Albanese Meats and Poultry
Lobster Tail at Ferrara's
Epistrophy's Avacado and Bresaola Salad
All images and text © Nina Roberts
Little Italy's Hidden Delights
Published in The Boston Globe, October 7, 2007
Little Italy may seem too touristy these days, far removed
from the lively, 25-plus block Lower Manhattan neighborhood it once was,
but don't write it off. The area is still home to wonderful Italian eateries
and shops, from modern to old world.
The finest dining is at Peasant on Elizabeth Street. The upscale, eight-year-old
restaurant blends in with the new, gentrified part of Little Italy,
sometimes called NoLita (north of Little Italy), a realtor-created term
no native would ever use.
"This is still Little Italy!" declares Frankie De Carlo, Peasant's chef
and owner, who moved into the neighborhood in 1979. In the open kitchen,
De Carlo pours extra virgin olive oil into a skillet full of sizzling
broccoli rabe and says that he is proud of Peasant's quality ingredients,
explaining that he doesn't overpower their taste by mixing in too many
flavors. "We make dishes the way they were made 200 years ago, very
Peasant feels like a chic, urban barn with wooden tables, warm candlelight,
and smells of roasting meats wafting from the open fire.
The waiters amiably explain the menu, which is in Italian. The signature
dish, porchetta arrosto, for example, is roasted suckling pig served
with fingerling potatoes cooked in a buttery cream sauce for $29. There
is a crab risotto for $28, and the grilled orata, or sea bass, over
fennel stalks for $26.
Peasant has more than 100 artisanal wines, from $22 to $260 a bottle.
Dulcinea Benson, who buys the wine, is constantly challenged to stay
ahead of the savvy clientele. Downstairs is a raucous, grotto-esque
wine bar where loud music plays, and candles illuminate the long, crowded
communal tables. The menu here is nearly the same as upstairs, with
23 wines by the glass, at $7 to $20.
One block north, amid boutiques selling $200 jeans, is Albanese Meat
Market, a butcher shop that looks much as it must have when proprietor
Moe Albanese's father opened it in 1924. Martin Scorsese, who grew up
on the block, filmed a scene here for his first movie, "Who's That Knocking
at My Door."
Sal's, the nine-table, no-frills eatery on the corner of Mott and Broome
streets, is frequented by lifelong residents. Here the Triolo brothers,
all three born in Naples, serve an authentic Neapolitan menu at unbeatable
prices. A traditional Neapolitan calzone - deep fried, not baked - is
a specialty at $6. "I have people coming from all over to get the fried
calzone," Francesco Triolo, the oldest, said recently as he ate lunch
under a hanging plastic leg of prosciutto. If deep-fried calzone is
too much for your arteries, Sal's serves a fresh arugula salad, homemade
soups, and 21 pasta dishes, including the anchovy-free spaghetti puttanesca
with plum tomatoes, capers, black olives, and garlic for $10.
Just north of Sal's is the third-generation Parisi Bakery, a crammed
bread and sandwich shop with a lunch line of police officers, firefighters,
and utility workers that runs out the door. The Italian combo, a dense
concentration of freshly cut Italian meats, cheeses, and peppers on
Parisi bread, is $8. Next door at Epistrophy, a mainly European ex-pat
clientele sips coffee or wine while chatting, reading, or taking advantage
of the WiFi. Luca Fadda and Georgia Zedda are Sardinians who opened
Epistrophy two years ago, naming it after the Thelonious Monk song.
Main courses such as the boneless lamb stewed with olives, potatoes,
and fresh herbs and braised pork with vermentino, mushrooms, rosemary,
and served with fregola pasta are made from Georgia's mother's recipes
and priced at $13-$14.
On the very northern and southern edges of the neighborhood are Emilio's
Ballato on Houston Street and Forlini's on Baxter. Ballato is run by
Emilio Vitolo, the chef and owner born in the Campagna region of Naples.
"I do this because it's in my blood," said Vitolo just before rolling
up his sleeves to make fresh mozzarella, "and I like customers that
understand great food." Ballato is a calm space with 10 four-person
tables and a backroom for celebrities - including George Clooney that
night - with an unmarked entrance around the corner. Meat entrees are
$18-$35, pasta $16-$19.
Forlini's, just below Canal Street, now considered Chinatown, is a must
for anyone who wants to experience old world Little Italy. The restaurant
has a delightfully disorienting atmosphere - cushioned, pleather booths
of muted pink, white tablecloths, dark wood walls adorned with oil paintings,
and waiters in black suits - circa 1956, the year Forlini's moved here.
