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Secrets of New York

The ultimate insider's guide to the best-kept secrets of NYC's must-see places and buzzed-about people.

Inside Little Italy's Most Precious Blood Church at

Inside Little Italy's Most Precious Blood Church at 109 Mulberry St. (Credit: Flickr/Tom Thai)

outdoors

Secrets of Little Italy

195 Grand St 10013

Now a tourist attraction with shrinking borders and disappearing remnants of its past, Little Italy was once the epicenter of Italian American culture, encompassing 30 city blocks in its heyday.

Though not devoid of poverty, crime and overpopulation, it was a neighborhood defined by tradition. From the mandolin players to the puppeteers, the bakers to the butchers, it was a direct translation of life in southern Italy, but with hope for a better future.

Original businesses and authentic restaurants are few and far between -- some highlights include Angelo's; the oldest restaurant still in operation; Lombardi's, America's first pizzeria; and Di Palo's, an old school specialty food store. Even if its former glory is fading, it is possible to have an old New York experience in Little Italy... if you know where to look.

For more history of Little Italy, visit the Italian American Museum at 155 Mulberry St., open on weekends and by appointment.

While the fight to preserve Little Italy's past

Credit: Courtesy of the Italian American Museum

The corner of Grand and Mulberry holds a piece of Little Italy's past

While the fight to preserve Little Italy's past has been a struggle, and many structures that were once key to the community are gone (like the original police precinct, now condos), a past society's cornerstone still stands on the corner of Grand and Mulberry.

From the outside, original signage for Banca Stabile, the bank of Little Italy that operated from 1882 to 1932, is easily visible.

Inside, money exchanged hands to fund the voyages of thousands of Italian immigrants to America on steamships, including the S.S. Giuseppe Verdi, which carried 70,000 Italians to the U.S. between 1914 and 1928.

Since 2008, the former bank has been home to the Italian American Museum, a tribute to the history of the community as well as to the bank itself. The original building interior, plus teller windows, vaults, steamship tickets and bank statements can be found inside, along with proof of important neighborhood clients, including Antonio Ferrara, who founded the famed Ferrara Bakery & Cafe across the street.

When Little Italy was at its peak in

Credit: Flickr/Paul Kelly

Don't expect to find many Sicilians on Mulberry Street

When Little Italy was at its peak in Italian residents (about 10,000 in 1910), to the outside eye, it was just a neighborhood filled with people from Italy. But within, it was clearly divided by region. As one family moved onto a street, their relatives and neighbors from back home followed. The result was a very Neopolitan Mulberry Street, Sicilians on Elizabeth Street and a mix of immigrants from Calabria and Puglia on Mott Street.

In the 1920s and '30s, organ grinders filled

Credit: Courtesy of the Italian American Museum

Well-dressed musical monkeys used to fill the streets

In the 1920s and '30s, organ grinders filled the streets of Little Italy, playing their music and toting around well-dressed monkey companions... until Fiorello H. La Guardia became mayor, that is.

La Guardia, who grew up in Arizona, was the target of discrimination when an Italian organ grinder with a monkey came to town. He wrote in his autobiography that the other children associated him with the low-class musician due to his ethnicity, and yelled racial slurs while La Guardia's father invited the man over for dinner.

Seeing the monkey-toting organ grinders as a negative stereotype, La Guardia banned them in 1936. Officially, he blamed traffic congestion. The ban was later repealed, and the musical acts did return to the streets until more modern forms of entertainment took over.

106 Mulberry St., which is now a gift

Credit: Courtesy of the Italian American Museum

People used to head to Little Italy for elaborate puppet shows

106 Mulberry St., which is now a gift shop, was the site of elaborate puppet shows put on by the Matteo family beginning in the 1920s. Electricians by day, the Matteos brought the traditional Sicilian form of entertainment to Little Italy, acting out beloved Italian tales such as the adventures of Orlando Furioso to captivated audiences until the business died out in the 1950s. Today, the puppet collection is in the hands of the Italian American Museum, where some are on display.

