulberry Street. Notice the decorations in the distance. It’s the annual Little Italy Festival. Not to be confused with the Feast of San Gennaro (now, that’s a spectacle in and of itself despite the vanishing of Little Italy). This festival is muted and pleasant. It does the traditional blocking-of-the-streets-to-all-traffic. I think most residents of streets in that part of Manhattan would love to close off their streets, but only Little Italy seems to get it done on a regular basis.
And a nice historic little place: Umbertos Clam House. It calls itself the “Heart of Little Italy” and that’s not a problem for me. But I tend to remember it for the biggest even associated with the murder of Crazy Joey Gallo in 1972 while he was there for a party. I recommend Jimmy Breslin’s book “The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight” for a humorous roman a clef about Joey Gallo. But the real Crazy Joey was a murderous thug who may have been actual killer of Albert Anatasia and behind the shooting of Joe Columbo. And who know how many others.
I’ve eaten at Umbertos. It’s pretty good, and I won’t say that about a lot of other Little Italy restaurants. (Truth: I never found them memorable enough to bother remembering which one I went to; but Umbertos has history.)
And now the interesting part. Google maps still says that Umbertos is at Mulberry and Hestor. That ain’t true at all! It’s up on Broome. Apparently, after the murder of Crazy Joey, the restaurant was moved to escape the notoriety. But Famous Ankles remembers…and apparently so does Google.
A nice shot of Mulberry and Hestor…
And finally, the last really authentic part of Little Italy: the Church of the Most Precious Blood. It’s apparently run by the Franciscans. I don’t know if there’s an actual monestary associated with it, but maybe.
My best memory of the church is during last year’s Feast of San Gennaro (held each September so I’m going back soon!). The streets get incredibly jammed with people and restaurants spilling out onto the street and pushcarts everywhere and the like. You look at it and see a lot of money changing hands (good old fashioned capitalism). When I got to the church, I saw a statue of San Gennaro next to a board with money tacked onto it (sort of like “The Godfather Part 2” and the statue going down the street, but this time the money was simply tacked to a board). There must have been…$50 or $60, max. The Church sponsors the feast, but doesn’t seem to get to partake in the commerce surrounding it (they try with some trinkets, but I didn’t see many borrowers). I’m hopeful they got recompensed somehow and were able to use the money to good ends. It sure doesn’t look like they spend it on luxurious digs.
Stay tuned for an update from the Feast of San Gennaro.