My father grew up in Little Italy here in New York City. His grandparents were Italian immigrants from Sicily & Naples. They lived on Mott Street. Back then the area was filled with bakeries, bars, restaurants, all owned by Italian immigrants.
His entire block was family. They were all within ear shot so if he got in trouble, the whole family would know in seconds. He grew up with kids who became mobsters as adults. They called my dad “Sally” in the most masculine way possible. I imagine my dad’s mobster friends to be almost like cartoons. They’re a bit bigger than average and wear pinstriped suits all the time. They always have a cigar and a gun on their person. And of course, their noses are a little too big for their face. This last characteristic is true of all Little Italy residents and their offspring.
I wish I could have seen Little Italy at this time like how some people say “I wish I lived in the 60s! The fashion was amazing and the music was so much better,” but they always forget the casual sexism and the forthright racism. I wish I could have seen Little Italy in the 70s when everyone was poor, crime in the city was at an all time high, and Italian mobsters were running around. The food would have been amazing.
I went down to Little Italy for the San Gennaro Feast. When my dad was a teenager he worked at the Feast. He’d make and sell chilled red wine with peaches while hitting on girls and getting into trouble. Not mobster kind of trouble, just general teenager asshole trouble.
My grandmother used to be the dealer for the poker games. Think about that power! She controlled the games with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. What a badass.
This year I decided to go to the feast with my Aunt Donna, my Uncle Richie, and my cousin Rachel. My dad refused to go. He said that it’s changed too much and he had enough of it after working at it for years. I wanted to show him that nothing has changed and that Little Italy is equal parts The Godfather and My Cousin Vinny to this day!
Well there were definitely some old Italian men in wife beaters and gold chains. There was also the modern guido in attendance, unfortunately.
There were two things in specific though that offended me greatly at the Feast, beyond the guidos. Number one: potatoes. Why the fuck are there potatoes on sticks at an Italian feast? The only time I want a potato is when that shit is in my gnocchi. Don’t fucking give me potatoes. Give me every iteration of pizza you can think of. A fucking breadstick, but potatoes? Irish people get a whole damn holiday. The entire month of March is every shade of green, each one clashing with the next. Green bagels, green beer. Green everything! Get your potatoes out of my day!
Number two: margaritas. I was never so angry to see a margarita in all my years. What the fuck are margs doing there? It kills me to say this, but the last thing I wanted on this beautiful, warm day was tequila. Get your margs out of my Italian festival. Get me some damn Peroni, vino, and limencello stat.
After screaming at the vendors my cousin and I deemed unworthy of being there, we decided to grab food. A nice big bowl of pasta right in the middle of the day. My aunt and uncle knew exactly where to go to get the most authentic Italian food in Little Italy.
At this point, I was already two Peronis in, and approximately 14 zeppolis were bouncing around in my tummy. Oh, and there was a cannoli as well. It’s called a feast for a reason! I ate like I was bulking up for winter.
We get to the restaurant and my uncle immediately starts chatting with the guy yelling at the crowd to eat at this restaurant. The guy was like the restaurant’s hype girl, but it was really a dude with a thick New York accident and 7 crucifixes hanging around his neck screaming, “Everyone else on this block is Olive Garden! Get your fresh homemade pasta here!”
My Uncle Richie married into some real New York Italians. He is some percentage Italian, but he also has some Polish, German, and whatever else too. He has an immense appreciation for our food, but mostly our drink. Actually, he’s a fan of every culture’s drink. He’s the kind of guy that brings his own beer cozies to not only barbecues, but even Sunday dinner. There is not a single difference between sober and drunk Uncle Richie. He’ll talk your ear off and he’ll know half your family personally. The guy knows every person in this damn state, I’m convinced of it. He’s a people person.
So of course, he starts talking to the hype guy.
“Hey bro how you doin? I’m just here wit my bootiful wife, daughtah, and niece. Look at em!”
My cousin says, “Dad stop.”
But we all love it. Classic Uncle Richie.
The hype guy comes over and starts talking to us. My uncle continues. “Alright bro, you from around here? You grow up in Little Italy?”
And Mr. Italian 305 says “Oh yeah. I know everyone and everything about Little Italy. This is my ma’s gravy here you know that?”
“Do you know Sal Cipriano?” He points to me, “that’s her fodder (read: father) and my brudder (read: brother) in law. He grew up on…what street was it Ro? What street oh man what street…”
“Mott,” I interject.
“Mott Street! That’s it. You know him?”
“Oh Sal? Oh yeah I know Sal…”
The guy walks away and starts hollering at the crowd but that was a good enough answer for my uncle.
“You hear that Ro? He knows your fodder!”
He does not know my fodder.
After that, we went on an adventure to find where my dad grew up. This was a harder task than anticipated. We start walking and I noticed a shift. The mom and pop restaurants were slipping away. They were replaced with organic food stores. As we continue our walk I took note of a few trendy brunch spots with shaggy haired waiters and free-range eggs.
I’m determined to find my dad’s apartment. He lived there with his family and even with my mom for a bit before they decided to move out to the country, aka Long Island.
I was a little emotional when we finally found it. Right across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, just like they always told me. And right next to a juice bar and a yoga studio…they never told me about that part.
I looked around and I realized there were yuppies everywhere. There were women feeding their kids cheesy quinoa and kale salad at the café on the corner.
THIS is where they filmed part of The Godfather?!
The bar mobsters inhabited for, ya know, “taken care of the family business” is now a restaurant with a prix fixe menu?!
They used to be on that block. Living in those buildings and drinking scotch in what is now a gluten free coffee house. These guys used to sit in the backroom of those bars and say things like (please listen to The Godfather theme for the full effect),
“Dominic, I think you know why we brought you here today. No? You did bad my little Paisano. You betrayed the family. And now, you gotta pay the consequences. Vinny, come over here with the stuff. Look I don’t like this just as much as you do. You think this is enjoyable for me? I’d much rather be at home with my family than with you. But Dominic, you screwed up. You screwed the family business. You were part of the family, and you betrayed us for the Ricotta brothers. And now, Vinny is going to cut your bawls off and throw it in some penne alla vodka…ok Domi? (He kisses Dominic on the forehead, because of course) Good.”
That’s what used to happen in the back room of the place you dub, “the best soy latte in town”
Now, you hear (please listen to an insufferable Katy Perry song for the full effect),
“Laura, I think you know why I asked you to come to SoulCycle with me today and grab a quick juice after. Oh you don’t? Well this is awkward. Um well, when we were at Morgan’s party you wronged me, you know?
Um, excuse me can you put more spinach in that? Thanks.
Look, I don’t like this just as much as you do. This isn’t like fun for me. I’d much rather be working on my food blog than doing this but Laura, you effed up. I don’t like to talk like that. Look, I think we should get Equinox memberships at different locations. Ok Laur? Ugh. (She hugs Laura because of course) Good.”
I took a picture in front of my dad’s apartment building that was still in tact. Now those apartments go for $2400 a month when they once were rent controlled at $300. I will never forgive my parents for not keeping that apartment around for me so I could live in trendy Lower East Side paradise. I’d like to think that those cartoonish Italian mob men I see in my head still lurk around the neighborhood scaring the living shit out of the women walking around in Lululemon.
“Who the fuck is Lululemon and what happened to Lou’s bakery?”
“Little Italian” was originally performed at the 2016 United Solo Theatre Festival as part of the bestselling one-woman show, Shit.