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Manhattan's Little Italy is very little, and not very Italian
[NEW YORK] On Grand Street, the Banh Mi Saigon Vietnamese sandwich shop sits just past the Baz Bagel and Restaurant, which serves US$14 bagels with Nova and scallion cream cheese. Down the road stands the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.
This is Little Italy in Manhattan. Or what's left of it.
Once home to thousands of Italians and Italian-Americans, Little Italy has long since shrunk to a name on a street map and - at most - a three-block stretch of red-sauce joints on Mulberry Street patronised almost entirely by tourists.
For every handful of Italian restaurants, there is at least one souvenir shop stocked with I (HEART) New York T-shirts, Yankee ski caps and kitschy New York licence plates that read "Bada Bing", "Fuhgeddaboudit" or "Donald Trump".
On Saturday morning, the old heart of the neighbourhood took another hit when a fire broke out at Angelo's of Mulberry St, said to be the oldest Italian restaurant in the area. Damage from the blaze - caused by "accidental, careless discard of smoking materials", the Fire Department said - is expected to keep the restaurant shuttered for months.
"Angelo's was the best one," said Gustavo Fernandez, who works at another Italian restaurant on the same stretch of Mulberry Street. "But I'm a New Yorker; I don't come to this neighbourhood to eat."
The biggest surge of Italian immigrants to the United States lasted from the 1880s to the 1920s, according to Joseph Scelsa, founder and president of the Italian American Museum, which is across the street from Angelo's. Many of those immigrants settled in downtown Manhattan.
Mr Scelsa said that in the early 1920s, a tenement apartment could be rented in the area for US$10 a month - less than today's neighbourhood Nova sandwich. Today, a three-bedroom apartment at 133 Mulberry St, a condo project that appears to have been cobbled together from three tenement buildings, is for sale at US$2.85 million.
But some remnants of those old bargains remained, long after the neighbourhood was nearly devoured by Chinatown and then succumbed to gentrification. Mr Scelsa said that about three years ago, his museum bought out a rent-controlled tenant in its building, on the corner of Mulberry and Grand streets. The tenant had inherited the apartment from a parent who had been there since the turn of the last century - and he was paying less than US$100 a month for 1,000 square feet of space.
"It was a lot of money," Mr Scelsa said of the price the museum paid to get the tenant to move out. "But he's very happy. He's got an apartment on the Upper East Side. And we've got the space."
Businesses, too, have seen their rents explode. John Delutro owns Caffé Palermo, right next door to Angelo's. Mr Delutro, who goes by the sobriquet Baby John the Cannoli King, opened his cafe almost 45 years ago, and today it's hard to miss: A 12-foot-tall cannoli is affixed to the side of the building.
"I started this restaurant when I was 17 and my rent was US$75 a month," Mr Delutro said. "You don't want me to tell you what it is now. You'll fall down."
His shop is busy every day and he has a great mail order business, the Cannoli King said, but he worries about the future.
"As rents go up you know the prices go up, and after a while we'll be overpriced," he said. "My cheesecake is US$6. So what am I going to charge, US$9? That's a lot of money."
Some might say that many nearby restaurants are already there. One establishment offers campagnola, described as a rustic dish of sautéed steak, chicken and sausage, for US$41.95, and a chicken breast crusted in pistachio for US$25.95. Several restaurants station employees out front, armed with menus and an insistent smile, trying to cajole passers-by to stop in for a meal.
Angelo's, many in the neighbourhood said, was different. Bruno Brancaleone, who stood outside the restaurant on Monday chain-smoking Marlboro Lights and talking on his cellphone, said he had worked at Angelo's for about 30 years, an eternity in the food service industry. Mr Brancaleone, who said he came to the United States from Naples, Italy, about 35 years ago, said many of his co-workers had been there for 20 or more years.
Angelo's was also something of a destination, if often for those from out of town. Bill and Nidia Demma own an Italian restaurant near Utica, New York, and they come down to New York City several times a year with another couple. Every time they come to town, they go to Angelo's.
"We just came here to eat," said their friend Anthony Giovinazzo, who stood in front of the barren restaurant on Monday.
"So now," he said with a laugh, "I guess we'll go to Chick-fil-A."