The hero of Little Italy's mafia-infested times was

Credit: Courtesy of the Italian American Museum

A hero was born from Little Italy's mafia-infested times

The hero of Little Italy's mafia-infested times was NYPD officer Giuseppe Petrosino, a trailblazer in law enforcement's fight against organized crime and founder of the NYPD's Bomb Squad. Petrosino was named the first Italian-American head of the homicide division by police commissioner-turned-president Theodore Roosevelt. He was assassinated in Palermo, Sicily, however, on a "secret" mission that was leaked by police commissioner Theodore A. Bingham and printed by the New York Herald before his trip, tipping off his killers. Upon his body's return to New York in 1909, mourning flags were flown from hundreds of windows in Little Italy. He was memorialized at St. Patrick's Cathedral and buried at Calvary Cemetery in Woodside.

Kenmare Square, a small park on the Little Italy border where Kenmare Street, Lafayette Street, and Cleveland Place meet, was renamed Petrosino Square in his honor. A plaque will be dedicated there on Oct. 29 at 11 a.m.

Many have visited Little Italy's Most Precious Blood

Credit: Flickr/Tom Thai

There's a bloody tradition behind the Blood Church

Many have visited Little Italy's Most Precious Blood Church, but few visitors know the tradition behind its name. The church at 109 Mulberry St. is a replica of the Duomo di San Gennaro in Naples, Italy, and its moniker is a tribute to a tradition held there.

Legend has it that Saint Januarius (San Gennaro), bishop of Naples, was ordered to be beheaded by emperor Diocletian because of his Christian beliefs. The story continues that a woman saved his blood just after he was killed. The dried blood is kept in the church in Naples, and thousands gather every year to watch it undergo the ritual of liquefaction. If the blood fails to turn to liquid, Italians believe that Mount Vesuvius will erupt within the year. (Don't worry; it successfully liquefied in 2014.) The lore and tradition followed immigrants to New York.

Infamous New Yorker John Gotti, boss of the

Credit: Flickr / Andy Carvin

One of its shoe stores has a mobster past

Infamous New Yorker John Gotti, boss of the Gambino crime family, housed his headquarters at 247 Mulberry St. in Little Italy during the late 1970s and 1980s, in an apartment above the Ravenite Social Club. It was here that the FBI was able to obtain surveillance footage against him.

Today, the club is a shoe store called Cydwoq. If you go in, note the old, cracked tile floor, marked with red rosettes-- it's the store's only remnant from its mobster days.

New York's first epicenter of Italian immigration --

Credit: Courtesy of the Giglio Society of East Harlem

Little Italy used to be way uptown

New York's first epicenter of Italian immigration -- and the area that was originally referred to as Little Italy -- was way uptown from the Little Italy that survives today.

East Harlem, now one of the most predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods in the city, was home to the highest number of Italian Americans in the city-- more than 100,000-- in the 1930s. Many of them came from Brusciano, near Naples.

There are very few traces of East Harlem's Italian roots, but the Giglio Society of East Harlem works to preserve its memory, and the Giglio Feast, run there since the early 1900s, is still celebrated on the second Sunday in August.

Americans who have traveled abroad know the shock

Credit: Flickr/avlxyz

The meatball as we know it wasn't born in Europe

Americans who have traveled abroad know the shock and horror of finding out that the most popular Italian American dish, spaghetti and meatballs, does not actually exist in Italy.

While Italians do have "polpette," those are much tinier versions of the meatballs we know, and are made with a higher bread-to-meat ratio and never eaten with pasta.

So how did meatballs become a signature Italian American dish? The answer comes from Little Italy. Southern Italian immigrants could hardly afford meat at home, eating it maybe once a year on a special occasion. When they came to New York and could afford it, they went meat-happy, and ate it with as many dishes as possible. Gradually, as is the American way, their polpette got bigger and bigger, and became a favorite dish at Little Italy eateries and elsewhere.

While the story goes that Italian immigrants left

Credit: Courtesy of the Italian American Museum

Italian immigrants left the area to flee a mafia group

While the story goes that Italian immigrants left Little Italy for bigger, better living conditions-- and that is true -- some left to flee the Black Hand, or "La Mano Nera," a mafia group in New York City by way of southern Italy that was known for extortion. The group was so prevalent that the New York Times labeled Prince Street "The Black Hand block."

Pictured here is a real example of their common tactic -- sending threatening letters with violent drawings -- on display at the Italian American Museum. The group's name came from their way of marking money and letters anonymously with a black hand print. (Of course, this no longer worked once modern-day forensic fingerprinting came into use.)