Exploring Italian Heritage in New York City

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In 1923, Adolfo and Rosaria Baldizzi left their home in southern Italy and sailed to New York on a ship called the S.S. Suffren. They cleared the hurdles at Ellis Island and began to set up their lives in the New World. They had a son and a daughter, and eventually moved into a small apartment on the Lower East Side, in an area that was known as Little Kleindeutschland (Little Germany). The building that housed their small apartment was condemned as a safety hazard in 1935 and all of the families at 97 Orchard Street had to relocate. In 1992, the building was restored, and transformed into the Tenement Museum, and the Baldizzi family apartment became a window into immigrant life in New York City. Adolfo and Rosaria’s daughter Josephine was contacted, and able to describe her memories of her childhood in that apartment.

She remembers that her parents loved music, and that Rosaria cried a lot because she missed her mother back in Italy. She remembers her father loved American cowboy movies and she has a memory of visiting her mother once, in a sweatshop where she worked on top of keeping their apartment sparkling clean.

The Baldizzi’s story is one in a sea of millions. Immigration to the United States—from countries around the world—reshaped the cultures of U.S. cities and states. In the 2000 census, residents of New York State listed Italy as their country of ancestry more than any other country, so Italian immigration in particular certainly redefined New York.  

The Tenement Museum is only one stop on an exploration of Italian heritage in New York; the culture left its mark all over the city, and whether it’s part of your own family story, or just a piece of American history that you’re interested in, there are plenty of places to get a taste of Italian culture in New York.

Little Italy
Italians began immigrating to America in large numbers in the mid-1800s, when conditions in Italy were politically and economically difficult. After arriving in New York, they flocked to Lower Manhattan, sticking together in one neighborhood in order to support each other and retain some of their Old World customs. Manhattan’s Little Italy is a magnet for tourists nowadays, but still has its charms, most notably the narrow cobblestone streets and slew of Italian restaurants and bakeries. If you’re interested in the historical aspect, stop in at the Italian American Museum; for art, try the Center for Italian Modern Art. And for 11 days every September, the Feast of San Gennaro keeps the streets lined with religious processions and parades in honor of the Patron Saint of Naples. Sample some of the best Italian street food around, and enjoy the celebration.

Arthur Avenue
Some people complain that Manhattan’s Little Italy became a tourist trap years ago, and that in order to really experience good Italian food in New York, you have to head up to the Bronx.  The Belmont section of the Bronx—also known as Little Italy in the Bronx or Arthur Ave.—became a largely Italian neighborhood around the turn of the century, when record numbers of immigrants from around the world were coming to America. Many Italian immigrants were laborers, and the Bronx offered job opportunities in construction and landscaping. Now, it’s worth the trip uptown to see what goods are for sale at the Arthur Avenue Market, or have a meal at Roberto’s, which is consistently named among the best Italian restaurants in New York City, or experience the laid back attitude and southern Italian comfort food at Dominick’s, where waiters recite the menus and have a knack for recommending the perfect meal. Customers are seated at long tables to encourage socializing, so don’t be surprised if a regular strikes up a conversation with you.

Greenwich Village
While Greenwich Village has developed a reputation as being a haven for artists and free-thinkers, the Italian immigrants who settled here in the late 19th and early 20th century have left their mark, too. A lot of the Old World culture can be seen in longtime neighborhood businesses like Pasticceria Rocco, Porto Rico Importing Co., and Gene’s, a classic Italian restaurant open since 1919. The original owner of Caffe Reggio, which opened in 1927, is credited with bringing cappuccino to America—the café’s original espresso machine still sits on display. And finally, St. Anthony of Padua Church was created in 1859, primarily to cater to the large numbers of Italians that were streaming into the neighborhood. The construction of the present location on Sullivan Street was completed in 1888. It is the oldest Italian-Catholic serving church in the U.S.

Take a walk through New York City’s Italian history, and don’t forget to indulge in some amazing food while you’re at it!