Don’t let my last name fool you; I’ve got enough Sicilian and Neapolitan in me to turn my blood into marinara. With a majority of my heritage being Italian, it gives me agita when I overhear someone referring to Little Italy as a tourist trap. Sure, the annual Feast of San Gennaro attracts quite the crowd and New York’s “best pizza” can be found on every corner, but don’t let that distract you from what makes this neighborhood so beloved after all of these centuries.
I’m not saying the grub on Grand Street is tantamount to a Sicilian carbonara or a Margherita slice from Naples, but there’s nowhere else I’d rather eat when craving a taste of home. Giant slabs of meat and a variety of hefty cheese blocks fill up the shelf (and ceiling) space in the long-standing grocery Di Palo’s. Artisanal curds have been sold at this family-owned shop since 1925, not to mention a slew of specialty items like panettone, biscotti, and a range of olive oils and pastas you won’t find in your local supermarket. You’ll never master your grandma’s recipes, but surely you can settle for stocking up on the next best thing: sublime marinated mushrooms, roasted red peppers, and meatballs the size of your fist.
Just next door is the 125-year-old Alleva Dairy, home to the freshest ricotta this side of the pond. I usually come in here around lunchtime, though, for a loaded sandwich. My latest pick for a not-sad desk lunch? A classic provolone and Genoa salami panini with a 99 percent meat–to–1 percent cheese ratio, just the way we Italians like it.
Although we’ve already said arrivederci to the holidays, the Christmas decor in Little Italy is something to behold any time of year. Each street is canopied by red and green garland, and life-size nutcrackers welcome shoppers into their stores, while the entire neighborhood lights up like an over-the-top Christmas tree (no brush, shrub, or sapling is left unadorned with twinkling bulbs).
And there are plenty of spots to hit up for some postholiday retail therapy. Consider Fueguia 1833, a fragrance boutique that uses natural and hard-to-attain ingredients to create unique personal scents. The store itself is a work of art: Geometric-patterned floors complement the dramatic ceiling-to-floor blue velvet curtains, and crystal bottles filled with amber liquid sit on wooden blocks/thrones like snifters on a bar. It’s the only place where I walk inside to get a breath of fresh air.
For a different kind of scent, walk four blocks down to Mulberry Street Cigars, where the strong, woody aromas stir up memories of my grandfather. Available in different sizes and
ranging from mild sweet- to medium-bodied flavors, you won’t find a better hand-rolled cigar anywhere else. Two tribal statues guard the entrance and welcome customers into a quaint shop filled top to bottom with Torpedos, Churchills, and Gordos, all stacked neatly in the wooden boxes Grandpa Emanuele would unearth on special occasions.
Channel your inner Soprano at the establishment many an episode of the HBO drama was filmed in, the Mulberry Street Bar. Start your evening with a classic Manhattan while sitting at the same wooden bar top where Andy Garcia shared a drink with Sofia Coppola in the final (albeit the worst) installment of The Godfather trilogy. Most of the interior hasn’t been updated since opening in 1908, but the reputable bar has refreshed its jukebox and checkered-tablecloth look with more contemporary offerings like karaoke nights, weekly happy hours, and a carb-filled menu that usually has me licking my plate.
For a classier tipple, you can’t go wrong at The Ship on Lafayette Street. Slip into a large booth—each is upholstered in sailcloth—at this nautical-themed speakeasy and order one of my favorite cocktails, the American Trilogy, which is stirred with rye whiskey, orange bitters, applejack, and some notes of brown sugar. Snap a photo of the avant-garde light fixtures, made from parts of a shipping vessel, to complete your boozy under-the-sea night out.
Nightcaps in Little Italy are usually sweet, not spiked. After trying a classic piece of New York–style cheesecake at the one-and-only Ferrara, you’ll be dreaming about it for weeks. The famed bakery has been filling cannolis and dipping biscottis since 1892, hand-making everything daily to guarantee only the freshest and most decadent desserts in NYC. Nonnas keen on never letting anyone go hungry are especially fond of the shop, since it’s open as late as midnight on weekends.
And what to do after your late-night snack? Belt out a tune at karaoke boutique Baby Grand, of course. The tiny sing-along bar offers private rooms and a never-ending song list. My advice? Try going on a weekday, so you can exercise those vocals without having to wait on line or perform in front of a crowd (because some Andrea Bocelli attempts should only be done in the shower).
Craving your own Little Italy excursion? Our experience advisers will make a day of it, just for you.