New York City is one of the biggest, boldest and most dynamic cities in the world. To me, it’s a city of many villages. Part of that can be attributed to the dramatic and enduring history of immigration in New York City, specifically Italian immigration. At the turn of the 20th century, Italians disembarked from ocean liners and scattered across all five boroughs, but the greatest concentration of Italian immigrants landed on the streets of Lower Manhattan. The village life of Southern Italy was transmitted to the developing immigrant neighborhoods in the city of dreams.
This spirit of village cohesion transformed Lower Manhattan, colorfully painting the area with beautiful festivals, regional food and vibrant culture. More than a century later, as the neighborhoods blossomed into villages of their own, you can still see, taste and feel the lasting impact of the Italian people. Today, as I slowly wander through the storied neighborhoods and different boroughs, I’m constantly discovering something new, and it feels like Italy is never too far away.
If you’re looking to experience New York City from a unique perspective, here is how you can search for Italy in Lower Manhattan.
Explore Unique Cultural Sights
At the southern tip of Manhattan in Battery Park, overlooking the Hudson River, you can admire the statue of the Italian-American saint, Mother Cabrini. This significant statue has a fitting view of both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, honoring the patron saint of immigrants.
Battery Park is a short subway ride to Canal Street, one of the original gateways to Lower Manhattan’s Little Italy. On the corner of Canal St and Baxter St you’ll find the Church of the Most Precious Blood, a church built for the rapidly growing Italian population in Manhattan in the late 1800s. This site bears great significance as it is the National Shrine Church to San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples whose feast day is still celebrated in New York City every September.
After paying tribute to San Gennaro, it’s only a five-minute walk to the heart of Little Italy. Here, you need to visit the oldest Italian gift shop in the neighborhood, E Rossi & Company. A family-owned neighborhood landmark, E Rossi & Company has been selling various articoli Italiani since 1910. A wave of nostalgia will rush into your heart after taking a spin through this store, and it’s wonderful to see a shop like this continue to survive.
Once you’ve purchased the Italian merchandise you didn’t know you needed, make your way over to Broome St where a contemporary Soho loft is home of the Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA). CIMA’s goal is to “promote public appreciation and advance the study of modern and contemporary Italian art in the United States and internationally.” Each year, CIMA puts on an exhibit that examines the work of modern Italian artists, providing these creatives with a rare opportunity to showcase their work in the U.S.
Walk northbound on Mulberry St and you’ll reach the steps of the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. This church was the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York until 1879. A hidden secret lies underneath this spectacular church: catacombs, a rare example in the United States. Quietly open to the public, you can take a candlelight tour to see the 35 family crypts and 5 clerical vaults.
About a half mile north, crossing over Houston St, you’ll wander into the locally beloved, world famous Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. On the east side of the park, standing tall and proud, is a bronze statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the iconic leaders of the Italian Unification. Created by sculptor Giovanni Turini, who was a volunteer member of Garibaldi’s Fourth Regiment in 1866, this statue was donated and dedicated by New York’s Italian-American community to Washington Square Park on the sixth anniversary of Garibaldi’s death in 1888.
After waving arrivederci to Garibaldi, a ten-minute walk heading west through Washington Square Park and into the West Village neighborhood, you will encounter The Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii. Staffed by the Scalabrini brothers, this parish was established in 1892 to serve the Italian-American immigrants who settled in this area. Mathew Del Gaudio, an Italian-American architect himself, built a Romanesque style building to remind early parishioners of Italy. It is the only remaining church in the Manhattan borough that has a scheduled mass in Italian every Sunday.
The Best Places To Eat & Drink Italian
Lower Manhattan has an abundance in Italian restaurants, delis, cafes and bars, each one just as terrific as the next. Personally, I have grown to love a number of places achieving sprezzatura, like all fantastic Italian establishments do.
An institution in Greenwich Village since 1927, Caffe Reggio was the first coffee shop to serve a cappuccino in the United States. Not only does it serve quality espresso, it’s also home to an incredible art collection dating back to the Italian Renaissance. With paintings from the school of Caravaggio to Medici family artifacts, you will be ordering a cappuccino with a side of history.
The perfect marriage between Italy and New York is found at the city’s vibrant Italian delis. Down in Little Italy off of Mulberry St, you’ll find two of the oldest surviving Italian specialty stores: Di Palo’s Fine Foods and Alleva Dairy. A fifth-generation family business, Di Palo’s has been serving delicacies like cured meats, cheeses, and wines from every Italian region since 1925. Down the street, you’ll find Alleva Dairy — the oldest cheese shop in America which has been making fresh mozzarella and ricotta since 1892. North of Little Italy in the East Village, you’ll find a tiny but mighty gem called Russo’s Mozzarella and Pasta. Since 1908, fresh mozzarella has been made daily in the basement and you can grab your pick of fresh pasta or classic Italian sandwiches. If it’s handmade sausages and sauces you’re looking for, head over to Faicco’s Italian Specialties in the West Village.
While Italy may be the homeland of Amaro, Manhattan is home to notable cocktail bars that specialize in this bitter phenomenon. Bar Pisellino in the West Village and Caffe Dante in Greenwich Village are two popular Italian bars specialized in aperitive culture and contemporary amaro-based cocktails. A unique cocktail experience can be found at Amor y Amargo in the heart of the East Village. When the doors opened in 2011, this outpost became the first cocktail bar in the United States dedicated solely to bitters and Italian amari. This old school bar goes beyond serving up delicious cocktails, it’s a decadent affair.
Naturally, pasta and pizza are always top of mind. On the border of Soho and Greenwich Village, you can find some of the best Neapolitan pizza in the big apple made by a passionate pizzaiolo napoletano. Ciro Lovine’s Song’E Napule will launch you into insatiable Italian flavors in a lively atmosphere. If you are craving pasta, specifically the four Roman pastas, I get my fix at Lupa Osteria Romana on Thompson St in Greenwich Village. The bucatini all’amatriciana and rigatoni alla gricia with a glass of Cesanese wine always transport me back to the Eternal City. For Maccheroni alla Norma, go straight to Soho and grab a table at Piccola Cucina Osteria for a Sicilian getaway in the heart of Lower Manhattan.
What is la dolce vita without the dolce? Since 1892, Ferrara’s Bakery and Cafe in Little Italy claims to be the first espresso bar in the United States, still owned and operated by the same family. Their famous cannoli and sfogliatelle are not to be missed. If you find yourself in the East Village, my favorite spot is Veniero’s Pasticceria and Caffe on 11th Street. The same Italian family from Sorrento has been producing delicious Italian pastries since 1894. My personal recommendation is to try the Pignoli cookies, they are perfect!