The bustling lunch crowd is primarily from nearby courthouses, and some
judges have booths reserved for them. Either Big Joe, Little Joe, or
Derek Forlini, who are first cousins and third-generation owners, greet
If a trip to Little Italy isn't complete without eating on Mulberry
Street, which is touristy but historic, the two best restaurants, each
with entrees in the $20-$45 range, are Il Cortile and Angelo's. The
104-year-old Angelo's has a visible kitchen and waiters who sport white
jackets, black bow ties, and drape white cloths over their forearms.
The portions are huge, and the front room's ambience evokes thoughts
of Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. Il Cortile is a sprawling "creative
Italian" restaurant, decorated with Roman statues, artificial flowers,
brass fixtures, and a mural depicting a rollicking Roman scene. One
menu item that should not be missed is pepite di gnocchi, four large
gnocchi stuffed with chicken, spinach, and mascarpone in a creamy tomato
sauce for $22. A less expensive, family-style option on Mulberry Street
is Caff³ Sorrento, which serves braciola di maiale calabrese, not on
the menu but prepared on request, a pork chop served with a fennel-infused
sausage, covered in onions, red peppers, olives, and garlic for $14.50.
Italian pastries abound in the area, and one bakery with a loyal following
is La Bella Ferrara. The smell of baking almond, anise, and hazelnut
hits anyone walking in the door since all baking is done in the basement.
The store is known for its sfogliatella, a flaky, crunchy pastry filled
with orange ricotta. There are five types of cannoli, biscotti, and
24 kinds of cookies that sell for $7.50-$12.50 a pound. Caff³ Roma next
door also carries fresh pastries, made daily in the kitchen. The antiquated,
dark green and wood cafe hasn't modernized. If it did, Buddy Zeccardi,
proprietor and Little Italy native insists, "then it wouldn't be Caff³
Visible through Caff³ Roma's windows is Umberto's Clam House, made famous
by the 1972 hit on "Crazy" Joe Gallo. But before any Mafia enthusiast
gets ridiculed by Umberto's staff for asking where the shooting occurred,
they should know Umberto's is in a new location, having moved from the
northwest corner of Mulberry and Hester streets. Another vestige of
Little Italy's Mafia past can be found in a trendy shoe shop at 247
Mulberry St. The tile floor was that of former mob boss John Gotti's
Ravenite Social Club.
Ferrara's on Grand Street, a relaxing cafe popular with tourists who
stop in for a cappuccino and sweet treat, was established in 1892. The
counters full of pastries and cakes are piled so high with torrone,
Italian nougat, that Maria Coiro, 90, can barely be seen behind them.
Coiro, who was born a block away "without a midwife" and works here
part time, says simply of Ferrara's fare, "It's got the best." Selections
include the divine but unfortunately named lobster tail, a flaky, crunchy
pastry shell filled with rich Bavarian cream for $5.25. Waiters in black
pants and white jackets serve pastries and coffee at tables.
The heart of the neighborhood holds a trio of treasures, all within
30 seconds of one another: Piemonte Ravioli Co., Alleva, and DiPalo's.
Piemonte sells a creative variety of fresh and dried homemade pastas,
such as black olive tortellone with cheese, lobster ravioli, and porcini
mushroom fettuccine. Alleva opened in 1892, which makes it the oldest
cheese store in the country, according to Bob Alleva, the fourth-generation
owner. Besides the mozzarella made fresh every day, Alleva carries olives,
meats, and prosciutto bread.
DiPalo's carries more than 300 cheeses, some of which hang in balls
from the ceiling next to Italian sausages. The tiny store is crammed
with olive oils, vinegars, grains, jams, pastas, and sauces. Regulars
of all stripes are greeted by name when they walk in the door. Luigi
DiPalo, one of three siblings who run the fourth-generation store, says,
"I've been behind the counter for 57 years, but I'm only 56." His lifetime
of work hasn't diminished his passion for Italian products. When he
travels to Italy in search of new ones, not only does he insist on seeing
the farm, the animals, and how the operation works, "I must break bread
with the farmer," he said.
Across the street is E. Rossi & Co., which was started one door down
by proprietor Ernie Rossi's grandfather, who published music from Naples.
Today it's a general store that sells all things Italian: soccer jerseys,
espresso and pasta machines, religious figurines, and, in keeping with
the changing times, "Kiss Me I'm 1/2 Italian" baby bibs.
194 Elizabeth St.
369 Broome St.
198 Mott St.
200 Mott St.
55 East Houston St.
93 Baxter St.
146 Mulberry St.
125 Mulberry St.
132 Mulberry St.
La Bella Ferrara
108 Mulberry St.
385 Broome St.
195 Grand St.
Albanese Meats and Poultry
238 Elizabeth St.
200 Grand St.
188 Grand St.
Piemonte Ravioli Co.
190 Grand St.
E. Rossi & Co.
193 Grand St.