Roast Pork Buns, Italian-Style: The Rise of Little Chitaly
For a year I lived, technically, in Manhattan's Little Italy. But outside my door, I bought produce and fish (and did not buy frogs) at the open-air bazaar of Chinese vendors along my street. I'd sometimes wander for blocks through Qigong massage parlors and herbalist shops, and past storefronts lined with lacquered ducks and baskets upon baskets of tiny dried shrimp.
Tourists following their color-coded maps to Little Italy are justifiably confused, and roam the streets until they can pin down someone who doesn't look quite as befuddled as they are. Their question, which I heard a lot, was a good one: "Where is Little Italy?"
Not far away, in six square blocks straddling Mulberry Street, they would find the lingering handful of century-old bakeries and espresso bars they were looking for, tucked quietly into a row of newer, less distinguished trattorias and t-shirt shops that Mulberry is arguably better known for today. But beyond this short, proud Italian mall, the former immigrant ghetto has all but given way to airy boutiques, which have taken up the empty shells of old Italian haunts like so many hermit crabs, and a widening Chinatown.
Local blogs have cheekily renamed this vibrant (if identity-confused) swath "Little Chitaly" to better describe an area that has for half a century been only a little bit Little Italy and a lot more Chinatown.
In the style of sexed-up, broker-fueled neighborhood names like SoHo and TriBeCa, local blogs have cheekily renamed this vibrant (if identity-confused) swath "Little Chitaly" to better describe an area that has for half a century been only a little bit Little Italy and a lot more Chinatown. It's the Brangelina of New York City neighborhoods, and both sides are realizing that together they have more staying power than either would on its own.
What old blood remains of Little Italy has embraced the new reputation—a smart and significant reversal from earlier efforts to claim the area as singularly Italian. This year, they partnered with Chinese community leaders to lobby for a new joint Chinatown-Little Italy Historic District, which will both protect the area's architectural character and usher in a new era of neighborhood cross-promotion.
At one event, the 2nd annual Marco Polo Day this October 16th, Grand Street (just north of the former dividing line between the two communities) was temporarily christened "Silk Road," and Chinese and Italian families enjoyed traditional foods, local entertainment, and joyful proclamations. Later this year, the 4th annual Christmastime "East Meets West" parade will march up Mulberry Street with a red, white, and green Italian float at the fore, then reverse course as it heads back down Mott Street into Chinatown so that a Chinese dragon leads the way.
The partnership is the first of its kind for the historically multiethnic Lower East Side, which has usually seen fairly complete demographic shifts over time. New York food writer Jeffrey Steingarten has said, "Change has always been the essence of the Lower East Side, and each new wave can barely cover up the last before the next wave crashes into it." Before the Italians, there were the Irish, and before them the Germans, who each held court for a generation or so, leaving few traces as they traded up for the comforts of outer boroughs and beyond. So how has Little Italy hung on to its visible presence, however small?
Unlike the tenants that preceded them, Italians near Mulberry Street—the last of Manhattan's various Little Italies—saw the next wave coming, and fast. U.S. immigration reforms, most notably in 1965, beckoned in thousands of new immigrants from China, bursting the bounds of Chinatown, which had mostly been contained in an eight-block belt of lower Mott, Doyers, and Pell Streets since 1882, clenched in the grip of that year's Chinese Exclusion Act. As multitudes of Chinese immigrants settled farther northward, an already diminished Little Italy rallied to protect what it could.
In the mid-1970s, a savvy group of local residents and merchants formed the Little Italy Restoration Association (LIRA—get it?) to preserve and revitalize the neighborhood—a movement they named Risorgimento, meaning "resurgence." To this end, LIRA secured a Little Italy Special Zoning District, which limited strictly the types of construction and alterations allowed within a 30-block tract (which looks a whole lot like the new Chinatown-Little Italy Historic District). By 1977, with stunning efficiency, LIRA had helped 18 new restaurants open in Little Italy. This rapid makeover was successful in revamping Little Italy as a dining destination for tourists, but it also landed the restaurant row in the crosshairs of New York's food critics, where it has stayed pretty much ever since.
But now, an upstart five-star restaurant called Torrisi Italian Specialties is suddenly making Italian cuisine on Mulberry hip again. Since opening earlier this year, the restaurant has quickly become a darling of the critics for balancing modern sensibilities with reverence for the neighborhood's Italian-American heritage—and even with nods to Chinatown.
At this September's Feast of San Gennaro, a festival that usually colonizes Mulberry Street for 11 days with a half-mile arcade of frying zeppole and singed sausage and peppers, Torrisi's co-owners, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, paid homage to Chinatown in every detail, from the paper lanterns and Chinese signage that decked their booth to their uniquely Little Chitaly fusion menu: wok-fried fresh mozzarella sticks (shamelessly coated in Progresso bread crumbs); local Italian rolls stuffed with roasted peppers, rapini, and Chinese barbecued pork; and cream puffs masquerading as Chinese custard buns.
The booth might have ruffled festival-goers 30 years ago, but Torrisi and Carbone didn't hear one disparaging comment. "People seemed appreciative of the effort," Carbone said. "Down the block from us were booths with lions and tigers and the world's largest snake—by the time people got to us they didn't think twice about the fact that we were serving Chinese food. It was par for the course."