Saturday, March 21, 2015

Shopping In New York's Little Italy

 It's been years since New York's Little Italy was the vibrant immigrant community featured in movies and memories. As rents have gone up more and more of the first generation Italians that were once the life blood of the area have moved out while upscale condos and even more -- do we really need them -- Chinese souvenir shops have moved in. Yet tourists still flock to Mulberry and Mott (between Canal and Spring) for a taste of what once was.
Despite what was probably an inevitable decline (Italian immigration slowed dramatically in the 1960's) and the Italian carnival/ Disneyland atmosphere prevalent today ("Hey bootiful -- we got pasta mangia mangia") I still love Little Italy. I love standing in the shops, loading up on fresh pasta and smoked mozzarella. I love hearing lilting strains of Italian on the street -- though these days it's mostly travelers from the boot in search of America's Italian Heritage.
Years ago full of Italian groceries and latterias, today few -- those that reinvented as Italian grocery stores not just homemade cheese shops -- remain. The big two, DiPalo's and Alleva, stock not only mozzarella and ricotta made in house but a variety of olive oils and Italian groceries.
 Alleva calls itself the oldest Italian cheese shop in America (I'm not sure where a more than 100 year old cheese shop of any kind exists) and only recently (well 8 or 10 years back) gave into the public's demand for more than just cheese with meats and dry goods and delicious made to order sandwiches. Their ricotta -- triple drained, thick and creamy is worth the trip. I could easily sit on the stop and eat it with a spoon like ice cream. Now made for the shop at a dairy farm (longtime friends of the Alleva family) near Albany the lightly yellow ricotta (that's the extra butterfat) might be Alleva's best but not most popular item. Their fresh mozzarella floating in salty brine brings customers in the door. My favorite, scamorza con burro is a dry version with a creamy runny buttery center. Delicious.
 Just down the block on the other side of Piemonte Ravioli, a wonderland of both fresh and dried pastas is DiPalo's, Little Italy's remaining Italian Grocery Superstore.
 The DiPalo's are committed to providing not just the best homemade products and local breads but also the best Italy has to offer. They make frequent trips to stock the shop with new and interesting tastes and the small shop is packed to the gills with irresistible items for DiPalo's discerning an sizable clientele. Leaning on the marble counter one of the DiPalo brothers (two brothers and a sister now run the 90-some year old shop) handed me tastes of Italian cheese while he ladled out meatballs, Tuscan beans and my favorite DiPalo's antipasto salad -- olives (three colors today), artichokes, red peppers, cheese and salami. Standing at the counter I tasted (and bought) a wedge of Alta Badia (it was new to me), an Italian (from the Dolomites) raw milk cheese similar to a Gruyere but with a more earthy, nutty flavor. James is going to love it. I can't wait to bring some home for a special Little Italy inspired grilled cheese.

 I usually stroll right by the pastry shops -- not many of them are any good really -- but today I couldn't walk by La Bella Ferrara, another of Little Italy's centenarians. I don't know why I couldn't stay away. Maybe it was the sign announcing Sfingi and Zeppole, traditional desserts for St Joseph's day (Italy's Festa del Papà).
 La Bella Ferrara may very well make these pastries everyday -- I honestly don't know -- but wandering by on March 19th it just seemed right. I joined the throng at the counter for a single mini-sfingi (sfinge? sfinga?), a creampuff like shell filled with super sweet and -- okay I admit it -- super delicious -- ricotta cream dusted with powdered sugar by the young lady behind the counter.
 Future generations may prefer supermarkets and grocery deliveries but while it lasts I'll stroll Little Italy and carry my bags for a living taste of years gone by.

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