By Sofia Ferrandiz
In her raspy voice, Rosalie Pisciotti, 64, loudly called out to her 45-year-old-son from the kitchen of her rent-controlled, Spring St. apartment nestled between Mott and Elizabeth Streets.
“It’s an old picture of the Feast,” the native Little Italy resident exclaimed excitedly. She put on her black reading glasses, as she zoomed in on the digital black-and-white image from the 1970’s that a fellow-Italian-American friend posted on Facebook. Her friends were pictured devouring zeppolis purchased at the neighborhood’s Feast of San Gennaro, an 11-day food and parade-filled, religious event honoring the Italian saint.
“If only it were still like that,” her son, Christopher, who has left Little Italy years ago and now resides in New Jersey with his wife and two children, frustratedly stated. “It’s not like that no more.”
When Rosalie was a child, 3 of the custard-filled, fried dough pastries cost a dime, not $2, as seen this past September at the feast’s 85th annual commemoration. Talk of “what used to be” of the neighborhood persisted between mother and son for a half-hour, as they reminisced about better times that the neighborhood had seen.
Chris not only avoided attending the Feast in September because of expensive prices, and a decrease in the quality of goods sold, but he said he felt shunned by the tourists and gentrifiers altering the simple and humble lifestyles that he and his parents’ generations once knew. Chris is just one of many who have relocated in search of more affordable living, as a result of Little Italy’s undergoing evolution from streets lined with ingredient-specific, Italian markets to designer stores, like Vince, taking their place and drawing chic crowds to the neighborhood.
Studio apartments currently on the market in Little Italy range from $2100 to $6600, and have increased more than 20 percent since 2012, according to Douglass Wagner at Bond Realty NYC. Landlords of retail stores charge, on average, $95 for every 1,000 square feet, suggesting that its not uncommon for restaurants today to pay between $9,000 and $21,000 a month for their spots on Little Italy’s streets. When Rudolph Giuliani became mayor in 1995, he confronted the mafia who formerly ran the Feast and demanded city permits for vendors. “Since Giuliani and now the yuppies, this is all gone. And, the Feast is a perfect example of that. It’s a zoo with t-shirts for sale,” Chris said, referring to the changes he accredited with Giuliani’s term.
Chris formerly participated in the Feast with his wife, selling authentic, Italian sausages, peppers, peaches, and beer, as part of Luna Ristorante’s food stand, a restaurant on Mulberry St. which his family owned and had to close down post-Giuliani. Now he only regularly commutes to his old neighborhood to work for the city under the Department of Environmental Protection and to visit his mother. The $800 fee that family businesses, like his, would invest to secure a stand, gradually increased to $2500 since the late 1990’s under Mort Berkowitz’ supervision–the current event coordinator for all of Little Italy’s street festivals.
Belmont, in the Bronx, is one of the neighborhoods that attracted many Italian-Americans during the 1960’s, when a new wave of Chinese immigrants began to challenge Historic Little Italy’s geographical parameters, and authentic Italian food and culture that many former residents said has eroded.
“A lot of the restaurants over there closed down. You’lll never find something like this with a 7 to 8 block radius of a tight community,” Mark Caruso, a retired police officer and current docent at the 9/11 Museum waiting in line at the Bronx’s Italian specialty store, Casa Della Mozzarella, said. He reflected on the changes that Little Italy has experienced since the first migration of Italians from 1880-1920. “I’ve been coming 25-30 years to this neighborhood [in the Bronx] and it’s changed very little. A few of the owners have left, but the majority still remain.”
Around the block on Arthur Avenue, at Borgatti’s Ravioli and Egg Noodles specialty food store, third generation owner, Chris Borgatti, 57, admitted that the differing “cool factor” between Downtown Manhattan and the Bronx, is partly responsible for Belmont’s survival.
“Gentrification hasn’t happened here yet because [people] haven’t wrapped their heads around the Bronx. We have Fordham University. It’s been here for 100 years, but the streets haven’t changed a bit,” Borgatti said.
Borgatti later admitted that despite the firmly rooted specialty stores still providing authentic, Italian goods, the idea of the specifically Italian-American clientele is a myth.
“If we went back 60 years ago, lots of [Italian] families shopped the neighborhood. Lots of families have moved away because they wanted to better themselves. They wanted more space.”
He mentioned that, despite the long distances, many customers who have shopped for generations at his store, will still drive out to claim their fresh ciabiatta rolls and egg-noodle pastas.
At Di Palo’s of Little Italy, a specialty cheese store nestled on Grand and Mott St.’s, owner Marie Di Palo is less pessimistic about Little Italy’s alleged decline. She noted that some of the wealthy inhabitants now populating Little Italy are descendants of the Italian-American grandparents who would frequently shop locally at her business since its’ founding in 1925.
“You’ve gotta remember the community is a cycle,” said Di Palo. “It keeps rejuvenating itself and it’s growing again.”
She did admit there is one major difference this time around. “Their grandparents must be turning in their graves to see what they paid versus what people are now shelling out.”