Block Busters: Is There Actually Any Good Food Left in Little Italy?

A descent into the red-sauce joints of Manhattan's iconic neighborhood
September 12, 2017
by Anna Roth

Photos by Wendy George

Block Busters: In which recent New Yorker/experienced food critic Anna Roth ventures into famed food neighborhoods to see if the reputation matches the hype. 

Good pasta is sublime, but even OK pasta is still pretty much fine. Like pizza and donuts, pasta is one of those foods that usually satisfies even in mediocrity — and enough cheese and cream can make almost anything taste good.

That was the takeaway after my recent forays into Little Italy, one of New York’s iconic "food neighborhoods" that has faded over the past several decades. The once-sprawling quartiere is now confined to three blocks of Mulberry Street, thanks to an expanded Chinatown and the forces of gentrification. Like Times Square and Rockefeller Center, it’s one of the pockets of the city that locals have ceded almost entirely to tourists.

But despite the tourists, kitschy gift shops and slow-walkers clutching guidebooks, there are still reasons to go. One of them is food shopping. Di Palo’s Fine Foods and Alleva Dairy are excellent cheese shops where you can find fresh mozzarella and ricotta along with other Italian groceries. Ferrara Bakery and Caffe Palermo turn out reliably good cannoli, and Piemonte Ravioli makes fresh pasta daily. Many of these places have been there since the neighborhood’s heydey and are now in their fourth or fifth generation. And if you observe the neighborhood’s old boundaries, old-school spots like Lombardi’s, Forlini’s and Emilio's Ballato still deliver satisfying Italian-American fare.

Recent years have also brought a new wave of stylish Italian restaurants that are more of a reflection of our current food culture. Genuine just opened an apertivo and Negroni bar from the Dante folks in its space on the corner of Mulberry and Grand; on the opposite corner, Gelso & Grand offers dishes like duck bruschetta and a kale Caesar. M’O Il gelato, just north of Broome, uses local and seasonal ingredients and has dairy-free options. A few blocks further north, Rubirosa and Parm have re-energized Italian-American classics in their hip NoLita spaces.

Then there are all the other places on Mulberry, the ones that haven’t yet caught up with the times (and may never). These are the places that offer unapologetically huge portions of pasta and waiters who call you “bella ragazza” in an exaggerated Italian accent with no trace of irony. They seem to cater exclusively to out-of-towners and are not places that any self-respecting food person would ever set foot in.

And yet, it’s pleasant to sit at a sidewalk table and think about the neighborhood of 100 years ago, when Italian dialects ruled the streets and Mulberry was a sea of pushcarts and organ grinders. It’s also a pleasure to eat Italian-American classics like chicken Parm, fettuccine Alfredo, linguine with clams and other creamy, cheesy, carby concoctions and not have to think about them too much. These places may not represent how urban America eats anymore, but they did not so long ago, before local ingredients, hyper-regional cuisines and stripped-down modern decor won the day. Visiting them is a window into not only how far the food world has come in the past few decades, but also what we traded in along the way.

With these thoughts in mind, and Little Italy's famed Feast of San Gennaro festival only days away, I set off on a carb-loaded quest to answer the burning question: Is there actually any good food left in Little Italy?

Da Nico

This Mulberry staple is known for its garden, a large back patio strung with cafe lights and dotted with classical sculptures, plants and trees — all it lacks is an accordionist to be the perfect setting for a full-on Lady and the Tramp moment. Inside, the restaurant doesn’t seem to have updated its decor since 1993, complete with oversized silverware, celebrity caricatures, squiggly lines and fake Tuscan wall treatments. Its waiters never miss an opportunity for an upsell either. 

That upsell includes an elaborate seafood pasta dish with a lobster for $40, but instead I tried another special that seemed to nod (most closely, anyway) toward our current food moment: veal ravioli with truffle oil. It was surprisingly good, with a luscious cream sauce, well-cooked pasta and a judicious hand with the truffle oil. The other items ranged from OK, like a too-tough chicken Parm, to nearly inedible, mealy, freezer-burn-tasting meatballs with red sauce that had a metallic dint, likely from the can the tomatoes came out of. Stick to cream sauce and you should be fine.

Rating: One-and-a-half meatballs out of three

Photo by Anna Roth

Angelo’s of Mulberry Street

Out of all the oldest restaurants on the strip, dating back to 1902, this is the one I’d revisit. The chicken Parm had tender meat with an airy coating, the meatball was flavorful and fluffy, the red sauce tasted like fresh tomatoes. My lunch special came with a side of cooked broccoli rabe, which I appreciated to cut through the fat, and a Caesar salad with plenty of freshly shaved Parmesan.

But you really need to sit at one of the two sidewalk tables here because inside feels a bit like an episode of Miami Vice. The bar is accented with blue neon light, including a sign with the restaurant’s name glowing on a back wall, giving it a weird clubby vibe that feels incongruous amongst kitschy awnings and hilltown murals of another iteration. A back room, taken over with a large mural of an Italian pizza, is easier on the eyes.

Rating: Two-and-a-half meatballs out of three

Da Gennaro

This corner spot has some of the most lively sidewalk seating on the strip and thus is always crowded, and probably always will be no matter what food they serve. It’s owned by the same people at Gelso & Grand and has a breeziness about it, even inside, because of all the open windows letting in the warm early autumn air.

Octopus is one of the hardest proteins to cook and it wasn’t a surprise that they were rubbery, though the farro risotto that accompanied them was perfectly al dente. The spaghetti sauce also had a metallic aftertaste, the spaghetti it came on was overcooked and gummy, and the meatballs were just pulverized protein. I couldn’t see myself coming back even to sit at a sidewalk table, but the man next to me dipping his side of french fries into his lasagna seemed perfectly happy.

Rating: One-and-a-half meatballs out of three

Umberto’s Clam House

In a twist, the clam house had the best meatballs of the bunch. Soft and porky, with enough texture to have a little bit of chew, they delivered handily. The shellfish, unfortunately, did not. Chilled clams on the half shell were unpleasantly fishy, while the linguine’s clam sauce was nearly tasteless.

The zestiest part of Umberto’s is really its backstory. It earned its place in New York City lore in 1972 when it became the setting for a mafia-related assassination of "Crazy Joe" Gallo. That happened in its first location, across the street where Da Gennaro is now, but the notoriousness still lingers, and it capitalizes on its mobster associations in some ways with boasts that stars from The Sopranos and Goodfellas ate there. Like most spots on this strip, the tables outside, set with blue-checked tablecloths, are the place to be.

Rating: One-and-a-half meatballs out of three

La Mela

Every inch of wall space is graced with framed photos, some of which are recognizable celebrities like Keanu Reeves and Bill Murray, many of which are customers or the owners’ family members. Large plasma TV screens show another round of photos. The waiters gently tease us for taking so many photos of our food and aren’t unpleasantly pushy about getting us to order more. The prevailing atmosphere is one of homeyness.

Fettuccine Alfredo has been one of my favorite dishes since childhood and I hardly ever allow myself to order it, as it’s such a gut bomb. This version was a treat, with simple, creamy sauce and well-cooked pasta. The meatballs and red sauce had a slightly acrid aftertaste; they looked a little singed on the edges. A large party next to us had the family-style menu, which included heaping plates of seemingly every kind of pasta draped in various cream sauces. This is the place to go when you want to overload on carbs.

Rating: Two meatballs out of three

little italy
italian-american food